Essays: A load of punk |
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A load of punk

BILL GRUNDY of Today (Thames) faces two weeks of suspension, presumably by the thumbs, for failing to keep order on screen when his programme played host to a foul-mouthed punk rock outfit yclept Sex Pistols. Were you watching? Neither was I.

Nevertheless I am able to speak as an expert witness, having been a guest performer a few months ago on the very episode of ‘So It Goes’ (Granada) in which the Sex Pistols made their television debut. So noxious was their behaviour during rehearsals that they were very nearly scrubbed from the show proper. Executives were stunned. This was the first time in history that a pop group had ever tried to bite the hand that fed it before it had been fed.

During the recording, the task of keeping the little bastards under control was given to me. With the aid of a radio microphone I was able to outshout them, but it was a near thing. The Sex Pistols are not long on vocabulary, but they make up for it by being short on temper. It was very apparent that there was nothing ersatz about their snivelling nastiness. They attacked anything around them without provocation and had difficulty in being civil even to each other. Their leader, a vituperative ball of acne calling himself something like Kenny Frightful, kept trying to kick himself in the stomach.

My evening with the Sex Pistols left me feeling sad and old. This was what the pop dream had finally come to. One had already grown used to pop performers born after the release of the first Elvis Presley singles who dressed up in silly clothes and pretended to be horrible. But here were performers born after the release of the first Beatles singles who were dressing up in silly clothes and really were horrible.

The girl in the group was a shapeless little boiler in a platinum bee-hive with anthracite eye-shadow and a Nazi arm-band. When Granada made her take off the swastika, her protests were based not so much on ideological grounds (she didn’t know enough about Hitler to be in favour of him) as on the possibility that her contribution to the spectacle might be reduced in effectiveness. Her role as the female Sex Pistol consisted of standing about threateningly in a Nazi arm-band. Now she was being asked to just stand about threateningly.

That the teeming cities are giving birth to demented youths chanting filth in unison would he no surprise to John Aspinall, interviewed by Ludovic Kennedy on Tonight (BBC1). 1 was all set to dislike Aspinall, who had once, I dimly remembered, been associated with all kinds of pretentious nonsense about gambling, and had latterly become associated with all kinds of pretentious nonsense about wild animals. As the interview revealed, however, Aspinall, although he speaks a good deal of nonsense on both subjects, is pretentious about neither. His beliefs really do form some kind of ethos. There can be no doubt that he is an authentic maverick. He is off in his own world, and good luck to him.

What jars slightly is his attitude to the world that the rest of us are stuck with. ‘How can you be content,’ he enquired soulfully, ‘when the whole nation you belong to is decomposing before your eyes.’ Aspinall was not slow to propose his own way of life as the only worthwhile alternative to modern decay: close to a few noble animals, he was far from the many ignoble proles.

Ludo tried to remind him that the money with which he purchased the animals had first been obtained from an activity, gambling, which is a pretty advanced symptom of decomposition in itself. But Aspinall wasn’t having any truck with mere logic. His retreat to the past might have needed modern society to finance it, but that didn’t mean modern society was all right. Back to the past was the only way forward.

This, apparently, was where Lord Lucan came in. According to Aspinall, Lucan was — or still is, depending on his state of health — ‘a great figure.’ Ludo was puzzled but polite. ‘He wasn’t a man of great ability,’ Aspinall expatiated, ‘but he represented to me ... one of the old clan leaders of the English.’ Ludo was still puzzled but still polite. Aspinall took a header into the depths of eugenics: ‘It’s because he had no potentials that one admired him. He was what he was.’

Claiming that Lucan had had, or has, ‘certain qualities that are no longer fashionable, perhaps,’ Aspinall went on to reassert his famous assertion that he would have sheltered the fleeing peer if called upon. ‘The very meaning and essence of friendship is to help a man when he is in that position. We’re going back to our remote past, Anglo-Saxons...’ Anyone who would have handed Lucan over to the law in those circumstances would have been ‘no longer a person.’ Aspinall made no mention, and Ludo strenuously refrained from reminding him, of the nanny, who was no longer a person either, being dead.

According to Aspinall, our leaders are now drawn from the blighted cities and reflect all the neurosis of their surroundings. ‘These people represent us.’ What a come-down from Lord Lucan. No wonder Aspinall is looking for a path back to nature, a way to ‘bridge the man-made crevasse that divides us from the organic world.’ Hence the tigers and gorillas, which Aspinall had always wanted to befriend, even back in the days when he couldn’t afford to meet them.

It would have been interesting to find out whether the animals had always wanted to befriend Aspinall. Ludo might usefully have interviewed a gorilla on this topic. There is no reason to think that gorillas, once the man-made crevasse has been bridged, would not he able to master our language in the way Aspinall has apparently mastered theirs. ‘It’s a slight whimsical exaggeration when I say that when I make love I gurgle like a gorilla.’ But he was being modest.

Was he being sane? It’s hard to say. Getting close to nature is an idea not to be sneezed at. Horizon (BBC2) did a good story on the fisher-folk of Pilau, called ‘Secrets of a Coral Island.’ Here were a people so close to the organic world that they made Aspinall look like Hugh Hefner. The oldest fisherman on the island knows more about the habits of fish than all the experts in the universities put together. He knows where the reef fish go to mate by the moon. But some of the knowledge will die with him, since Pilau was already being corrupted by the twentieth century even before somebody decided — you guessed it — to build the world’s biggest oil port there.

The Observer, 5th December 1976