England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, by Jon Savage (Books 2019, 3)
I didn’t start reading this just because I read a book about The Clash recently. In fact I started it sometime last year. But reading the Clash book did make me want to get back to this, and refresh my memories of the early days of punk.
Reading a history of a time you lived through is interesting. Not that I was involved in the events, but I was distantly aware of at least some of them. In the years the book covers I was between 12 and 15. Or maybe just 14, as it only gets as far as early 79. It’s a short period of time, looking back, and they — the Pistols, and most of the other bands too — were incredibly young. They were just 20 and 21 when they signed their first deal. And their second. And their third.
At times Savage appears to think that punk was over when the pistols split, if not before. And generally to have quite negative thoughts about it as it developed Though he undercuts that contempt later, in the appendices and in the notes scattered through the huge discography at the end. He acknowledges the influence of punk, though considers it just to be one of a range of genres or forms that influences popular music. Which is fair enough, though there are still, even today, bands that consider themselves to be punk. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know.
Something that came out of it that surprised me — though doesn’t, now that I know the facts — is that you can no longer get the film of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle in any form (though you can still get the soundtrack album). That’s because it was McLaren’s project, it sets him up as hero, and makes Lydon the almost-unseen villain. Lydon hated McLaren by the end, and eventually won control of the Sex Pistols name and assets in a series of court cases. Presumably he controls whether it will ever be released.
I find this mildly annoying, because I saw it couple of times when I was a student, and enjoyed it, and wouldn’t mind seeing it again. Second-hand DVD copies are available, but they’re mostly pricey and/or being shipped from the States.
I suppose the more recent, documentary film, The Filth and the Fury, might be worth seeing. I see that, like The Swindle, it is directed by Julien Temple. Clearly Lydon didn’t mind his work on McLaren’s film.
What doesn’t come through very much is any sense of Jon Savage himself. What was he doing, and how did he get involved in all this? I gather he wrote a fanzine, London’s Outrage, and he became a journalist writing for Sounds, according to his Wikipedia entry. While he has done extensive research, and interviewed many of the participants, some of the story clearly comes from his being there at the time.
But the only real sense of that we get is that, towards the last third or so of the book, a series of dated, italicised entries appear. They clearly are — or are meant to be — diary entries from the time. Or notes for articles he wrote at the time, perhaps, giving us something of a first-person view of some to the gigs and so on. I would have liked to see more made of these, or more generally about his experience and from his point of view. A book about punk ought to be a bit more gonzo, I think.
But on the whole it’s a great read.