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Review By Miné Salkin

Illustration by Lindsey Hampton
Illustration by Lindsey Hampton
Jon Savage’s The England’s Dreaming Tapes is the quintessential literary companion for any punk devotee or music zealot prepared to venture into the filth and fury of this genre’s seminal history. The book contains hundreds of hours of interviews that Savage conducted while researching his 1991 book, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond—which has been heralded worldwide as the definitive history of the U.K. punk revolution.

This collection of manuscripts includes interviews with all four original members of the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer of the Clash, Captain Sensible of the Damned, Adam Ant, Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks and Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie & the Banshees, to name a few.

In his introduction, Savage points out that the interviews were taped in the late ’80s, a time when punk was only a decade old, and so “untainted by layers of myth and historiography.” At times the manuscript really drives this home, especially in his interview with Glen Matlock. The Sex Pistols’ bassist recalls first hearing the fast sound of the Ramones, but insists they never tried to follow suit. “That was the difference between us and the other punk bands,” he said. “‘Anarchy’ is strident, but because we weren’t rushing through it, it gives it more power.” Full of pithy, honest one-liners and moments of sober sincerity, the book is riddled with personal confessions and reflections of a time that was incendiary.

John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, was arguably the voice of his generation. The thin, sinewy, yet strangely baby-faced lyricist and frontman of the Sex Pistols publicly denounced authority, insulted the Queen and sang about cunnilingus to a young population bent on killing off the conservative sensibilities strongholding modern society. As he grew increasingly controversial in his old age, Rotten became something of a caricature of his former self, but in this interview he’s immortalized in the way we’d all like to remember him.

Savage notes in the interview’s preface that it took nearly a year of negotiations with Rotten’s agent before a meeting time was established. Sure to find his interview subject stubborn and tight-lipped, Savage’s cool, relatable conversation style opened up even the most difficult and narcissistic of punk characters. Borderline therapeutic in its delivery, Rotten admits the creative difficulties he shared with Matlock. “He wanted that kind of innocence, and I’m sorry, I was completely the other way,” Rotten said. “I saw the Sex Pistols as something completely guilt-ridden. You know, the kids want misery, they want death. They want threatening noises, because that shakes you out of your apathy.”

The boys and girls of the punk generation have grown up; Savage’s 750-plus page book would fit nicely in their backpacks, purses or fancy attachées. England’s Dreaming Tapes is the kind of literary gift that truly reveals not only the music that typified and fuelled a generation of rebels and social dissidents, but also sheds light on the politics, fashion and counter-culture attitude of this time in music history.