A Rotten Legacy?
In 1958, as Parisian memories of wartime privation gave way to the joys of “mod cons”—modern conveniences—the Situationist International (SI), the terminal knot in a certain thread of 20th century avant-gardism, announced its founding with a poster that depicted the city as if through a bombsight. The slogan read: “New Theater of Operations Within Culture.”
Not 20 years later, London punk band the Clash would lament the city streets no longer being the field of operations for disaffected white youth in their song “White Riot.” In the seminal punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue, an interviewer suggested to “the very angry Clash”: “That’s the odd thing about the ’70s, in order to change society you must first consume it.” Lipstick Traces, initially published 20 years ago, attempts to explain how the mass-cultural voices of punk rock could be unlike anything anyone had heard before but also share commonalities with prior voices in the wilderness, like the SIs, which aimed to detonate mass culture. According to Greil Marcus, such voices were “negationist,” believing that “nothing is true except our conviction that the world we are asked to accept is false.” Lipstick Traces makes this settling of accounts particularly difficult, however, because the linkages Marcus disinters with one hand he reburies with the other, by insisting that there is more mystery than palpable connection between negationist irruptions over time.
That an English-language collection of SI texts would have landed in Johnny Rotten’s hands as the Sex Pistols began their snide assault on everything good and proper in music, society, and history is too easy an explanation for Marcus. Instead, “Unfulfilled desires transmit themselves across the years in unfathomable ways, and all that remain on the surface are bits of symbolic discourse, deaf to their sources and blind to their objects—but those fragments of language, hidden in the oaths and blasphemies of songs like ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ . . . are a last link to notions that have gone under the ground, into a cultural unconscious.” Fair enough. But with this republication of a book that made waves among both scholars of radical currents and kids with bad haircuts playing in basement bands, the time has come to expand on Lipstick Traces, to uncover the disavowed in a history of disavowals. If Rotten’s bile seemed to emerge from nowhere, it also resonated across the globe, and Marcus’s tale only fleetingly specifies what happened in the 1970s to set the stage for its particular set of unfulfilled desires to demand a hearing.
Lipstick Traces accurately recognizes that punk’s claim to ex nihilo birth was as false as the same claim made by the historical avant-gardes. But the book insists that, much as Marcus obviously loves it, punk rock was “not a musical genre.” Therefore, explaining the lineaments of the punk sound becomes unnecessary, a loss of one key to understanding negationism’s transition from the avant-garde to rock ’n’ roll. In the past two decades, the vinyl aficionadeoisie have documented myriad pre- and proto-punk sounds, as well as the worldwide dispersion, reinterpretation, and refutation of Rotten et al’s cacophony. The new Lipstick Traces includes an appendix updated to reflect many publications in its wake on the avant-garde, but its picture of punk rock remains fixed in time, without the reevaluation enabled by crate-digging and file-sharing. And you wouldn’t know it from the book, but Pistols records were released in dozens of countries, from Turkey to Brazil, Rhodesia to Thailand (plus innumerable samizdat cassettes), all within a couple years of a blank space appearing at the top of the BBC’s charts, which refused to print the name of the best-selling “God Save the Queen” 45.
The initial punk explosion in England was undoubtedly unique, and something was necessarily lost in its translation and diffusion around the world, but much was gained as well. Marcus’s focus on the English punk nucleus may be the reason he finds the story so mysterious. Without the context of the crisis of global capitalism that emerged in the 1970s, and the response of neoliberalism, conjured by Chicago-School market fundamentalists, Reagan, and Thatcher, the book occludes the differences between historical epochs and renders punk’s horizons as relatively coterminous with those of Dada and, for that matter, medieval heretics, thus concocting a negationist porridge that spans centuries. The linkage of the 16th century Dutch radical John of Leyden to Johnny Rotten (né Lydon), entertaining as it is, obfuscates what actually impelled the punk explosion and what it was (and was not). Homophony does not a dialectic of history make.
Marcus is clear that a dyspeptic Marxian critic like Theodor Adorno could never have imagined that by 1977 the radical democratization of pop music inherent to punk rock—one no longer needed “skill” to play in a band and vomit forth a message—would mean that his sort of critiques of mass culture would now be played out in the field of mass culture. But there is a corollary. If neoliberalism were to have a Central Committee with a House Organ, it would be The Economist magazine. Marcus could not have imagined when he first penned the book, which, like the Pistols’ LP, opens with Rotten’s inchoate ranting about the Berlin Wall, that the cover of that magazine’s recent issue celebrating the collapse of the Wall would depict a punk rocker, with leather jacket and spiky hair, astride it. Rotten’s negationism, so strident that it often seemed to outstrip its objects (was Her Majesty really the problem?), had consequences beyond the realm of mass culture that Rotten himself could not have imagined. Punk rock was not—or not only—realized on drab London streets in 1977’s Summer of Hate; instead, for example, on the possibility of Slovenian independence, Slavoj iek recollected, “It’s only through the punk movement that we had a real opposition. Before the punk movement, it was just some narrow literary circles, no?”
To The Economist, that anonymous punk of 1989 may signify the triumph of neoliberalism—doctrines of unfettered capital flows, privatization, and deregulation for the purpose of upward redistribution of wealth and the restoration of capitalist class power, bedizened by nominal respect for diversity—over the backwardness of really existing socialism. But the implication that punk rock, even in its global mutations, aimed, in the end, for freedom in the marketplace is woefully inaccurate. That’s the odd thing.
Is Lipstick Traces itself now part of a “cultural unconscious” shared by The Economist? Despite Marcus’s lucidity on the SI’s anticapitalist demands, he sketches the SI’s punk heirs as mostly boorish and potentially fascistic. Since Lester Bangs trumpeted punk’s misanthropy as “the perfect breeding ground for fascism” in 1979, punk rockers have variously fought and accepted this perception. Punk’s dispersion, cyclically creeping out from the underground and then back, has always entailed homogenizing forces and their opposite. If Marcus had been more attentive to the ways punk rockers resisted the notion that refusing the present state of the world could avoid fascistic atavism, he may have been better positioned to specify why punk rock’s ideas emerged and proliferated when they did. For instance, there is barely a mention of the interplay between punk rock and reggae, which even predated “Never Mind the Bollocks.” And though one learns about the National Front, there is no mention of the response of thousands to it—delinquent punks and rank-and-file socialists, West Indians and Pakistanis—known as the Rock Against Racism campaign (RAR).
Other historians of punk rock argue that the connection between punk and the SI is overblown because almost none of the acne-faced, spiky-haired miscreants would have known Situationist Guy Debord from Charles de Gaulle. Yet this is a misinterpretation of Marcus; he meditates on how it could be that voices spatiotemporally separated could speak one Ursprache. In my own research, however, I have found that some punk rockers in the initial explosion’s wake, motivated against racism, explicitly joined an SI-inspired critique of the enervating mediations inherent to mass culture with the Pistols-inspired, anyone-can-do-it approach to music. Take, for example, London’s first Asian punk band, Alien Kulture, whose self-released 45 appeared with RAR’s imprint. Their bassist, Ausaf Abbas, told me how Debord’s ideas jibed with the subculture he had simultaneously encountered. Rather than passively consuming, participation meant producing a new society: “You take the instruments and you form the bands and you take it back into your clubs and community centers and your local pubs.” For Alien Kulture, those community centers were full of Pakistani kids, at home neither in their parents’ mosques nor in Thatcher’s England, where, she declared, “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” In one song, they turned these words back on her. When playing live, no separation stood between audience and band. All could join on stage to sing the refrain, “We’re gonna swamp her.”
RAR was a network of activists inspired by punk rock, who pushed it to be more than just a musical genre. A “secret history” of the 20th century with RAR at its center, rather than Johnny Rotten, would look radically different. Marcus sees represented in one 1950s anti-artist’s visage Rotten’s lyric “Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it,” without examining how it could explain differences in the praxis of Rotten and his putative forebears. The SI was certain that it knew what it wanted and how to get it—and moreover, that its ideas were already in everyone’s heads—but that certainty is today uncommon, particularly in the face of the protean neoliberal juggernaut. In a different register, unlike Rotten, RAR also knew how to go from A to B in such a formulation.
As inspiring as reading about antinomians of yore is, to quote a certain Karl and Fred, lost in Marcus’s exhilarating story is how “man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Materialist sobriety is infrequent in Lipstick Traces, so that when Marcus quotes Rotten’s words, “We don’t work / I just feed / That’s all I need,” it recapitulates a 1950s Parisian graffito, from a moment of increasing plenitude. Rotten’s actual lyrics were, “I don’t work / I just speed / That’s all I need.” If these words resonated in 1977, it was because of rampant unemployment and nihilism, a penurious everyday life, which Thatcher would soon blame on immigrants swamping the land. The point is not that punk rockers wholly refused work or communitarianism—though, surely, many did—it is that punk rock propounded a range of possibilities, some incoherent, some cogent, founded in a specific moment of global capitalist restructuring that differed from what the historical avant-gardes faced. The republication of this eye-opening book demands anew a strict accounting of what those conditions were; why opposition to all that mass culture entailed would now perforce employ it; and how punk rock’s engagement with those conditions, conducing perhaps even to the fall of the Wall, did not prevent the globe from reaching its current predicament. If Johnny Rotten’s know-nothing approach to winning the world has drowned out RAR’s, we must confront the consequences of this historiography.
Stuart Schrader is a PhD student in the Program in American Studies at NYU. He edits the online music magazine shit-fi.com.