Music

Here’s why Joe Corré did the right thing when he burnt £5m worth of punk memorabilia

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Dave Fawbert
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So he actually went and did it.

Joe Corré, the son of the late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood, went ahead with his promise to burn his collection of punk memorabilia, estimated to be worth £5m, torching the lot on a boat on the river Thames on Saturday.

The haul, which featured a host of one-off items of clothing, posters, records and more from the era of The Sex Pistols, went up in flames alongside effigies of politicians including David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May loaded with fireworks, while Westwood watched on.

He announced his plans back in March, as a response to Punk London, an event set up to celebrate the history of punk 40 years on, but which was backed by the then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson, the Heritage Lottery Fund and – apparently – the Queen, who was, of course, the target of the Pistols’ legendary God Save The Queen, which saw Johnny Rotten declare that she “ain’t no human being”.

In a statement at the time, Corré declared: “The Queen giving 2016, the year of punk, her official blessing is the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard. Talk about alternative and punk culture being appropriated by the mainstream.

Rather than a movement for change, punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act. A general malaise has now set in amongst the British public. People are feeling numb. And with numbness comes complacency. People don’t feel they have a voice anymore. The most dangerous thing is that they have stopped fighting for what they believe in. They have given up the chase. We need to explode all the shit once more.”

Last week when I went down to hear the man defend himself at a pre-burning press conference, Corré said, "You can have a Never Mind the Bollocks credit card at 19 per cent [interest], you can have McDonald's punky nuggets, you can have Louis Vuitton bondage trousers, you can have punk rock car insurance, you can go to the Museum of London and learn how to be a punk rocker."

On Saturday, the 40th anniversary of the release of Anarchy in the UK, he added: “Punk was never, never meant to be nostalgic – and you can’t learn how to be one at a Museum of London workshop. Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need. The illusion of an alternative choice. Conformity in another uniform.”

The response to Corré’s actions has been largely negative.

Many have described him as a spoilt, vain brat, selfishly destroying documents which – like it or not – are of historical importance. Others despaired that, instead of burning the collection, he could have sold it off and used the money for charitable purposes or, if wanting to promote a new punk spirit, use the money to “give 28,000 guitars to 28,000 girls, and tell them to make fucking noise outside their state capitols the next time some assholes try to take away their rights”.

There have been constant references to Corré’s privileged position; as the founder of Agent Provocateur, which was sold in 2007 to private equity house 3i, he is estimated to be worth at least £35m.  

And, indeed, he started the company with money he gained from selling a few items of his now-incinerated punk collection (which he later bought back), before building it into a huge brand. Seeing £5m going up in smoke for Corre is not necessarily a big deal – in fact, is it just the middle-aged attention-seeking strop of a rich man trying to appear edgy and cool, particularly when the whole thing saw a PR firm employed to gain attention?

All of these points are probably true. And yet, I believe it was an act worth doing.

The whole thing was a mass of contradictions. Corré is privileged. He is in no position to say what is and isn’t truly punk.

In a press conference before the burn date, he claimed that no punk band had actually achieved anything in decades – when someone mentioned Pussy Riot, he thought carefully for a moment or two before admitting that they, in fact, had.

Besides, we all know that what was originally known as punk – as crystallised by the Sex Pistols and the whole 1970s movement that was genuinely despised and feared by the establishment, and documented by the items he possessed – is dead.

Of course it is – it happened 40 years ago, it’s a historical event that has long since moved on. It is also worth noting that, even at the time, punk itself full of contradictions itself; after all, the Pistols were originally signed to EMI – a none-more-traditional British major label. They used the traditional media to get attention and to get their ideas across.

But we all think that the punk spirit is still alive and well – what about grime? What about DIY music labels? What a bore Corré is, punk’s doing just fine, it’s just moved into other areas.

But has it? Yes – there is the odd example of a band putting their heads above the parapet to try and change things, but nothing that has threatened the status quo of capitalism and the establishment that has proceeded serenely since the 1980s. Punk was, briefly, threatening, but ultimately it changed nothing. What has grime really threatened? Apart from a few cancelled gigs and the odd bit of police panic – nothing. They release tracks like everyone else and – with the likes of Skepta and the rest rising to fame – get co-opted by the mainstream. It’s what happens.

What even, ultimately, have Pussy Riot changed? With Putin still in power, not a great deal. This is, of course, not to denigrate in any way their laudable efforts, but fighting such a lone battle is always going to be difficult. So perhaps punk really does need to be restarted – perhaps we do actually need a genuine threat to the established order.

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On its most basic level, the burning has to be considered a piece of art. The K Foundation famously burned a million pounds in 1994 on the Scottish island of Jura as they wound up their activities as the hugely-influential art-house-pop group the KLF. It was a massively controversial act, that even the perpetrators – Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond – didn’t really understand its significance. They just did it, and left others to work out the meaning. And people are still talking about it – and copying it – 22 years later.

As The Times wrote in 1995, "The K Foundation may not have changed or challenged much but they have certainly provoked thousands to question and analyse the power of money and the responsibilities of those who possess it. And what could be more artistic than that?”

You can say exactly the same thing about Corré’s burning.

It has provoked a reaction. It has led to people talking, getting angry. It’s forced a conversation. You might not think that what Corré’s done is remotely punk – but that then forces you to ask yourself, what actually is punk now? It might inspire people to do something, to start a movement to actually change what’s going on in the world, as we hurtle towards global environmental destruction whilst nations like the UK and US become more insular.

It probably won’t change anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. He could have given 28,000 guitars away, but then you’re dictating that punk must take a musical form, and that it must be played with guitars. That doesn’t seem very punk to me.

Corre has no answers, but he’s spent £5m asking a question and, for that, should at least get some credit.

And, at the end of the day, as he said at a press conference, what would have happened to that stuff when he died anyway? It would have ended up "on some banker's wall, and that doesn't satisfy me".

Surely no one can argue with that.

(Image: Rex)

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Dave Fawbert

ShortList.com staff writer Dave’s primary passions are pop, prose, punning and power ballads (and alliteration). A lower division football enthusiast and long-suffering cricket fan, he is one of only 110 people followed on Twitter by Chas Hodges from Chas ‘n’ Dave. Follow Dave on Twitter like Chas: @davefawbert

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