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15 March 2022

From the NS archive: Body snatching

17 January 1986: Can a courtroom drama, plus media nostalgia, bring punk rock back from the grave?

By Jon Savage

Although the Sex Pistols may have lasted just two and a half years (1975-78), the band’s legacy and influence was ground-breaking. The group, and particularly the vocalist John Lydon (commonly known as “Johnny Rotten”), are widely regarded as having initiated the punk movement in Britain. But a decade after their formation, the band’s business was still unfinished. In this article from 1986 the journalist and Sex Pistols biographer Jon Savage discusses the legal battle between the three surviving band members and their former manager Malcolm McLaren over withheld royalties, and the changing nature of the British music scene. Just days after this article was originally published the band would celebrate their court victory and a share of £1m. It is hard to imagine that the “raw, unexposed and latent” talent of the Sex Pistols existing within today’s bureaucratic and commercial world, Savage writes. Within a decade the music industry had become a business where five transnational companies had a share of more than two-thirds of the pop market; the industry was no longer tolerant of the “deadly, utopian challenge” of punk rock.

Exactly ten years ago this week, the Sex Pistols were still gatecrashing other people’s concerts and hustling for a living. They were a good idea trying to get started; in the words of a cod sleeve-note of the time, they were “raw unexposed and latent”.

In the middle of 1979 – after seven top-ten hits and nigh on a million pounds – they ceased to exist as anything more than an item on a receiver’s balance sheet. Yet at the time of writing, the corpse is being exhumed in the High Court, as the two principal protagonists, John Lydon and Malcolm McLaren, have flown across the Atlantic to face each other through their lawyers.

The emotions aroused by the Lydon vs Glitterbest case and its counteraction are not the only unfinished business of punk rock. The punk virus – even if some of its former victims might wish otherwise – still has some life to it. Nineteen eighty six has begun not only with the latest – and perhaps last – round in a complicated set of legal actions, but a flurry of interest in the tenth anniversary of punk rock, as a trickle of retrospectives and overviews in the music/style press begins to swell to a flood. The cyclical guilt begins again: ten years ago, people would say, “Where are the new Beatles?” Now they say, “Where are the new Sex Pistols?”

The willingness of white pop culture to get involved again in punk is partly due to the vagaries of fashion: the clothes and records haven’t been seen or heard for a while and the time seems right to dust them off. As far as this goes, we could be talking about platform shoes – an abortive revival of which foundered two years ago – or glam rock. Yet the very interest shown in punk points to a perceived lack in today’s white pop. What is there in the past that isn’t here in the present?

[see also: Burning Down the Haus: how punk changed Berlin]

One good answer was suggested to me by a woman called Viv Albertine. In the late Seventies, she was the guitarist in the all-female group the Slits. They made several records, the most extraordinary of which was released by Y Records in about 1980. There was neither title nor information on the sleeve and the song titles were scrawled at random on the disc’s label: you would just put on the record and hope. What you would hear, at its best, was formally appalling but incredibly exciting: on a song like “Boring Life” – which begins with a muted giggle – the musicians create their own order out of chaos on the spot. What you hear is people discovering their own power.

“Well,” she asked me, “why have the Slits been excluded from history? And why are there no women playing instruments now?” The sense of discovery and power that you can hear on the Slits record is a hard thing to aim for, let alone capture, let alone package. Any structural analysis of the music industry will inform you that a small cartel of five transnational companies has an over two thirds share of the pop market. Their dominance is furthered by factors like the mechanics of distribution and the high capital investment needed in the new “video market”. They are, quite understandably, not interested in the deadly, utopian challenge that the Slits’ “armed playground chants” represent. This sense of discovery is what is missing from today’s pop music. Yet blithely to assume that it will return – through some spurious cycle – is to put too much strain on a highly patrolled area of entertainment. Better to see punk’s unfinished business as an autonomy that, once out of the bottle, can never be returned – and one that is applicable, as an attitude, to endeavours other than pop.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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