Perhaps you are here because you heard me pushing the punk envelope by talking about Karen Carpenter at the wonderful KISMIF conference in Porto this week. Click on the ‘Skinny blues’ link if you want to download the recent Popular Music article I was mostly drawing from in that keynote. Do let me know what you think.
[The text below, part of a memoir, was written c. 1992-4, about the penultimate UK Sex Pistols gig, in Cromer, Norfolk, Christmas Eve 1977. The author was 30 or so then, thinking back to being a teenager while he could still grasp some of the detail]
A little while after the Sex Pistols play Cromer Links of all places, the one time I see them, in north Norfolk, the hall burns down. No big deal, as a venue it had had its heyday four or five years earlier, long before punk, with Alex Harvey, or, one of the other few worthwhiles from that time, Marc Bolan. (SAHB were great on occasion, like Alex’s brilliant epic Glasgow deconstruction of faith healing that culminates with Can I put my hands on you?; Bolan still sounds good; how did he ever get away with those shocking lines in chart hit Jeepster, I’ll be your vampire, and I want to sssSUCK you!?) On his last tour Bolan was supported by the Clash. I admired him for that. The point is that, in its reporting of the fire, the Eastern Daily Press informs its readers that the previous December Cromer Links had hosted a live show by the Sex Pistols.
Clearly, for north Norfolk music lovers an apocalyptic sign, the band of no future, by now well on their way to successful fulfilment of that prophecy regarding their own music and, shit, life in one case, bringing eschatology to our doorsteps, just like we all wanted, or thought we wanted, or said we did. I loved them for that. Like Lydon said twenty years later, in his rotten autobiography, the thing with the Pistols was, when it came down to it, on the big occasion, they always let you down. That’s true, it’s the EDP that was wrong, trying to give credit where none’s due. If only the Pistols had been responsible for that fire of music space, that link with the petty bourgeois ball game, then we could have said we had something tangible, some small concrete result to point at for all our earnest effort as punks. Bit pathetic really.
I’d managed to persuade my mum to drive me out to Cromer a month or so before, one foggy early winter’s night, to get a couple of tickets for the Pistols gig. I appreciate her help: she knows how serious this is for me. It’s a tortuous drive, out to the coast through swirling mists, the sea blurring itself, saying You’re getting nearer, but she can see the virtues of the politics of punk.
When I have the tacky-looking red and white tickets in my hand (The Most Famous Band In The World!), I still don’t believe it; all up to the gig, I don’t believe they will actually turn up. On the night, the guy we’ve got a lift out with is an arsehole, we get to a railway bridge just outside Cromer and he pulls his little car into a layby and gets changed into his punk gear, bondage trousers, pins, pointy shoes, all that crap. I can’t believe it. How does someone like that get a ticket to see the Pistols? You can’t have part-time punks, it doesn’t work, it has no conviction, when conviction’s the only thing a lot of punks have going for them. His sickly smile in his rear-view mirror at least betrays some awareness of his daftness. Not a good omen.
At the gig, there is no support (how could there be?), but a reggae sound system that’s forcing out sounds new to us, sounds that contribute to a booming, spacey atmosphere. As the hall gets busier and more tightly packed the music gets emptier, more elemental, stripped like the winter land outside. I am right at the front of course, in the left-middle. I know I’ll be between Sid and Johnny, can tell by the bass amp and mic stand on stage. The equipment looks like the sound might not be so good, the PA is cheap and battered. Is it Christmas Eve 1977? A surprising date we all accept—this is the Pistols—but will it augur something for the New Year?
The crowd is waiting for ages, half-listening to the reggae with puzzled ears. I don’t even know if there’s a bar—I’m just turned seventeen the week before, and too pure to want to drink much anyway. There’s a balcony round the hall, and everyone—well, all the punks anyway, let’s ignore the simply curious and brave—is craning their necks looking for a prowling, manic, jumpy Johnny Rotten. He doesn’t disappoint, spiky hair and shreds of baggy strides like old men wear (I get some soon afterwards; they even look good on me), though in truth he also looks a) sad and tired, and b) with a can of lager, a bit of an innocent actually. Okay, and c) utterly contemptuous of us carrot-crunching country punkins below. Some people try and gob up onto him on the balcony, which doesn’t help.
I’m at the very front, at the bottom of the stage, which is slightly above chest height. Sid is right in front of me as I look up, with frighteningly scarred arms, needle holes and various other mutilations, the recent remains of long cuts swishing across his bare chest. A real life barechest swashbuckler. Tight black jeans, a light Fender Precision bass with dark scratchplate strapped low which I don’t recall him playing badly, a padlock and chain taut around his neck, the man is a proud performance of a wreck.
He seems to have lost touch with the necessary distinction between poseur and authentic punk. In fact, he blurs any clear distinction there: the potency of his pose is predicated on its total authenticity. He’s on his way to death. He smiles at us occasionally, though more often sneers and looks hard. It’s surprisingly unconvincing, his hardness. He swears at us, laughs with us, threatens us, invites me for a fight. I decline, as he knew I would.
DO YOU REMEMBER?
Live, the Sex Pistols are unsatisfying—we expect that, we wouldn’t be satisfied otherwise—but they are also kind of, well, touching. I don’t remember anything at all about the music they play, just the effect of Rotten’s barbs and sarcasm between numbers, and the stare. The guitarist is not a punk, just a rocking lad with entirely conventional poses and licks, signalled by the fact that he plays a Gibson Les Paul; the drummer is, well, just a four-to-the-bar drummer. There’s less musical energy than there is personal tension, and there’s not that much of that. To be as positive as possible, you could say that the show is a performance of pointlessness, that, following God save the queen topping the charts in jubilee week, the Sex Pistols’s year has become a prolonged interrogation of the limits of relevance.
As things become more and more serious for them they are taken and take themselves less and less seriously. You could see that from the moment they call the album Never Mind the Bollocks, which is an adolescent publicity-seeking nip at authority. It’s getting difficult to distinguish between the Pistols as reported in the press and the Pistols as such. They’re blurring tabloid strategies; or, putting a positive spin on things again, they throw back tabloid strategies into the faces of editors and journalists with gleeful subversion.
I AM DISTILLING IT FOR MY WHOLE LIFE
The back of my head is totally covered in gob. In the car on the way home I will say nothing to the driver, will focus on the gob sliming down my neck. I am selfishly concentrating the night. I am distilling it for my whole life. There’s been no sharing. It was all mine.
CULTURAL POLITICS NO. CULTURAL POLITICS YES
Rotten says in his autobiography something like, in all the years of the Sex Pistols, all two of them. Punk is such a compressed event, the energy, ideas, politics, culture, style, some of it new, some just uncovered by a new generation. While it rushes into self-reflexiveness, it avoids reflection. Which means what? that, on the one hand it talks endlessly about itself, fighting narcissistic battles and in-wars, slagging off its own, while on the other, it admits no time for consideration, for looking at its own strategies. Well, why should it? It’s a laugh, not cultural politics.
How does Anarchy in the UK start? With Rotten’s frightening and comic guttural laugh, that slips into time with the drumbeat. And how does it finish? With the comic-book Get pissed. Destroy. This should not strike terror into the heart of the nation. Except that it does. It is a form of cultural politics. That means to someone like me that it should take itself seriously, as well as self-ironise, self-subvert, etc. It has to avoid stasis, not be sucked into something unimaginative like skinhead style, a mononarrative of mediocrity. Punk refers to the music, the style, and the person: you listen to punk because you are a punk, and these punks need to keep moving.
MAKE YOU MIND UP
Written in one-inch cap stencils by me to decorate the blank cover of my copy of the Spunk bootleg: THE SEX PISTOLS WERE A CON JUST ANOTHER FUCKING COP OUT. EGO-WANKERS. MALCOLM HAD US ALL FOOLED FOR A BIT.
With hindsight, it’s the last week of the year of punk when we see them, and they fly off to the States soon after for no good reason other than to split up, kill and die, become embarrassing, etc. 1977. The two sevens clash. Apocalypse. England’s nightmare. Us young peoples’ dreams.