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Instruments of Destruction : ENGLAND'S DREAMING: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, By Jon Savage (St. Martin's Press: $27.50; 602 pp.)

March 08, 1992|Richard Cromelin | Cromelin writes about pop music for The Times

Even if you have never stuck a safety pin through your nose, you have felt at least the ripples of the punk explosion.

When the Sex Pistols burst upon a horrified public in 1976, these four horsemen of the rock apocalypse seemed more like a barbarian horde than a rock 'n' roll band. As their story unfolds in "England's Dreaming," they were that and more: circus and soap opera, slapstick comedy and true human tragedy.

Beginning "in a miasma of antagonism, misunderstanding and mutual suspicion," the quartet existed for only 14 months, made one actual studio album and played live shows only sporadically. They were quickly sidetracked from their rather simple mission--to succeed as a rock band--by the social agenda of their manager, Malcolm McLaren.

They became a great band anyway, for long enough, exerting a profound and lasting impact not only on popular music but on all the arts and society at large. Punk culture coalesced around the Pistols, but the predisposition and conditions were in the air.

The identification of the currents that convened in the punk maelstrom forms the essence of this unwieldy but essential opus. "England's Dreaming" is an ambitious attempt to show the Pistols as a product of obscure avant-garde art movements, and to plot their story multidimensionally--on a grid of London's neighborhoods, on postwar economic curves, political movement and social climate, on the cycle of youth cultures, on the framework of the class system.

Jon Savage was there on the scene, first founding a rock fanzine and later writing for the English music weeklies, but he approaches "England's Dreaming" with a scholar's sobriety rather than a participant's passion.

He declines the challenge of conveying the nature of the music through prose style. (That's tough to do, but brilliant if you pull it off, as Nick Tosches did in his Jerry Lee Lewis biography "Hellfire.") Little of Savage's writing conveys the charge of Johnny Rotten's rant riding the Pistols' instrumental tide.

Instead Savage goes academic, offering a detailed treatise on punk's antecedents, origins, flowering and decline, with enough sociological theory to make it a standard text in some '70s cultural-studies program. The sparks here are strictly intellectual, never visceral.

The book lurches into motion, laboring through a discussion of London's districts and the history of 430 King's Road, site of the clothing shop that would spawn the Pistols.

Savage cites an array of punk precursors: authors J. G. Ballard, Alex Trocchi and William Burroughs, England's Gordon Riots in the 18th Century and the Paris uprising of 1968. But perhaps most intriguing is the arcane underground art movement that sought to combine political rhetoric with pop culture.

The group called the Situationists, with their slogan "Demand the impossible," spoke especially strongly to Malcolm McLaren, a discontented art student with a nose for trouble and a fascination with youth culture. The Situationists, Savage explains, influenced McLaren's "taste for manifestos, broadsheets, montages, pranks, disinformation."

McLaren remains a pretty slippery figure throughout "England's Dreaming." Savage seems to have interviewed him (as with the four Pistols, the acknowledgments aren't very clear), but his voice is glaringly absent through crucial episodes of the narrative. Maybe that's fitting, since he's characterized as someone who enjoyed stirring things up but had a way of disappearing at crunch time.

McLaren's original outlet wasn't music but clothes. The King's Road shop that he ran with his tempestuous partner Vivienne Westwood--first Let It Rock (catering to the original English Boys), then Sex and finally Seditionaries--became a laboratory for radical fashion experiments that eventually incorporated social/political rhetoric, and Savage lavishes nearly as much attention on their studded, zippered shirts and fetish wear as he does on the Pistols' songs.

It was inevitable that McLaren would hitch his vision to a rock band--he was obsessed with old-time pop-music impresario Larry Parnes, who had managed such early English fantasy-figure rock idols as Billy Fury. McLaren found his vehicle in a group started by Steve Jones, a rambunctious kleptomaniac who frequented the King's Road shop, and his pal Paul Cook. When the charismatic, alienated John Lydon became the singer, the stage was set.

Savage debunks the usual simplistic notion that this was some Svengali arrangement. The Sex Pistols, in his telling, began as an independent agent, not a weapon devised by McLaren to fulfill his anarchic obsessions, a battering ram to bring down the walls of the music industry.

These lads--at least Cook and Jones--enjoyed the idea of a rock band and its life style. They wanted to succeed in fairly conventional terms, but that wasn't in the cards. Their music was revolutionary in its rawness.

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