Cyber Punk

Vague #7
January 1989 Cyber-Punk – Jamie Reid – Jon Savage England’s Dreaming interview
London’s Outrage – Sex Pistols – Cyber-Punk by Mark Downham
Class War by Stewart Home – Blast 88


England’s Dreaming: Jon Savage interview 5/8/88 Elgin Avenue

“The constant, which is expressed in different ways, is an approach to the same problem, which is of the media, the mediated life that we live, the whole mediated environment really. I’d actually done these traces, I haven’t decided yet whether I’m going to use them in the book. I did these 2 correspondences – which is an idea I stole from Greil Marcus, who did the ‘Elvisburger’ correspondences… So I stole the idea of that and it was basically correspondence around the world – ‘Nothing’ or ‘Don’t wanna’ or nihilism, you know, just the basic negative in whatever form. And also the key word, which is ‘Boredom’. ‘Boredom’ is particularly interesting because it’s much more definite than all the other negatives, although the various negatives are pretty interesting. And the kind of explosion of negatives you had in 1977 – ‘We don’t care’, ‘I don’t wanna go down to the basement’, ‘I don’t care’, ‘No future’, ‘No fun’ – you know, all these ‘No’s’, all these ‘Don’t wannas’, all these nothings.

“But ‘Boredom’, you know, you go right back to Baudelaire really. From that kind of romantic poetry, you go all the way through to Existentialism. I haven’t found any in Dada but I guess I should look further. It’s shot all the way through. It’s a Situationist theoretical tenet, Vaneigem used it, and then it’s also in Camus, and it’s also in beatnik existentialism. And then obviously it’s all over punk. I mean, if you actually look at how much, you know, ‘Bored Teenagers’, ‘Boredom’, Iggy Pop uses it. It’s all over the place. ‘Boredom’, I suppose, is a shorthand way of describing existential desolation, isn’t it. It had everybody saying “Boring” all the time. Everything was boring, even if you liked it, it was boring. And I noticed it was in the Conflict leaflet for that riot they had in ’87. I think it was: ‘We’re so bored – 4 words which mean more than the collected works of Marx.’

“So, the point is, there was a lot of stuff which had been floating around, that was previously high-art or vanguard art, that came out of pop culture. And that has a lot to do with the way England is, because England is not a culture. You know, the high-art in England, or literature in England, is very much the preserve of a particular sort of elite. And it is very static, like the society in general, and pop culture is the only thing that moves – for various reasons, one of which is our proximity in language and also in strategic geography to America. So that after the Second World War the thing in England wasn’t Existentialism as much as pop-art, you know, that was the big artistic angle on things. It’s the ICA group, it’s Richard Hamilton’s ‘Just what makes today’s homes so different and appealing’, all that stuff that was going on in ’52, ’54, ’56. And I think, I’ll have to check this, that it got sold back to America and Andy Warhol then picked up on it.

“I have the sense that Europe is obviously much more diffuse, and also it’s much more immediately sophisticated. You don’t have that deprivation that you have in England, which is a cultural deprivation, which means this obsessive concentration on various things. I think England is very culturally deprived. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I think that’s the case. Pop culture is the only thing, or has been the only thing that’s been going really. It’s the only moving thing, it’s the only thing that has movement in this country. Hence punk, the grand obsession, or one grand obsession… I mean, you’re obviously very much influenced – this is something that’s coming through at the moment with what I’m writing about Malcolm’s adolescence, which is to do with Teddy boys and rock’n’roll. You tend to very much carry around the stuff that made a very big impact with you. But for me personally, I had 60s pop culture. You know, when I was 13 I didn’t have rock’n’roll, I had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones…

“Punk began certainly by being a generational thing, it wasn’t age, it was an attitude. I certainly remember that there were people of my own age who I suddenly couldn’t speak to in 1976, because they didn’t understand what was going on. And it was very much a case of – before it was successful and before it was seen to be successful – of having to jump and not knowing whether you were doing the right thing. Because this is the great fallacy, this is the thing that gets eluded in historical perspective, nobody really knew whether it was going to work. So you have an initial act of faith, of going with your instincts, or just simply what you feel about something as opposed to what the other people in your generation are doing. I was 23 in 1976, so I could very easily have ignored it. I knew something like it was going to happen on a musical level. I was always a pop fan, so my interest was primarily musical as opposed to political at that point. It seemed obvious and logical, and there were all these harbingers, like what was going on in New York…

“I wrote a piece in ’75 which sort of vaguely predicted it. And I was just going by what I was liking myself in music, which was MC5 and ‘Nuggets’, then Patti Smith and the Ramones. It was obvious really. But to an extent you don’t even think about whether you’re making a mistake or not. It was just let’s go, and of course that’s a very romantic moment, and that’s a very exciting moment. I think for a lot of people, certainly for myself going back again, probably for you, it was a time when I first got confidence in my own perception of the world; because I suddenly realised that there were other people thinking the same things. And they were getting up and they were doing something about it. And they were actually – for want of a better word – expressing themselves, and actually had the confidence.

“You know, within a month of seeing my first punk concert – which was the Clash at the Fulham Town Hall, that was in October ’76 – I was producing a fanzine. And it was almost automatic, it was almost like a sort of fury. I wasn’t worried about whether it would fail or not, I just had to say something and, having seen this event, I had the confidence with which to say it; because I realised that there were other people thinking along the same lines I had been in isolation. I mean, I think that’s how a lot of pop movements work, I wouldn’t claim any great specificity to punk in that sense. I think the intensity of punk you get in a lot of pop movements. You probably get a similar intensity in acid-house, as intensity, as an intensive experience…

“I think something sparked, I think probably something sparked between McLaren and Lydon, and something sparked Lydon off. I think that Lydon managed to galvanise people. And McLaren and Lydon, and all the people around them – which was a group of about 20 people – managed to create this particular situation; which was to do with very rapid movement, to do with a new generation being able to say what they thought about things. And obviously what they thought about things was conditioned by time and place, and I think that’s probably one of the crucial things. Why Lydon managed to capture that I don’t know, it was certainly unconscious and the only conclusion I can come to about that is you’re actually dealing with archetypes. You know, whether it’s in the Jungian sense or whatever, it’s that you’re actually dealing with somebody who’s neurosis is a wider neurosis. And if you look back in various descriptions of England, particularly utopian or distopian descriptions of England, you see Lydon. You see Lydon in Dickens… I mean, he was an Irish Golem, with this burning anger that suddenly got unlocked.

“The character that he reminds me of very much is ‘Steerpike’ in Titus Groan… It’s beautifully written by this painter called Mervyn Peake, who basically wrote this allegory of English society around this thing called ‘Gormenghast’; which is a huge castle, which is kind of decaying and moulding, yet has a very strong tradition that was handed down from generation to generation. So it’s a model of the static, hierarchical English society. And one of the central characters is this young boy of 17, 18, called ‘Steerpike’, who is determined to subvert the whole system. And the description of this boy, and the pictures, are exactly like John Lydon. He has red hair, he’s got a high forehead, he’s got very red, burning intense eyes and he’s skinny. And so, to an extent, you are in the realm of the unconscious; which is dealing with archetypes, and national archetypes, which is a very interesting thing to speculate about, and you can’t really come to any firm conclusions. But it’s not just as simple as somebody forming a pop group and having a way with words. It’s a bit more than that. And I think now that the most interesting thing about punk was not really that it was about music.

“Well, at the time, certainly the music was terrific. It was speeded up, I loved it because it sounded like a speeded up Who and Kinks, and I’d always liked that sort of pop music because it was very inner-urban. It was quite sophisticated, it was quite tuneful, it had quite interesting lyrics about perception and media, and about looking at the world. It wasn’t just ‘I love you, baby, baby, baby.’ It was about the way that these people saw the world, which was an interesting thing to write about. It had distortion, it had feedback and it wasn’t so much this kind of soul boy model of the world. It was much more the kind of alienated existential model of the world, which is the sort of pop music I always liked. You know, I’m very committed to that vision of pop music really. And one of the things I find loathsome about today’s pop culture is that that way of looking at the world is sort of marginalised into the kind of Smiths/indie scene, which I think robs it of its power. And it’s quite a powerful thing, because most people’s adolescent experience isn’t going to clubs and hanging out and being groovy. You know, it’s sitting in your bedroom being bloody miserable, getting obsessed about various records which sort of help you interpret the world…

“And what you heard, when I saw the Sex Pistols the first time, was just a bunch of slogans really, which I liked. I loved the acronyms in ‘Anarchy in the UK’, I thought that was terrific – ‘Is this the IRA, the MPLA’ – I thought that was great, I could understand that. That was like ‘Terrorist News’. But it was much more of a blur and a sensation. And a sensation also, which is very important, of really being put on the spot. You know, in every way, just totally challenged, which is very productive. And I was very freaked out about punk. I was very attracted but I was also very freaked out about it for about 4 or 5 months. You know, there was stuff about it that really disturbed me, that I found quite frightening. Particularly, I was freaked out by the use of the swastika and just by the general atmosphere of violence, which was more theatrical than actual really…

“I thought the punks were being semiologically naïve basically. As far as the music went, I think particularly if you haven’t seen much violence, which if you’re a middle-class boy like I am you actually haven’t. Plus if you’re feeling pretty violent around the world, I mean the great thing about this country is that it is very claustrophobic, and that breeds a lot of frustration and a lot of anger and a lot of violence. I was feeling pretty violent because I’d got hemmed in and I wanted to lash out. And you found this music which encapsulated that, which is very liberating, and it was very claustrophobic, which I loved, I love that sensation. I feel like that anyway, I don’t have to take speed to feel like that, just feeling really boxed in…

“The violence at punk gigs was implied rather than actual. I actually found the specific punk rock concerts to be fairly friendly. I mean even the Clash coming down off the stage at the Royal College of Art and attacking the audience seemed to be a theatrical gesture in common with their performance. It was the logical conclusion of their performance. It only started getting violent when it started hitting the people who the rhetoric was aimed at. I mean the great rhetoric of punk – which was basically an art school, sophisticated movement – was that we’ve got to reach the kids on the council estates. When it started reaching the kids on the council estates that’s when the mayhem started. From the middle of ’77 onwards you get these horrific tales of punk groups being attacked on stage and bottles flying and riots going on in the audience. Pauline Murray told me she went to see the Pistols in about May ’76 and the last time she saw them was about 18 months later on the SPOTS tour. She said the atmosphere had totally changed. It was much more violent. She hadn’t found them originally very violent, except in a generational sense.

“There was always an extent to which punk was irresponsible, but I think the last few years of socially responsible pop have shown you what an idiocy the idea of socially responsible pop is. The sort of pop I’ve always liked has been the really nasty vile stuff, like the mid-60s Rolling Stones who were pretty damned violent. You listen to some of the very early Rolling Stones tracks, they’re very punky. It was one of the things that I had to work through in my response to punk, which is a kind of political development and understanding politics, which began with punk and is still going on now. So I wouldn’t feel the same way about punk if I was looking at it now. I had to go through a process of education which that started, which experiencing that started. I was forced to develop an attitude towards this, you know, try and work it out, try and work out where it was all coming from, what it meant and what I felt about it…

“Seeing punk now seriously as something to do with the Situationists, which is obviously going to be something that I’m going to write about, and I am writing about seeing punk within a context of the 20th century, and maybe beyond, except I’m not going to go into that that much because that’s just so vast, and utopian, sort of Gnostic movements, takes it out of the rock’n’roll sphere which it’s in, takes it out of the pop cultural sphere and it makes it an archetype. And then you realise that if it’s an archetype, then it will happen again in a different form, because this is something that is a human constant within the sort of society that we live in, and in fact in other societies. People do have different ways of looking at the world and, to an extent, at various times the impulse to put them into practise is going to be pretty strong…”


Tom Vague
(Vague Publishing, 1989)

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