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Inside SEX, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s 70s punk mecca

Asking a subculture expert about Joe Corré’s punk burning

In 1979, Dick Hebdige literally wrote the book on British subculture – here’s what he thinks of Vivienne Westwood’s son’s controversial protest

If you’re interested in subcultures, there’s a pretty big chance you’ll have one book in particular on your shelf: Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Released in 1979, the seminal tome chronicles the rise of Britain’s postwar youth movements including the teddy boys, mods and skinheads, charting their social, political and economic contexts, influences and means of expression over the years. The book is perhaps most famous for its analysis of punk, tying the violent, DIY nature of its fashions to surrealist cut-ups and interpreting its appropriation of objects like the humble safety pin as ‘bricolage’ – a process by which an item’s original meaning is subverted.

Last weekend, punk was thrown into the public eye when Joe Corré, son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, set fire to his own collection of original clothes and memorabilia. Citing the way the movement has been sterilised, approved by the establishment and feasted upon by consumerist culture-vultures, he declared his archive to be worthless. The wildly controversial decision sparked heated debate – Sex Pistol John Lydon (who, you may remember, borrowed his punk roots to flog butter) was disparaging, while original punk Jordan came around to the idea. In light of this, we reached out to Hebdige – perhaps the man who was the first to really make sense of punk could make sense of this. Read his comments below, and let us know what you think.

“Joe Corré has a point – the shock tropes of 1970s punk look positively cuddly and quaint when viewed against the normalised dysfunction of everyday life in late 2016 with economic inequality permanently structured in, radical now paired with Islam, and democracy’s legitimation crisis officially gone global with the election of D Trump. The credibility of the political and pundit classes everywhere is shot. Take-no-prisoners political and cultural polarisation is today’s new normal. UK punk’s theatrical transgressions and cheeky memes have been sewn into the narrative of nationhood (viz. The Sex Pistols’ performance of “Pretty Vacant” screened during the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony). They’ve been appended to the Cool Britannia brand. 

“When an exhibition titled PUNK: From Chaos to Couture featuring items of vintage punk clobber opened in 2013 at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I wrote:

“‘Showcasing items of punk clothing in a museum in New York 35 years after the original insurgency is an act of recuperation equivalent to the Parisian authorities parading photographs of executed communards in their coffins in 1871 or the British State conferring a knighthood on Mick Jagger in 2003 – the corpse is now available for public view but the spirit, long departed, has moved on.’

“The shock tropes of 1970s punk look positively cuddly and quaint when viewed against the normalised dysfunction of everyday life in late 2016” – Dick Hebdige

“So burning through the material part of his inheritance – the bric-a-brac, at least – in order to preserve the more valuable immaterial bit – the Spirit of ’76 etc – was worth a go, even if it comes across in this case as more hissy fit than meaningful political intervention. Other options Mr Corré might have considered include distributing the collection among the homeless on the Embankment or quietly destroying it in private, though gestures such as these no doubt belong to superceded philanthropic/high-modernist eras. After the Farage/Geldof yell-off the week before the Brexit vote in June, the tugboat on the Thames as a staging ground for tabloid-ready PR stunts must surely be passé. And Dame Westwood and her Green Bus notwithstanding, a five-million quid bonfire of the vanities (presumably including plastic and vinyl items) likely left a sizeable boot-print in the ozone layer.”