Jon Savage: “I Remember Punk Rock…”

He was a bored public schoolboy, then JON SAVAGE heard the Pistols and the Clash and the strings of his heart went ping. He’s now written the best book about punk rock ever. STEVEN WELLS meets the author.

JON SAVAGE won’t let us dunk his head in axle-grease and stick his barnet up in punk rock-Sid spikes.

“I’ve never spiked my hair. It’s the one part of my body I’ve always been conservative about…” He says this as he clutches the Vicious doll from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle in one hand and the punk globe from Jubilee in the other.

In 1966 Savage, then aged 13, was a happy suburban London kid, bombing around on the tube, grooving to the epic chartpop of the Kinks, the Who, the Stones and the Small Faces. Pop heaven. So his parents sent him to Rugby, a public school renowned for churning out dull grey Tory lickspittles.

He hated it. Spent the whole time listening to West Coast psychedelia, dreaming about taking drugs, organising the third formers into death squads and punishing smaller boys for being “little Tory shits”.

After a drug-crazed spell at university, he emerged back in London as a proto-punk.

“We dressed up in jumble sale clothes and took speed and went to parties and wrenched off the Steely Dan and stuck on the Ramones and twitched and nearly got beaten up. It was f—ing great.” And like every intelligent person of his generation he saw the Pistols and the Clash and the strings of his heart went ping.

In the ’80s he became the enfant terrible of the sTyLe media, on one occasion smashing up his desk, wrecking his office and calling his boss “a c—” and keeping his job. He’s the only rock critic of his sad generation who rejoices in the awesome glory of the likes of Fabulous, Culturecide and the Manic Street Preachers and he’s just written the only decent book about punk rock. Punk, not just as in punk rock, but in the last decent, great thing that happened to Art/Culture/Pop.

“What happened in the 1980s is that a lot of popular culture became involved with the New Right, particularly what we now think of as sTyLe culture. I woke up in about 1986 and that had a lot to do with AIDS and the start of really vicious homophobia in the British press. The only personal solution for me was to go right back and examine what had happened to me in this period which I really hadn’t come to terms with, quite apart from a more general thing which was that I just love the f—ing records…”

But why has punk, despite its lingering influence and mutations, remained so unfashionable? Should we blame the 10p-scrounging postcard lumpenpunks and their crusty children?

“I’m sure that’s partly true but again I go back to the intensity of records like ‘Holidays In The Sun’ (Sex Pistols) and ‘The Great British Mistake’ (the Adverts — check it out) and the intensity of ‘This Perfect Day’ by the Saints and the X-Ray Spex records, the intensity of the very good punk rock records is just terrifying. There’s no way that the media can handle this and it’s something that a lot of people find really really scary. And that was part of your original reaction to punk rock. You went to a punk concert and you were put on the spot. A lot of your values were challenged and how you reacted depended on what sort of person you were.”

But given punk’s anti-nostalgic element, isn’t a history of punk something of a contradiction?

“No. The actual basis of punk hasn’t changed, if anything things have actually got more severe. People still feel alienated and bored and smash the place up — that hasn’t changed. Good history is as much to do with looking at the present as it has with the past.

“I think pop culture has been constantly underestimated in the last ten years, either trivialised by the sTyLe press or turned into post modernist 30-something shit. I think there’s been a concerted New Right attack on pop. I kept a record of all the Government ministers who attacked the ’60s in various speeches and it’s about five or six, including Pym, Tebbit and Thatcher.

“They attack the ’60s because that was a time when what was popular was also very good/ I mean, these bands were getting to Number One! And what’s happened since is obviously a lot to do with post modernism which is obviously to do with the baby boomer hegemony of culture. My answer is — do you actually like pop or not? I think a lot of people involved in the sTyLe media and in the pop media don’t actually like pop — and it shows.

“There are always great records being made, people coming out of nowhere with something to say and you just don’t get any sense of that. I really love pop music and always will and that’s what this book is all about.”

© Steven WellsNew Musical Express, 26 October 1991

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