Britain’s Dreaming: Jon Savage on the future of youth
We speak to the author of Teenage: The Creation of Youth, England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and 1966 about subcultures, politics and counterculture.
Predictions for a post-pandemic future are all over the shop. Will the nine-to-five resume? Four-day weekends? Four-day benders? Something great could be on the horizon.
The Spanish Flu welcomed the Roaring Twenties, Thatcher’s ’80s brought acid house. Grime hastened the death of skinny jeans – sort of. But however the political pendulum swings over time, it’s always youth at the helm. The movers, the shakers, the pissed off.
“Whatever the problems are in the world, young people – if they’ve got any spirit and they’re not prepared to just go along with things – will have a pretty good idea of what’s wrong,” says Jon Savage over a Zoom call, “because they are entering a world made by adults.”
Over the past 40 years, Savage has gone from revered ’70s/early ’80s NME/Sounds and FACE journalist to one of Britain’s most trusted cultural historians. He was at the centre of punk in the ’70s, publishing on-the-ground reports for the weekly music press (the “inkies”) and his self-published fanzine, London’s Outrage. The latter was the purest recording of a subcultural explosion, made on a photocopier at an office where Savage was working, and catching the energetic highs of a febrile youth explosion – moments like Shane MacGowan’s ear-biting incident at a Clash gig in 1976.
After moving on to write for THE FACE in 1980, Savage’s cultural curiosity had him attend a New York vogue ball with Malcolm McLaren, commentate on the rise and fall of Britpop and, over the past 20 years, write three of the most significant, cohesive books on youth culture.
Teenage: The Creation of Youth, 1875 – 1945, England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded do everything their titles promise, dissecting the super highs and tragic lows of 150 years of youth culture around the world.
Now all three are being reissued next month with updated introductions from Savage, Jeremy Deller and Scott King, THE FACE sat down with the author to pick his brains on what a year locked-up might portend for the kids of tomorrow.
The short answer: don’t expect it to be anything like the ’70s. “It’s not going to be like punk, and I don’t want punk to return,” the 67-year-old, Anglesey-based pop historian says firmly. “Punk is historical. Punk is 45 years old.”
Hello, Jon. This generation of youth have been locked up for a year during the pandemic. What do you think might happen post-pandemic?
I should qualify [my answer] by saying that I’m 67 and I live on an island, off an island. I’ve written a lot about youth culture, but I’m now observing it from afar.
That’s alright. A lot of adults bang on about youth culture being inauthentic these days, perhaps because of the massive influence nostalgia has had on our generation – particularly in fashion. What do you make of that?
People say all sorts of silly stuff about young people. Each generation has its own task in its own time and its own particular set of circumstances. To call today’s teenagers or twentysomethings inauthentic because they like old stuff is just nonsense. What I’ve observed is that young people take the bits they want.
How has that changed since you were a teenager?
Compared to how it was when I was growing up, when you really had to fight hard to find out about anything, when records were deleted and you couldn’t find them except when you went hunting in the bargain bins… It’s fantastic that all of this stuff is available now. All I wanted when I was young was information, and then I could go ahead and do what I wanted with it.
Do you think too much information, and the accessibility of it, is a bad thing?
It can be problematic, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing. When I was 16, I used to haunt second-hand bookshops and record stores in grubby parts of London – there was one in Soho that was mega sleazy – hunting for something that might spark something. You see, punk was a product of focus. It was like going through a chicane where everything was narrowed down to points so that when it came out, it was even more powerful, focused and easy to grasp.
Now I sometimes wonder – and I’m really throwing this to you, because it’s not my experience – but I would surmise that the sheer weight of information is sometimes quite daunting.
For sure. It can often feel like you don’t know enough because of all the information on the internet. That can be incredibly daunting.
Well, that’s also the impact of social media, which is one of the great dissolvers of how things used to be. That’s something I don’t understand, because I’m simply several generations removed from the idea of popularity contests. I was never interested in popularity, not because I didn’t want to be popular – everybody does. But I was always very independent and went my own way. When I started my deeper interests in pop culture in the late ’60s, that was not approved of. Absolutely not.
Is nostalgia all a bit of a fallacy? I was watching a documentary the other day where Vivienne Westwood looked at the camera and said punk was nothing like what people thought it was – that it came up and fizzled very quickly as it became mainstream.
Westwood was right, it did become commercialised and obsolescent very quickly.
Do you, then, think nostalgia, and becoming mainstream, contributes to the death of youth subcultures? It seems as though we’re aspiring towards something that didn’t even exist.
Oh, that’s a good question. Youth culture is changing considerably, and I think for deeper reasons than a whole load of crap television programmes like I Love the 1980s, to be honest.
It’s all a romanticised view, it seems…
One of the ways I got around that in England’s Dreaming was by talking to a lot of people. I was lucky that I was researching and writing in ’88/’89/’90 – punk wasn’t a big deal – and that nostalgist mindset hadn’t hardened. People’s responses were quite fresh. A lot of people were almost surprised that I was talking to them about punk because it was at the bottom of the cycle and nobody thought it was interesting at that moment. When I did a documentary for Arena about Brian Epstein – that was in the mid-to-late ’90s – we encountered the Beatles nostalgia syndrome, and that’s really fierce.
What did you find?
Everybody has their own little stories that they trot out at the Beatles conventions and it used to drive us mad. At one point, the director went mad with all of the interviews and said: “I don’t want to hear this fucking crap, tell us what really happened!” I suppose the thing is to have some kind of depth and to try to reflect, at least in part accurately, what happened – or whether you’re just happy to be middlebrow, which is a very lucrative and a burgeoning area.
And then you have people saying nostalgia isn’t cool because it isn’t starting anything new.
What’s happened is that pop was modernist. You’re dealing with proper art movements here, and the life cycle of art. Pop was properly modernist in the ’50s and ’60s and started to become postmodern in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Bowie and Roxy [Music], for instance, were very postmodern. And so that means taking references from different times and stealing from different kinds of cultures – that’s been going on for nearly 50 years.
So with young people having access to all this material from the past, people put things together in a different way that reflect their time. I have no worries about that at all. It’s just recombining things in a different way, and with a different perspective. People see things differently now.
Counterculture is often a reaction against politics. It’s been a particularly difficult time for the young under Tory rule over the past 10 years, hasn’t it?
Well, politics as far as I can see for young people during the past 10 years has been diabolical. The big problem is – and I hint at this in my Teenage introduction – since 1945 we’ve been living in a post-Second World War reconstruction, dominated by America and the idea of the teenager, which is the young Democratic consumer. In the 1966 book, [I write about] adults finally beginning to understand what was going on right underneath their noses. Pop culture was something much more complicated and, to them, threatening.
How is that changing now?
It’s been over 75 years since the end of the Second World War, and the idea of the Democratic consumer is under attack. We’ve all participated in it, and indeed benefited from it. Certainly as a gay man, I’ve benefited from democratisation. But now our rulers have decided they don’t really need democracy anymore. Also, the whole idea of consumerism is problematic because of climate change.
My interest in this now looks at teenage superstar Greta Thunberg. There’s going to be a huge shift, I think, in the next 25 years, away from the idea of youth as consumers, and into something else. Ultimately, the way we live is not sustainable, and that’s got to be something for your generation or people younger than you to grapple with.
Is that something your peer group is doing?
I’d like to think we’re the most sustainably-minded generation yet, making conscious efforts in any which way we can to reverse climate change, somehow.
That’s good to know!
Do you think the death of the democratic consumer will lead to a death in subcultures? A lot of people already say subcultures no longer exist, I guess because they aren’t as glaringly obvious as they once were.
Are there still goths, punks…?
Yeah, but around 10 or 15 years ago, you’d see all sorts of subcultures down your local high street. Skaters, ravers, goths, punks… I suppose it’s more diluted now, a little harder to find.
What happened in the ’80s is you had the subcultures pitted against each other. So there was a whole tradition of subcultural theory – deviant theory – starting with the mods and rockers and then skinheads and the hippies and the punks and the teds of the various extravagantly costumed youth cultures being pitted against each other. I don’t see that happening now.
What are your post-pandemic predictions, especially for youth?
Well, the only parallel is what happened after the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919. After that, you had the ’20s, which was mad partying. There’s going to be a lot of mad partying. That’s what you want to do when you’re that age – you want to meet your peers, you want to be with your peers. You don’t want to be with your parents. You want to find your place in the world and in your peer culture, and that involves going and meeting a lot of people at various points. I did it a bit when I was 18, 19. I did a lot when I was 20 to 22, and then a lot during the punk period when I was 23, 24.
So, we could really be on the brink of a real youth explosion?
Yes. The Tories do nothing for us. The Tories actually have nothing for anybody unless you’re very rich and very greedy. They don’t like art, they don’t like music, they don’t like culture. It’s a really sterile vision. If you’re young, it must be intensely frustrating, so just go and do it – whatever it is. A lot of young people will always do that.
In the punk period, people made something out of nothing – absolutely fucking nothing. And that might be one of the ways in which it’s relevant now: people doing things for themselves.
It could be art, music, fashion…
And I guess you’ll be on the ground to record it, won’t you?
I bloody well hope so! That’s the job of THE FACE, same as it was in your day at the magazine, eh?
People are always going to want to express themselves. If they can’t express themselves through traditional means – and if there is a repressive atmosphere – then people are damn well going to express themselves, so watch out. It’s going to be interesting. There’s going to be a lot of frustration and anger which will be unleashed – provided we don’t go into endless and endless series of lockdowns.
Thanks, Jon. Readers, hope you’ve been reading and listening carefully…
Teenage: The Creation of Youth, 1875 – 1945, England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded are published by Faber and released 3rd June 2021.