1977. I WAS twelve years old. A strange piece of graffiti appeared in my neighbourhood. On the gable wall of my Auntie Pauline’s house, someone with an aerosol can spraypainted the words ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ across the bricks.
(for those of you who missed this period of rock’n’roll history, the Sex Pistols' troubled one and only 'proper' album bore the title ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols’)
In late 70s Harpur’s Hill, Coleraine, there was no shortage of graffiti, you should understand, but this was something of a departure. It didn’t mention football teams, or seem to include any sectarian ambition at all. I didn’t know it at the time, but it spoke for a generation for whom ‘ambition’ was a meaningless word.
I haven’t been round that way in years – maybe it’s still there…
I never got the Punk thing when it was happening. I was too young, and those guys scared the living daylights out of me. I was still listening to The Carpenters or Leo Sayer at that point, I imagine, or my parents’ collection – Simon & Garfunkel or Glen Campbell. A few years later, I plucked up the courage and bought the Sex Pistols’ single ‘Silly Thing’, when McLaren put out the barrel-scraping ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’ album. By that stage of course, it wasn’t really the Sex Pistols any more. Johnny Rotten had left the band and Sid Vicious was beginning the slow motion car crash of his last year.
Punk was a badge of cool at my school, Coleraine Inst. By then, of course, it was all over and it was 'safe' to be a punk, like professing to have worked for the Resistance after the war was over. It was an all-boys grammar school where the sons of middle class businessmen flirted with the outward signals and codes of a gang that would have pissed in their flower beds and shot their Labradors, given the chance. Looking back it was kind of absurd to see these sons of car showroom owners, captains of the First XV, sporting 'Anarchy' badges. But at some point, I suppose, we all have to stand apart from the generation that went before.
By the time it caught my interest, it was already over, and everything was being called 'New Wave' – Talking Heads, The Jam and so on.
It’s been utterly fascinating to read England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage’s story of the era – a well-written and pretty exhaustive account of the punk movement, as seen through the shape-shifting role-play games of Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and the Sex Pistols. The book does for 70s Britain what Iain McDonald’s remarkable Revolution in the Head did for The Beatles and the 60s – it’s an unputdownable social history of the time, and shines a light on a dark little corner of contemporary culture – an alleyway where you could quickly get your head kicked in if you weren’t careful.
One of the early pieces of artwork associated with the Pistols was Jamie Reid's publicity image for ‘Pretty Vacant’ – two buses, with destinations clearly visible above the windscreens: ‘Boredom’ and ‘Nowhere’. Not a good time to be growing up – lengthening dole queues, failing social services, the sense of pride that followed the Second World War on the wane and nasty public housing.
As for the Pistols, the early explosion of energy and pent-up bored aggression quickly hit the brick wall of the establishment, where record sales figures were deliberately manipulated to prevent 'God Save the Queen' going to Number One. And all of the councils across the country closed ranks, preventing the band from playing anywhere. Meanwhile, the internal tensions of the band threatened to pull it apart at any second, and their relationship with McLaren was an awkward dance of domination, threats and instability.
This is a wonderful book, but it often makes for uncomfortable reading. Towards the end, I felt like an onlooker at the exhausted, blood-soaked end of a bullfight, as Sid Vicious came apart in public, Rotten sued McLaren and together they let everything freewheel off a cliff. And everyone stood back and watched as the world they had created smashed and smithereened into pop history.
The movement they had created spun off within two years into something else entirely – s scene that had to be based on something with a more long-term future. And THERE was the ticking time bomb that lay at the heart of the Punk aesthetic. The whole point of it was that it couldn’t, by its own definition, last. It was all based on short punches to the solar plexus. And to succeed meant that you had actually blown it. This was the dilemma that The Clash had to face up to. The fact that they actually had an interest in selling records, and making a long term career out of it, meant they had somehow sold out on the early promise – the conviction that punks were losers, going nowhere, and they therefore spoke on behalf of all the losers, the nowhere kids who had been rendered voiceless by their own society – fit for the dole queues and not much else.
Here’s Savage's key paragraph on the subject:
'However, contained in this package were problems which would take years to work out. How could you be tough and a loser at the same time? How could you play with right-wing imagery and not get trapped by it? How could you take a script from Rimbaud and avoid the mythological trajectory of that poet's life? Built into punk from the beginning was not only a tendency to self-destruction, but a short shelf-life. Despite what many of the groups professed, the movement enshrined failure: To succeed in conventional terms meant you had failed on your terms; to fail meant that you had succeeded.'
Note: The fact that McLaren died last year has rendered this edition of Savage’s key text already out of date, so you can pick this up in HMV for less than a fiver. It’s hefty, but if you have even the slightest interest in this rich little slice of pop history, I urge you to make the investment and stick with it – it’s a must-read.