Ideas: Never mind the cave paintings, here’s the Sex Pistols
25 November 2011
Is the graffiti left by the 1970’s punk band in London as worthy of humanity as prehistoric cave art? A British archeologist believes so, seeing on these walls the end of faith in "human progress" initiated by our ancestors.
In the past couple of years I've been tramping the streets of London's West End searching out sites associated with the history of pop music. These range from the alley at the back of the Savoy where Bob Dylan filmed Subterranean Homesick Blues to the club in Mason's Yard where Jimi Hendrix played for the first time in the UK.
I had known of the Sex Pistols' association with 6 Denmark Street for a while, but a chance remark on a radio programme led to the discovery that the Pistols, and in particular Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) had left a substantial body of graffiti there and that, surprisingly, it had survived. The findings are described in the latest volume of the academic journal Antiquity, published earlier this week.
The graffiti that fellow archaeologist John Schofield (of the University of York) and I recorded in an upper room at the back of a vintage guitar shop include both accomplished caricatures of Malcolm McLaren, Nancy Spungen and John Ritchie (aka Sid Vicious) and other items that record the use of the building by 4" be 2" (a band formed by Lydon's brother Jimmy).
But the importance of the site goes beyond the eye-catching graffiti. Since their encounter with Bill Grundy in December 1976, a huge mythology has grown around the Pistols, not least that they were the "band who couldn't play".
Yet the graffiti is a by-product of the fact that the band rehearsed here for about two years, and made recordings with their first producer Dave Goodman, that appeared as both the infamous Spunk bootleg, and as several of their single B sides: recordings that show quite clearly that they were, in fact, a pretty accomplished rock band.
Is the former silversmiths workshop at the rear of 6 Denmark Street as significant as the cave of Lascaux? Having visited both I would say that each inspires a certain frisson, a feeling of visceral connection with past events.
Although the comparison makes a good headline, I would be unwilling to judge which site is more important. More important to whom? Are events that occurred thousands of years ago automatically more important than what happened yesterday? And how do we decide?
The "art" of Lascaux is often held up as evidence of the progressive development of "modern" humans. But punk, and the Sex Pistols in particular, represent a pivotal time in which this faith in human progress began to falter. In which the inevitable march of humanity into a bright future was replaced by the suspicion that there was "no future".
In a time when this latter view has considerable currency, the place where Lydon et al formulated their nihilistic, and perhaps prophetic, world view could well be regarded as of considerable significance to us all.