Jon Savage

Interview by
Alex Needham
Photography by
Jason Evans


Of all the writers who made their names on the British music press of the late Seventies, Jon Savage is the one whose work is most likely to endure: his 1991 book England’s Dreaming is the definitive history of punk. Born into a posh West London family, Jon chucked in his job as a lawyer to write about punk for Sounds magazine in 1977. These days he lives in North Wales, writing, chatting on the phone to his friend Neil Tennant and making compilation CDs, a couple of which, From The Closet To The Charts: Queer Noises 1961-1978 and Meridian 1970, have been released.

Alex: I enjoyed hearing The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues on the CD of Sixties and Seventies gay music you sent me.
Jon: It was done as a contract breaker. They had one single to deliver to Decca or something in about 1970, and they were so pissed off that they went and recorded that record. And I must admit that Mick Jagger does sing it with quite a lot of gusto. Straight boys pretending to be gay is a really time-honoured British pop tradition. You don’t get it in America. There are lots of them, and Mick Jagger’s a classic example.
Is Robbie Williams the most recent one? Then again, he sued the The People last year for saying he was gay.
I don’t know about that. I sort of feel quite sympathetic to Robbie because the tabloids just tell such terrible lies all the time. It wasn’t like Jason Donovan suing The Face. Fuck ’em anyway. I hate the tabloids. They’re no friends of the gays.
The Sun’s headline on Elton John’s wedding was ‘Elton Takes David Up The Aisle’! Are you the marrying kind yourself?
Yeah, deffo. I’m not married at the minute but I would theoretically, with the right person, enter into a civil partnership. If the opportunity’s there, why not? But at the moment I’m sort of semi-single. I have an arrangement. My sex therapist comes once a week and we enjoy each other and give each other sex therapy and then part until the next week.
How convenient.
Well, that’s the way it’s worked out, Alex. And he’s a very nice man, so that’s good.
I was wondering why you moved to North Wales, and when?
I moved permanently in 1998. I’m a Londoner born and bred, so I understand its rhythms, and in London one goes in and out of fashion. And in the mid Nineties I was going out of fashion — it was before England’s Dreaming got the rep it’s got now. I did the whole thing in my twenties and my thirties of whizzing round town and being a trendy journalist and then one day you go ‘well, what am I going to do?’ And if you’re a writer, in the end journalism is just pissing it down the drain. The only way you’re going to get a proper book done is by going away and locking yourself up in a room for a few years. And in Wales there’s lots of space. I live in a very pretty, quite small seaside town. I’m right by the sea, I look out over mountains; I’ve got a horizon, front and back.
Do you go bird-watching?
I don’t bird-watch, but I do observe them. I do a small walk every day and on one walk I observed about twenty different species. You get a lot of curlews in the winter. A lot of waders, and in the building where I live, which is a big terrace, swallows nest in the summer, swifts nest in the summer, blackbirds, jackdaws, starlings, sparrows, seagulls. So you know, there’s plenty of bird action. And also plenty of gay action.
Really? Tell me about gay life in North Wales.
Well, until a few years ago North Wales was back in the Ice Age, and what’s happened is that a motorway opened up in the last five years which has just brought the 21st century all at once. There’s a couple of major cruising areas which I get told about but I never go, because I don’t cruise. And there’s a fantastic gay beach between Harlech and Barmouth. In the summer you get about 100, 200 gay men there. They come from all over, from Manchester, Birmingham… It used to be rampant but now it isn’t because the police came and raided it.
My God. You’d think they have better things to do.
Well, it’s the same as everything: it just needs a couple of moralising shitebags and a few stupid stories in the local paper. It’s a funny place. There’s a very repressed side to the Welsh, but when they get going, they really get going. When I used to go to Welsh gigs it was carnage, much wilder than London.
Speaking of Wales, it was the Manic Street Preachers who said ‘All rock ‘n’ roll is homosexual’. Do you agree?
I wish it was, but it isn’t, is it? The thing I’ve really deplored over the past few years is the whole lad-culture thing. In the Sixties and the Seventies there were real gains made for gay people and feminism and stuff, and we had a horrible reaction in the Nineties with the lad mags and Nick Hornby — all that fucking crap. Suddenly everyone had to like football. No! Fuck off! When I was 13 you liked sport or you liked music. Who was successful? Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Tamla Motown, The Beatles, The Byrds… Was there any choice between these gorgeous boys wearing fantastic mod clothes with these Prince Valiant haircuts and cool shades and some fucking stupid footballer with short hair and terrible shorts getting shouted at? That sort of heterosexual culture — it’s so boring it’s unbelievable. It’s what I call the sour stink of straight sweat and it gets really horrible when you get to my age, about 50. You get all these people like Gordon Burn who really want to be groovy and they just… They never were and they never can be. And they haven’t really got anything to fight against, so they have to try really hard to be, you know, cutting edge and dangerous. It’s like, fuck off. You’re just a norm, admit it. I always thought that pop music was there to be glamorous, to be alien. And that’s what I can’t stand about what happened during the last ten years — the mundanity. Nick Hornby makes pop music mundane and that’s why I despise him. And the thing about Nick Hornby as well is that — God, I’m really bitching today — he’s had three successful movies, he’s had five best sellers and he still isn’t happy. Sits there and fucking moans because he wasn’t good enough to get on the music press in the mid Seventies BOOM BOOM!
Was punk a sexy time?
No. I thought punk was quite puritan, really. I didn’t have a very good time during punk. I spent a lot of time feeling I was worthless.
Really? Why?
Well, it still wasn’t great to be gay in the late Seventies. OK, you had the Velvets, you had Bowie, you had Lou Reed, but once you’d played those records you still had to get up and deal with the outside world. I was working in a lawyer’s office at that time. They would have parties at the end of every year and you’d have to bring your girlfriend and I just thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to live like this’. So I was very busy trying to find a way of being gay and not destroying myself, really. But I don’t remember punk as being very good for that. The music press was a real competitive, cutthroat arena. People tried to bully me because I was posh, that was one reason. This bloke who used to hang around The Clash, Robin Banks, came up to me one day and said to me, ‘You can’t write about rock music because you went to Cambridge’. And I said, ‘Hello? I’m doing it!’ Loads of people would have killed to work for the music press in 1977 but they weren’t good enough, or they didn’t dare. Because it was quite a thing for someone from my background to do that. You had punk and it was all about street credibility and being working class, even though a lot of early punk was a real class mix. My attitude was: ‘Street credibility? How about New Bond Street?’
Were your parents upset when you left the lawyer’s office and became a music writer?
Yes. I only was able to deal with that by arranging in secret to get a job with Granada Television. Got the job and then told them, ‘Sorry, that’s it. I’m off.’ I went to Manchester in the late Seventies and that’s where I encountered Joy Division, who were the local band. Again, talking about homosexuality, it was like going back 20 years from London. All the gays in Granada sat me down once, and they all had streaked hair and wore pastels and liked disco and they said, ‘Why aren’t you like us?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m a fucking punk rocker.’ There was a huge divide where gays weren’t allowed to like rock music — you had to like disco. I still have this argument with Neil Tennant. He says, “Ugh! Little Feat.’ And I say, ‘Ugh! Showtunes!’
Did you encounter Morrissey at this point too?
Yes! I used to know Morrissey — ‘Stephen’. He came round to my flat in Stratford and we exchanged cards and books and records. He was a classic small-town poof, and he really transformed himself. The problem is that I can’t stand what he’s become. He looks like a fucking navvy and he’s just peddling the same old stuff. No you’re not a teenager, yes you have had sex, why don’t you talk about it? He’s so busy promoting this enigma, but who cares? I saw him on the telly at Glastonbury and he just looked like shit banging around the stage. It’s like, give up, Marge.
Who’s the greatest gay pop star ever, if that’s not a stupid question?
Really it has to be David Bowie. The great thing about that is that he said he was gay, in January ’72, and then he had stonking great hits. It wasn’t like he had hits before and then came out. And I was listening to that Bowie At The Beeb the other day and it’s so great. The stuff from ’72 is so sexy and wild and Mick Ronson’s guitar is just fantastic. The Man Who Sold The World is fabulous. And Ziggy Stardust is pretty fucking great. I met him a couple of times and I think he’s very impressive. He was funny actually, he said, ‘Ah, Jon Savage, great — I love your book London’s Dreaming.’ I laughed my head off.
Do you think he’d read it?
Oh yes, definitely. But he was nice. The thing about David Bowie is that he really loves music. And we just talked about Joe Meek and stuff like that. And I like Michael Stipe, but he’s been funny about being gay. The only interesting rock bands in the mid Eighties were REM, The Smiths and Hüsker Dü, and they all had gay or androgynous frontmen. It’s really important to have a gay element in pop music, otherwise it just becomes dreary. Other great gay pop stars — Sylvester. You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) was the first really no-hedging gay pop song that everybody liked. All the Factory boys liked it, Joy Division liked it, everybody liked that record. He made a fantastic record which I recommend you find called Rock The Box. It’s his electro record and he goes, ‘All around Great Britain/From Liverpool to Wales.’
So about 20 miles, then.
Yes. Well, Sylvester was fantastic and very brave.
Do you talk to Neil Tennant on a daily basis?
No, two weekly? Weekly?
What do you talk about?
The usual pop agenda, Alex. Like whether The Kooks or the Arctic Monkeys are sexy. Robbie Williams. And sometimes more serious things. I’ve been studying a lot of 20th century history, and Neil particularly likes Russian history, so I’ve been talking about what I’ve been doing with my new book which has been stuff about Nazi Germany and the Twenties. But trivial pop chat, that’s what we like.
How long have you known him?
Since probably ’84. He worked on Smash Hits when I was working on The Face and there was a big friendship between the people on the two magazines.
He immortalised you in the Pet Shop Boys’ Left To My Own Devices.
That’s me, I’m the ‘party animal’. And it’s so funny because in the last six years I haven’t been. I think the life of a writer is a really odd mixture of being the hermit and the party animal. You have these phases where you have to sit in a room for years, and then you have the phases where you go out and say, ‘Hi everybody, remember me?’ Or, ‘You thought I’d gone away, but I’m BACK!’
Did you go to all the classic Eighties clubs?
I’ve always been crap at gay clubs because I don’t take those drugs really, and when I first started getting out on the gay scene it was the clone era and everyone was fantastically unfriendly. I’d go to a pissy one called Napoleons just off Bond Street. The ones in Earl’s Court were so hideous you didn’t even want to think about going there. There was one in Manchester called Heroes and that was ghastly. I remember going to Manhattan in 1980, so just before AIDS, and going to Christopher Street and being terrified out of my life. Because everyone looked so hard and mean. The London gay scene is still quite like that, I think. People are pretty aggressive compared to up north. When you go on a gay beach in Wales, everyone starts chatting after a while, and it’s like the straights now behave worse than the gays. What the gays used to do — all the anal sex and public sex — the straights now do. Straights are the new gays. Straights are obsessed with anal sex — have you encountered this?
Yeah. I blame Kylie.
I’ve got a straight friend who’s got these DVDs called Weapons Of Ass Destruction. He’s obsessed with them. But no, it was hideous, really, going out onto the gay scene. I mean, the best thing were the saunas, really, and in Manchester they were quite fun. I still don’t really go out on the gay scene, it’s unbearable. All those hard looks.
How long’s your new book taken?
This one has taken eleven years since contract and six years actually working on it pretty full-time. It’s about ideas about youth: youth culture and youth policy in America, Britain, France and Germany between 1875 and 1945.
That’s a huge subject.
It is a huge subject, and that’s what’s taken the time really, stripping it down. The next stage is putting the book into production and starting to do whatever’s necessary so the book gets published and racked and written about. So there’ll probably be me going and saying someone’s shit and causing a fight. I’m quite combative so I do enjoy all that stuff. The problem about journalism and writing is that it’s a very competitive field and everybody’s grasping for the brass ring. Neil Tennant had a very good phrase for it — the significance business. I’ve been very, very fortunate in that I’ve had England’s Dreaming be regarded as a modern classic. It hasn’t made me rich but if we’re talking about the significance business I’ve lucked out in that. It’s there — nobody can take it away from me. And it was written by a posh poof, so fuck you!
So writing being a lonely pursuit and all that, would you say you live quite a solitary existence?
Yeah, but I’m an only child so I’m used to it. I couldn’t have done this book and had an intimate relationship. I don’t think anybody would have put up with me.
Do you feel like that’s been a sacrifice at all?
Yes. Very definitely. It’s a very difficult thing to balance if you are obsessive about your work, which I am. Centring yourself, getting the peace, getting revved up, working out what it is you’re going to say — that takes as much time as the actual writing. I’ve got a separate floor of the house and I just go up and play really loud minimal music. Usually Richie Hawtin or early jungle, that psychedelic stuff from about ’93 — ‘You’re going to drug me, drug me, drug me!’ Ha ha ha ha!
So once your book’s out, you can go back out on the pull.
Dignity, Alex! Mutton dressed as lamb!
Well there’s the Internet now, you don’t have to worry about that any more.
The Internet, Gaydar — what’s the point of all that? All those computer-enhanced penises? It’s a bit depressing really, isn’t it? If you’re in a gay sauna or on a gay beach or in a club, you can see, ‘Oh yeah, OK,’ and you can go up and do whatever it is you’re going to do. But on the Internet, by the time you see somebody, you’re feeling horny, you click and then they don’t come back to you until two days later, and you’re probably doing the washing up or having a shit or something. It’s a nightmare! There’s a barrier there, and friends of mine, for every 30 replies they get, they only ever meet one person. I’m old fashioned. I like to window shop. You want to be able to see what you’re getting, don’t you? Is it waning or is it still very strong?
To be honest, I’m not really a Gaydar kind of chap either.
Well I’m a monogamous kind of person. I’ve had periods where I’ve been a bad boy, but in the end it just becomes a kind of nullity. In the end, where do you stop? When I was with my boyfriend in the Eighties, he had a friend who was about 60. He came down to stay for the weekend and we went off to do the shopping. I said, ‘Where’s John?’ and my friend Graham said, ‘Oh, he’s in the cottage’. I said, ‘What? In Sainsbury’s bloody car park?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he’ll be there for an hour and a half — he’s fine.’ All the time he was compulsively cottaging and it’s like, yuk! And you know, having gone through the crucible, the great gay test, I just find it much easier and more pleasurable to be with one person or to see one person regularly. It’s great to go out and experiment at various points, but it’s too tiring, and you don’t have a chance for a social life, you don’t get much work done… It all depends what you want from life.

Originally published in BUTT 18