Updated 28 May 2016
On the very day I heard about Van Morrison being knighted in 2015’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, I read an interesting piece in the London Times about a Sex Pistols credit card being issued by Virgin Money. “Put a bit of rebellion in your wallet”, went the merchandising.
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When Sid Vicious killed his girl friend, Nancy, then overdosed on heroin at just 21, Ben felt vindicated about the purity of punk. It has been a long, slow path to disillusionment, he writes.
The Sex Pistols manager, Malcolm McClaren, “Manufactured the Sex Pistols and moulded them into his own Situationalist art project ‘just the way a sculptor uses clay’. But the band was also a way ‘to sell trousers’, as McClaren put it, and extract maximum profit. The band’s name was always intended as a brand, rude enough to sell but not so offensive as to be unprintable on merchandise. Their very artificiality was always part of the joke.
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“The profitability was ring-fenced with armour-plated irony: when your single is called ‘Flogging a Dead Horse’ and you reunite for a ‘Filthy Lucre’ tour, the charges of hypocrisy don’t stick. The promotional poster for the Pistols’ ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ single featured a mocked-up American Express card warning that unscrupulous money-men in the record industry were out to make ‘unlimited cash’. The poster was withdrawn after American Express sued. Back in 1979 no respectable bank wanted to be linked to the Pistols. In 2015, we have a marriage between punk and a bank.”
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In the end, Ben Macintyre’s mate was right, he says. “The Sex Pistols were heavily marketed poseurs out to make some fast cash from the kids. But I was right too. They were a hugely powerful cultural phenomenon, leaders of the rebellion that was fierce, transforming, lucrative and extremely funny.”
So, the final capitulation between punk and capitalism is upon us. The new credit card features artwork from ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and is available at up to 18.9 per cent interest.
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But such a moment has been coming for a long time. It was Malcolm McLaren who came up with that fabulous British Airways TV advertising campaign based upon the opera, ‘La Boheme’. Johnny Rotten now advertises Country Life butter on British television, and sales have gone through the roof. Iggy Pop, too, stars in British TV commercials (and the back of London buses) selling car insurance. You even get ‘The Ramones’ featured on cushions sold in high street stores.
And now we have Sir Van Morrison, knighted for his services to music and Northern Ireland tourism. The Belfast-born troubadour can now join Sir Mick, Sir Paul, Sir Bob, Sir Elton, Sir Tom and Sir Cliff wherever Sirs go to mingle. Before we know it, Keith Richards will be getting a knighthood next. Wouldn’t that be something?