Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2017 Issue

A $6 Million Ephemera Burning – Now That's Punk

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God Save the Queen.

A collection of ephemeral material said to be worth £5 million* (about $6.3 million U.S. dollars) went up in flames on November 26 last. The fire was deliberate. It was a protest. However, while reminiscent of the fires that raise horror in every intelligent person's heart – book burning – this was not a protest against what was being burned. It was a protest against its debasement. Better to see the movement it represents put to the torch than see it appropriated by those it sought to destroy. Punk is dead, its remains cremated on a boat in the Thames. Order has been restored to the U.K.

 

First, we need to recall a bit of history. In 1975, the legendary/infamous British punk group, the Sex Pistols, were formed. Punk already had its underground following the U.S., but the British version took its country by storm. Of little controversy here, because it was little noticed by the mainstream in the U.S., punk could not be ignored in the U.K. For this we can thank the Pistols' creator and manager, impresario Malcolm McLaren. McLaren was to the Pistols what Col. Tom Parker was to Elvis. Parker turned an obscure country and western singer into the biggest rock star America ever saw. But Elvis was, at least, a musician. McLaren had less to work with, so while Parker achieved the needed controversy to create a star with a little wiggling of the hips, McLaren required a full scale assault on British values and morality to achieve his goals. The Sex Pistols graciously supplied it.

 

Exactly forty years earlier, on November 26, 1976, the Pistols released their anthem, Anarchy in the UK. It was a punk anthem, an attack on the proper British order. Meanwhile, the band members lived an over-the-top destructive lifestyle, deliberately insulting everything proper. Their behavior, along with their lyrics, were intended to offend the British public to the extreme. The disenfranchised young loved it, proper society despised them.

 

Britain did not have to put up with the Pistols for long. They self-destructed. By 1978, the band was no more. The following year, their most flamboyant member, Sid Vicious, had killed his girlfriend and then himself (the latter with an overdose). The others moved on. McLaren, ever the impresario, also moved on to other ventures. The flame burned brightly, left its mark on British culture, and quickly went out.

 

McLaren died in 2010. He died with his collection of Sex Pistols ephemera – clothing, records, papers – still in his possession. It was inherited by his son, Joe Corré. It was Corré who put his father's collection to the fire a few weeks ago.

 

The inspiration for that decision was something called Punk London. It is a year-long celebration of forty years of punk. It has the support of London's mayor, and reportedly, even Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth was Queen then as now, and the target of the Pistol's song God Save the Queen. Corré was appalled. When he announced his plan to hold a bond fire, Corré issued a press release stating, "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 f...ing museum piece or a tribute act." Rather than see McLaren's collection eventually sold as memorabilia to collectors with the greatest amount of money, Corré preferred to see it destroyed. Better to die young than live on as an old shell, collectible trophies for those who never understood or appreciated what the movement was about. As Corré further expounded to those attending the event, "Punk was never meant to be nostalgic. Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need."

 

This story elicits mixed emotions. The preservationist, historian, keeper of the culture in me is appalled. The history of our times needs to preserved, so future generations can know, understand, and perhaps avoid some of our mistakes. This is little different from a book burning. Still, the other side understands Corré's sentiments. Preservation by the establishment, the very institutions the punks railed against, is a cruel irony, a debasement of the values and ideals the punks represented, whatever those might be. It is the ultimate conquering. It is better to be consumed on the pyre than caged in the Queen's museum. My God, it is the same Queen Elizabeth, ridiculed in the song God Save the Queen, who still reigns, and apparently is welcoming the celebration of her defeated one-time provocateurs.

 

And then, the Pistols themselves and their punk movement also elicit mixed emotions in me. Truth to power, or at least, idealistic opinions to power, has always been a hallmark of my now aging generation. A hard rain's gonna fall. Tell it like it is, no matter how much they don't want to hear. But, coarseness never appealed that much to me. It doesn't fit that well with peace and love. Perhaps the Pistols' in-your-face style was necessary to be heard. The 70s were different from the 60s, and maybe even Dylan would have had to write lyrics like "go f... yourself" to be heard then. However, that coarseness goes on, and grows. Our culture is filled with it, our TV screens are filled with it, the internet is consumed with it, and America's most recent presidential election plumbed depths I'd never imagined we would see. The Pistols were revolutionary in their day. Today they would be mainstream. For better or worse, the times they still are a-changin'.

 

 

*I'm not sure how Corré or whomever calculated that value, but it does seem a bit generous to me.


Posted On: 2017-01-01 07:03
User Name: 19531953

DearMichael,
I just finished reading your piece and, sad to say, I can relate to many aspects of it. I say sad because there are numerous correlations to my own experiences lately. I watch with horror how dumbed down we are getting here and how we place value in people like Trump and The Kardashians and reward one with Power and the other with Money; Flipsides of the same coin really. I lived in London during the Punk age...I was young but not into the scene...later I realized that I liked much of the music. But an American in London then did not fit in really well or at least I didn't. We speak the same language in theory but in practice our phrases and expressions and words and theirs are often quite different; not to mention slang and varying accents.

Also I can relate to the frustration of Historical Paper not being appreciated enough. Oh I have done well enough with my first collection at The Newseum and 4 single owner auctions to date..BUT I didn't want my archive to be split up this time. I wanted it to be treasured by a major institution or even one sophisticated collector. I have tremendous interest from major auction houses with major collectors chomping at the bit to buy up their favorite things but negligible interest from anyone wanting to preserve my collection intact for posterity.

Bad behavior is rewarded in Politics and Entertainment and I am seeing that many well heeled collectors are buying the wrong material for the wrong reasons. Examples include graded comic books and graded baseball cards. You can own a 60 year old piece of cardboard with a picture of a Hall of Famer on the cheap flooding the market; but find one with perfect corners and clean and bright and no creases and perfect centering and margins and people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing will pay tens of thousands for the bragging rights of having a high grade piece of cardboard...the same one that sold for a penny when it was issued. But the real bargains will be had by people buying from my future auctions and other major collector sales.How do I know? Because I know how difficult it was and continues to be to find my treasures. And I remember when many of my pieces could be had for 3 or 4 figures but now they fetch 5 and 6 figures. And one day people will look back at my prices realized with amazement and regret that they weren't around or enlightened enough to purchase. That is the way I always feel when I look back at Sales such as Streeter and Sang. Still I appreciate how much pleasure these objects have given me from the moment of discovery to this very moment.
So I celebrate 50 years of collecting and memories are priceless. Congratulations on a fascinating article filled with irony and tragedy and even humor! Happy New Year!
Eric Caren
The Caren Archive
PS forgive any errors above as I wrote from the heart at a late hour on New Years Eve.


Posted On: 2017-01-01 15:28
User Name: essexbooks

Punk was a fashion statement , THe Sex Pistols a musical ( well sound ) part of it. As to financial value - Michael - come on - don't be so gullable - if the collection being burnt ( Although I'm in UK I never saw anything about it in the UK Mainline press) had been valued at £50,000 / $60000 would you bother writing about it. ? Our news is BRand led / Price led - no-one advertises Quality - just money. I wonder if a value of £5 MILLION was stated for death duties ?


Posted On: 2017-01-01 18:03
User Name: theoriginalnumislit

While Mr. Caren's critiques may prove to be valid in the fullness of time, I cannot help wondering whether his wonderful collection would have been amassed had he marched to the drum majors of his day.

And, while his disdain of the president-elect — and members of a family whose claims to fame seem based on tawdriness — may well be valid, it bears reflection that those who voted for Mr. Trump rejected alternatives across the political spectrum. This exercise of "rough justice" may prove counterproductive, yet is not its indictment of the political establishment inescapable and should it not engender a modicum of humility?


Rare Book Monthly

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