This interview reaffirms my belief in the power of happy accidents. Following my interview with Gaye Advert, I happened to scroll through TV Smith's website, and found a link to Trygve Mathiesen's excellent new book, BANNED IN THE UK: SEX PISTOLS EXILED TO OSLO 1977 (Melthus Communications AS:
http://www.sexpistolsatpingvinclub.com/), which deals with one wild night on their legendary Scandinavian tour (The Pingivin Club, Oslo, 7/20/77). For many fans, these gigs represent the peak of the Pistols' musicality, since their collapse was barely six months away.
Through 160 pages, Mathiesen and co-researcher Harry Nordskog trace the events leading to the gig, and beyond, from the people who experienced them. You get vivid descriptions of Norway's music culture (such as it existed then)...the riotous press conference ("Awful Pistols!")...the anticipation of the show ("Didn't have a ticket but bribed my way in by giving the bouncer a 100 kroner note")...memories of the gig itself ("Before the first song was over, the venue was a battleground")...the after party at Club 7...and the legacy left by the band's performance ("Punk became a way of challenging and pushing the borders for my own freedom").
If that's not appealing enough, you also get 47 previously unpublished photos, as well as an exhaustive three-page list of those who attended, or couldn't get in! Although too young to attend himself, as Mathiesen explains in his afterword ("So Was I There?"), once he experienced the Pistols' incendiary brand of music, nothing stayed the same. Never again could he settle for those "boring local cover bands" that played at his school's parties, nor have any trouble connecting the inevitable larger-than-life dots as an adult. My own interest piqued, I obtained a copy of the book, and fired off my questions to Tryg...here's what he had to say.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): What makes this particular gig so important? I haven't seen much written -- even now -- about the Sex Pistols' Scandinavian '77 tour, so why have other writers not picked up on its importance (especially since the Trondheim gig has come out on CD, hasn't it)?
TRYGVE MATHIESEN (TM): The idea of doing the book was to tell another story about how the community, with its culture and public spirit that made a paradigmatic shift through the period this gig took place. To me it's a book about the society, and I let the Sex Pistols be the free agents in a heavy structured landscape. As a glossy coffee table book about four British anti-pop stars it's maybe something new, as unpublished photos, but together with my attempt to see the bigger picture in my analyses, all squeezed in and hold together by the 20+ hours the band stayed in Oslo, it's been a great pleasure to release it!
CR: The local press coverage makes for a fascinating read: of all the papers, who do you think really “got” the Sex Pistols, and why?
TM: The band released their we-despise-journos-song, “Pretty Vacant,” simultaneously to the Scandinavian tour, and sure, they lived up to its content. In Norway they did two serious interviews, one with the anarchist paper, “Gateavisa,” in Oslo, the other with the fanzine “Rockefilla,” in Trondheim. All the rest was a “piss off” to the press, even though they actually told some interesting stories at the press conference as well. But the press were too focused on their behaviour to write down their real story. The only one that actually did this, was censored by his editor, but I got hold of his old handwritten account, and present it in my book.
CR: One of the paradoxes surrounding punk is the participants' apparent disdain for any intellectual motivations behind their music -- certainly, John Lydon has made a point of saying that in his many interviews. Some of the Pingvin Club audience members (see p. 73) seem to feel likewise. How do you hold up a sociopolitical analysis of punk, and the Sex Pistols, in light of those sentiments?
TM: I know Lydon's made his point several times about not intellectualizing punk, but I can't be told what to reflect upon. Looking back through the last 30-40 years, I find it obvious to notice how society has changed, from a strict socialistic Scandinavia up till today's ultra-liberal meta-modern part of the Western world. I'm not longing for the 70s, on the contrary, I am convinced that going right back to Norway in '77 today, would feel like entering a Soviet state. Everything closed at 5 pm, ordinary people were not allowed to own a flat, everybody was watching one TV-channel run by the state, etc.... To me punk and the DIY-movement represent a liberation with focus on individuality and self-realization, and a break with the consensus of how to perceive society.
CR: Having met Malcolm McLaren yourself, what were your main impressions of him? Most writeups either say, “The great Situationist thinker who plotted every move and note of punk,” or: “The lucky billiard player who accidentally shoots every ball into the pocket” (to quote [biographer] Craig Bromberg's metaphor). Which one takes precedence, in your mind?
TM: McLaren was a very polite guy, who loved to talk and probably loved to hear his own voice as well. He could go on forever if you didn't interrupt him. At the same time, I found it very interesting talking to him, as we could discuss post-modernists as Lyotard and connect it to punk, and contemporary political issues -- and connect that to punk as well. I'm unsure of how calculated his idea of the Sex Pistols actually was, but it was humorous to let him think so. It's easy to think that he and the band were lucky, but at the same time they were smart, ongoing, distinct, significant and self-conscious enough to succeed. There's a proverb saying, “it's only the best that has luck.”
CR: In your forward, you mention a play that was produced about the gig at the National Theatre – who was responsible for that, and what kind of reaction did it get? Judging by your comments, it didn't contribute to the debate...or did it? You tell me.
TM: The play fitted my book perfectly, 'cause it meant I could exploit the myth even further and get attention on my book project. But the myth's been living since 1977, and it didn't help me much in finding the original witnesses, but probably made it even easier to get publicity in front of (and during) the release. In the play, the leading role almost kills himself after being exposed as a non-presence at the gig, and I did talk to those who had lied about it all these years, but they toned down the bragging when I told them I was writing a book about the gig. It was quite a job to find 214 people who'd actually been present more than 30 years back, but Norwegian media as well as a lot of helpful friends and colleagues made it much easier for us to map down the lot.
CR: As you're well naturally aware, any occasion like this one propagates its share of myths, half-truths, outright lies...what were the biggest surprises that you and your co-researcher, Harry Nordskog, encountered in putting the book together? What details proved hardest to pin down?
TM: I should say to pin down the myth that 5,000 people had lied about being present at the gig. That is a myth, even though it raised to 10,000 and ended up filling the National Football Stadium twice during the release of the book. Of course we used the myth for what it was worth, but at the same time I'm telling in the book that it is not so.
The tales in the book itself, it is often contradictive stories being told, and don't bother to reflect much on that is the actual truth. Was it an ashtray, was it a bottle or was it a pint that was thrown towards the stage during the gig? And so on. It's not as important as it's the witnesses images of the moments, as they will always be subjective and made by individual impressions. That makes them genuine and vivid.
CR: What did the Pingvin Club gig do, as far as jump-starting a local punk scene? When did bands find other kinds of places to play, and is the live music scene like now?
TM: I find the gig a catalyst of the time and a turning point in our cultural history. Because of its distinction and significancy, it leads not only to one direction, but to many different ones, because the band occurs in all your houses. It's impossible to imagine the liberal '80s and the hedonistic '90s without the Sex Pistols as a commercialisation of the what I call the nihilistic substream in our culture during the 20th century that came to surface by Malcolm McLaren. The live scene in Oslo today according to rock music is probably stronger than it has even been, and it's been growing and is expanding continuously since this gig.
CR: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about the photos. One of my favorite images is the shadowy black and white spread on pp. 110-111 Who contributed some of those 47 unpublished photos, and did those prove difficult to get (given that it's the Pistols we're talking about here, as opposed to some unheralded local outfit)?
TM: The photos just appeared as we dug into the material and slowly found more and more witnesses. I was really excited when I found the first colour photo, but it was never hard to get these photographers to let us use their shots. They were happy to contribute and be credited, as some of them made some money from the two photo exhibitions we did when releasing the book in London and Oslo. We still got photos we didn't use, or from people who found their negatives too late, and some of these are icons too!
CR: I've met people from Norway who say that it's a place with “lots of rules"... :-) If so: what made Norway, Denmark and Sweden such fertile soil for the Sex Pistols (and punk rock), in your opinion? What do the audience members' comments say about Norwegian society, as they knew and experienced it, at the time?
TM: As [in many] socialist/social-democratic countries, Scandinavia was a very regulated part of the world. I think that is a main reason for the Sex Pistols to get an immediate response when they came here. We saw them as liberators. Opposite to the age of the invisible culture, as I like to label the '70s before punk. Besides, Scandinavia is close to the UK geographically (it's one of our neighbor countries). British music has always had a big market here, as well as English football and movies. On the other side, Norway has a different history to the UK, as we were under Denmark for 500 years, and under Sweden up to 1905. The only time we were close to colonize a country outside our own part of the world, was when we were offered Cameroon as a booty from Germany, after they had lost World War I, in 1918. But we settled for Svaldbard instead. I will not speculate in us taking the part of the underdog, but we saw the Pistols as proud contractors able to use their means...
CR: Thirty-plus years on, all the bad stuff that punk was meant to wash away still exists – the gaps between rich and poor, the bloated mainstream music industry (which is arguably more insipid than ever), and the political equation seeming more one-sided, as well...how much progress did we make, then? Or do we have to settle for more incremental change?
TM: I like to see it this way; the hippies wanted to change the world, but there's not been more peace and less wars since the 60s. Punk had no ambitions on changing the world, but only our own daily lives, and I can see we did that. It was never punk's ambition to decrease the gap between rich and poor, that's a socialistic idea. By being the generation to reject the intentions of creating “a better world”, we focused on our own potential. The world is different now to 1977, and I see a liberation an increased awareness of self-realization and a split of centralized power has taken place. The music industry is dying, while musicians can get their tunes out on the Internet on their own, we don't need no multinational corperation to do that for us. DIY and new technology has been the force. We can get gigs through Myspace, Youtube and Facebook!
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