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England’s Dreaming Tapes

The England’s Dreaming Tapes

by Jon Savage
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MN, 2010
752 pp., illus. 12 b&w. Trade, $78.00; paper, $25.95
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7292-9.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


One wonders about the raison d’etre of this new book, subtitled “the essential companion to England’s Dreaming, the seminal history of Punk”.  Is there really a dearth of primary sources on the Punk era, which necessitates a new printed book rather than online resource? When Savage approached the Punks, it was nearly a decade and a half after their 1976-77 moment in the limelight, and they’d had time to ponder its follies and its meaning.   He relied on their insights, but then shaped them into a history that reflected his own experience of the times and its tremors.

Before jumping—stage-diving—into this book, I took John Savage’s 1992 history of Punk rock England’s Dreaming down from the shelf, for a fresh look. His story begins with a constantly conceptually-redesigned clothing store run by Malcolm McLaren.  McLaren’s death in spring 2010 made me revisit Craig Bromberg’s The Wicked Ways of Malcolm McLaren and to view some interviews from this decade found on YouTube.  Like P.T. Barnum, movie distributor Arthur Mayer, John Sinclair, or (these two especially of interest to McLaren) Brian Epstein or Larry Parnes, the promoters of entertainment are often as interesting as the artistes themselves.  Shopkeeper-qua-haberdasher-qua-ideologue McLaren, with energies and good ideas borrowed from designer Vivienne Westwood and others, decided he needed to form a band out of some of the wastrels hanging around his shop.  As it was then called SEX, the Sex Pistols were born.  Following the Pistols saga with few diversions from this center, the author introduces the New York Dolls and the Londoners’ rivalry and resentment of New York bands.  Roberta Bayley, employee in SEX, seems to have been a peacemaker shuttling between both scenes.  There was also the influence of amphetamines, and an eye to the individualistic Stiff Records label and roster of eccentric rock performers.  McLaren did truly want the band to record on the established label EMI, yet the company feared the controversy that the band sparked when it cussed on bibulous Bill Grundy’s show would cause cancellation of orders for the medical scanners another part of the corporation manufactured. A drumbeat of huffily oppositional moralizing by the popular press helped get the Sex Pistols banned from various small nightclubs.

In England’s Dreaming, Savage is a thoughtful observer.  There is a flash of good literary criticism of Patti Smith, and Savage compares the Sex Pistols’ “Submission”—where, asked to write a song about S & M John Lydon introduced imagery of a submarine’s dive—to motifs of the oceanic, enveloping woman detailed in Klaus Theweleit’s study of proto-Nazi Freikorps novels Male Fantasies.   England’s Dreaming felt about twice as long as it should have been, its long comet’s tail being the depressing story of the dissolution of Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols’ unhappy US tour, at whose San Francisco gig the band unceremoniously broke up.  Johnny Rotten sneered from the stage “Ever have the feeling you’ve been cheated?”  Too much of the time nobody seemed to be having any fun, except guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook, who enjoyed all the available girls and lager.  In Savage’s way is the fact that the story of the Sex Pistols has been scooped by two movies, director Julien Temple’s “The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle” (McLaren’s version) and director Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy” (with Sid Vicious at its center).

Reading the source interviews in The England’s Dreaming Tapes, I quickly realized what a good job Savage did in his earlier book of distilling the salient message and lesson of each interviewee.  That a similar book of interviews, Please Kill Me: the Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian Welch (Penguin) has been a success, remaining in print and boasting steady sales, could not have been lost on the planners and publishers of Savage’s new book.   The interviews include only a smattering of Punk musicians not in the Sex Pistols (Sylvain Sylvain, Captain Sensible, Siouxsie Sioux, Howard Devoto, Pete Shelley, Poly Styrene and Don Letts), but are organized into coteries of shopkeepers and members of the Glitterbest management team, frequenters of the Roxy Club, New Yorkers, and notable Punks hailing from London suburbs or the north of England.

Just when one feels one might just as well be slogging through a Victorian book called Memoirs of Numerous English Persons in the Era 1875-77, a nugget of insight gleams and makes it all worthwhile. Or that intriguingly raises further questions: is the “Pauline from Penetration” that Glen Matlock recalls at a Northallerton concert the same Pauline celebrated in the Sex Pistols’ song “Bodies”? I suppose The England’s Dreaming Tapes, like Jon Savage’s earlier book, would make a good holiday or high school graduation gift for young people, musicians or rock fans curious about the era.  It reminds me of a book I enjoyed in the 1980s that collected OMNI magazine’s interviews with scientists.  Yet this volume is as elephantine as any of the 1970s progressive rock compositions lasting the length of an album side, which Punk, in its speed and brevity, hoped to banish forever. When not consulting it in the production of further Punk exegesis, The England’s Dreaming Tapes is the kind of stout book to keep on the shelf in a vacation home, or for—as the Sex Pistols sang—“holidays in the sun.”

Last Updated 2 November 2010

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