Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Lipstick Traces": Were The Sex Pistols As Important As The Beatles?

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus. 497 pp. Harvard University Press. $24.95 (paperback)

Were the Sex Pistols, the English punk band that sang that the Queen “ain’t no human being” and there’s “no future” in England, as important as the Beatles or Elvis? According to Greil Marcus (whose “Like a Rolling Stone” was reviewed here) they were. He views them in "Lipstick Traces" as among those “appealing and disturbing” performers “who “raise the possibility of living in a new way.”

While ranking the Sex Pistols among two major rock icons is a dubious notion, Marcus goes beyond music in making a case for the band’s importance. He views them as inheritors of rebellious 20th century cultural and political movements, specifically the Dadaists and the French Lettrists and Situationists (the former gave rise to the latter). It’s not that the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious were well versed in these movements; Marcus contends that the two punk rockers absorbed their influence as part of the century’s cultural climate, its “secret history.”

What the Sex Pistols shared, in this view, was a sense of negation toward Western civilization, a nihilistic rebellion: “[Johnny Rotten’s] aim was to make the world doubt its most cherished and unexamined beliefs; to make the world pay for its crimes in the coin of nightmare, and then to end the world…” Marcus finds the same impulse in the Dadaists, for whom traditional forms of art made no sense following World War I: “art had to be destroyed…because it was a ‘moral safety valve,’ a mechanism for the unlimited ability of the human mind to turn its worst fantasies into real-life atrocities, then to turn its worst atrocities into pretty pictures.” The Lettrists and the Situationists, movements that influenced the French student rebellion of May 1968, are defined as “a revolt against society’s idea of happiness, against the ideology of survival, a revolt against a world where every rise in the standard of living meant a rise in the ‘standard of boredom.' ”

Marcus presents an original and challenging exploration of the social conditions that gave birth to punk rock and the Dadaists, and the connections between them. The last third of the book, which he devotes to the Lettrists and Situationists, is less successful. Here his digressive, metaphorical style bogs down, and the movements' aims and connections to the book’s theme are not always clear. Still, there’s no one like Marcus for taking a seemingly obscure influence or an iconoclastic notion and making it intellectually exciting (his “Mystery Train” remains one of the greatest books on rock). In the majority of “Lipstick Traces,” Marcus reveals the “secretive” influence behind 20th century movements in a way that makes them more monumental than previously imagined.


Michael The Molar Maven said...

I haven't read the book - perhaps I should - but I don't buy Marcus's argument as you explain it. To me intent matters. I don't believe that The Sex Pistons (nor The Clash or The Ramones, for that matter) considered anything more than the shock value of their music in mind when they recorded their albums - as good as they are. Groups such as The Velvet Underground and Jefferson Airplane before them had agandas. So I don't think you can make that argument. Certainly you can't compare the contributions made by any of the seventies punk bands to either Elvis or The Beatles or a host of other bands for that matter.

Jeff Tone said...

Michael: I agree that the punk bands can't be compared to Elvis or The Beatles. On the other hand, I think the Sex Pistols expressed the alienation of English youth; the Ramones, a return to the raw power of rock; the Clash, a revolt against the Thatcher era and conservatism. I especially disagree with characterizing The Clash as just a shock band; Joe Strummer and his group expressed iconoclastic ideas. There's a reason The Clash was called "the only band that matters."

Michael The Molar Maven said...

It's true, The Clash really did have an agenda and as messengers they did surpass the other two. My apologies to them. It is at this moment that we should add The New York Dolls as perhaps the first band to be labeled "punk". Many of us owe a huge debt of gratitude to those bands and others of that genre as they served to be the antidote to disco. (BTW, as I recall, The Clash had many disagreements with their record company with respect to raising the price of their product. They wanted to hold the price down.)