No genre of popular music was as exhilaratingly confusing, surprising, and disruptive as the punk rock that exploded in Britain and the U.S. during the mid- to late ’70s, and Jon Savage’s enthralling history of this brief era is the first book to make sense of it all.
England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond begins with Malcolm McLaren, a cocky entrepreneur steeped in leftist art theory who in the early ’70s opened a London clothing store called Sex. Along with his partner, the designer Vivienne Westwood, McLaren was out to provoke: Sex marketed bondage clothing as leisure wear and ripped its T-shirts to give them a look that matched the distress of Britain’s economy. The shop became a hangout for young, jobless bohemians looking for a pop scene that had something more daring to it than Rod Stewart or the Bee Gees. McLaren then got the idea to invent his own rock band. He hoped to shake things up, to revolutionize rock; but he was also, as he told Savage, ”out to sell lots of trousers.”
So in 1975 the Sex Pistols were created, ordered up, a bit like the Monkees. The group — singer John Lydon (who took the name Johnny Rotten), guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Glen Matlock (later replaced by the hapless Sid Vicious) — was conceived in what Savage refers to as ”a miasma of antagonism, misunderstanding and mutual suspicion.” Like McLaren, they despised the big business that rock had become. Then, too, as working-class youths, the Pistols didn’t see much hope in a Britain in which, by 1977, 1.6 million people, many under 30, were unemployed. Throughout England’s Dreaming, Savage uses Margaret Thatcher and her economic policies as a constant, menacing presence — you can almost hear the scary music from Jaws every time Thatcher’s name appears.
The Sex Pistols seized on McLaren’s fundamental philosophy — notoriety is easy if you’re willing to offend — and ran with it. ”Anarchy in the UK” and ”God Save the Queen,” the Pistols’ first two singles, were almost literally stunning. Here was a rock band making music so crude yet so evocative that they stopped you cold: Nothing had ever sounded quite like this.
”God Save the Queen” was released in May 1977 to coincide with Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, but this salute referred to the Queen as the helpless symbol of a ”fascist regime.” Banned by the BBC, condemned in both the straight press and the tabloids, ”God Save the Queen” was, Savage writes, ”confident, clear, unapologetic — so much so that it gave a voice to everybody who hated the Jubilee” and the jingoistic turn that many thought the country was then taking.
By January 1978 — less than eight months later — the Sex Pistols had broken up. They imploded: Despising the music business so much, they couldn’t help but despise themselves when they became a success. Savage offers vivid descriptions of the careers of longer-lasting phenomena like the Clash, Wire, and the Ramones. ”If it had been the project of the Sex Pistols to destroy the music industry,” says Savage, ”then they had failed; but as they gave it new life, they allowed a myriad of new forms to become possible.”
England’s Dreaming re-creates the giddy confusion and excitement of hearing that first wave of punk records. But the book also operates as a piece of art itself, full of precise reporting and fresh details; I loved finding out, for example, that just a couple of years before he became a Pistol, Steve Jones had stolen a color TV out of Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ mansion.
Savage has produced an exceptional book: dead serious and achingly funny, full of delicate, complex emotions about the most brutally simple form of pop music ever created. ”History is made by those who say ‘No,”’ he writes, ”and Punk’s utopian heresies remain its gift to the world.” A