There is only one thing impeding me from becoming one of the great art collectors of our time, and that is the money with which to start and, for that matter, maintain my collection. Otherwise, all is in place. I have, as auction houses like lasciviously to describe, the collecting “gene”. I am a hoarder, and a completist. I once heard a song on the radio by Mike Nesmith, the former and least clown-like Monkee, and immediately bought the album. Then I bought a couple more albums. Collectomania kicked in. Now, a little weirdly, I have all Nesmith’s solo albums. To say I rarely play them is to indulge in the laconic understatement of which the lugubrious Texan was a master. But no matter. I possess them, and take pleasure in their entrapment in an obscure part of my home.
I first became aware of my disease – there is no other word – at the relatively tender age of 18. The punk revolution was the trigger. While reams have been written on punk’s sociological ramifications, it is also the more parochial case that it revivified the music industry’s ailing singles market. Packaged in brilliantly designed picture sleeves and coloured vinyl, punk records became instant collectables. In truth, I preferred the collecting to the music. I was no fully fledged punk. There was something amiss about carving “No Future” into your forearm with a rusty penknife while sitting for PPE Prelims. But I collected happily away: every single by the Jam and the Clash, first pressings of “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”, and all the rest.
All of which led me to cast a watchful eye over Sixty Punk Singles, a freshly opened selling exhibition at the Vinyl Factory, featuring the collection of the artist and designer Toby Mott. The show is timed, of course, to coincide with the jubilee. There is symbiosis between the Queen and punk. The movement’s most notorious moments coincided with the silver jubilee of 1977, most obviously when Malcolm McLaren engineered a Sex Pistols river cruise that was devised to preview and satirise the Queen’s own procession a couple of days later, and which ended in pandemonium.
I rang Mott to inform him that I possessed about a third of his 60 singles (one for every year of the Queen’s reign), and resisted the temptation to brag about my own rarities. Instead, I said to him, wasn’t it strange that an artistic movement that took such pride in its throwaway method would produce such long-lasting and resonant works? Why had we both hung on to our little trophies?
“Let’s face it, people who collect are a bit oddball,” he responded with alarming frankness. But he is right, of course. I have talked to enough art buyers to detect when the urge to collect has acquired fanatical dimensions. So it was with us. But punk, he added, was always something more. It was one of modern British culture’s most fertile moments.
“I was playing some of the records yesterday,” said Mott. “They are amazing. They are so musical. They are like pop. I can’t believe my parents said they were nothing but noise. Really, it is something you would want your own kids to be doing, it was so creative, instead of all this consumer stuff and video games. Punk was portrayed as this negative thing but, in fact, it was a high point and a lasting part of British culture. And that is why we should be celebrating it. Punk marked the end of the postwar period. It gave birth to individualism and then the Thatcher era that followed.”
In his introduction to the catalogue, Mott expands on the relationship between punk and the Queen (one of the movement’s enduring images was that of Cecil Beaton’s portrait defaced with the addition of a safety pin through the royal nose). He says that while the Queen represents “quintessential British values”, punk exemplifies Britain’s “inventive spirit”. The two, he seems to suggest, go hand in hand.
That was not the impression in 1977, when those two universes were at odds, I said to him. “The Queen meant something in 1977,” he replied. “She represented the state. Now she is just part of celebrity culture, she has her lunch parties, she is an anachronism. Now there are bigger issues, like bankers and their bonuses.”
If you detect a certain amount of revisionism going on, depicting punk as the tuneful forerunner of the rightwing revolution of the 1980s, that isn’t the half of it. This week, also suspiciously coinciding with the jubilee, sees the release of the first Public Image Ltd album for 20 years, containing the grizzled reflections of punk’s commander-in-chief, John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten.
Lydon has turned his middle-aged years into an extended parody of every aspect of British life, including his own former rebelliousness. That is how we must read his advertisements for Country Life butter (is there any other nation on earth that would understand the layers of irony?) and his latest lyrics, which include, on “Human”, a lament for his country’s past, “those English roses … cotton dresses skipping across the lawn”.
“I don’t really follow what he does any more,” said Mott flatly when I told him about the album. I wasn’t surprised. To collect, after all, is an act of preservation of the past. And when punk’s stormtroopers start to come over all Laura Ashley, it is time to patch those memories together with a safety pin or two.
‘Sixty Punk Singles’, Vinyl Factory Chelsea, until June 24, www.thevinylfactory.com
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