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Punk Years, Ray Stevenson "VACANT"

Pretty Vacant “The Punk Years, 1976-79.”

I’ve been reading “VACANT,” which is book of stunning photographs and blunt commentary by Londoners Nils and Ray Stevenson. Nils managed the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and his brother had photographed David Bowie and Marc Bolan in the early days. The time frame is particularly interesting to me, as I was in New York City in the mid-seventies on a number of occasions, watching bands, and also London in 1977 and 1980.

The book starts with fascinating English history, culture, and fashion tidbits about the scene that laid the groundwork for the punk explosion. Though he was relatively unknown to the general public, Stevenson mentions flying kites on Parliament Hill with Yoko Ono, watching a jam session with ex-Beatles and Stones members, and encountering various well-known figures. He saw Iggy Pop play a London club in 1972 and get dragged off the stage with a mike cord by a fan.  I saw the same thing in 1980 at the Music Machine in North London, when somehow the cord was wrapped around Iggy’s throat, and a fan was pulling him off the stage.

Like so many people in the music industry, Stevenson attended art school at a place called Barnet, where he was eventually expelled.  The burning question at the time: “what was art?” At the same time Stevenson was agonizing over the meaning of art, and clashing with professors, one of the most important punk figures of all, Malcolm McLaren, was attending Goldsmith’s Art College in London. He became involved in an organization called “King Mob,” England’s answer to the Situationists International (SI), an anarchist left wing group founded in 1957. SI claimed to speak for the working man, and its ideas dominated the French intellectual scene and radical Parisian politics that fueled the riots of 1968.

The British offshoot of SI got their name from the Gordon Rioters of 1780, who scrawled “His Majesty’s King Mob” on the walls of Newgate Prison and rampaged through London opening prisons and releasing the inmates. Funny how you don’t read much about that in English history books! The year is right around the American and French Revolutions, and not surprisingly, there was unrest in England.

SI was dedicated to the proletariat. The slogan for the group was “metro-boulot-TV-dodo,” or “subway-work-TV-sleep,” describing the life of the working class. SI said life was orchestrated at every turn and had become the “Society of the Spectacle,” and their job was awaken people and break down the illusions around them.

In 1965, the young Malcolm Edwards (later Malcolm McLaren) was drawn to the King Mob. The group was expelled by the Paris SI because they favored youth culture and delinquents like Teddy Boys and the “Ton-Up Kids” (bikers who aimed to reach 100 mph, or up to a ‘ton.’) They also loved certain tawdry aspects of American culture that the French disdained, something the lofty and superior French could not handle. So the King Mob moved on with their wild ways.

Their most dramatic event was dressing 25 people as Santa Claus in 1968, going to Selfridges Dept Store, and giving toys away to kids. They produced flyers praising Valerie Solana’s shooting of Andy Warhol, and had a hit list of artists such as Yoko Ono, Mary Quant, and Twiggy. In addition, they lauded terrorist groups like the Red Brigade and the Angry Brigade (a London organization that had bombed a department store). They published a magazine called “King Mob Echo,” which praised people like Jack the Ripper and child-killer Mary Bell, and were dedicated to disrupting society.

In his next move, McLaren said he wanted to create a fake new group that was supposed to be great, but was in fact, terrible. But the irony was that the band he created, The Sex Pistols, turned out to be quite good. Their driving rock and roll stands the test of time, matching anything by the Clash or the Ramones, and was no more or less complex than early Sun Records, actually.

In Philip Norman’s biography of Elton John, he thought the Sex Pistols had no talent, period. But they were perfect for the time and age, and quite a few musicians had a lot of respect for their songwriting and performance skills.

Stevenson’s harrowing description of his times with bands often involved massive amounts of sex, drugs and trouble with the police, occurring in sleazy dives and the mansions of the rich and famous. One piece of trivia was that Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers wore ties because they made excellent tourniquets, so now you know.

The story of the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees traveling to France is interesting, apparently her pert exposed breasts and swastika on her t-shirt did not charm the French, and the concerts there were marked by arrests and violence. Throughout the account are stories of constant multiple arrests by the police, from the famous Sex Pistols party on a barge on the Thames incident to Siouxsie and the Banshees being jailed outside the Rainbow Theatre. Indeed, when I was there it was hard to find out when the Sex Pistols were playing, it was kind of secret, and it was “S.P.O.T.” or Sex Pistols On Tour, for those in the know.

In the beginning, Stevenson mentions working near the notorious shop called SEX, located on King’s Road in London, in an enclave of stores called the World’s End. The owner was now Malcolm McLaren, and with his girlfriend Vivian, they became leaders in the ragged and offensive fashions exploding at the time.

Helping to fuel the London art and fashion scene was the New York City scene, and Stevenson relates friends coming back with the latest leather goods after trolling the S & M clubs and taking in the more serious and hardcore images and styles there.

McLaren ultimately formed The Sex Pistols, inspired by his involvement with King Mob and his earlier promise to create an anti-super group. His shop SEX was the equivalent of the Factory in New York City, on a smaller level, but the same radical mix of punk fashions and music and attitude were the same.

In addition, records arriving from the The Ramones, The Velvet Underground, Iggy and The Stooges, and other American groups fueled the English scene, setting the stage for the violent and crazed summer of 1977.  The New York Dolls were very influential at the time, plus Richard Hell and Voidoids, and Patty Smith.

Stevenson and the others were hanging around the Roebuck, a pub that was the “local” for Led Zeppelin’s World’s End offices, not to mention Blackhill Enterprises, which was the corporation name of Pink Floyd.

King’s Road had been the epicenter of London fashion since the Sixties and earlier, with numerous shops that catered to London superstars.

“Granny Takes A Trip” was a very important store, with clients like the Faces, The Rolling Stones, and Elton John on their list, and Alkasura and Mr. Freedom, where Marc Bolan and Gary Glitter often shopped. Another place Stevenson and the others hung out was the Chelsea Drug Store, made famous by the Stones in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I remember how powerful it was to be in downtown London, Soho in particular, you just knew that every pavement and building around there had been saturated with the vibes of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, and countless others.

Once Stevenson mentions taking a band into Olympic Studios, famed recording facility of Beatles, Zeppelin, and other bands. He said he glumly realized the Zeppelin drum sound came from the drummer, not the studio. I guess the hatred of Led Zeppelin did not extend to their drum sound.

In 1974, he describes going to Ringo Starr’s New Year’s party to welcome in 1975. His girlfriend at the time was Marc Bolan’s ex, June Child, and she had been invited through that relationship. They rode down there in June’s Ferrari Daytona, chopping out the coke, and arrived at Starr’s house in a suburb called Virginia Water, where Elton John also lived. The first person they saw was Keith Richards passed out on the stairway, and Anita Pallenberg just stepping over him.

Cilla Black was there, and she took great offense at Stevenson’s T-shirt from SEX, which had soft porn pictures under gelatin. It may have been the famous one Stevenson spoke of, with a photo of a naked young boy smoking a cigarette, the image implying he’d just had sex. I was not sure which picture was on his T-shirt, but it was very offensive to the guests. His girlfriend was embarrassed by the T-shirt also, he said he scarcely saw her that night.

Nils describes the jam session: at midnight the stars gathered to play in Ringo’s little studio, but Keith Richard’s guitar strap kept coming undone as he swayed and struggled to keep hold of it,  and Ronnie Wood was getting distracted trying to put it back on. Kiki Dee sang some inane lyrics, Eric Clapton tried to keep a choppy rhythm going, and Elton bashed away at some twelve-bar blues on the piano.

Stevenson was bored, the people were in their “thirties” and neither “glamorous or talented.”  He commented on the music as “not only farcical, but the worst racket I’d ever heard.”   This is kind of funny, he is managing some of the noisiest and most anarchistic racket-creating bands of all time, and to be so critical of superstars jamming in their home, ones that also had talent according tens of millions people around the world.

One part I found of interest in the book was how the term “Teddy Boys” came about. Any student of British history in the 1950’s and 60’s would know the it, the Beatles used their fashion ideas when in their teens, as did many British youth. It started when Dicky Buckles, an flamboyant ex-Scot’s guard and “aesthete,” tried to bring back the Edwardian fashions, dressing in long, tight waisted jackets, tight trousers, and flamboyant waistcoats. Some favored black velvet collars, which supposedly signified the death of the French aristocracy in the French Revolution. He was a lover of “rough trade,” and a gay element threads through this book on various levels.

Ironically, this decadent and flowery style of dress was seized on by some working class kids, and bastardized and changed in the 1950’s, and got its name when the tabloids condensed Edwardian to “Teddy Boys.” Stevenson says within this environment the seeds of all that followed in the 1960’s and 70’s were created, as rebellion with the artful use of clothes exploded in the streets.

I read in a couple of Zeppelin books of how Jimmy Page would go and watch groups like the Damned and The Clash furtively, leaving as soon as he was recognized. He stood up for punk, as did Elton John, even though Johnny Rotten (I think it was him) said that he did not have to hear a Led Zeppelin record to vomit, only see the cover. Billy Idol was roundly criticized by Pete Townsend, who later apologized, and put him their live Quadrophenia movie, where he did a great job.

By the end of 1975, Stevenson was in a lull, sales were terrible at his clothes stall, and his girlfriend caught him messing around with Miss Cincerella, a notorious LA groupie and wife of John Cale, founder of the Velvet Underground.

In January 1976  Stevenson describes being picked up by McLaren and his girlfriend (who had Chrissie Hynde) with them to go to what McLaren called “his new Bay City Rollers.” Stevenson was thinking it would be dull, but when he showed up at the Marquee, there were the Sex Pistols in all their rancid glory.  Rotten was smashing mikes and cursing and spitting on the audience, and Stevenson was blown away.  A footnote:  McLaren rented the same practice space Badfinger used in London for Sex Pistols rehearsals.

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