Jon Savage On Black Hole & Why The Brits Don’t Own Punk

Jamie Thomson talks to Jon Savage about his new punk compilation on Domino and opening up music

With England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage gave us the authoritative, benchmark account of the rise of the Sex Pistols and British punk in general – no mean feat given the vast amount of column inches and talking heads that have sought to define that era. Now, with the curation of the Black Hole: Californian Punk 1977-1980 comp, he has moved his focus to a punk explosion that by comparison, received no coverage whatsoever – particularly in the short-sighted UK music press of the time. From Crime to the Weirdos to The Germs, this was a scene no less intense than their forebears in New York or rivals across the Atlantic, but –shielded from the kind of tabloid sensationalism that followed the Pistols – arguably purer in their aesthetic and musical vision. Some, such as Black Randy and The Middle Class, would remain the preserve of bootleggers and record nerds. The Germs, however, would receive the kind of after-the-event cult adulation that saw them become the subject of a Hollywood biopic, 2008’s What We Do Is Secret. Their guitarist Pat Smear would of course go on to work with Nirvana, who, according to Savage, were the band that brought US punk into the mainstream, thus bringing the whole cycle to a neat conclusion. The Quietus spoke with Savage last week in the run-up to the release of Black Hole.

What was the idea behind compilation?

Jon Savage: The whole point of doing compilations is: "Hey, I really like this stuff – maybe you will." But I first heard it all back in the day because I was a punk rock journalist working for Sounds. And I also developed connections with two magazines on the west coast, which were Search and Destroy, out of Los Angeles run by V Vale, and Slash out of Los Angeles, which was run Claude Bessy. I thought they were fabulous magazines. I was very against the idea that the Brits owned punk, and always thought that punk was an international phenomenon, and I sought to encourage that. So I got in touch with those guys, and did work for them. They didn’t pay me money but they sent me local singles. I was probably one of the very few people in the UK who got these records when they came out because they weren’t very well distributed. Places like Rough Trade didn’t really carry them. And I never thought they got the attention they deserved, because I thought they were terrific.

Aside from the lack of distribution, why do you think they never received that acknowledgment?

JS: Well, I went to LA in 1978 and it was completely fascinating. It was my first visit to the States anyway, but with LA, you couldn’t get further from Europe, and so it’s really fucking weird – you feel like you’re on a completely different planet. I landed there and the first thing I saw was a replicant punk looking exactly like something you’d see on the Kings Road, except she had a suntan. So that was pretty weird. And so I hung out with a few of these groups. I was like a visiting dignitary because I came from England. But I hung out with the Screamers, the Weirdos, the Dils and the Avengers, and saw some of them play and I thought they were great.

Some idiot’s reviewed the album and said that I say that California bands are better then English ones. But I’d never say that, because you can’t rank punk like that. It’s just – is it good or not? I wasn’t interested in one scene being better than the other, because that’s the kind of crap that people in England were coming out with. "Oh they’re just copyists!" Well, who’s copying who? People still think of it all in a very cliched way. But I liked these groups because they had a swing that a lot of English groups didn’t. And by the time I went there, which was late summer of 78, British punk was boring, except for very few acts, like Crass. Punk had burned itself out in the UK by then. But in LA it was like going back 18 months, and it was great. The groups were very energetic. They all had something individual to offer. They weren’t complete clones – and they rocked. And opposed to British groups they had a swing — they weren’t stiff. It was quite physical music; it made you want to move around rather than just jump up and down.

I always found that American punk had an intensity that wasn’t equalled by the British groups.

JS: Well, I’d never say that. Obviously in the history of punk rock there’s a lot of tit for tat. "Oh the Brits copied it all from New York." I’ve had all these arguments with Legs McNeill, who I really like by the way. And it’s just not interesting to me. I was just interested in what was good. And it was just that this was different – it was Los Angeles. It was a world away from the UK – and New York! It was amusing that there was a lot of hostility to New York. ‘Let’s Get Rid Of New York’ by The Randoms, for example. And the Yes LA compilation, which was done as an answer to the No New York record. Then the Bags recorded ‘We Don’t Need the English’ so there was a lot of healthy backbiting going on.

And in a way they challenge the orthodoxy that the Sex Pistols were the Year Zero of punk.

JS: Well, they were the Year Zero of British punk, but the first time I heard the sound that would become known as punk was the Ramones, and I thought that first album was just incredible. The Pistols were pretty much the only band that in the UK that weren’t influenced by the Ramones, and the rest were. But the interesting thing here is that the one British group that had the biggest influence on the LA scene was The Damned. Because they were the first proper English punk group to go and play there. People forget how good The Damned were – they were great for about six or nine months. And they played in LA in April 77, and there’s interviews with people saying, "We went to see The Damned, and everyone went home and sped up their songs", which is the effect the Ramones had on the UK.

So this dismissal of California punk – was this just among journalists, or was it among the bands and fans as well?

JS: I don’t think it was even on the radar of most Brits, apart from the journalists. The journalists who could have exposed it didn’t. A lot of journalists aren’t very good, or weren’t very good. As a writer it’s my job to open things up – and I think journalists can be divided into those who want to open things up, and those who want to close things down. And there were a lot of people in 78 who wanted to close things down.

Even under the auspices of punk?

JS: Sure – big style. And that’s why I like Paul Morley, because he always tried to open things up. But then you’ve got people like Ian Penman, who are always trying to close things down.

On the subject of opening things up, or closing things down, I think its interesting that the compilation ends in 1980…

JS: [Laughs] Well, yeah — I don’t like hardcore. It’s too ‘boy’ for me. I was into the idea of punk being made for and by outsiders. And that meant outsiders of every hue, and that meant weird boys, hopeless boys, strong women, and gay men and women. As soon as it starts to get a machismo, and this happened in UK punk, too – I’m out of there.

At the end of the Arena documentary Punk and the Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux says something very similar. And presumably she’s talking about Oi! – are you saying there’s a parallel?

JS: No. I have to be very careful what I say here. There are fascist overtones to Oi, whether or not they were actually fascist or not! I don’t think there were many dodgy overtones to hardcore. It’s just very simple – I’d been hearing that sound since April 76. And I was tired of it, and I wanted to hear something new. That’s what I liked about the LA bands, but within about two or three years, it had changed, and became hardcore, and it just didn’t interest me.

It strikes me though, for those people who weren’t able to be swept along by that first wave of punk, it’s dismissive of something that’s no less interesting to them, or they are no less passionate about.

JS: Yeah, I know – but it’s pop music, come on! [Laughs] I don’t mind being dismissive. I’m not saying it’s shit; I’m just saying I don’t like it. I’ve had this discussion a lot. I’ve had it with Steven Wells, who said: "You’ve completely ignored British punk since 1978, but it was great." And I said: "Fine – go and write your own book." My attitude is not: "This is it." I don’t own punk. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t care. For somebody looking at the history of punk, this is a good start. If they want to go onto hardcore, they can do it. I don’t see a problem. Part of the great thing about music is having the discussion about what’s shit and what’s not, because in the end nobody’s right. But I always say, I’m sorry I was around in 76 liking punk. If I came to punk in 1980 I would have liked that … yeah, right.

I had a feeling that might be the case due to The Middle Class tracks you chose, because for me the title track from their EP is the pick of the bunch, but that doesn’t appear.

JS: Which one is that?

‘Out of Vogue’ – it’s basically the blueprint for hardcore.

JS: Oh, I could have used any of them. I love that record, and ‘Out Of Vogue’ is a great song. And it wasn’t hardcore when it came out. It was just part of a great record.

Well that’s my conspiracy theory dashed.

JS: Noooooo. There’s no conspiracy. I’d admit it if there was. But I saw The Middle Class play — I mean, there’s not many bands with two songs on the comp, but they’re one of them, and the Sleepers, because I think they’re fabulous, too.

And The Germs, of course.

And The Germs, who were also fabulous.

I did raise my eyebrows that you chose ‘Forming’ as the opening track – if I was making a mix tape for someone, I don’t know if that’s the track I’d choose to try and lure them in.

JS: Ha. Start as you mean to go on — with abrasive noise. But Forming was the first LA punk record I heard, and historically it was one of the first to be made. And I really love it. When I went to see Claude Bessy in Barcelona just before he died in 1999. I really liked Claude and I visited him because I knew he was dying. So he put on ‘Forming’ by The Germs very loud and we just sat there headbanging like Beavis and Butthead. Then at the end he said: "Well, you still like the same old shit." I love that song, I won’t hear anything against it. It’s just perfect.

Have you seen The Germs movie?

JS: No. I would like to. I read the Lexicon Devil book, which I thought was really good [Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times And Short Life of Darby Crash And The Germs]. But it’s a fascinating sad story, and from my point of view as a gay man, it’s very interesting to read about the fact that [The Germs singer] Darby Crash was gay, but everyone was very closeted about it. It’s not something you talked about back in the day. I hung out with The Screamers, two of whom were gay, but we never spoke about it, which is kind of weird in retrospect. But that’s the way things were then.

And it could very well have contributed to how Darby went out the way he did. [Crash committed suicide by a drug overdose in December, 1980.]

JS: Well, if you’re completely unhappy about yourself and see no way about being true and honest about yourself, and if you’re in that kind of public position, then it’s pretty bad. And there were a lot of the dark aesthetics in punk rock, and all that ‘live fast die young’ bullshit, so it was very easy to get sucked into that, and then you factor heroin into the equation, then you’ve really got problems. But punk went into the dark side with a certain amount of recklessness, so it’s hardly surprising that people got hurt and died.

There’s a certain amount of irony that Darby is one of the great punk icons, but he couldn’t express himself the way he wanted.

JS: Well, no he couldn’t; I couldn’t; The Screamers couldn’t. I think about it a lot now, but when I spent that day with The Screamers, we were just horrible to each other. Of course, I didn’t mind. I was used to people being horrible to me in that period. People were horrible to each other in punk; it was part of the thing. But The Screamers were horrible, and I was so horrible back that we actually ended up getting on quite well.

In terms of the cultural background of the LA scene, did you see any similarities with UK punk?

JS: In an even more extreme way than in the UK, they really were shut out. They really were outcast, and that gave them a certain freedom in that none of them had record companies telling them what to do. No record company was interested. It was a real outsider culture; a real folk culture, and that was very exciting. I remember interviewing The Dils – they were sharp and funny and interesting, and they had the political thing right down. Then I started asking them: "Well, what are you going to do when you get a record contract? What about when you appear on TV?", and they just looked at me blankly, and I thought: "Oh, they’re not going to get on telly. It’s not like the UK." And in the end, the only group that got a major-label contract of any substance was X, which is pretty amazing when a lot of the Brit groups were on Top of the Pops as soon as they got a single out.

It seems that the main difference between America and Britain is that in the US if you’re an outsider, you’re off the chart completely, whereas it doesn’t take much for underground culture to bleed through to the mainstream in the UK.

JS: Well, yes. At the time, I was writing for Sounds which had a circulation of 150,000 a week. and the NME sold more, and they were read by up to five or six kids each, so you had the capacity to reach up to a million kids a week, which is incredible. So it was very easy for bands to get attention and record contracts, which they all did, But that meant the cycle burned itself out quicker.

They also had a ringleader in a certain Mr McLaren, and there was probably no equivalent to him in the US.

JS: Malcolm was right, in that he was a true impresario, and he realised that punk needed a big stage. And if British punk hadn’t had a big stage, it would have been very different. For all everyone moans about Malcolm – and he did have some unpleasant sides to his character – if you had to point to one person that was the architect of it all, it was Malcolm. That’s not to denigrate any of the musicians, and I’m very glad that the Pistols have been able to present themselves as British archetypes, and make good money from touring in recent years, because its the musicians that always get ripped off.

Like you say, punk burned out more quickly here than in the US. Is that a consequence of it being so tied in with fashion in the UK?

JS: Yes, absolutely. And of course, as everyone understands, punk didn’t go mainstream in the US until Nirvana, who I also adored, and that’s what so exciting about them. I don’t think any rock band has been as powerful as Nirvana since.

Do you see a scenario where bands will make that sort of impact again?

JS: All I can say is I hope so. I’m not a teenager anymore – I’m 57. I don’t listen to, or need, rock music in the same way as I did when I was in my 20s. Rock music is all about generational identification, and I’m simply too old for that now. I don’t need that to construct my identity around, and neither do I like heritage rock – it’s dreary. I like historical archetypes, but that’s different.

In terms of the compilation – and historical archetypes in general – who do you want to hear this music?

JS: Probably to my detriment, I don’t think in marketing terms. I just think: "This shit’s good. People should get the chance to hear The Germs doing ‘Forming’." It’s as simple as that, really. But I’m always pleased when people respond and when young people respond. That’s the idea. Punk was very inspirational to me when I was young, and when you’re young it’s very important to get inspiration. It’s so exciting.

I don’t want to get too fogeyish here, but I find difficult to see where young folk would draw their inspiration from these days.

JS: It seems to me that, it’s not that kids these days don’t have problems, as some of them have quite severe problems. But punk was a product of scarcity and focus. There’s so much material available on the internet, there’s so much stuff out there, so how do you make it mean more than a few people writing something on a blog? How do you concentrate it? How do you bring people together? How do you create scene or something greater than just a few groups or whatever?

And it seems that the download culture has largely devalued music and made it utterly disposable.

JS: Well yes, it is a huge problem. Pop music has become a victim of its own success. When I started writing about pop music, it wasn’t really seen as a very good thing to do. My parents were appalled. But now its a viable career option. When I worked at Sounds, pop was very much in the margins, and we could do whatever we wanted, and we threw together a magazine that nobody upstairs really cared about as long as we made money, and that’s what was great about it. But now everything is niche marketed and strategised. And that’s what I like about the records on the comp. It’s not like a stylist has told the Weirdos what to wear. They’re putting something together. They’ve got things to say, and they’re saying it in a very powerful, concentrated form. And that’s part of what music’s about, certainly if you’re talking about punk rock. State your point clearly; make a big bad noise and fuck off.

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