Jon Savage and Matthew Higgs in conversation, Summer 2022
Matthew Higgs: The exhibition’s title refers to a circa 1979 Buzzcocks bootleg album Razor Cuts, which itself was named after the last line of the lyrics of the Buzzcocks’ 1978 single “Love You More” (“Until the razor cuts”). The title - “Razor Cuts” - carries allusions to the physical act of cutting or the ‘violence’ inherent to collage and montage. Can you elaborate on the exhibition’s title, the Buzzcocks, and to your nascent interest, circa 1977–1980, in montage and collage?
Jon Savage: The razor refers to the surgical scalpel that both Linder [Sterling] and I used to cut up the raw material that we used. It was an incredibly precise instrument, which allowed for great detail. The Buzzcocks reference comes from the fact that both Linder and I were very much involved with Buzzcocks in 1977: she had taken a series of photographs of the group and Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley in 1976; I had known them since the summer, and spent a lot of time with them during the Secret Public period, i.e., late 1977 and early 1978.
Punk had freed me up to think that I could express myself in verbal terms—a decision I made in summer 1976, when I decided to be a writer—but the idea of doing any kind of artwork didn’t crop up until I started putting together my first fanzine in November 1976. London’s Outrage had crude, slapped together montages—just cut-ups and cut-outs placed on top of each other—but there was the start of a fascination with urban landscapes and geometrics, taken primarily from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and my fantasies of New York (Ramones, Television).
The fact that visuals could speak as loudly as words: in London’s Outrage 2, published in January 1977, I moved into the world of pure imagery. Based on a series of photographs—now collected as Uninhabited London—that I took around Notting Dale that month, the dozen or so pages mixed simple montages with more sophisticated urban patterns—an approach I continued on the Generation X handbill from March 1977—chronologically the first work in this exhibition.
The mere use of a scalpel was violent. The only time I ever took speed and tried to work, I ended up rolling the end of the scalpel round the tip of my middle finger. Carnage ensued. The soundtrack: “Elevation” by Television.
M.H. You read Classics at Cambridge, graduating in 1975. You moved to Manchester in April 1979 to work as a researcher at Granada Television. Can you say something about your relationship—and engagement—with Manchester prior to moving there in early 1979?
J.S. My engagement with Manchester began in early April 1977, when I saw Buzzcocks properly for the first time at a Roxy Club “punkathon”—they were far and away the best group of the night. I gave them a good review in Sounds: “They sing and play because they have something to say. It isn’t particularly high-flown, brief jottings of everyday small incidents of boredom, frustration and despair, as the supermarkets and motorways spread. The titles tell: “Orgasm Addict”—“Fast Cars”—“Oh Shit”—“Friends Of Mine”—“What Do I Get.” Their image/music mesh is good too—the flat Mancunian accent and laconic dryness fitting the lyrics and the cheap as a siren guitar sound.”
We kept in touch. They signed to United Artists and Andrew Lauder, a friend of mine. I went up to Manchester in October 1977 to interview Howard Devoto and to witness the Last Night at the Electric Circus, a two-day event with a dozen or so groups: the Prefects, the Fall, the Worst, Warsaw, the Drones, Steel Pulse, Buzzcocks. That was my first exposure to Joy Division and a moment that crystalised my fascination with the city: a concert full of love and tenderness and solidarity in the face of considerable adversity.
Because I gave Warsaw a nice mention in a review I was targeted by Rob Gretton, newly appointed Joy Division manager in the summer of 1978: he sent me a cassette of the unreleased RCA album and a note saying it was shit. That got my attention. Shortly after that, I got in touch with Tony Wilson, who helped me get an interview at Granada TV: I was desperate to leave London, he was keen on getting a name music press writer to write about his group and his label. It worked, on both sides.
M.H. You collaborated with the artist-musician Linder Sterling on The Secret Public publication, which you worked on in late 1977 and published in early 1978. Linder had studied Graphic Design at Manchester Polytechnic between 1974–77. (Her fellow Graphic Design students included Peter Saville, 1975–78 and Malcolm Garrett, 1975–78, i.e., a truly extraordinary moment in British design history.) Linder’s collage work famously first appeared on Garrett’s sleeve for the Buzzcocks’ 1977 single “Orgasm Addict.” Can you elaborate on your conversations with Linder and say something about how did your respective ideas/approaches aligned in The Secret Public.
J.S. This is an extract from a letter I wrote to Linder in November 1977: “Enclosed are the latest montages I’ve done—hope you like them... I’m very excited about the idea of doing a magazine—I think our work would mix well together. If we’re going to do a 12-page broadsheet size format (i.e., Anarchy in the UK size) we’ll need 13 montages... I can produce 4/5 right now, using old stuff as well by next week. I’ll try and do 2/3 more to give plenty of choice. Cos don’t forget we need one extra for back/front covers... I don’t know about printing costs etc... Some of them would need screening up from the size they’re at... I can provide up to £100 if necessary but maybe Richard Boon can come up with something between Buzzcocks traumas... it might be cheaper in Manchester too... (should be black and white). Shown your montages to various people—Rough Trade, Viv Goldman, Judy Nylon... general verdict is that they’re amazing—so there you are. New Bowie album is beautiful (dreamt about it last night)—post everything music.”
I first became aware of Linder’s work through the flyer she made for a September 1977 Buzzcocks show at Rafters, Cosmetic Metal Music/Manicured Noise. It had a huge impact on me: the fact that someone was doing what I was trying to do—only a hundred times better. I met her when I visited Howard Devoto in Lower Broughton on that Manchester trip in October 1977, and in the “let’s do it” spirit of the time we decided to work together.
Cut-ups were in the air then, a way of compressing time and cutting through the detritus of twenty years’ plenty—all the livid things you never get to touch. Looking back, both of us were obsessed by what were then non-standard ideas about gender and sexuality. Using old copies of National Geographic and Picture Post, women’s monthlies and pornzines, both Linder and I gave free rein to our subconscious, which resulted in critiques of the social construction of masculinity and femininity, and indeed the nature of obscenity.
Despite the fact that The Secret Public sourced both hetero- and homosexual pornography, we were genuinely surprised when we had trouble trying to find a printer who would print the magazine. As Linder writes, “the one we eventually found wanted paying in cash without receipt. Some left-wing bookshops wouldn’t take TSP because of its content.” It seems obvious to me now that The Secret Public is not overtly erotic and that any sexuality in there is either covert or highly polemical.
I now think that The Secret Public wrote its own script. It was a deliberately hermetic document that forced you to enter on its own terms. There were few concessions to any ideas of marketing and accessibility. Hearts were not worn on the sleeve. It fully explored its dichotomies: coolly designed outer images covering angry, savage montages, women placed in bondage but by their own design, metropolises that offered opportunity and excitement at the same time as they ate you alive.
M.H. The Secret Public was published in January 1978 by the Manchester-based record label New Hormones, which was founded by Richard Boon.The Secret Public was its second release following the Buzzcocks’ debut EP Spiral Scratch. New Hormones seems—even now—somewhat underacknowledged in the cultural histories of the Manchester music scene of the late 1970s/early 1980s, yet Boon’s approach seems to have anticipated that of Factory Records, which would launch more than a year later in January of 1979. Can you say something about Richard’s role in relation to The Secret Public
J.S. The importance of Richard Boon and New Hormones to the idea of independent label activity and indeed decentralisation from London cannot be overestimated. Spiral Scratch was a fantastic record that made it possible and desirable for people to release music without going through the major labels, just as Sniffin’ Glue was a brilliant idea that unleashed hundreds of other xeroxed A4 documents of all shapes and sizes. Richard was a major facilitator in the publishing of The Secret Public, for which I give him enormous credit.
New Hormones was in existence for nearly two years before Factory released any records. Although Factory’s achievements are rightly revered, it’s important to note that there were already three independent Manchester labels in existence by the time of [Factory Records sampler EP] A Factory Sample: New Hormones, Rabid, and Obscure. Having said that, ORG 3, the third release on New Hormones—by the Tiller Boys—didn’t appear until early 1980, as Richard was so busy with Buzzcocks, who were releasing records and touring at a frantic rate: five singles and two LPs in 1978!
M.H. At the time when the works in the current exhibition were conceived/made did the idea of ‘art’ play a role in your thinking? Or put another way, at the time, what did you perceive as the historical precedents for your approach to photography and montage?
J.S. I had no formal training at all, but was inspired by the books and pamphlets I picked up in alternative bookstores like Compendium in London: Dawn Ades’ Photomontage, the dismembering done by Max Ernst and Hannah Hoch, the political savagery of John Heartfield—the modernist era of montage. Then there was Norman Ogue Mustill’s 1960s beat/surrealist Beach Books pamphlet Flypaper and, on the West Coast, Skot Armstrong’s contemporary Science Holiday. I was also aware of Penny Slinger.
M.H. One thing I have always been curious about: Were you, your peers, or Linder looking at Richard Hamilton’s work at this time, i.e., in the late 1970s? Was Hamilton discussed within the context of punk’s embrace of collage/montage? Or was he still more associated with the Swingeing London era of the late 1960s (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Robert Fraser, et al.)?
J.S. Obviously I knew of Hamilton’s iconic 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, and it would have been a subconscious influence, but I don’t remember any discussion of Richard Hamilton at the time.
M.H. Did the Hayward Gallery’s major exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, which ran from January until March 1978, have an impact on the wider interest in collage/montage in the immediate post-punk era, or rather did it simply serve to reaffirm ideas that were already in circulation amongst you and your punk/post-punk peers?
J.S. I must have gone but I have no memory of it. I think it reaffirmed ideas that were already there. The July 1977 John Heartfield exhibition at the ICA in London was a major stimulus for me.
M.H. These works originally circulated in a subcultural context (flyers, posters, zines, etc.), and they were distributed by hand or via record shops, venues, independent booksellers, etc. These works have subsequently circulated in a different cultural context, including gallery and museum exhibitions, within academic publications, etc. What do you think happens to the work’s original intent when the context of both their circulation and their reception shifts?
J.S. There’s some strange correlation between immediacy and legacy that I haven’t totally worked out. It’s very flattering of course, particularly when The Secret Public in particular got so little attention at the time: it was largely met with bafflement. I think that both Linder and I now realise that, in our separate ways, the work contained in that magazine was a kind of blueprint or manifesto for what we have gone on and done in our working lives.
M.H. The works in the current exhibition were made more than 40 years ago, when you were in your mid-20s. How does your relationship with them shift/evolve over time?
J.S. They become more distant from me, which is fine, actually. I can read them more like a visual diary of a place and a time and a series of emotions to do with being a very disaffected and angry young gay man.
M.H. In a 2010 interview with Dazed on the occasion of a show in New York of your work from this period (i.e., the late 1970s), you offered the following: “There is still a lot of interest in punk. In some ways we are actually travelling back to those conditions. Since the late 70s we’ve had 30 years of considerable prosperity. I’m really hoping that things don’t go back to being as desperate as they were at that time but we are going to enter an age of austerity.”
This was twelve years ago. It’s a strangely prescient observation. Since that time, for example, the UK left the European Union (Brexit) and—as you anticipated—entered into yet another new era of austerity. With hindsight, how do you feel about this statement—and the persistent interest in the legacies of the punk/post-punk era—from the perspective of the present?
J.S. When Brexit happened, I was talking to John Wardle [a.k.a. Jah Wobble] and we both agreed that England was going to go right back into the dismal poverty—in spiritual, creative, and financial terms—of 1975. It just seemed obvious. And here we are. I’ve always been a keen observer and tracker of the country’s mood—the way that it feels—and have also been on this planet long enough to see things come and go. But that’s why I got involved with Punk in 1976: apart from the rocket boost to creativity, it was addressing the poor state of the nation.
Despite being a beneficiary of that interest, I don’t analyse the legacies of the punk/post-punk era overmuch but I’d have thought the interest lies in a couple of things. Firstly, the music was fantastic, and there was so much of it. Music is a great time-traveller, and it amazes me, for instance, how much interest there still is in Joy Division. If you’d have said to me in 1979 that they would be one of the biggest rock groups ever, I would have agreed that they deserved it, but that it was highly unlikely.
Secondly, punk and post-punk were ground-up movements that allowed young people to express themselves—and to get noticed—in open, free forums, whether it was music, design, fashion, writing, or publishing in general. That seems very far away in the 21st century, but the quality of the expression makes it still very immediate. It was done quickly, in the heat of the moment, and much of that spontaneity remains encoded in the products of that time. It was certainly true of the images in this exhibition, which were done quickly and without any thought of financial gain or a career. In retrospect, I find that extraordinary.
Matthew Higgs (*1964) is an English curator, writer and publisher and currently director of White Columns in New York. In 2001, he was appointed as a curator at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in 2006 Higgs was one of the Turner Prize judges.