Caught by the River

Way Across The River by Jon Savage

31st May 2012

It was supposed to be secret: a boat trip held by the notorious Sex Pistols – high in the charts with ‘God Save The Queen’ – on the evening of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. My friend Steven Lavers told me about it on the day. I was determined to go, so I called up the Sex Pistols’ urbane PR, Al Clark, from the Sounds office and threatened to tell everyone unless he put my name on the list.

Al submitted to these cheap blackmail tactics with his customary charm. A few hours later I was jostling to walk up the plank of the “Queen Elizabeth”, which was moored at Westminster Pier. It was the usual fight to get into a Sex Pistols event, with the ever-present threat that you wouldn’t get in, just like at the Notre Dame Hall in March – their first gig with Sid.

By this point, the Sex Pistols were well into their mythic, paranoid stage. They were carrying too much baggage: the repository of England’s hopes and fears, depending on which side of the divide you were. They hadn’t played in London since April, and that was another last minute private party type of event at the Screen on the Green. So the whole thing was fraught from the start.

This Monday was the bank holiday, the climax of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. This anniversary was a huge national event and the Sex Pistols had become the standard bearers for everyone who thought that the whole thing was a rotten lie. This was not the majority view. As the only obvious refuse¬niks, Punks were public enemies: to be on the boat at all was to step outside the law.

Once the boat set off, the actual party was grim: the weather was awful, people were speeding their brains out, the Sex Pistols were grumpy and aloof. The atmosphere was uptight. Like the Jubilee as a whole, it was supposed to be fun but it wasn’t. We were stuck there, going up and down the Thames, from Battersea to Rotherhithe, waiting for something.

The river was threatening that day. There weren’t any other vessels around and very little sign of life on the embank¬ment or other parts of the riverfront. It felt like the boat had cast off into a psychic black hole. As Derek Jarman wrote that summer, in the script for Jubilee: ‘now is the time of depar¬ture. The last streamer that ties to what is known parts. We drift into a sea of storms’.

Things started to hot up when day-glo banners advertis¬ing the Sex Pistols and God Save The Queen were hung down the ship’s sides. The captain had been told by Virgin Records that a German synthesizer group would be playing. When he saw what was actually going on, he was not happy and was look¬ing for any excuse to terminate the event as quickly as possible.

When the group finally appeared there was a tremendous sense of excitement and release. They were shoehorned into a small covered area at the back of the upper open deck. Conditions were far from ideal: the wind whipped away the sound, already hobbled by dreadful feedback. Sid Vicious didn’t do very much, so Steve Jones and Paul Cook worked very hard to keep everything going.

That left the burden of performance on Johnny Rotten. He did brilliantly, but you could see what an effect the whole weight of expectation was having on him. It was all too much for his young shoulders. I was a few feet away from the group and all I could think about was that Iggy line from the Stooges’ Gimme Danger: ‘there’s nothing left of life/ But a pair of glassy eyes’.

The Sex Pistols began by playing Anarchy in the UK as the boat went past the Houses of Parliament: a fantastic moment of theatre. It felt as though they were dramatising our rejection of the false consciousness of the Jubilee. Instead of facing the realities of recession-hit England in 1977, most of our countrymen were dreaming of empire and post-war glory, were partying like it was 1947.

The full length version of Way Across The River can be found in the newly published paperback edition of ‘Caught by the River: A Collection of Words on Water’. On sale from our shop, priced £12.00.