Jon Savage: Burgess, Punk and the Sex Pistols, introduced by Andrew Biswell, The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, 17 October 2017.
Jon Savage moved with Punk to Manchester in the late seventies after the Sex Pistols’ famous ‘76 ‘June Show’ at the Lesser Free Trade Hall; a gig attended by Pistol’s fans (like Steve Morrissey) who would go on soon after the gig to form obscure bands like The Smiths, The Fall, and Joy Division. Tickets were 50p. Savage left London for Manchester to escape what sounded like an ailing Punk scene riddled with cocaine – “as everyone knows cocaine makes bad art” – and returned tonight to Manchester’s Engine House to give a talk, after a short hand-dryer related delay, on Anthony Burgess, Punk and the Sex Pistols.
Savage is a prolific writer, music journalist, and artist who published the mid-seventies fanzines ‘London’s Outrage’ and ‘Secret Public’ – a forum, in part, for a gay scene in London which he called “pretty awful” – with artist Linda Sterling. The author of several books, he is best known for his award-winning history of the Sex Pistols and Punk England’s Dreaming, to which he brought both the lucid writing skill he is known for and the insider’s eye that comes with, to name but one instance, having been on the boat with the Sex Pistols when they performed God Save the Queen on a boat in front of Parliament ‘for’ the Queen’s ’77 Silver Jubilee. Savage took the stage with a stubbed orange-green tie, stood at the thin silver podium, looked over his glasses smiling at the sold out event’s crowd, and proceeded to lay out the links between A Clockwork Orange and Punk.
He began with the Sci-Fi roots he saw as common to both in their “projecting a multi-layered past on the future”, and the evolving link between clothes and violence that Burgess forecasted in Clockwork, which Savage traced through the Edwardian dress of the Teddy Boys, Zoot Suits (cue cringe-inducing flashback to my raver days), up through Ziggy Stardust’s wardrobe futurology. Literature and language followed. Savage pointed out that Punks read books – and took a quick jab at Liam Gallagher – noting that Johnny Rotten, Ian Curtis, and Paul Cook had each read Clockwork.
Nadsat, Burgess’s invented Russian-English hybrid language in Clockwork was, in Savage’s parsing, able to remain timeless because it was situated outside of time; a retooling of language it shared with Punk, the private codes of teenagers, and which Savage saw as continuing today in the likes of Grime. Savage showed the crowd a vinyl of Burgess reading from Clockwork in “various Mancunian accents” – one of several archival materials he shared over the course of the night – and read from Burgess’s late New Yorker published essay “The Clockwork Condition” in which he reflects on the book title’s oxymoronic combination of the organic and mechanical.
A Clockwork Orange and Punk share ground in post-war fears of Juvenile Delinquency, the media’s alternating exploitation and condemnation of youth culture, and “then as it is now” adult projections of fear on adolescents – which Savage experienced as a teen, and which “old Punks” express today in laments that there is “no new punk”, to which Savage replied “who cares”. This part of the talk included a tour through some of the explorations and condemnations of youth culture in books like One Million Delinquents and movies like Teenagers from Outer Space. A Clockwork Orange is a book that “keeps on releasing meaning and news throughout time”, said Savage, and he traced its “percolation” through Bowie, Warhol, concert backdrops, and showed us the 1972 100th edition paper Rolling Stone Magazine that featured a piece on the book, explaining that both Punk and Clockwork were “full-blown nightmares from the English id”.
What was clear from Savage’s talk, as it was in England’s Dreaming, is that Savage understands Punk’s relevance as a “symbol for youth disaffection, rebellion, (and) sheer trouble”, as important in its own time as it is now in the context of Brexit, and any attempts to “roll back this country to some ridiculous fantasy we won the war – we still-have-an-empire-type crap…that England was (is) dreaming”. A desire John Lyndon expressed when he said, ‘All I want is for future generations to go, “Fuck it. Had enough. Here’s the truth”.
Jon had left his CD “in the car” and so ended the night by reading us the lyrics of one of Bowie’s last recorded songs, ‘Girl Loves Me’, in which he returns to the language and world of Burgess that first moved into his work when he was still Ziggy,
I’m cold to this pig and pug show
I’m sittin’ in the chestnut tree
Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?’
Savage’s talk was lucid, lyric, and I think the audience shared the feeling I had that we could have sat there much longer listening, or just bought him a beer and asked questions. I had the questionable idea at the end of the talk to ask him to sign a copy of England’s Dreaming to the Manchester Literature Festival, but I think he thought I was some sort of corporate emissary.
He signed it: To the Manchester Literary Festival, and whoever sells it