by Simon Reynolds
SAVAGE VERDICT: Jon Savage interviewed * on the New Wave of New Wave
Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, the first proper history of punk, is
often cited in interviews and overviews of the New Wave of New Wave. It seems
to have made the Sex Pistols adventure available to a whole new generation, just at
the point at which the saga was fading from folk memory. So does Savage, a
veteran of the original era as both participant and commentator, take any
credit for the current resurrection?
"Well, S.M.A.S.H. were very excited about England's Dreaming, and that
was very flattering. I mean, if you're a writer, that's the ultimate--to be
told that you've inspired someone else. I always intended England's Dreaming to be a kind of primer, presenting the data and saying 'this is how it's done'. The idea was not to push myself to the foreground, but to provide all the sources, the books and records that inspired the original punks. I don't know
if the book influenced the other bands, just that S.M.A.S.H. say they were
influenced. Thank God they're really good! Hahhahaha! I like S.M.A.S.H. a
lot. They've got good songs, cheekbones, short hair--a classic suburban English
mod band. Very exciting live--after I saw them live I stayed awake til 3-AM
just buzzing on adrenaline, and that's pretty late for me. And they have a
song called 'Shame', and that's a very English thing to write about."
Why are we still so obsessed with punk? Ever since 1978, most Brit-rock
activity has been conceived, and judged, as either a return to, or swerve away
from, punk--as either a resurrection or a 'betrayal'. Punk revivals have almost
been annual occurrences. Why are we still hung up on happenings 16 years time
ago--it's equivalent to the Pistols being obsessed with pre-Beatles pop, Billy
Fury and Adam Faith! Why is it that British rock culture can't bury punk, break
free of its ancient agenda?
Savage's explanation is that "the years 1976/77 are a bit like 1966/67--years of fantastic compression, too much happening too quickly. It takes years to unravel all that. And so those moments of breakthrough and upheaval always cast a long shadow. With punk, it took about 10 years to work through all that stuff. Beyond that, punk is simply a classic English archetype--with precursors in Dickens, in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, in the Angry Young Men, in The Stones and The Who. And that archetype is so potent. The punk movement was very powerful, very ambitious, so it's no wonder that pop keeps coming back to it. Punk was all to do with sex, which is still a very charged phenomenon in England; it was about bondage and going into the nation's subconsiocus to bring out all the violence and filth. There's a huge gulf between the reality people live and the media edifice that's constructed over that reality. The simple fact is that all the things that were talked about during punk are still there and still need to be talked about. Nothing's changed.
"It's like with the fashion side of the current interest in punk--in a
sense, people are 'trying on the clothes' to see if they fit, and finding that
they do. The 'clothes' are all about anger, confrontation, hostility, and they
fit because there is a mood today similar to '76. The punks, and the
hippies in their own way too, posed certain questions that haven't been
answered. All great pop movements pose those questions, in slightly different
ways. Even rave culture is born of frustration, a desire to break out.
England is still a very claustrophobic, class-ridden, static society. And I'd
hate to be 18 now."
Arguably, it's much worse today than in '76. Not just economically but in
the sense that in the past 16 years all the little spaces of freedom have
contracted--what with the assault on dole culture, the impoverishment of
students, and of course, the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill with its virtual
outlawing of squatting and its draconian clampdown on raves and warehouse
parties. The government seems determined to extinguish all the bases of an
oppositional popular culture. Today it's not even a question of 'No Future',
but closer to Hendrix' lament: "ain't no life nowhere".
"If I was 18 today, I'd be incredibly conscious of the hegemony of the
babyboomer generation. Because so much of the commentary on pop is by people
from that generation, and most of them wouldn't give a band like S.M.A.S.H. a
chance, 'cos the attitude is 'we've seen it all before'. And of course that's
totally irrelevant since, as any fule kno, when you're 20 you haven't seen it
Are there any parallels between 1976 and 1994, in that there's an
apocalyptic vibe--a feeling that something appalling is lurking on the horizon,
the spectre of social collapse, and its corollary, the resurgence of fascism?
"I don't know if that's actually happening, but it is a very teenage thing
to think that. Also--it's like, 'hello, it's 1994, the Millenium is coming'.
Punk was a millenarian movement, absolutely."
One of the interesting things about the New Wave of New Wave is the way
it's resurrected punk's ethics of drug use, ie. speed = good (cos it increases
IQ, self-confidence, aggression), dope and E = bad ('cos they make you mellow,
quiescent and full of love). Amphetamine is the perfect drug for messianic
fervour and tunnel-visonary crusading zeal, but its downside is paranoia (which
adds to the Millenarian, Doomsday vibe) and, at the extreme, psychotic
"Well, amphetamines are very bad news. I only took it four times during
punk and it made me feel so peculiar. Whenever a pop movement gets overtly
based around one drug, it gets stupid. Speed is a dangerous drug. Several
friends of mine from the punk era ended up either psychotic or dead, because of
speed and heroin. Then again, if These Animal Men want to talk of burning for
two years then crashing, that's their prerogative. There's a grand tradition
there, a classic rock'n'roll trajectory,--Sid Vicious is the obvious example."
My reservation with these bands is that they're a too literal recreation
of punk. Really, they're like the pub rock bands that paved the way for punk:
back to basics, except that in this case "basics" means Situtationist slogans
and McLaren-like masterplans. But any real successor to punk would have to go
as far beyond 'nouveau punk' as the Pistols went beyond the white R&B
fundamentalism of Dr Feelgood et al. Another thing: the NWONW is
Nth-generation whiter-than-white rock, mod filtered through punk filtered
through the Manics. It completely ignores anything that's happened musically
since 1978: black or white, rap or rave.
"From an outside perspective, maybe that whiter-than-white rock can seem a
thin option compared to the wealth of stuff around, whether it's black-derived
or not. But why not make white-boy music? It doesn't make you racist, in
It's interesting the way that ambient techno has provided these bands with
a readymade enemy, the '90s subcultural equivalent of the mid-70s hippies. As a
punk vet whose current favourite music includes Aphex Twin, Richard Kirk,
Seefeel and Biosphere, what does Savage make of the nouveau punk critique of
ambient: that it's just aural sedatives for a defeated, spineless generation?
"I can understand their arguments against ambient. But I'm not at an age
where I need to define myself by the music I like. I've grown out of that
partisanship, cos I've been lucky enough to have lived within it. But the NWONW
is music that demands that kind of partishanship, and I can easily imagine that
if I was a kid who'd gone to see S.M.A.S.H. I might be inspired to want to
change my life..."
And throw the ambient LP's and Rizlas in the bin?
"Well, what the punk critique of ambient misses--and it's a fault shared by
all politically-engaged rock--is that there's a politics of sound that's just as important as explicit politics in lyrics. And the best ambient is streets ahead in terms of sound, the way the music makes you feel, the moods and images
it conjures. When rock gets too puritanically concerned with stripping
down to just the message, you end up with the Tom Robinson Band, who I
always had problems with--great politics, shit music. But anyway, at my age
I don't have to choose between ambient and punk. Ideally, the best of both
worlds would be great--ambient punk!"
TECHNOPHOBIA! The New Wave of New Wave versus d-generation
The great failing of the nouveau punk bands is their willful denial of the music of the last six years. The Sex Pistols had a relationship with both their era’s chartpop (glam’n’glitter like the Sweet) and its underground rock (The Stooges). Any band hoping to have the same impact today would have to take on board the innovations of sampler-based music, from rap and rave to ambient and avant-rock. A Nineties Pistols would be something like a cross between The Prodigy (this era’s Sweet), The Young Gods (this era’s Stooges) and Public Enemy (the black Clash).
Another big failing is that the NWONW’s refried Who riffs lack any kind of relationship with contemporary black music. Although the influence of roots reggae and dub really came through musically in 1979, punk had a spiritual kinship with reggae: both punk and Rasta were about exile and alienation. A Nineties punk should also have an awareness of, if not alliance with, today’s black British subcultures. And that means ragga and jungle techno, music of pre-political rage and urban paranoia. If These Animal Men are really into speedfreak music, they should be making 160 bpm ardkore jungle, which is driven by a rage-to-live that’s pure punk. THIS is the sound of youth today, whereas These Animal Men’s “This is the Sound of Youth” is the sound of youth yesterday: 1966, or worse, that year’s dismal replay in 1979, with neo-mod bands like Secret Affair and Squire.
We need real modernism, not mod revivals. So let me introduce: d-generation. As the name suggests, their music is informed by, but also a swerve away from, the music of the E Generation: “the corrupt modernism” of dark techno, jungle, ambient and ragga.
“We would have been punks in ‘77”, admit d-generation, “but today we can’t see why anyone would ignore modern music.”
They call their sound “psychedelic futurism, techno haunted by the ghost of punk”. It sounds like Ultramarine gone noir: ambient drones, lonesome dub-reggae melodica, stealthy junglist breakbeats. Like Ultramarine, d-generation deploy imagery of “Englishness”, but instead of pastoral quirkiness, the vibe is urban wasteland, influenced by “the dark, expressionist, deviant tradition” of Wyndam Lewis, The Fall and Michael Moorcock.
On their yet-to-be-released EP Entropy in the UK, ghostly allusions to punk are omnipresent. “73/93” turns around the sampled phrases “eroding structure, generating entropy… no future”. “The Condition of Muzak” (the title is from a Michael Moorcock novel) goes even further, using Johnny Rotten as a stick to beat the rave generation. A sample from the Pistols’ last performance at Winterlands is turned into a techno riff: Rotten’s famous “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated” and mirthless cackle “ha ha ha”. Perfect: if this was played at a rave, it would start a virus of disaffection that would undermine the whole subculture. So many ravers have a cheated look on their faces, sometimes cos they’ve been sold dodgy E, mostly cos they’re burned out and can never get as high as they used to.
Rave is full of submerged utopian longings (“living the dream” etc). But because they aren’t articulated, the culture ultimately functions as a safety valve, releasing frustration at the weekend then returning you to workaday drudgery.
It’s not a culture of refusal, but an anti-culture that defuses. d-generation suggest one way that a true successor to punk (rather than a mere replay) could operate: as spies in the house of the loved-up, sowing seeds of discontent, making a grim dance of our national decay.