The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next accomplishment.
The best examples appear… where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.
—Manny Farber, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” 1962
We thought, he’s got what we want. Bit of a lunatic, a front man. That’s what we was after: a front man who had definite ideas about what he wanted to do and he’d definitely got them. And we knew straight away. Even though he couldn’t sing. We wasn’t really interested in that ‘cos we were still learning to play at the time.
—Paul Cook, on Johnny Rotten’s audition for the Sex Pistols
It may be that in the mind of their self-celebrated Svengali, London boutique owner Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols were never meant to be more than a nine-month wonder, a cheap vehicle for some fast money, a few laughs, a touch of the old épater la bourgeoisie. It may also be that in the mind of their chief theorist and propagandist, anarchist veteran of the Paris insurrection of 1968 and Situational artist McLaren, the Sex Pistols were meant to be a force that would set the world on its ear, recapture the power and purity he had first glimpsed in classic rockers like Gene Vincent, and finally unite music and politics. The Sex Pistols were all of these things, and as an official, above-ground group they lasted little longer than nine months: formed in late 1975, they released their first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” on November 19th, 1976, and had ceased to exist as much more than an asset in a court fight by January 14th, 1978, when, immediately following the last show of their single American tour, Johnny Rotten left the band, claiming McLaren had sold out everything the Pistols had ever stood for. During that time, however, the Pistols accomplished an interesting feat: they broke the story of rock and roll in half.
As invented, inspired and carried to a formal (though not historical) conclusion by McLaren and the Sex Pistols, punk rock was an aesthetic and political revolt based in a mass of contradictions that sustained it aesthetically and doomed it politically. McLaren understood that rock and roll was the most important, perhaps the only kind of culture the young truly cared about; he understood that for the young everything else (fashion, slang, sexual styles) flowed from rock and roll, or was organized by it, or was validated by it—and that therefore rock and roll was not just the necessary first principle of any youth revolt, but that revolt’s necessary first target. Connections could be made: if one could show how rock and roll had become simply the shiniest cog in the established order, then a demystification of rock might lead magically to the demystification of the Establishment.
To structure the situation in this way took real imagination, even genius. In the past, rock and roll in the context of youth revolt had always been seen by its fans merely as a weapon, or, more deeply, as an end in itself, as self-justifying—which was self-defeating, because it meant that when all was said and done rock and roll did not open up questions of justice, identity, repression, freedom and aesthetics, but drew them into itself and made them disappear. Thus the Sex Pistols damned rock and roll as a rotting corpse—as a monster of moneyed reaction, a sentimentalized corruption that no longer served as more than a mechanism of glamorized oppression, self-exploitation and false consciousness—and yet, because they had no other weapons and because they were fans in spite of themselves, the Sex Pistols played rock and roll, stripping the music down to essentials of speed, noise, fury and manic glee no one had been able to touch before. They used rock and roll as a weapon against itself.
With all instruments but guitar, bass and drums written off as effete, as the elitist accouterments of professionalism and the cult of technique, this was a sound best suited to expressing anger and frustration, focusing chaos, dramatizing the last days as daily life and ramming all emotions into the narrow gap between a blank stare and a sardonic grin. The guitarist laid down a line of fire to cover the singer, while the rhythm section put both in a pressure drop, and as a response to what was perceived as the totalitarian freeze of the modern world, the music sometimes seemed like a version of it. A lot of people—fans of Yes, David Bowie or for that matter the Rolling Stones—didn’t think this was music at all, or even rock and roll; a smaller number of people thought it was the most exciting thing they’d ever heard. The Sex Pistols meant to bring the edge into view, and they did: when Johnny Rotten rolled his r’s, it sounded as if his teeth had been filed down to points.
Though they sparked a wave of instant bands, self-made records, a new pop grapevine of fanzines, improvised distribution and countless rumors, the Pistols themselves were signed to EMI, Britain’s biggest and most conservative label. When that label dropped them after bassist Glen Matlock said “fuck” on national television, they proved themselves quite capable of sentimentalizing their own righteousness. Clear inheritors of Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, the early Who, the Velvet Underground, mid-Sixties American garage bands, the Stooges, Jonathan Richman, the New York Dolls (managed, in their dying moments, by the same Malcolm McLaren, who draped their stages in Communist flags and gave them the slogan, “What Are the Politics of Boredom?“), Mott the Hoople, David Bowie (from whom drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones stole the Pistols’ microphones) and a host of other rock primitives, rebels, pioneers and prophets without honor, the Sex Pistols nevertheless denounced their forebears as farts and fools, dismissing the claims of the past as they denied the worth of the future.
Punk was fake culture, product of McLaren’s fashion sense (he called his shop “Let It Rock,” “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” and “Sex” before settling on “Seditionaries”), his dreams of glory and his hunch that the marketing of sadomasochistic fantasies might lead the way to the next big thing. But when Cook, Jones, Matlock and Rotten—working-class delinquents and dole-queuers born in the mid-Fifties—took their own fantasies of escape and pillage into London’s clubs, in their first days crashing other bands’ gigs for the chance to be heard, punk became real culture. In a context of crushing youth unemployment, growing street violence between neo-fascists, colored immigrants, the police and socialists, and the enervation of the pop scene, punk came together within a few short months as a whole set of visual and verbal signs: signs that were at once opaque and revelatory, depending on who was looking.
Positing boredom as the legacy of rock, and spiritual death as the promise of the welfare state, punk triumphed over its visions of ugliness—mastered them—by acting them out. Insisting on the bizarre and trashing standards of decency, punk shattered the mask of the dominant culture; by its very unnaturalness, punk made the host culture seem like a trick, the result of sadomasochistic economics. With cruelly dyed and slashed hair, mutilated faces, bondage gear (from McLaren’s shelves, of course, which was only fair), wrecked clothes—a lumpen, day-for-night-of-the-living-dead style—punk drew lines, divided the young from the old and the young from the young, forced new loyalties, forged new identities, and, as it announced that all possibilities were closed, opened up possibilities of negation and affirmation that a year before had not existed even as fantasies. This was revolt into style; it was also style into revolt. Centered strictly in London, later spreading directly across the U.K., punk’s claim on the world’s attention was not hedged: musically and politically it announced itself as a harbinger of things to come, of all that was feared and of all that could not even be imagined.
Punk was in the tradition of the U.K.’s postwar, music-based, white working-class subcultures: the Teddy Boys of the mid-Fifties, the mods and rockers of the mid-Sixties, and the reggae-loving, Paki-bashing skinheads of the late Sixties and early Seventies (who arose partly in reaction to the seizure of the pop space by mostly middle-class hippies). But as Robert Christgau has written, punk was the first such movement to direct its rage where it belonged: against those in power. It was also the first such movement in which women played a significant, even defining role. By far the most violent in appearance and rhetoric of any musical movement, punk was probably the least violent in fact—though by far the most violence was directed against it. After the Sex Pistols released their second single, the murderous “God Save the Queen,” on May 27th, 1977, they were banned from BBC radio (also banned from the BBC charts, they made Number Two anyway—as a blank), attacked by the police, barred from public performance, threatened with criminal obscenity charges, denounced in Parliament, and repeatedly beaten and razored on the streets, until finally they were virtually forced to flee the country.
Punk was a carefully orchestrated media hype, the latest version of a tried-and-true scenario of pop outrageousness that elicited a hurricane of Establishment hysteria—a hysteria that was in many ways as cynical and self-serving as the provocation. Yet punk uncovered resentments, fears, hatreds and desires so fierce that their emergence threatened the legitimacy of the social order and revealed its tyranny, just as the scabrous rating of the Sex Pistols’ music threatened the legitimacy of mainstream rock, and revealed its tyranny. Punk also uncovered, and legitimized, purely thuggish behavior and psychopathic characters of every sort—the most notable of the latter being Sid Vicious, who, famed for inventing the Pogo dance and beating a rock writer with a chain, replaced Glen Matlock as the Pistols’ bassist in March 1977, when Matlock was kicked out of the band for exhibiting revisionist tendencies. (“He wanted to make us fun,” Rotten explained in horror. “Like the Beatles!”)
Punk toyed casually with Nazi imagery (raising the specter of youth fascism, and also implying that Britain’s victory over Hitler had simply led to fascism by a different route), set itself against the burgeoning racism of the neo-Nazi National Front, aligned itself with London’s Jamaicans, and sought justification, strategy, wisdom and courage in the apocalyptic anti-politics of reggae. What punk absorbed from reggae and its ruling Rastafarians was the idea of self-determination within a nation perceived as a prison, and the paradoxical concept of class war defined in strictly cultural terms: a struggle that would make demands on those in power that no government could ever satisfy, that would be both stoic and messianic, a struggle that could not, in fact, be revolutionary at all, but that could be utterly subversive—to no end that anyone could name. But the wellsprings of reggae were at bottom religious, and there was no mythical Africa that punk could seek as an image of redemption—and so to this bundle of contradictions Johnny Rotten added one of his own: nihilism.
Unlike Manny Farber‘s white elephant art—“an expensive hunk of well-regulated area,” which in 1976 and ’77 meant a new Rod Stewart album, or the Queen’s Silver Jubilee—the “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss” impulses of the Sex Pistols took them through one barrier after another. Thus they made it clear that their attack on the vacuity of pop was merely an instinctive means to a far more disturbing attack on sex, as the mystification behind love, on love, as the mystification behind the family, on the family, as the mystification behind the class system, on the class system, as the mystification behind capitalism, and finally on the very notion of progress—as the ultimate mystification behind post-industrial Western society itself. Veterans of spontaneous student revolts would have been familiar with such an expansion of vision—but the world of pop had never seen anything like it before.
Out of these paradoxes—and there were many, many more—came an extraordinary tension, a sustaining excitement, a torrent of remarkable music, a parade of heroes, martyrs, traitors and frauds, and an almost limitless opportunity for popular art. But as politics, this was the sort of revolt that had to strangle on its own contradictions, that had to lose its shape in the momentum that gave it shape, that was preordained to outstrip the reach of the calculation and plotting that had allowed it to become authentic. Perhaps the only true irony in the whole story was that, in the end, it all came down to rock and roll—nothing less, but nothing more.
All over the country, depression lay like fog, which was just about all that was missing to lower spirits even further, and there was even a little of that in East Anglia. All over the nation, families who had listened to the news looked at one another and said, “Goodness me,” or “Whatever next,” or “I give up,” or “Well, fuck that”… All over the country, people blamed other people for all the things that were going wrong—the trade unions, the present government, the miners, the car workers, the seamen, the Arabs, the Irish, their own idle good-for-nothing offspring, comprehensive education. Nobody knew whose fault it really was, but most people managed to complain fairly forcefully about somebody.
—Margaret Drabble, The Ice Age, 1977
All power to the imagination.
—Wall poster, Paris, May 1968
1977 was the year that music came out of the concert halls and into the streets; when independent labels sprang out of the woodwork to feed new tastes; when rock music once again became about energy and fun; when the majors’ boardrooms lost control. Suddenly we could do anything.
—Liner notes to Streets, a collection of punk singles, 1977
In the meantime, however, the band has the curious problem of its relationship to Britain to contend with—increasingly popular among many young people but subject to street attacks and hysterical denunciation in the mass press. “I don’t understand it,” says Rotten with his winning blend of mockery and innocence. “All we’re trying to do is destroy everything.”
—John Rockwell, the New York Times, August 1977
“Have you seen the Sex Pistols?” Joe Strummer almost whispered to Graham Parker one night in 1976, as if passing on a secret so valuable he hardly dared speak its name. “No,” said Parker. “‘The Sex Pistols’?” “Whole new thing, man,” Strummer muttered. “Whole new thing.” Within weeks, Strummer, son of a lower-level British diplomat, had left his pub-rock band, the 101’ers (named, with pure punk prescience, for the torture room in 1984), and joined with guitarist Mick Jones and bass player Paul Simonon to form the nucleus of the Clash.
That was how punk rock took off. Some writers have made much of the impact of R&B revivalists Dr. Feelgood—getting back to basics, and all that—but England’s 453rd R&B revival could easily have come to nothing. Others root it all in the emergence of an ironic, arty, self-consciously avant-garde punk scene in New York in 1974 and ’75, or credit the you-too-can-play evangelism of the Ramones’ 1976 tour of Britain. But U.K. punk was not ironic—irony being understood as just one more way of not having to mean what you said—and while the oh-so-studied primitivism of the Ramones certainly made itself felt in England, so, in 1957, did “the big rock ‘n’ roll sound” of Bill Haley, which did not make Bill Haley the Beatles any more than it makes the Ramones the Sex Pistols.
When they first started out, with the magnificent cackle Johnny Rotten used to kick off “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the Sex Pistols said they wanted “more bands like us.” They got them—dozens of groups that cut their own 45s weeks after forming (or, if one goes by the sound of some of the sides, before forming), put them out on one-shot labels like Rabid, Raw, Rad Edge, Beggars Banquet, Step-Forward, and sold them at gigs, independent record shops, through the mail. Most of these records were never meant for the radio; as if in answer to the repression suffered by the Sex Pistols, the Cortinas, the Lurkers, Eater and Slaughter and the Dogs made music so brutal, haphazard or obscene that airplay was out of the question. Thus, given the assumption that normal pop channels were irrelevant, all restrictions on what could go into a record or a performance, on what a record could sound like or what a performance could look like, fell away. Male singers could abjure macho posing or push such posing to unholy extremes; female singers and musicians were suddenly able to ignore the few roles reserved for women in rock—indeed, they could ignore roles altogether, which was what made Poly Styrene of X-ray Spex, a half-caste overweight teenager with braces, so startling. Within the context of punk, she was also obvious, and that obviousness was liberating.
If in wartime only the clandestine press can be truly free (“The only great nation with a completely uncensored press today,” A. J. Liebling wrote in 1944, “is France”), then it was the fact that the official pop space was closed to much of punk that made it possible for punk to create its own space of freedom. Something like a new pop economy, based less on profit than on subsistence, the will to shock, and marginal but intense public response—a pop economy meant to support not careers but hit-and-run raids on the public peace of mind—began to take form. Bands were mostly faceless; action centered on 45s (presented in picture sleeves, many of which omitted photos of the band in favor of agit-prop/Dada graphics, inviting the buyer to identify not with the band but with the punk movement per se).
People cut singles not so much on the off-chance that they would hit but to join in, to be heard, to establish a new identity, to say “I’m here,” or “I hate you,” or “I have a big cock.” Teenagers discovered the thrill of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater—or even in an empty theater. That anyone could make a mark permitted the success of punk frauds like the Stranglers and the Damned, the vicious misogyny of the Cortinas’ “Fascist Dictator” or Some Chicken’s celebration of Charles Manson, and boosted the simple puerility of a hundred now-forgotten 45s; it also inspired records as anonymously right as the original Buzzcocks’ seminal “Boredom,” and that Everykid anonymity was just as liberating as Poly Styrene’s grip on the mike.
Again, it was reggae that had cleared much of the territory. Structurally, punk came forth on reggae terms: as minority culture for outcasts, for those willing to make and live in their own embattled but special world, for those who didn’t fit into society or who saw society as unfit for themselves. But while punk’s remaking of some of the means of pop production backed up the punk attack on fame, careerism and “art” that was the first premise of punk ideology, there were crucial, killing contradictions in the punk-reggae link. Unlike reggae, which has moved steadily toward coded Jamaican English and was never only for the young, punk was white youth music, sung in recognizable English, coded only by volume. And despite the punk attempt to discredit and dissociate itself from rock and roll, punk was rock and roll. From the start, it was subject to enormous publicity in the scandal sheets and to detailed next-new-thing criticism in the rock press. Potentially, even the most extreme white punk band had access to a mass audience and to amounts of money that were denied the least radical reggae singer by definition—and in truth the most important punk bands had contracted with major labels from the outset.
Thus, the more intense the momentum of punk—spurred on by the increasingly desperate sound of the Sex Pistols from above and by the multiplication of new voices from below—the more surely and inevitably punk drove toward the widest possible audience, exploding its outcast pretensions, no longer acting out rebellion but instead acting out the contradictions that lay behind the rebellion. That Johnny Rotten chose to resolve the situation by leaving it—by, in essence, arranging his own plane crash and emerging from the wreckage as John Lydon, once again anonymous, or as close to anonymity as he could get—may well have been the most heroic act in the story, the act most true to what the story had tried to make itself about.
That last night in San Francisco—Rotten hanging onto the mike like Quasimodo caught in a wind tunnel, baiting the self-hyped crowd while Steve Jones made a sound that was more like that of a man playing a guitar factory than a guitar—was the formal (but not historical) conclusion. As D.H. Lawrence once wrote, describing another “metaphysical tragedy,” “The Pequod sinks with all her souls, but their bodies rise again to man innumerable tramp steamers and ocean-crossing liners… What we mean is that people may go on, keep on, rush on, without souls. They have their ego and their will; that is enough to keep them going.” Dropping the “punk” tag and trading instead under the inoffensive and near-meaningless rubric of “New Wave,” countless English bands have since made that ocean crossing—and when the Buzzcocks and the Jam and the Boomtown Rats arrived on American shores, it was no longer possible even to pretend their presence could make a difference.
But the Clash—what about the Clash? They arrived in America not simply to make themselves known but precisely to make a difference, as rock and roll politicians out to create a new rock version of the public space. Trapped like any other band in the Rolling Stones’ rock-politics paradox (“What can a poor boy do…”), they nevertheless began with the assumption that there was more room in that paradox than the apologetic Stones have been willing to admit. The clear goal of the Clash has been to grow both musically and politically, at once, as if one side was a necessary means to the other. Indeed, many argued even in 1977 that the Clash, not the Pistols, were the great punk band. They may well be the greater rock and roll band, as that judgment is conventionally understood. That they were not the greater punk band has been their salvation.
Managed originally by Bernie Rhodes, longtime crony of Malcolm McLaren, the Clash played their first gigs in mid-1976, signed with U.K. CBS for a reported £100,000, and released their first album, The Clash, in the spring of 1977, long before the Pistols got Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols into the stores. Immediately, the Clash had risen above the pack, because they were able to rationalize the punk ethos, laugh at it and put it across with a sound that was altogether their own.
The Pistols performed as wreckers, the Clash as partisans. If the Pistols’ tunes were symbolist (“Anarchy” opening with the cry, “I am the Anti-Christ,” which Rotten miraculously made all too credible), the Clash’s were rhetorical: the explanations Rotten offered in interviews went into Mick Jones’s and Joe Strummer’s songs. The Clash were “more political” because their position was less metaphysical, and therefore more manageable, than the Pistols’; the Clash’s appeal to reggae rebellion was explicit and their lyrics addressed not the social bases of reality but the System. If in some fundamental way the Sex Pistols—or anyway Johnny Rotten—really were committed to the destruction of rock not only as myth but as fact, the Clash were committed to changing rock. Aggressively, honestly and practically populist, they were aware of the contradictions in their stance and interested in staying one step ahead of them, determined to find the right side and stick to it. Their music meant to organize the new punk community, to provide it with spirit and consciousness.
Such aims may sound absurdly naive and utopian. The Clash remains a riveting and unsettling album, one of the truest rock statements about the world rock cannot enclose. Not only was it trendy (“correct” where the Pistols were adventurist and bands like Eater were foaming at the mouth), taking on dead-end jobs (“Career Opportunities,” inspired by Mick Jones’s stint as a clerk whose job was to open suspected letter bombs), terminal pop boredom (“Cheat,” “London’s Burning”), the true origins of rock (“Garageland”), the irrelevance of America (“I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”), frustration (“White Riot”) and violence (“Hate and War” and a stunning cover of Junior Murvin’s 1976 reggae hit, “Police and Thieves”), the LP was open and funny—insistent but not pompous, self-righteous but not self-important. If the Clash latched onto received ideas they soon made those ideas their own, and were changed by them. More directly attracted to reggae music than any other band, they somehow combined Jamaican rhythmic sense with the punk maelstrom, producing a sound that was dense, complex, forbidding. At their best the Clash sounded like their name.
The Clash was followed by “Complete Control,” an attack by the band on its own record company, which could have reduced punk politics to petulance—who really cared if CBS released the wrong tune as a single? But this single was perhaps the finest example of the punk ability to leap from the narrowest provocation to the largest issue without blinking: rather than a complaint about “artistic freedom” it came off as a testament to what artistic freedom was worth. Produced by reggae-master Lee Perry of Jamaica, it was also one of the most powerful hard rock records of all time.
There were more singles—the failed “Clash City Rockers,” the brooding “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” in which the Clash dove headfirst into the racial and political paradoxes of their music—and then in late 1978 Give Em Enough Rope (cut with an American producer, it was the Clash’s first LP to be released in the U.S., though The Clash had sold 100,000 copies as a high-priced import). Certainly, the Clash wanted to “conquer” the U.S.A.; to get themselves a bigger audience and financial freedom, to validate themselves in the place where it all came from. With the punk scene in the U.K. growing ever more narrow, paranoid and tired, the Clash had to step beyond it, carrying its messages without allowing those messages to fix them in an isolated moment in pop time. The attempt to cross borders made sense in another way: a concern with youth culture and political violence in London had led to a fascination with politics and violence on a global scale and to a perception of the inherent limits of youth culture as such, and for the Clash’s renderings of those themes to be tested, something more than a local audience was necessary. But while the material was often astonishingly potent (“Safe European Home,” “Guns on the Roof”), the sound was weak and scattered—half compromised American heavy metal and half compromised English punk.
With the Pistols long gone, the Clash stayed on the case, performing often in the U.K. and the U.S., extending their use of reggae and backing it up with an attempt to link punk to much older rock ‘n’ roll styles: rockabilly, Zydeco, New Orleans R&B. If the Sex Pistols had opened a gap in the rock and roll story, the Clash wanted to occupy that gap—or to claim the story itself, to reorganize the idea of rock and roll around their own moment.
With London Calling, released just as the Seventies collapsed into the Eighties, they succeeded. A big, cheap, 19-song two-record set, it was expansive, confident, worried, full of good faith and as determined as ever to rob pop music of its promise of an unearned freedom from dread. Ranging across London Calling were cops and robbers, Spanish freedom fighters and radical chic tourists, young lovers and broken-down middle-aged punks, Montgomery Clift and Robert Mitchum, Anastasio Somoza and Anthony Blunt, Staggerlee and Billy, reggae rude boys and struggling rockers with nothing to say, rebels walking straight into traps they were too cool to notice. It was an album that in its multiplicity, wild humor and unbroken intensity sounded as if it could sustain a listener for a long time to come. The Clash had triumphed not because they had managed to transcend the contradictions and paradoxes of punk, but because they had very consciously used them as the basis of their music.
And yet there is a way in which the Clash have always pulled back from the cutting edge on which the true punk moment was played out. That, most likely, has kept them together; it also marks their limits. The Clash’s very effort always to do the right thing, to make the correct choice, to define the problem properly, has kept them from ever being as dangerous as punk promised it would be—or as the Sex Pistols were. Unlike the Clash, the Sex Pistols did go too far; all the hue and cry and calculation aside, going too far was what they were about. If there is a forgotten chapter in the punk story, a chunk of jagged metal long since smoothed down, that is it.
There was a black hole at the heart of the Sex Pistols’ music, a willful lust for the destruction of all values that absolutely no one could be comfortable with—and that was why, at his greatest, Johnny Rotten was perhaps the only truly terrifying singer rock and roll has ever known. Certainly, no one has yet seen all the way into the nihilistic madness of “Holidays in the Sun,” the Pistols’ last single. The sleeve was charming: on the front were cartoons of a happy family, discussing holiday plans in the crazed words Rotten sings on the record; on the back, a photo of a family scene, annotated with little signs—“Nice image,” “Nice middle age lady,” “Nice people,” “Nice photo,” “Nice young man,” “Nice young lady,” “Nice gesture” (the nice young man is holding the hand of the nice young lady), “Nice little girl,” “Nice illegible,” and even, at the bottom, “Nice sleeve.” The record wasn’t charming. “I don’t want a holiday in the sun,” Rotten sang. “I want to go to the New Belsen.”
Off he goes, the marching feet of the tourist masses behind him, to the extermination camp that, for the British, serves as the symbol of modern evil, just as Auschwitz does for Americans. Johnny finds himself at the foot of the Berlin wall; people are staring at him, and he can’t stand it. As the feet grow louder and the band spins off into a frenzy Johnny begins to shout, amazed at himself, his voice filled with delight and revulsion: he wants to go over the wall. Is that where the real Nazis are? Is East Berlin what the Western world will look like in ten years? Is that the future the Pistols claimed didn’t exist? Rotten can’t stop himself: he wants to go under the wall. The song presses on, squeezing the listener like Poe’s shrinking closet—part of the terror of the number is that it makes no apparent sense but still drags the listener into its absurdity and strands him there. The Sex Pistols leave every band in the world behind them for the last minute of the record, and Rotten is climbing, or digging, tearing at the wall with his bare hands, screaming at his inability to understand any more of the story he’s telling than we do. What is happening? It sounds as if Hitler’s legions have risen from the dead, taking the place of nice tourists, nice East German bureaucrats, nice American soldiers, nice West German businessmen—or as if Nazis have jumped right out of the skins of the capitalists and clerks who replaced them. Rotten is caught—or drawn like an iron filing to a magnet—and he likes it. We don’t.
This wasn’t just some cheesy shocker like the Sid Vicious-inspired “Belsen Was a Gas.” There was no way out of this song—it had no “solution.” This was punk at its most beautiful and most horrible, in its most perfect form and in its most grotesque, not just a protest against the way things were, not that at all, but a protest against life.
What could Rotten have thought of his performance, if he let himself think about it? “Bunuel,” Pauline Kael notes, “once referred to some of those who praised Un Chien Andalou as “that crowd of imbeciles who find the film beautiful or poetic when it is fundamentally a desperate and passionate call to murder.” Much of the 20th century has been taken up with the attempt to prove that the beautiful, the poetic and a call to murder are all of a piece—and Rotten may have understood this. His incessant shout of “I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS BIT AT ALL!” as “Holidays” crashed through the wall may have been his way of saying so, his way of saying that, when he looked into the void, he found the void looking back.
Rotten’s aim, finally, was to take all the rage, all the intelligence and all the strength in his being and fling it at the world; to make the world notice, to make it doubt its most cherished and unexamined beliefs, to make the world pay for its crimes in the coin of nightmare, and then to end the world—symbolically, if no other way was open. And that, I think, he did. It was perhaps the shared perception that such an act was implicit in the momentum of punk that made everything else in punk possible; it was surely the performance of that act that made it necessary for Rotten to remove himself from his story, to rescue himself from the consequences of his performance, to escape the choice of compromise or self-destruction.
Rock and roll is over, don’t you understand? It’s gone on for twenty-five years and it’s got to be cancelled. The Pistols finished rock and roll; they were the last rock and roll band. It’s finished now, done with. And that was all quite a long time ago, when you think of it.”
—John Lydon, February 1980
“What we play now is what we can do. It wouldn’t be fair to do ranting music, because we’ve mastered a time-change. We can play in another rhythm. So there’s just no point. We do a bit of ranting, just to keep it up, but we don’t do it all the time. We do something now we couldn’t do before.”
—Joe Strummer, December 1979
[IS EVERYBODY HAPPY?]
Nothing discredits events like the years immediately following them—that, and the efforts of those who took part in those events to free themselves from the curse of their failure. The dominant culture reasserts itself, and those who exposed its artifice again disappear, or else walk on as strange relics, pathetic creatures who somehow have yet to get the word they’re wearing last year’s clothes. Style seizes the time and is destroyed by the passage of time, until enough time has passed to make those styles that expressed more than whim into history. Thus, in 1980, it is incumbent upon John Lydon—once known to all the English-speaking world, and now obscure—to denounce the history he has already made, lest it trap him. “Politics?” he will say. “The Sex Pistols weren’t politics. The Sex Pistols were a fiasco. A farce.”
Which they were—but as one can reply to anything said about the Sex Pistols, that is not all they were. The Sex Pistols broke rock and roll in half because they turned rock and roll back on itself, exposed its easy answers to false questions, and made it necessary to consider all popular culture with suspicion. All ideas about how, in rock and roll, one got from one place to another, were suspended and recast. They made it necessary to ask, Can rock and roll ever be taken at face value? What is the relationship between manipulation and innocence? Between anarchy and capitalism? What happens when rock and politics are separated? What happens when they are joined? Is a concern for technique inherently regressive and primitivism inherently self-limiting? If rock and roll is a fraud unworthy of those with something to say, and at the same time the only game in town, what is to be done? Most of all, the Sex Pistols made it necessary to ask what counts as rock and roll—for if they could go so far, what of those groups who never even try?
The Sex Pistols made great music. Then, as they had with the rest of rock and roll, they discredited their music. Johnny Rotten’s last words at the Sex Pistols’ last concert were: “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?” The Sex Pistols turned back on themselves, and vanished. They did this with such force that it may even turn out that those millions who blithely ignored the Sex Pistols have in some crucial way cut themselves off from rock history—cut themselves out of the process by which, still termite-like, rock and roll will discover what comes next. It may be that those millions are now part of something that—because it raises none of the questions the Pistols defined, but indeed exists to silence them—continues less as rock and roll than as a loud version of pre-rock pop music: all standards, clichés and safety, every surprise counterfeited, every new idea merely a novel means to sell the old.
With the dust of punk blown away, the pop establishment remains in place. Virgin, the Pistols’ final label, still peddles repackagings of the band’s few tracks, brightly titled: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Carry on Sex Pistols, Flogging a Dead Horse. Other labels are happy to push a little New Wave roughness on the radio, happy even to give a chance to John Lydon’s abstract new music, certain that if he is still a troublemaker he will, this time around, make a much more conventional kind of trouble.
Also in place are a few new institutions, experimental record companies like London’s Rough Trade, and a hundred, two hundred, three hundred interesting new bands—for those independent 45s never did cease to appear, not for a minute. And if today there are many busy enforcing the rules of pop, there are also those who understood what punk was about, and for whom those rules long since failed to have more than tactical meaning. One might think of Essential Logic, led by a 19-year-old named Lora Logic, a refugee from X-ray Spex now in careful pursuit of whatever sound it is that no one else would think to make; of the feminist Raincoats, who may complete the demystification of popular music made by women; of the edgy, disorienting Gang of Four, who are working, they say, “to redescribe reality and to redescribe rock and roll.” All, as it happens, insist on a certain “distance” from “rock and roll.” None are exactly punks and none would have been even thinkable without punk—which may be to say a great deal, or nothing. These are small possibilities, nibbling away at the boundaries. And so the story goes on, all in pieces once again.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1979, edited by Jim Miller