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Poison In The Machine
John Scanlan
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Published January 2017


This will appeal to the academics. Poison in the Machine dares to be different. Why? It is not another regurgitation of the history of the Pistols. It aims to place the reader back in the 1960's & 70's and explore the Sex Pistols phenomenon as it was experienced in the era that spawned it; one of scant information, sparse news outlets and very little access to the music. It reminds the reader how different the world of today is, where Pistols' footage, audio and even the Grundy show can be accessed in an instant on the internet. Back in the day, if you didn't see it yourself, you didn't see it. Importantly, the book helps define how the myth, controversy and enigma of the Sex Pistols was given oxygen by, ironically, this very vacuum.

It is also the story of how Malcolm McLaren viewed the world, and his wish to portray the Sex Pistols as an art project - an extension of himself. This is where the book comes into its own as he wrestles to control the Sex Pistols, a band with little interest in Malcolm's artistic and political agendas. Almost as soon as the notoriety came, he would struggle to exert influence over his 'project' as the band, and Johnny Rotten in particular, grew in stature and influence.

Never was this more apparent than McLaren's obsession with making a Sex Pistols film, bringing him into direct conflict with John. It became more important to McLaren than the music - not surprising as he had no input into the real strength of the Sex Pistols, the ability to make great records. By the time he was telling the LA Times in July 1977 that the Pistols were a "social event", the gap between his vision and that of the band's was widening, soon to become a chasm into which they would all fall in January 1978. Yet, despite the wreckage, McLaren still pursued his obsession and thus The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle was forced into existence.

Beginning with McLaren encountering The Rolling Stones on Chelsea Bridge in 1964, the story criss-crosses the Atlantic as he flirts with, and formulates, his increasingly complex and outlandish ideas. You know the story: New York Dolls, Richard Hell, King's Road and so on; a sequence of events that, for the purpose of Poison in the Machine, ultimately presented itself at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

Worthy of a place on a university bookshelf, it's chiefly of interest to those wishing to delve into the psyche of one the most enigmatic and perplexing mavericks to emerge in late 20th Century culture. Whatever your view of the man, present day 21st Century culture would be poorer without Malcolm McLaren.

Review by Phil Singleton (January 2017)

Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-80

Toby Mott, Rick Poynor
Publisher: Phaidon Paperback £19.95
Published October 2016

It's going to take something worthy of your attention to warrant a review in the current climate of endless punk retrospectives. Here we have a vast (450 illustrations) random visual mix of flyers, press adverts, fanzine covers and posters covering a five year period, all collected by Toby Mott. There are plenty of Pistols items with the odd rarity, but when it strays away from the more well known, the book comes into its own.

The images are printed in colour and black and white, dependant upon the original, and presented in their battered, time faded glory. In presentation terms, it's not a flash high end affair - it has the feel of a 'zine in many ways, free of pretence and full of enthusiasm. The scatter gun approach to the contents give the book a sense of urgency as punk graphics explode all around reflecting the thrill of the times with band after band, fanzine after fanzine, appearing with varying degrees of visual success (the records are secondary here).

To list all the bands and material covered would be pointless, pretty much everyone gets a look in. On first glance I was grabbed by a few pieces I'd never seen before, such as Vibrators/Slits Leeds Poly flyer, rejected Only Ones' Lovers of Today artwork, X-Ray Spex Man in the Moon flyer, Generation X Marquee flyer, Clash / Richard Hell Coventry poster, Damned/Dead Boys Liverpool poster, Buzzcocks / Slits Hanley poster, and how about a flyer for an Adam & the Ants gig, supported by Human League, Members, UK Subs & The Pack, tickets £1.50. There's some flyers for Eric's in Liverpool as well. On & on it goes.

Oh So Pretty gives vast coverage to the fanzine scene inspired by punk. Raw Power, Sunday Mirra, Sideburns, Panache, White Stuff, In The City, Ripped & Torn, New Wave Magazine, Temporary Hording are just a taster. The downside; it leaves you wanting more than just the covers.

Like any personal collection of ephemera, it's unique, and a political passion ensures a strong showing for Anti-Nazi League gig flyers and related cuttings. To set the visuals in historical context, a portrait of Maggie is here, as is a Silver Jubilee carrier bag! I confess, I don't see the need for these, but with a 500+ page count, a spot of self-indulgence is allowed.

A very punk rock book, energetic and fun, with some politics thrown in. It doesn't disappoint.

Review by Phil Singleton (October 2016)

God Save Sex Pistols
Johan Kugelberg with Jon Savage & Glenn Terry
Publisher: Rizzoli. Hardback
Published 11th October 2016

A heavy-weight book in every sense. From the contents to the quality of production, it's a work of beauty. God Save Sex Pistols is intended as a visual companion to the three most important, non-autobiographical, Pistols books: Fred and Judy Vermorel's biography Sex Pistols The Inside Story, Ray Stevenson's Sex Pistols File, and Jon Savage's England's Dreaming. This may be some lofty claim if it wasn't so true.

From the moment you peak beneath the hard back cover, you realise you have in your hands one of the most important Sex Pistols books ever. It took my breath away. The narrative follows a 'day-by-day' format. Yes, it's been done before in various guises, but here events and key moments are augmented by quotes - some lengthy - by people involved including the Sex Pistols. It's made clear the interview material comes from the late 1980's when memories were less distant and distorted. This 'in their own words' style removes the need for yet more tiresome revisionist opinion and includes some hitherto unheard viewpoints. While this drives the story, it's the visual material that takes it to another level and beyond.

I'm not just talking memorabilia either, I'm talking bonafide documentation and unpublished pictures, the likes of which you've never seen before. Presented on quality glossy paper, the wealth of new treasure is so vast it's hard to know where to begin. I'll jump in with some totally random, never seen before eye-grabbers: The Swankers in rehearsal, Lesser Free Trade Hall live pictures (yes, unseen!), 1976 posters, defaced photos from the Glitterbest office, EMI and A&M sacking documents, Glen's signed termination, Virgin's marketing plan for God Save The Queen, unused promotional designs, NMTB Wessex Sound session sheet, announcement of the Scandinavian tour, hand written lyrics, sales figures, and even a letter from the Gas Board to shut off the gas and electricity in the Pistols' Denmark Street rehearsal room in June 1979. A fitting place to conclude. Oh, and if you want to know how obscure it gets, how about a memo concerning the number of black picture sleeves for Anarchy. Brilliant. This is just a tiny, tiny fraction of what's in store for the reader.

The visuals are often revealing. Reproductions of letters provide an illuminating insight into the evolving world of McLaren. Granada TV's Tony Wilson put his frustrations with McLaren into writing for his refusal to let the Pistols appear for a second time on So It Goes; Tony's letter cutting right through McLaren's crap in the process. A spat between McLaren and Richard Branson over the release of Never Mind The Bollocks is exposed in a fractious written exchange between the pair. It's absorbing stuff, not just for fans, but rock historians too.

As one would expect, Jamie Reid's visuals are well represented throughout, including early 70s work later revamped into Pistols imagery. The reproduction of source materials alongside their Sex Pistols counterparts is a nice touch, especially the 1959 Picturegoer magazine, now better known as Fuck Forever. Equally satisfying is the Belgium Travel holiday brochure Jamie utilised for Holidays In The Sun, and the subsequent injunction letter! Like its "companion" England's Dreaming, this mighty piece of work concludes in early 1979.

Putting John, Glen and Steve's autobiographies in a separate category all of their own, God Save Sex Pistols earns its place instantly as one of the four most important Sex Pistols books ever. It will explode your knowledge. I feared the 40th anniversary of punk would be one great re-hash of the old. I was so wrong.

I've not been this excited by a Sex Pistols book since.... well, maybe ever.

Review by Phil Singleton (5 October 2016)

This book is an unofficial release and is not sanctioned by Sex Pistols / Sex Pistols Residuals or John Lydon.

Anarchy In The Year Zero. The Sex Pistols, The Clash & the Class of '76
Clinton Heylin

Publisher: Route. 336 pages + 16 pages of colour photos. Hardback £19.99
Published 4th June 2016

Another punk anniversary year. They come around increasingly fast, as do books & documentaries ad infinitum, wrapped up in the same old anecdotes which seem to mutate into a different perspective every time they get trotted out.

Guess what? I like this book. It is excellent, sharp, and lays its agenda bare from the off. Heylin sets out to avoid those mutated memories and chooses to cherry pick the ones which not merely serve a purpose, but unashamedly illustrate the true impact of the formation of punk in the UK. It's anti-revisionist. It also does not seek to court favour; those guilty of changing views over time into a falsehood are exposed, with evidence. Eh, Peter Hook?

It's a story that's been told before, none better than in England's Dreaming, but such is the passage of time - 25 years - since Jon Savage's esteemed publication, the degree of 'new' insight into the period that has since emerged makes Anarchy In The Year Zero worthwhile. From December '76, the archives explode in the wake of the Bill Grundy show. The 12 or so months prior do not afford such a luxury. This is the period Heylin takes to task. And let's not overlook the uncomfortable truth that come the 50th anniversary, memories will have faded further, & the number of available memories to pick through will have reduced.

That's the 'why' dealt with, but how about a new angle? Well, Heylin is insistent & persistent in ensuring we come away convinced of the greatness of the Pistols as a live act during 1976. He makes sure the Cook, Jones, Matlock, & Rotten Sex Pistols are lauded as the fabulous live rock & roll band they actually were. Outrage on its own is not enough, it leaves no legacy, & Heylin is right to push his point, one that he backs-up with ample evidence from the recordings in circulation. He takes us through the months and around the country, gathering recollections from those in attendance, and taking to task tales that prove misleading & downright untrue. Heylin pulls no punches on this front - no matter what the story teller perceives their own standing to be - such is his determination in his mission to trash the later, McLaren-esque, view that they couldn't play. As for the development of the Sex Pistols themselves, no sides are taken, credit unfolds by way of corroborated facts.

The short & long term impact on scattered pockets of startled youths as the Pistols rolled into all manner of venues and towns across the country is given life by priceless eye-witness accounts. The Pistols' look, attitude and yes, ability, leaving many seeking a new path. This takes the story into new territories as suburban tales are exhumed throughout those towns & cities affected; any band worth its salt resulting from the Pistols nationwide venturing gets covered: The Mekons, The Prefects & so on. In other words, not just the obvious. Back in the capital, the emerging inter-related nature of the London scene and its embryonic bands is brought into focus, throwing fresh light on the birth of The Clash in particular, with an emphasis on the musical dynamics, peering through the latter-day myths surrounding them with particular examination, as with the Pistols, of their live shows.

Shaped by an array of input, both new and historic from a vast number of individuals and sources, Heylin guides us through the birth of punk as it evolved; situations, events and individuals interacting and creating something life changing and remarkable along the way. He leaves you wondering how it was possible for so much to have taken place in 'year zero'. Leaving the over-intellectualising at the door, Anarchy In The Year Zero provides a welcome, much needed balance. And does so at a lively, digestible pace, with a welcome humorous air blowing through making it all the more enjoyable, oh & readable. Call it a refreshing refresher.

There will be 40th anniversary publications a-plenty appearing over the coming months. Heylin has set the bar high.

Review by Phil Singleton (April 2016)


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