England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. By Jon Savage. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992. [602 p. ISBN 0-312-06863-4. $27.50.]
Book review by Jason Gibbs
Notes (September 1993) vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 205-206.
England's Dreaming describes the punk rock movement of the late 1970s that was epitomized by the brief career of the London group Sex Pistols. Jon Savage presents a thorough and informative examination of the setting that spawned this genre, tracing the social and musical influences. Punk rock arose through both an underground resistance to the excesses of mainstream popular music and a deliberate strategy by style-conscious individuals to achieve notoreity and success.
A central figure in the book is the Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren who was a combination of music fan, clothing store owner, fashion designer, social theorist, impressario, and provocateur. He manufactured an image for the band that emphasized their spite for traditional English values. Since the music industry was in creative doldrums, he was able to sell he Sex Pistols as the next teen rebellion phenomenon. On a BBC television program an interviewer egged the group into using profanity, which scandalized the nation and got the band dropped from their recording label. This event provided the band with all of the notoriety they ever needed, but also forebode their eventual demise: "From now on, they were a total spectacle . . . [which] had a disaastrous effect on the group" (p. 273).
This ideology has led to a crop of rock'n'roll kids who make so-called "avant-garde" proclamations. As Sid Vicious put it: "You just pick a chord, go twang and you've got music" (p. 220). Punk culture becomes a catalyst for do-it-yourself liberation. After Sex Pistols "it was possible to make a loud noise, express hostitlity, learn in public and get attention" (p. 171). This "access aesthetic" was also developed through "fanzines"-samizdat magazines by and for fans-and independent record labels and distribution. Hundreds of bands throughout Europe and America formed as a reaction to this fervor. Many of the musicians who became caught up in this excitement continue to be staples of the pop music world.
Despite their antiestablishment stance, Sex Pistols and other punk rock bands were in heated competition to get signed to a record contract. Wanting Sex Pistols to be "the spearhead of a new generation" (p. 169), McLaren consciously owrked to keep ahead of developments among New York underground rock bands who were the stylistic precursors of the group (p. 157). Major record labels were able to assimilate punk rock into their product lines with ease. "As far as the music industry was concerned, it was business as usual. Punk was an oddity to which they had to respond . . . [and] most of the groups were easy enough to deal with: a bit surly perhaps, but delightfully unconcerned with the small print which would eat into those impressive sounding advances" (p. 332). In the end, the music industry gets the better of McLaren.
Savage's description of the Sex Pistols' musical development refutes McLaren's boast that the gropu had no musical ability. The group began with the guitar and drum core of Steve Jones and Paul Cook, both of whom had previously played in rock bands. The addition of the bass player Glen Matlock, with his song-writing abilities, and Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), who provided an intense stage presence and lyrics ("generation-gap anthems" p. 127), rounded out the group. To better suit the nihilistic image he wanted for the band, McLaren replaced Matlock with Sid Vicious (John Beverley). This creative loss took its toll upon the group. As one of the band's entourage noted: "They could produce words and chords, but not tunes, and they were finished as a creative unit once he'd gone" (p. 310).
McLaren and the scene surrounding him (a company called Glitterbest) can be seen as a phenomenon similar to Andy Warhol's Factory. There was music (Sex Pistols), design (Jamie Reed), fashion (Vivienne Westwood), film (Julien Temple), and a lifestyle of avant-garde as affront. "McLaren and Westwood were genuinely interested in the teenagers who flocked to their [clothing] shop but they also used them as experiments in social engineering, human guinea-pigs for their deeply held libertarian beliefs" (p. 222). Warhol, R. D. Laing, and the situationist theorists Guy Debod and Raoul Vaneigem lay behind this ideology. McLaren wanted Sex Pistols to be "an enemy within, entering the music industry in order to expose it, in a textbook example of 'demystification'" (p. 267).
The book is profusely illustrated with black-and-white and color photographs, poster art, and handwritten lyric sheets. One of its unique contributions is the extensive oral history that it draws upon. Interviews with people who took part in all aspects of the history form a who's who of British and American punk and new-wave rock music. Regrettably, the book is hampered by a poor index and an almost nonexistent bibliography that prevents the reader from searching out the many references to musicians and music scenes. The index also omits Savage's discussion of the influence of homosexual culture upon the punk rock movement (pp. 186-187). Like other popular music idioms of the past few decades punk rock was in part nurtured in the gay community.
Although far more focused and expansive, Savage's examination of Sex Pistols is similar to Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989). Like Marcus, Savage presents an alternative history that traces an underground refusal of the status quo and everyday life. Along this line, Savage interweaves contemporaneous diary entries throughout his discussion, describing his own involvement as someone who lived through the times and events of this history. The following would seem to sum up Savage's personal reaction to the experience: "The Sex Pistols had said "No" so forcefully that the world had been forced to listen. For those who chose to see things that way, they initiated an intense process of questioning everything in their lives, a process which still continues" (p. 478).