Of all the books that have been published on the origin of punk, there is none as faithful to the event as God save the Sex Pistols (Contra, 2021), by Fred and Judy Vermorel; not even the autobiography of its leader Johnny Rotten, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (Acuarela and Antonio Machado Libros, 2008), written from the sweetness —and the bitterness— of distance, is capable of capturing the moment in such a way.
The photos that captured the intimate and wild essence of punk
The Vermorels approached the group in mid-1977. Fred had known Malcolm McLaren, the band’s manager, since 1965, when they met at the Harrow School of Art. The marriage begins very soon to conduct interviews and gather material to make a book that is much more of a collage than an essay, more of a scrapbook type scrapbook than a newspaper article.
The interviews -raw, unwritten-, alternate with press clippings, official documents and the personal diary of a person very involved in the events of those days so mythologized in London in which Margaret Thatcher, as leader of the opposition, She was preparing to make the leap to Downing Street, where she would stay as a tenant for the next 11 years. “There is no future”, said the Sex Pistols; was about to fall on the streets of the UK the winter of discontent.
Fred Vermorel, who since that first work has continued a career of outstanding biographies, such as those of Kate Bush, Adam Ant, Gary Numan or the essay on the fan phenomenon Starlust, attend this newspaper to remember the details of the making of what the music newspaper NME defined as “a solid and revealing study of a group whose stinky activities have frequently suffered from misrepresentation and a biased point of view”.
preserve the moment
The book begins with a certain resemblance to the “oral history” format, as the referential work Please kill Me, about the punk of the 70s in the United States, before the British. The first testimony is from Alan Edwards, a 23-year-old press agent for punk groups who says that the first time he went to see the Sex Pistols he felt “like a real old man”: “And that I was twenty years old but it was as if I was fifty.” Edwards refers to events that had happened just two years ago but the intensity of the moment already painted them as distant.
“I wouldn’t say this is a rough book. In fact, it was carefully constructed to communicate a kind of immediacy, a sense of unfolding history, a feeling of spontaneity. I wanted to preserve that moment in time as a capsule of history,” he explains.
The Spanish edition does not have any additions, footnotes, prologues or contexts that take the reader by the hand to 1977. “I don’t want to make any additions because I think it would be out of place and out of the scope of the project,” explains the author. . “The book is a capsule of history in the same way that the band is, in the same way that moment was. It will never be repeated no matter how much people want it to be repeated or not. It will always be something unique. And I hope the book portrays that uniqueness,” he adds.
Of all the information contained in this book, which is being published for the first time in Spain, with a translation by Ibón Errazkin, the most valuable and unique is the transcription of the personal diary of Sophie Richmond, secretary and office manager of Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols. She was 26 at the time and living with Jamie Reid, the group’s artistic director and responsible for the graphic image of cut-out letters associated with punk, as well as the covers of the Sex Pistols, including the iconic image of Elizabeth II on god save the queen.
“Sophie’s diary was of immense value, one of the best things in the book,” recalls Vermorel. “We had to get into a constructive and persuasive discussion to get him to publish it and for him to allow us to publish it. She had in mind to publish her own book, but in the end she was dissuaded and it was her then partner, Jamie Reid, who played an important role in suggesting that her words would fit better in our book than in a separate book” .
It took a punk manager
Both Jamie Reid and Fred Vermorel and Malcolm McLaren had their links to the Situationist International, an art world ideological connection to revolutionary and anti-capitalist ideals with Guy Debord as one of its catalysts. Vermorel was caught in May 1968 studying in Paris and he assures that it was the hard core of the Situationists who raised cobblestones in the streets and agitated the students. His theory, and that of McLaren, is that situationism infiltrated punk and Vermorel himself wrote a biography of Vivienne Westwood, designer and partner of McLaren, with this same perspective. Johnny Rotten, on the other hand, did not agree very much: “All that stuff about the relationship between the French situationists and punk is a clown, a real stupidity,” he wrote in his autobiography.
“May ’68 greatly improved our perception of what could be done with a little riot in the street. You could bring down governments, you could change culture, you could radically change things. This was the hippie dream, but they never quite achieved it because they were too intoxicated with their drugs and other projects that diverted them from the more immediate and brutal lessons that situationism taught us, ”he defends.
In punk historiography, two versions coexist: in one of them Malcolm McLaren invents punk and, in the other, he takes advantage of it. As Vermorel’s book is not written but rather conclusions have to be drawn from the words of the protagonists and the questions they are asked, it could be deduced that Vermorel defends the paternity of McLaren. “Yes”, confirms the author, “I think that Malcolm McLaren was not exactly marginal in the construction of punk. But as you can see from the book, punk predates the Sex Pistols. One of the questions that I find most interesting and that arises from this whole episode is why didn’t punk take off in New York? The answer is multiple but I think the main reason is that there was not a management structure brave enough, artistic enough and avant-garde enough that was willing to take on such a band and such a movement. Instead, in London, in 1976, the office of Malcolm McLaren did create it.
The first edition of the book was published in 1978, exactly the same day the band disbanded, which was totally accidental, says the author: “Everything was that fast. The book took about six months to prepare and that lasted two years maximum. But in 1981 a second edition with 60 more pages was published, which were added to strengthen the book. “I included more material on Malcolm because by then he was recognized as a key figure,” he clarifies.
“Another thing I should maybe say is that in a later book on Vivienne Westwood, I pointed out that Malcolm McLaren had Tourette’s syndrome and you can see elements of this in the construction and style of the Sex Pistols and their management style and his management approach, which was deliberately chaotic”, he adds.
mothers have something to say
Many things happened after the publication of Inside Story (its apt original title) and some of them were motivated by the very appearance of the work. “The band members were mostly baffled by the book. They weren’t big readers and they weren’t particularly interested in what I was doing,” he explains. “Except in hindsight, they are now, of course. One of the things that puzzled them the most was that I insisted on talking to their mothers, which they thought was not very punk. But I thought that, on the contrary, it was going to be quite entertaining and revealing. And so it was, especially, the interview with the mother of Johnny Rotten. She, for example, revealed to me that the reason he had that hostile manic look was that as a child he had meningitis and it left him with that look as a permanent feature. In other words, it comes naturally to him,” she reveals.
The book includes, for example, the school report cards of drummer Paul Cook, whose tutor considered him to have been a “kind and conscientious” class representative. In the interview with her mother, she asks the journalist if she believes that her son’s group will one day be like the Rolling Stones or “will go out of style.” She also tells him that the first time she saw Johnny Rotten she thought he was “a little malnourished.” The mother of guitarist Steve Jones says that when he was four years old he was already “wandering around” and as teenagers he stole “specks and other things” and had to go look for him at the police station: “I used to give him a good rant. Because maybe it was three in the morning, she knows. My husband had to go look for him. And my husband gets up very early, he gets up at five. That couldn’t be.”
Vermorel is a researcher of the musical phenomenon who has not gone unnoticed and who has suffered the consequences of his publications. “I became a person non grata in the offices of the record industry”, but not because of the Sex Pistols book, but for various reasons that came later. “First of all, because of a book I wrote about Kate Bush, which was deemed inappropriate. And, above all, for my opposition to Live Aid”, the two massive festivals held by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure (Ultravox) in 1985 to raise funds for the fight against hunger in Ethiopia and Somalia. “I published an article that became quite notorious in the music magazine Sounds. It was titled sadism of charity, which is a term I borrowed from Simone de Beauvoir, pointing out that there was a lot of hypocrisy and doublethink involved in the whole construction of Live Aid, that it was more concerned with reinforcing and erecting a canopy for its own egos, for the egos and ambitions of the pop star, than anything else”