More punk-related traumas
Perhaps prodded by the recent, wonderful experience of seeing TV Smith play live in Olomouc, I’ve found myself checking out some of the “Punk Years” documentaries on youtube over the last week or so. Never intended to be groundbreaking treatises along the lines of “England’s Dreaming” or “Lipstick Traces”, they’re nevertheless quite entertaining, containing interviews with, or rather soundbites from those who were there at the time, including TV Smith (see him on the telly, I had a chat with him, he’s my mate, him!), plus of course a lot of great music (plus some atrocious shit).
One of the things that struck me watching these clips is what an absolute cunt John Lydon is. And here we are back in Biafra territory. The Sex Pistols are still one of my all time favourite bands (unlike the Dead Kennedys, who I find it difficult to listen to these days), one of those brilliant examples of when something becomes greater than the sum of its parts, in addition to which I’m very fond of early PIL, and so again it’s rather galling for me to acknowledge what’s staring me in the face. Which is that Lydon is a cunt. Shut up!
A dishonest and utterly undignified cunt in fact. The vision of a 50 year old man, still doing the mad Rotten stare and talking in that sarky, scourge-of-little-England voice, is genuinely cringeworthy regardless of what he actually says. Please, make him stop! But that’s not the half of it. Petty backbiting and jealous squabbles within the London punk scene might be forgivable, even cute, for a 21 year old back in 77, but today, at his age? OK, maybe he simply doesn’t like the Clash, the Damned etc. (although there can be few people to whom it hasn’t occurred that there’s doubtless more to it than mere musical taste, whether it’s based on personal grudges or, much more likely, pitifully anxious guarding of his own status as King of Punk), but one could have hoped that by now at least a little magnanimity might have crept in. But Lydon has barely a good word to say about anyone involved with punk, the only exceptions being bands who could never have been considered any kind of threat to himself, such as the Buzzcocks (and he qualifies even this by arguing that they weren’t really punk anyway) or X-Ray Spex (way too obscure to present a genuine challenge).
As might be expected, his greatest ire is reserved for the likes of Malcolm McLaren and the New York scene, and rarely has the line “methinks he doth protest too much” been more fitting. Because for all of Lydon’s banging on about what an “honest” band the Sex Pistols were, he’s actually just as guilty of rewriting punk history as McLaren was in the execrable “Great Rock n Roll Swindle”. Whilst it’s probably true that McLaren bit off more than he could chew by recruiting Lydon as Rotten, it’s nevertheless the case that had McLaren not discovered him, Lydon would probably never have found fame, whereas McLaren’s project probably would have in some form or another. It would be unfair to accuse Lydon, as some have, of being no more than McLaren’s puppet, but he’s evidently still desperately trying to refute that accusation. Similarly it’s hard not to see that his disdain for New York is little more than a shoddy attempt to deny the immense musical debt the Sex Pistols owed to the New York Dolls, despite Steve Jones having owned up to a Johnny Thunders fixation of embarrassing proportions. Maybe it was this knowledge that provided the motivation for Lydon’s ludicrous assertion that punk had “nothing to do with music”, with breathtaking self-aggrandisement elevating the importance of his own delivery and lyrics whilst dismissing the importance of the rest of the band, continuing with the bizarrely idiotic pronouncement that “the sounds of anger are not melodic” – whereas for all Lydon/Rotten’s shouting, the Sex Pistols, relying mainly on three or four major chords played in the style of the aforementioned New York Dolls, were well within conventional musical structures.
At this point you might be thinking that I ought to be a bit more magnanimous myself, after all the Sex Pistols, even if not enormously musically original, were a superb band with a huge cultural impact, whilst Lydon/Rotten’s delivery actually was pretty unique at the time. Added to this is the fact that to have legendary status thrust on one so young must be one hell of a burden, and one which is bound to engender delusions of grandeur – perhaps Lydon is to be pitied rather than scorned. As well as all that, surely his bitterness with regard to New York is at least in part caused by what that scene did to his friend Sid Vicious. Well, yes, yes, yes and no. On the last issue there is more denial and dishonesty at work. Jerry Nolan of the Heartbreakers claims he warned Lydon that he was “creating a monster” through his role in the creation of the persona of Vicious, to which Lydon responded by contemptuously shrugging him off. I’m not trying to say here that Lydon bears as much guilt as Nancy Spungen etc. in Sid’s demise (or Sid in hers), but he may also not be entirely blameless. As for honest? My arse.
All this links to the second thing that struck me about those documentaries, which is how profoundly annoying it is when someone claims to possess a monopoly on the truth of what punk was really about. This can be said not only of Lydon, but also of the thuggish “real” punks like the Exploited or numerous Oi! bands, as well as at the other extreme the prissy, pontificating indie pop scum, some of whom are still scribbling away pointlessly to this day. These are two sets of people, on very different sides of the fence, with whom I occasionally came into contact at university back in the early 90s, and quickly learned to heartily despise. By this time the “real” punks had grown dreads and become crusties, who I encountered at Fugazi gigs and the like, sneering at us for being “fookin’ styoowdents”, whilst the other bunch, who I encountered almost exclusively on campus were, quite decidedly, facking students. Punk's not dead?
I have some limited amount of sympathy with the “real” punks, after all the first wave of London, art-school punks argued that their movement was democratic, that anyone could do it, even that it represented a kind of “street” or “working class” form of expression. And so this second wave of much less arty, more genuinely working class punks took up the challenge and did it. In addition they had a point that punk, whilst sometimes having intellectual pretensions, had also always had lowbrow, yobbish elements, such as the Ramones’ dumbed-down image and lyrics, the Pistols’ drunken swearing on the Bill Grundy show or signing for A&M. And it was only a matter of time before someone had to point out that although they might be a great band, the Clash’s proletarian rebel posturing was trite as hell. Unfortunately, being “for real” didn’t necessarily mean that these bands were any good. And when they were bad, they could be bloody awful. In the worst cases, in their anti-intellectual working-class chauvinism they did nothing more than make a virtue out of ignorance and confirm people’s worst prejudices that punks were indeed a bunch of smelly, drunken louts with dogs on strings, who portrayed themselves as victims of society but were actually parasites upon it, certainly not too proud to take its handouts. Either that or, with many of the Oi! fans, violent, jackbooted (and frequently Nazi) hooligans. A good argument for voting Tory, in fact. I had the misfortune to see the Exploited at a festival last year, it was like watching pigs roll around in their own shit. I’m certainly nobody to say that they’re not also punks, but that these bands represent the “real” punk, or that punk didn’t truly begin until Oi!, as some idiots claim? Bollocks. The logical conclusion of punk?
I have no sympathy whatsoever with the other bunch, who themselves confirm people’s worst prejudices about students. The indie brigade have used and abused punk as a justification for all kinds of awful, tinny, emasculated pish like Talulah Gosh or virtually anything on Sarah Records etc. (Christ, I mean even the fucking name, Sarah fucking Records) , as well as a basis for a viciously puritanical, killjoy philosophy of music. So punk had some anti-macho, celebration-of-the-geek, anti-rock n roll elements. Big deal, punk was full of contradictions, it also had plenty of macho and rock n roll elements too, as documented above. But apparently the latter is not true punk. So although Joey Ramone was a skinny, weedy geek and therefore acceptable in one respect, some of the indie pop freaks I’ve met have even deemed the Ramones of all people to be inappropriate because they (eek!) wore a kind of uniform with their leather jackets, (eek!) were American, (eeek!) played loud, thrashy rock n roll, (eeeeeeeek!) had long hair and (EEEEEEEEEK!) were right wing. Emboldened by the critique of “rockism”, these spiteful hair-splitters started up a kind of moral crusade, which thankfully didn’t get far beyond a few university campuses and some of the music press, but was and still is quite irksome enough. Just as an aside here, a friend of mine once shared a house with Pete Wylie, and tells me that Wylie only coined the phrase “rockism” as a rather flippant pun on Rock Against Racism, which was in the shadow of the repugnant Socialist Workers Party. But let’s not let facts get in the way of ideology. It might seem a bit glib to portray the indie pop kids as playground sissies acting out a revenge fantasy, totalitarian pedants drunk on the meta-narrative of anti-rockism, embarking on a kind of musical ethnic cleansing operation to subjugate or eradicate “inferior” or “degenerate” musical forms such as heavy metal, but it’s interesting and surely no coincidence just how many of them I’ve come into contact with have been actual, out-and-out commies. And musically, punk was the Marx to their Stalin. The result was the fey, curiously white, in fact positively anaemic sounding music of the C86 generation, still guitar-based but purged of all rock elements, virulently anti-American, insularly British and overwhelmingly middle class, scrupulously politically correct and wholly self-congratulatory. And this, they would have us believe, was the “true” spirit of punk.
When all’s said and done, give me the macho bullies every time. After all, who is potentially more harmful, the oafish metal fan who gives you a Chinese burn, or the vindictive swot plotting your downfall in all kinds of sadistic ways because you didn’t want to sit next to him in geography? Forgive me the schoolboy metaphors, but given the indie bands’ fearful, pre-pubescent recoiling from any kind of sexuality in music, which in an Orwellian knee-jerk reaction (jangly guitars good, distorted guitars bad) they equated with sexist cliché (at least in white music, although many of them patronisingly indulged not only sexuality but blatant sexism from black artists, after all we can’t risk criticising them can we?), as well as their self-conscious retreat into infantilism in their twee lyrics and style of dress, this seems entirely apposite. At least the metal meatheads made it to spotty adolescence. I’m not saying that I prefer Iron Maiden to the Smiths (I’m not a monster, you know), but I certainly do prefer Motorhead to the Railway Children.
That said, I prefer just about anyone to the Railway Chidren, and Motorhead to just about anyone.