Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.


February 27, 2011

27-2-11 Antique Pistols

27-2-11 Antique Pistols

My last year at art college and the start of my post-grad teacher-training year was marked by the rise of the punk undead. Birmingham was a little behind the metropolitan wave, notified of the barbarian marauders via the reviews in NME, Sounds and Melody Maker (even Zigzag began to rip up its cover graphics).
A post-grad student who announced that he’d been able to get tickets to see ‘a little band by the name of… The Eagles’ at the NEC was met with loud boredom instead of the warm wave of cold envy he’d evidently anticipated.
I was no stranger to Pink Floyd, though I was aware that as each album superseded Ummagumma they were turning out immaculate product rather than sustained experiments; I had Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ and even hunted down the double LP ‘Persian Surgery Dervishes’ and ‘Church Of Anthrax’ with John Cale; I accumulated John Fahey’s stately, measured (or ‘interminable’) versions of country blues rescued from crackling shellac records; I liked Barclay James Harvest’s first couple of LP’s and seemed the only person i knew who had a soft spot for The Enid; Soft Machine’s Third still got regular plays, mostly Robert Wyatt’s ‘Moon In June’; I’d started to get drawn into country, or at least New Country – The James Gang (coincidentally ‘Thirds’), The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ‘Dream’, Red Rhodes steel guitar ‘Velvet Hammer In A Cowboy Band’…
I was perfectly placed to be swept away in the surge-tide of spit and safety-pins, though on reflection it was a welcome absolution from trying to be hip, license to retire into the eccentric backwaters of my LP collection.
Gee’d up by the famous Sniffin’ Glue magazine cover and the wayward conventions of puritan hedonism described in the press, bands formed around available equipment and the assurance that more than three chords were superfluous and decadent.
I retired hurt from my first exposure to punk – The Boys, at some club in town. The quality was indecipherable, the volume was industrial. audience and band pogo’d and spat, not at each other but as the etiquette. The more enthusiastic orgiasts in newly-convened local bands regarded post-gig phlegm lapels as applause you could wear. Hawking up a Green Gilbert to flick from the peak of a pogo was skill to acquire akin to the footballer’s opportunist header into the goal-net.
…so it was out of idle interest that I looked at the Sex Pistols’ 2007 reunion gig (thirty years since ‘Bollocks’), Skyplussed to view at leisure.
The thing about The Pistols was that they had the luck to be prodded on TV by Bill Grundy on prime-time TV. Johnny Rotten said ‘shit’ and then kept schtum; it was Glen Matlock who unloaded the broadside of rudery at Grundy’s expense. They sounded like a mad band – though Steve Jones gave the three-chord myth a kicking – and in the meeja meringue of folk-devil worship whipped up in its wake Rotten’s Medusa glare was genuinely the face of their nothing-to-lose gang against the world. It seemed no coincidence that he looked exactly like Mervyn Peake’s pencil-sketches of Steerpike in Titus Groan – another character working his way up from the kitchens to the palace by any means necessary.
Julie Burchill said in Ray Gosling’s survey of the hooligan history of English pop, ‘Crooning Buffoons’, that what was so refreshing about The Pistols was that they didn’t aspire to be upwardly mobile, they just wanted to be working class but more so… getting pissed and lying around. So that was Burchill’s take on ‘working class’; never let a contradiction get in the way of quotable cred.
Malcolm McLaren became the UK’s Andy Warhol, with Jamie Reid as his cut-and-paste poster-factory.
Like Abbie Hoffman’s Kennedy-era sabotage of the news agencies, circulating the story that LBJ had lightened the Airforce One flight back from Dulles to Washington by, erm, violating the dead President’s neck-wound, the fashionable adoption of Anarchy as a youth-movement was alarming because for a second you realised that you believed it might be a possibility. It was democracy that seemed ripped’n’torn and held together with pins and slogans.
Thirty years on, BBC 4 shows the vid of the 30-years-on reunion gig and history repeats itself at The Brixton Academy as tragedy and farce. The Pistols as their own tribute-band. The musicians play with stolid fidelity to the record, leaving John Lydon to strut to and fro like Jarry’s Pére Ubu, showing off his lardy belly, gurning like Wilfred Brambell and intoning the lyrics in a way that made you grateful for Mark E. Smith’s auteurist disdain for style. Look out for appearances as Wicked Uncle Abenazar in seasonal productions of Aladdin at an end-of-the pier near you.
I don’t know what this would all mean to a generation that knows John Lydon as a contestant in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ or him off the butter ads. The crowd sing along to the anthems of bile like the audience at a Gang Show. Frank Zappa said that no musical fashion became popular without a corresponding dress-code and lo, here were the regulation distressed jackets and fastidiously spiked mohican coiffs amongst the curious students of social history.
There’s still a morbid fascination in this tirade of hubris, and a reminder that even if our seats at the tables of power are still pretty vacant, we don’t care.

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