Anarchy in NYC vs. the U.K.

Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry. Photo: From left, Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images; Lynn Goldsmith

Mark Jacobson: Just to start things off in a contentious manner: I thought that punk would avoid the inevitable nostalgia binge. But it doesn’t really seem to be that way.

Legs McNeil: The more we see of the future the more we recycle the past, you know that.

Jon Savage: I definitely agree. One of the things I liked about punk was it was trying to deal with the future. When I heard Television’s Little Johnny Jewel for the first time, the future unfolded before me. I was a young man coming out into the world, and I thought the world was fucked. I needed something to show me the way through this, and what worked was music: the Ramones and later on the British punk groups.

Legs: It’s like when you get a blow job for the first time. It just stays with you forever.

Mark: How long can you live on that?

Legs: A long fucking time, let me tell you.

Mark: So when you hear the music now, does it affect you the same?

Jon: I still play the first Ramones album a lot. Whenever I’m feeling tired, as I do now sometimes when I’m 59, I put on the Ramones and it’s like, Let’s go.

Mark: In New York, there were people who hated disco, and there was rebellion against the hippie movement. Was that the same in England?

Jon: In England, the pop music of the day was beyond hideous. There were three singles in ’76 that absolutely blighted my life. It was “Fernando,” by Abba; it was “Save Your Kisses for Me,” by the Brotherhood of Man; and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” by Kiki Dee and Elton John. Well, hello! I mean, I’m gay, and I don’t like Elton John. That’s why punk happened in the U.K.

Mark: Legs, what records used to really bother you back then?

Legs: James Taylor, Joni Mitchell … We grew up on such great Top 40 radio. It was the Kinks, the Stones, the Beatles, and Question Mark and the Mysterians. We thought, When we come of age, we can drink and hang out, it’s going to be great. Then we came along, and it was all this folk-rock crap. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and all this garbage. It was kind of like, What happened to the good, hard-driving rock and roll?

Jon: Exactly. By ’75, it was so hard to rock. And if you wanted loud guitar music, which is all I wanted, and all punk was really … loud, noise, distorted guitars. The Clash to me were like the Who and the Kinks. They were just sped up. The interesting thing about the Sex Pistols was you didn’t just like them, you liked them and you hated them. They attracted you and they repelled you, which was quite apart from the fact of whether you actually liked the music.

Legs: When I heard the Pistols for the first time, it was like they stormed the scene we’d been doing for a couple of years. That the music was really good added insult to injury. They kind of ripped off what we were doing in New York, but they added some new dimensions to it too.

Jon: For me, it all went off when the Sex Pistols played on the boat trip, which I went on, and saying “Fuck you” to the queen on the queen’s jubilee. That was completely brilliant. But London has always had an incredible chauvinism about punk. I always saw it as an international movement, obviously because it started in New York. Outside of the Sex Pistols, every single British punk-rock group sounded like the Ramones. That’s how much of an impact that record had.

Legs: I was with the Ramones in L.A. when the Sex Pistols came to San Francisco. I was afraid to tell Joey Ramone that I was going to see them. The rest of that year, Joey was like, “Legs and his new best friends, the Sex Pistols.” It was awful.

Mark: One thing between New York punk and British punk is the class situations are so different.

Jon: Certainly, as far as England is concerned, the class situation is very, very stratified. What I liked about British punk is not that it was just working-class kids, but there were a lot of working-class kids. I mean, the Pistols were real down-and-out working-class kids. But there were a lot of middle-class people involved with them. That’s when you get something powerful.

Legs: America says it’s classless, but that’s complete bullshit. In England, it’s more out in the open.

Mark: When rap music first came around, did it feel similar to the beginning of punk?

Nancy and Sid, Patti Smith, and Richard Hell. Photo: From left, Steve Emberton; Lynn Goldsmith; Kate Simon/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Legs: It felt extremely similar. I mean, because there was no guitars, I was kind of … But I thought for the first time, white guys probably influenced black guys.

Jon: I loved that Afrika Bambaataa and those guys ripped off Kraftwerk. It was like they could take one thing and make something totally different. It is one of the greatest stories of the twentieth century, I think. Things change. The last guitar band I really, really, really liked was Nirvana. I interviewed Kurt Cobain in ’93. He was really sarcastic and funny. When he died, I just thought, I’m going to have to close the book on all this. I was nearly 40. I think you come out in the world and you have the rock music that suits you. When you get past that age, it’s a bit of a problem. I don’t want to listen to a rock group going on about twentysomething courting rituals. I just don’t.

Mark: What about stuff that’s punk-spawn, like hardcore and all those different -cores?

Legs: That was just the next generation coming up, going faster. In matters of taste, there is really no dispute. I mean, there’s some kid in the garage right now with green hair and strumming his guitar, singing, “Fuck you, Mom, fuck you.”

Jon: The continuation of punk is valid because of what people get out of it. I go back to being in a room with the Sex Pistols and 100 people. I thought, How the fuck did that happen?

Mark: To hit this note about England and New York again, here there was this kind of cartoon sense, which of course Legs’s magazine was the epitome of. I remember us talking about this, Legs, that we felt that the Brits—don’t they get the joke?

Jon: I think one of the things that people don’t understand about punk—and this in a way is my regret about British punk—is that there was a lot of humor at the start of punk.

Legs: Yeah! Just listen to any Ramones album. They’re hysterically funny. We thought Punk magazine was the new Mad magazine.

Jon: Initially, Sid Vicious was a really funny name. He was just really ­fucking goofy. Then he started taking too many drugs, and he became the kind of stereotype, he became the cartoon.

Legs: I’ll tell you, it’s hard not to become the cartoon.

Mark: You ought to know.

Jon: It goes back to the difference between Britain and America. In Britain, you have centralized media. It’s much easier to make an impact. You can put out your first record and be on the national-TV pop show, which is seen by a third of the whole country. When you get a rock-and-roll scene being on the news agenda, being taken seriously by journalists, then it’s a whole different ball game, and people got all sorts of sociological ideas about it. What happens is that it gets assimilated even quicker, so punk in Britain was actually over pretty much by the end of ’77.

Legs: The Ramones hardly got any radio airplay. I mean, “Sedated” got a little bit but kind of as a joke. More like, “Here are those crazy punk rockers.” Punk kind of accelerated everything. I don’t think America was ready to be that accelerated yet. I thought that the Ramones were playing the most commercial pop songs in the world. I didn’t realize people were as stupid as they are.

Mark: You always hear that, but for a band that never made it, the Ramones sure got pretty well known.

Legs McNeil is co-author of Please Kill Me; Jon Savage is the author of England’s Dreaming.

Anarchy in NYC vs. the U.K.