Dame Vera and Lord Johnny, bookending vague echoes of the much vaunted Blitz spirit and perhaps something more sinister at the end of the pier. The compass, like much of the flesh on display, heading south, for what is effectively a heritage reunion at the Brixton Academy to mark the 30th anniversary of the Pistols’ incendiary debut, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’. What to make of such a gathering a decade into the New Labour project but with the banking crisis and financial meltdown still just one future shock away?
Perhaps there are clues smuggled in with the DNA of the event too. The speaker boxes tricked out in St George’s flags; the crowd, good and drunk and rancorous enjoying some barnstorming mass karaoke with The Forces’ sweetheart; amongst the identikit punk clones the many former skinheads, paunchier of gut though still largely sporting the emblems of yesteryear – sovvies, sherbets and in some cases borstal tears: their presence, the short, sharp grammar of another era – punctuating the liminality, applying the full stops, though not always from the expected direction; the dashes of colour in an otherwise very white crowd, yet predictably picked out by the camera – an apprehensive looking young Asian kid bracing himself for Johnny and the boys; a slightly older black punkette, again reflective, as though she knows what’s coming; and of course a smattering of ‘slebs’. There’s that woman from off the telly, and there’s Paul Morley, of course.
Or there’s always the wise words of master punk chronicler, Jon Savage: ‘Punk insisted on living in a hyper-intensive present, but now it’s a history – just another English dream.’
Still, this is very far from the antediluvian imagery of John Major’s ‘country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs’. Well, the warm beer aside, the question remains as to why there’s nothing incongruent about Lydon channeling the spirit of Rupert Brooke’s war sonnet, ‘The Soldier’, via the inspirational warbling of Dame Vera. The trademark sneer, the tics, the details of revered memory now the cornerstone of some superannuated punk panto, with Santa Monica the destination of choice for the ex-retirees; but no need for a Don Logan, or even some latter day pop Svengali, to urge them out of their dotage for ‘one last job’. No need because these chaps well understand the hidden capital in Brooke’s canny observation: ‘there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.’ They always have done.
And why not? Performance, if treated strictly as panto, has often as not brought its own rewards to those marginal figures prepared to play the part – a lucrative conveyer belt away from the conventionally dismal life choices available to young, working-class men in this country. In the States, this instinct is partially distilled in the cynical packaging of black, urban nihilism as ‘gangsta rap’ for the vicarious consumption of mainstream suburbanites.
But in England the stylisation of presumed nihilistic intent has always been a more nuanced affair: one might even argue that over time it was performance that produced its own capital, mining a rich seam of talent from Ralph McTell to Ian Dury; to John Lydon and ex-Crackers’ dancer turned Garage don, Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson and beyond. And this has never held more true than in the bankrupt Britain of the mid-1970s, baulking under IMF loans and on the cusp of the long, dark night of the soul that would be Thatcherism.
So of course for the purposes of this heritage knees-up, Johnny and the boys are ‘off the streets’. It’s no less than the crowd expects, and the game we play – some kind of mystic communion to paper over the cracks; at least until the next payday, or more likely these days, payday loan. Something to stave off crisis, if only for a couple of hours, before those darker visions of Eliot, Graves or Wilfred Owen replace Brooke’s eulogy to ‘clean-limbed heroes dying for a land of rose-scented hedgerows’.
So the London that the Pistols revel in is ‘the great foul city’ described by John Ruskin. It’s the city that belched them out of its council estates and into unexpected stardom. And it’s one to which they return as conquering heroes, to the landscape of their imaginative inheritance. Is it going too far to say they’re now an integral part of what Michael Bracewell has described as ‘working class aristocracy’? Perhaps, although when set against David Starkey’s lament that ‘England itself has ceased to be a mere country and become a place of the mind…a sort of vile antithesis of the nation’, their ascension seems more assured. Welcome, even.
And for all the French assertion that too much meat and a wet and gloomy climate have made the English a historically melancholy people, there’s still the glorious sight of a heaving, bouncing, late-punk crowd stumbling its delirious way through the Brixton nocturne. Something, too, of Abbie Hoffman, one of the Chicago Eight, in the immaculately suited gent mouthing ‘we know what we feel’ with total abandon. Hoffman, who insisted that ‘revolution is not something fixed in identity, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit.’
Out of nothing, something. The enduring spirit of punk. Yeah, we know what we feel.