Sunday, March 20, 2011

England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (1992)

Jon Savage's lengthy history of the UK punk-rock eruption circa 1977 has been considered the go-to single volume on the subject practically since the day it was published, and for good reason. Written by someone who watched it all happen, and meticulously researched beyond that, there's as much knowledge here as anyone could hope to find, certainly in order to understand the basics. Savage focuses most of his attention on the Sex Pistols, and more, on mastermind Malcolm McLaren's huge role behind the scenes, but he's never afraid to follow the story where it takes him: to New York for McLaren's eye-popping visit in the mid-'70s (and my source for arguing that New York punk-rock not only came first but very directly influenced the UK version of it, which essentially set everything else in motion), to the Clash and Damned and Buzzcocks and Siouxsie & the Banshees and X-Ray Spex and more bands as well, to Manchester and Liverpool, and through the American South on the Sex Pistols' disastrous final tour. Savage approaches the subject on multiple levels simultaneously, decking out his tome with handbills, photos, and art of the time, including a few pages of color plates in my beat-up old paperback edition, and he substantiates it with a comfortable facility in various art/fashion/political goings-on animating the action, such as Situationism or the larger move of the British public toward conservatism then underway in a failing economy, providing the context as well as the stakes for much that punk-rock aspired to. It's telling that both McLaren and John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) explicitly dedicated themselves to being anything but rock stars and in many ways considered the fact that that is exactly what the Sex Pistols became to be their signature failures. (It was about the only thing they agreed on, however, as the collapse of the band early in 1978 was followed immediately by a series of bitter lawsuits between the two principals and others that lasted the better part of a decade.) Everything you ever wanted to know about the Sex Pistols is here, including the unpleasant story of its one genuine rock star, John Simon Ritchie (aka Sid Vicious), and endless insight into what made the band and the movement it spawned. Essential, let's go ahead and call it that.

In case it's not at the library.

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