Director: Nigel Askew
In 2016, Joe Corré, the son of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood, committed an act of iconoclasm. He burnt the punk archive, estimated at £5 million, on a boat in the middle of the Thames. It promised to be a spectacular event, with collectors hoping to pilfer the odd safety pin or poster before the whole pyre would go up in flames. In reality, the occasion was a damp squib with the archive disappointingly only filling a tea chest; the fire brigade was easily able to moor alongside the boat and put out the fire with their extinguishers. It was an underwhelming end to Punk.
Nigel Askew’s film examines the reason why Corré chose to set light to the archive instead of selling it and donating the money to charity. As the co-founder of lingerie company Agent Provocateur, presumably Corré didn’t the need the money for himself. In the 1970s, punks were often called the No Future Generation as in a time of high unemployment and social unrest young people had few opportunities. But now because of climate change, the world itself has No Future. Torching the archive – mainly, it seems, comprised of clothes designed by his mother –is a way of waking up the media to engage with environmental issues.
Mostly featuring Corré and Vivienne Westwood, Wake Up Punk assumes that the audience knows the Punk story already. Those viewers who don’t will have to navigate their way through snippets of information that mention how, between them, Westwood and McLaren managed and dressed The Sex Pistols. McLaren engineered the band’s assault on British society and then on the Queen, celebrating her 25th Jubilee in 1977. It’s now hard to comprehend how potent their mix of snarling anarchy and childlike nihilism was to a Britain ravaged by industrial strikes.
Never Mind the Bollocks was the title of The Sex Pistols’ only album, its name so offensive that many newspapers refused to print it in their music charts. But these bollocks have long been castrated and Punk has lost its power. It’s not so much that Punk has sold out, but more that Punk has been commandeered by the system that it was created to attack. In 2016, to celebrate the birth of the subculture, Punk London was set up, sponsored by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and endorsed by the Mayor of London, at the time Boris Johnson.
Perhaps the worst sign of the corporate take-over of Punk is the Virgin credit card emblazoned with the name of The Sex Pistols album and another with the name of the first single, Anarchy in the UK. Richard Branson’s record company signed The Sex Pistols after EMI and A&M pulled out after the band’s bad behaviour but it seems no excuse for such blatant marketing. The film shows a protest outside the Museum of London, which held a very small exhibition on Punk in 2016 making it something historical, something in the past tense.
Corré suggests that, on the contrary, Punk still lives and that climate change protesters are the new Punks, but the argument is not very convincing, and surely they are much too well-behaved and socially acceptable than the likes of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious who wore swastikas to provoke the older generations. Also hard to swallow is Westwood’s claim that today’s politicians are the anarchists. Calling self-serving and out-of-touch politicians ‘anarchists’ seems like a compliment rather than a slur and there are more visceral words to describe our incompetent leaders.
Wake Up Punk works best when it follows Corré planning his fiery coup de theatre, but because McLaren once compared himself to Fagin, Askew also adds segments of a Dickensian tale about children trying to escape from a Steam-Punk workhouse. The ragged and grimy children patronisingly describe the workings of capitalism. With Corré and Westwood both acting in the tale, this step into allegory is toe-curlingly awful and you have to wonder whose idea it was.
With a lot of this movie containing footage from 2016, Askew’s film feels a little dated already, and its release in May 2022 is perhaps to coincide with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. A lot has happened since 2016, and only a few months ago Johnny Lydon took part in the American version of The Masked Singer. It demonstrates how establishment the old Punks have become now, an insult also directed at Corré in 2016 at a talk about Punk. Corré mentions in interview the rumour that as part of the initiation ceremony of the Oxford University Bullingdon Club, Boris Johnson burnt a £50 note in front of a homeless man. Isn’t Corré doing the same thing in setting light to a collection of punk artefacts worth £5 million?
Wake Up Punk will coming to select cinemas from 5 May and will be available On Demand from 9 May.