Long Read interview: Joe Corré’s ideology on burning his £5 million punk archive

Joe Corre burns his £5 million punk archive of Sex Pistols and Seditionaries memorabilia

Today is the day Joe Corré’s £5 million punk archive goes up in flames. He’s protesting about Punk London, an official celebration of 40 years of punk. I sat down with him a few weeks ago, after the news had just been announced, to get some more background, find out what the archive means to him and let him get a few things off his chest. Let the rant commence…

DISNEYROLLERGIRL: Let’s start with some background. Where were you in 76/77?
Joe Corre: I was born in 1967 so in 77 I was ten. As a kid growing up in south London, I grew up with a lot of children of the Windrush generation, around Balham, Brixton and our flat in Clapham was sort of the centre of all this activity, surrounding punk rock. Particularly the Sex Pistols and particularly everything that ended up in Seditionaries, or Sex before that, or Let It Rock before that.

So at home my mum [Vivienne Westwood] used to make a lot of stuff in our front room. Our flat was her studio where she would make things for the shop. My father [Malcolm McLaren] spent most of his morning in bed on the phone. There would be people constantly coming round here – he’d still be in bed, signing cheques. People from most bands, Buzzcocks and The Pistols, Bernie Rhodes, the manager of the Clash would come, right through to people like Jean-Charles de Castelbajac who used to live with us for a while. And people like Gene Krell from Granny Takes a Trip – this was in the late 60s early 70s. We also used to have a lot of Hell’s Angels round there too because they used to do a lot of the leatherwork and studding and things like that. It was a hive of creative activity in the build up to punk rock. I guess I say the build up, I don’t know, it kind of exploded at a certain point. After all the ‘filth and the fury’ media backlash, the media machine kind of took over and it exploded.

How were you relating to all this activity? Was it just a normal family environment to you?
Well it was my family home, that was where I lived. We were given a lot of freedom, both me and my half-brother, Ben, and so we’d be out on the streets most of the day playing with kids, climbing over walls and hanging about near the tube station.

I loved all the punk rock thing. I loved people like Steve Jones and the Sex Pistols who used to be round there all the time. He’d do things like pick you up from school and you’d have to be look out while he nicked a beer from Watneys or some geezer or whatever.

One time I used to go to school in Chelsea and I used to always walk from there to the shop in the King’s Road after school and hang around there for a few hours then get the bus home. I was getting the bus all over London from five, six years old. My friends from school never really understood punk rock. No one did, I didn’t really have a lot of people that were into it from that point of view. But it didn’t seem to matter.

All the kids from around the area were immigrant kids. Black people, people from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma. There was a lot of racism; it was a very racist time in the 70s and before that. There were a couple of marked occasions where that became quite evident. One of them was at one point our flat was surrounded by the National Front, who were always calling up, making death threats. They surrounded us, started smashing our windows and I was with my brother Ben, we were hiding in the house and stupidly my father had the light on in one room and so he turned it off so they knew we were in there!

They were shouting through the letterbox and banging on the door, but I looked out the window and I saw all my little immigrant friends with the NF people joining in, smashing our windows. So to me it was like, fucking hell even you’re against us! And I remember later on, it was a bit like that. Once the media had kind of stirred this thing up, I guess after the Bill Grundy show really [legendary foulmouth TV incident], it was ridiculous. I would walk down the street and grown men would spit in my face. I remember getting really badly beaten, just for walking through a block flats, looking a bit punky. Everyone came out and started kicking me in! Johnny Rotten was stabbed, cut up with a machete. People went through a hell of a lot of grief.

From the Sex Pistols’ point of view, the records were banned off the radio, you couldn’t buy them in the shops because most of the major retailers wouldn’t sell them. You couldn’t hear them on the radio, couldn’t play gigs up and down the country as otherwise the council would take the license away from any venue willing to put them on. And they still make it to number one in the charts, but there’s no number one that week. The charts start at number two!

I mean that’s how much we were hated. It made you feel very much like you were on a side that wasn’t everyone else’s side. That’s why I used to go round the shop. I liked it, they were interesting people around there like there were interesting people round our flat.

Can you remember any of the so-called iconic pieces being designed, made, talked about or worn?
I remember sitting under my mum’s sewing machine watching her make a lot of these things. And then I would help her at certain points. I remember making the props for the Great Rock n Roll Swindle film, the Sid Vicious action men dolls, we made all those in the front room. It was just me hanging around helping my mum, doing little alterations, ‘you stick those bits on there’. Or I used to make stuff anyway, I used to like getting all the scraps of fabric and making little clothes for toys and things. I remember a lot of those things I used to keep. I loved the Sex Pistols, I used to keep all the records. I used to get on the tube and go to Shaftesbury Avenue, to the Glitterbest offices (which was my dad’s office), get whatever the latest posters were, the records, badges. I used to get all that stuff, give stuff away to friends or sell a bit of them, you know, make a few quid out of them and keep some and I’ve hoarded it for years.

That was between 8 and 12 years old, then later on finding new things and keeping those as well. It’s been a weird thing, the collection. For many years I’ve wondered what to do with it. I thought, why am I keeping all this stuff? I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do with it all and it means a lot more to me than it means to anybody else.

It was when I started Agent Provocateur I sold loads of it, that’s what gave me the money to be able to start that company. Later on when I sold the company I bought it all back. Why did I buy it back? I don’t know. It’s like Gollum, a precious ring or whatever! Maybe it’s a bit cathartic.

Where do these artifacts live?
Boxes, there’s some in storage, there’s so much stuff – box loads. Which is stupid because it will always stay in boxes and cupboards. I should do something useful with it.

There’s a lot of nostalgia around punk. Did you ever relate to it as a cultural historical movement to be celebrated?
No. It’s absolutely true that fairly quickly after 1978, the mid 80s onwards, pretty soon after the destruction of it all; Sid [Vicious] dying, the band breaking up, all turning to heroin, just becoming more people drinking beer and being sick, you know it all fizzled out. Everyone had a really hard time, and got into a real mess. Ultimately it’s one thing as kids to start smashing things up and saying ‘we don’t like your generation, you can’t tell us anything, we’re gonna do it ourselves, we don’t need you’. Well, what are you going to do? You don’t make something positive to replace it with, what are you gonna do?

And that’s where it fizzled out. In the end all you’re left with is the clothes. That’s what it is now. And I think that happened quite quickly afterwards. So you’ve got this kind of pose that some people have been using ever since. They still wear their stupid clothes, which were never original anyway. I saw this guy in a Time Out article on old punks asking them what they think about me burning my stuff. He had the cheap Chinese bondage trousers on, the leather jacket, you know, the uniform, and he’s got a bloody union jack handkerchief hanging out of his pocket. Now, in 1976 it wasn’t a normal union jack handkerchief. It was cut to fuck, and was held together with safety pins ‘cos it had been exploded and put back together in a creative way to mean something.

He had an England badge, like a St George’s cross and a union jack hanging out, and he’s a ‘punk’. It’s just totally missed the point; it’s just a uniform that doesn’t mean anything. It’s conformist beyond belief. So my point on that is if that’s what it is, then fine. The government can help pay for the uniform and they can be just like Beefeaters and royal guards and Routemaster buses and they can stand around and titillate the tourists and give them directions or something. Fine.

But they don’t want to do that. They don’t want to pay for their uniform; they want these people who are supposed to be doing it for themselves because they’re part of this creative important cultural movement. There’s nothing important, creative and cultural about it!

So what are they celebrating? Forty years? It’s an arbitrary figure that we’re celebrating because we haven’t got a royal wedding this year. So we’re goanna celebrate 40 years of Anarchy in the UK, with the mayor of London, the British Museum, the British Fashion Council, the tourist board, the blah blah blah, it’s ridiculous!

It got my goat a bit because I just thought, OK I fully accept punk rock became a tourist attraction, but if you’re going to take a trip down memory lane, you ought to be accurate about what that trip meant. And if the establishment is celebrating it, then what are you taking part for?

The other point is, it’s about value. Why is this stuff worth anything? Why is it worth a pound, let alone £5 million? Why is it worth anything at all? What did it mean? That’s what the question is about. As soon as you put £5 million on it, everyone’s interested. It’s a nightmare, ‘give it to charity!’ I’ve said it’s worth 5 million, no one else said it, only me.

They’re outraged because its £5 million. They’re outraged by the money value, some people might be outraged like it’s the equivalent of burning books, or burning art therefore it’s sacrilege. My point is, this is about an idea that’s been totally appropriated by the conformist mainstream with the full acquiescence of all the London-raised, spiky-topped punk rockers still around holding their hand out for a bowl of gruel from this establishment. And they’re more conformist than anybody! And that’s why they get annoyed. Cos they know they’re conformists.

Johnny Rotten saying ‘why don’t you give it to charity’. I give loads of money to charity, I do stuff for charity all the time, this is about an idea. The final last dregs of [punk] are about to drop down the toilet and we’re saying hold on a minute, is this stuff worth anything? If so, why? Maybe out of this whole exercise, I might be able to turn it into a cause for good.

What’s your perception of youth culture and what they believe in now?
I think there are some similarities and parallels to be drawn between the 1970s – the No Future generation – and the young generation today. I don’t know what their future is. They’re facing environmental collapse, total corporate takeover of their rights and whatever’s left of democracy, and a town that’s become a coffee shop theme park for rich people who don’t pay their taxes and no one can afford to live here. I’ve been working with Fully Focused, a youth media company, they’re all those kids from the London riots who came out of that and put together a documentary called Riots From Wrong. I’ve been working with those kids for a long time and I see where they’re coming from. They come from council estates and they’ve got no future. The only future for them is to be a drug dealer, or get into crime, that’s all they’ve got.

Are you seeing any other kind of creativity coming out of that?
I think there is; now young people have got their heads around the power of social media and the Internet and the way adults don’t really understand. They’re able to use it as a communication tool, in very interesting ways. Unfortunately however, part of that is that they’re brainwashed to think, ‘can it make you rich?’ Because they equate everything to cash, and who can blame them, they can’t afford to live. You have to take away some of those external pressures. If you can alleviate some of those issues then your brain can start being a lot more creative rather than just surviving. There are things going on but I can’t say I’m really finger on the pulse ‘cause I’m not. I work more on projects that I feel I can actually make a difference. I’ve got skills where I can help to get something moving. I work on a lot of environmental things but I do like to try and help give them a chance.

What artifacts are we talking about that are going on the bonfire?
It’s all Sex Pistols memorabilia; I think I’ve probably got the best collection of unique items ever in the world. I’ve got all the records, the posters, original one-off records, test pressings, props from the movies. I’ve got their clothes, then I’ve got all the Seditionaries clothes and Sex clothes. I’ve got a huge collection of all that stuff. I think I’ve got the door handles from Sex; the shop in the King’s Road, there’s just box loads of stuff. I mean I just kept a load of stuff and also, I sold a lot at one point in order to finance Agent Provocateur. We didn’t have anything to finance it, it was what I had from working for my mother. I sold my car and whatever else I could find to sell but it wasn’t enough to start Agent Provocateur. I think I started that company with thirty grand, of which at least 20 came from memorabilia. And then I bought it back years later and I bought back a load of stuff that these other people had collected as well so I got all of that stuff.

And how are you going to destroy it?
We’re thinking of putting it on a boat down the Thames, and setting a light to it down there. The other bit we’re working on doing is selling the exclusive film rights. There are other people who are very supportive who’ve said they’ve got stuff they want to throw in as well. So people can submit things, then we’ll sell the film rights and use that as something good to put focus on homeless people, make a statement and get the money to do something good with it.

Are you just doing this to get attention?
Yeah well that’s just another conformist view. It’s not about me. It’s about whether punk rock actually meant anything on one level. And it’s about trying to get people to get their head around the difference between price and value. It’s about drawing attention to the hypocrisy of these establishment institutions now making money out of these pastiche versions. How long’s it going to be before they put a Queen’s jubilee mug with a safety pin through her nose in the palace gift shop? It’s not long is it? Forty years to go from public enemy number one to everyone seeing the UK as the birth of punk, so that’s now a valued tourist attraction item that we can use. Well go ahead but people like me will have something to say about it.

Have you had any good support for your cause?
There’s been a hell of a lot of reaction and that’s what’s important. That’s what I wanted. I wanted a reaction, I wanted people to say should he, shouldn’t he, why should he, why shouldn’t he? I didn’t start this with a master plan, this is someone giving me an opening goal and saying do you want to be a conformist and join this thing like everybody else and celebrate Punk London?

I think you’ve got to stand up for what’s real and if they want to take a trip down memory lane then take a real trip down memory lane. It’s not about Burberry doing punk rock fashion week. What’s Burberry representing? The most conformist institution going. The uniform provider for conformity. The old punk rockers should wear that, maybe Burberry can sponsor them. In the end, the burning event is the least of it. What’s important is the discussion. And whether in fact it has any value at all anymore. And hopefully at the end of it we’ll have a decision – is it worth something or not?

POST SCRIPT: Do you want the romantic version of punk history? The souvenir tee (literally), or do you want the truth? This is the emotion behind Corre’s actions and I think it’s rather admirable to still care so much. It’s hard to get a true picture of Vivienne and Malcolm’s story – everyone seems to have a different version of it. Which I guess is what makes it so very very interesting. But if you do want the cultural artifacts, there are still plenty around. Mick Jones’ (of The Clash) Rock n Roll Public Library is a brilliant travelling museum of punk that’s a great storytelling device if you need one.

But the point that I think Corré’s critics are missing is the message, not the medium. It’s not like he’s having a declutter and can’t think of a better way to dispose of everything. He’s angry that punk has come to represent something trite and cosy instead of the rebellion and energy it should represent, especially now. Punk has become a national treasure, we feel we have ownership of it. How very dare someone feel he has the right to destroy that heritage. Do I romanticise about punk? Hell yeah. Do I relate to Corré’s ideology? Absolutely. More than anything I admire his commitment to the idea he wants to express. It’s easy to back down in the age of peer opinion, it takes huge self belief to follow through.

You can follow #BurnPunkLondon on social media here.

WORDS AND IMAGE: Navaz Batliwalla/Disneyrollergirl
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