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The Varmint Show

making tracks

Punk's Lascaux

It has taken a while, but the Varmints are now firmly within their comfort zone. Having previously examined a 1960s commune, and the archaeologies of folk and grunge, the Varmints now have good reason to dust down their safety pins and razor blades, reach for the bin liners and relive their youth. For John Varmint, with fellow punk archaeologist Paul Graves-Brown, has made a great archaeological discovery – Punk's Lascaux. A paper published in the prestigious journal Antiquity contains the detail. Here, and coincident with the 35th anniversary of the Pistols' legendary Bill Grundy TV interview, the authors summarise their research. All photos by John Schofield.

Johnny Rotten

Malcolm McClaren

Jah Wobble

Sid Vicious

Nancy Spungeon

Pistols portraits top–bottom: Johnny Rotten, Malcolm McClaren, Jah Wobble, Sid Vicious & Nancy Spungeon.

Tin Pan Ally

Originally a surviving fragment of seventeenth-century urban expansion, by the early twentieth century, Denmark Street in London's West End had become a centre for music publishers and music shops, coming to be known as London's Tin Pan Alley. The Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sound, 4 Denmark Street, the Melody Maker had its offices at No 19 and it is said that, in the late 1960s, David Bowie lived there in a camper van. 6 Denmark Street comprised a main building on the street front, with another across a small courtyard at the rear. From 1968–1983, the upper two storeys of the main building were rented by the design company 'Hipgnosis', whose principals designed album covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Genesis. The building at the rear was leased and converted to a music rehearsal studio in the 1960s by the manager of the increasingly successful group Badfinger. But from September 1975 its new occupants were The Sex Pistols, and being the Sex Pistols they made their mark – literally - on the building.

Punk Archaeology

It seems remarkable that a legacy of the 'Pistols occupancy of Denmark Street has survived. It seems remarkable because Punk was such a transient movement, of people on streets and in gigs, living in bedsits and squats, and travelling across London on the underground (something numerous punk bands wrote about). So why should anything survive at all other than the memories and stories of those involved? Yet at the back of 6 Denmark Street they do, both in the 'intangible' form of early demo recordings made in 1976 (and now available on the 2006 'Spunk' bootleg CD), and in the graffiti still clearly visible on the walls of the upstairs room. Cartoons and caricatures, many quite accomplished and in Johnny's hand, show Malcolm McClaren (labelled 'Muggeridge'), with quiff and long coat, clutching the money, while words characterise the contemporary mind set – graffiti that describe their author/s as 'depressed', 'miserable' and 'tired'. And there is a chronology within the graffiti: A skinny Sid appears alongside a grotesque Nancy, for example, illustrating a later phase of the 'Pistols increasingly colourful history, and some of the girls later to become Bananarama have written their names. Some of the images are not cartoons but rather accomplished portraits, such as that of Jah Wobble above the stairs. But together these comprise a wonderfully diverse and evocative set of artworks which the vintage guitar shop (current owners of the building) appears keen to retain.

But why should archaeologists take an interest in this as opposed to say music historians? Part of the answer is that as archaeologists we ask different questions, about chronology, for instance and the symbolism represented in the artwork. But part of the answer also lies in the fact that archaeology should see no distinction between what is ancient and modern. Archaeologists understand the past through its material traces, traces which can be found deep in the caves of southern France, or on the walls of a building in London's Soho. We both trained originally in prehistoric archaeology and have taken an interest in prehistoric cave art at one time or another. It makes perfect sense for us to be studying artwork of the more contemporary past, and asking precisely the same questions as we would that of earlier periods.

'P**s stain' in the Hall of Fame

On being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the surviving Pistols issued an official announcement on 24 February 2006 and probably written by Lydon. It began Next to the SEX PISTOLS rock and roll and that hall of fame is a p**s stain. This statement highlights an interesting contradiction, between official sanction and the ethos of those whose heritage or legacy is at stake. While the Victoria and Albert Museum now collects punk fashions and designs of Dame Vivienne Westwood and Jamie Reid, we question whether conserving the legacy of punk is appropriate. Specifically, should the building at the rear of 6 Denmark Street be preserved or its graffiti given any official recognition, assuming historic significance can be demonstrated? Here we feel entirely justified in sticking our tongues out at the heritage establishment and calling instead for an approach that is consistent with Punk's 'fuck-you' attitude, and its call to 'destroy' the apparatus of authority. To our minds, the building and its graffiti have huge cultural significance, as described in our paper in Antiquity. But cultural significance and cultural response should be two entirely separate things. Ultimately perhaps this is not heritage at all, but something else - 'anti-heritage' maybe; a place where other rules apply, and where meanings are reversed.

Accompanying this short essay are three tracks recorded by Paul Graves-Brown which provide a musical backdrop to the issues raised by our research. In 1976 the Sex Pistols recorded some of their earliest music in Denmark Street (finally issued on their bootleg album 'Spunk' [Ref. CMRCD1376]. We see Paul's tracks as complementary to the authentic sounds of mid 1970s Soho. To accompany the music, Paul wrote the following by way of sleeve notes:

My approach to doing music is often what I think of as research led; deconstructing and reverse engineering how sounds are made and as far as possible recreating them. I felt I had to do Come and Get It - Badfinger's major hit, written by Paul McCartney. The idea that the Pistols could have covered it (they did after all cover songs by The Stooges and The Monkees), seemed like a kind of musical 'what-if' archaeology. As far as possible I recreated the sound of Steve Jones' Les Paul through a Fender Twin Reverb Amp (the equipment that McLaren had 'borrowed' from Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls). I also tried to get the style of Paul Cook's drumming and Matlock's bass playing. There is also my feeble attempt at Lydon's snarling contempt. In the end I feel that they could have done this; the song has an ambiguity, which I attempted to ramp up a bit by adding the final verse.

Submission is probably the Pistols best track musically; it foreshadows what Lydon would later do with PiL with its reggae influences. This is done in a more electro-pop style, but I used Dave Goodman's idea of blowing into the spout of a kettle full of water to make the bubbling sounds. Also made a music video to go with this.

SOS is an attempt at recombination; Glen Matlock recounts getting the idea for Pretty Vacant from hearing ABBA's SOS. So I have recombined the riffs from both to produce a new version of the ABBA song, which has some pretty weird lyrics in its own right, eg the first line – I want to dedicate this song to Mother Earth.

  1. Come and Get It
  2. Submission
  3. SOS

Downloaded alternative mixes.

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