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International Swingers: "Punk Rock Was More About Conformity and Nonconformity Than Protest"

The International Swingers: Clem Burke, Gary Twinn, James Stevenson, and Glen Matlock.
The International Swingers: Clem Burke, Gary Twinn, James Stevenson, and Glen Matlock.
Dawn Laureen

Last night, the International Swingers rolled into 910 Live in Tempe and blasted out some big hits from rock 'n' roll lore, which is apropos, considering the punk supergroup's stature and history. Sex Pistols/Iggy Pop alumni and bassist Glen Matlock, guitarist/vocalist Gary Twinn of Supernaut fame, and onetime Generation X/Gene Loves Jezebel member James Stevenson took the crowd on a time warp into rock yesteryear on Wednesday night with covers of their former bands' hits, including "God Save the Queen" and "No Fun."

They also performed a number of International Swingers originals, like the politically motivated "Gun Control," perfectly illustrating how the band goes betwixt polemic and entertainment, pop overtones and punk rancor. The bandmates discussed whether the music they'd created with their most famous bands was about politics and protest or just plain old rock 'n' roll during a sitdown interview with Up on the Sun at English pub George and Dragon on Tuesday, the night before their concert. Matlock, for instance, told us, "It depends on how serious you take [the music]," since "at the end of the day, I'm an entertainer."

The role of a their previous hits as potential protest songs of the late '70s and early '80s were just one of the more cerebral (and poltical-oriented) topics covered during our lengthy chat with the International Swingers. It isn't every day that you get to hangout with members of rock 'n' roll royalty, which caused us to feel more than a little bit intimidated going into the interview.

Nevertheless, we took the opportunity to three of the bandmates that hail from countries in the British Empire ask what their feelings were about the passing of infamous former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and their answers were a bit surprising, to say the least, including Stevenson stating, "I just wish everyone would fuckin' leave it alone."

Other contentious topics discussed, which are covered in the second of our two-part interview with the Swingers, include Matlock's feelings about being called "a bit of a wanker" by his former Sex Pistols bandmate Steve Jones and how Bob Dylan is perhaps the punkest non-punk of them all.

A while ago Steve Jones called you a bit of a wanker and a mommy's boy. What was your reaction to that?

Glen: Nobody would've heard of Steve Jones if I hadn't done what I'd done.

Clem: You know, Steve Jones is basically kinda full of shit. I had a band with him in 1984 called Checkered Past; we made one record for EMI America, and we were all -- we just liked rock and roll music. There was no pretense about who was a punk and who was this or that. I think he's gone on record that there's tons of stuff he likes that wouldn't be considered punk.

I think a lot of people ply their reputation, and they kind of have to say things a certain way in order for them to sound "punk"; let's put it that way.

Steve is a friend of mine, but he's a very . . . sort of complicated young man.

James: Steve accused Glen of being in this band with us, and doing the same old thing all the time, and I want to say that if anybody knows about doing the same old thing all the time it's Jonesy, so . . . you know, leave my mate alone.

Glen: [Laughs] He's a professional Englishman.

Clem: But we love Steve Jones!

This question's for the members of the empire -- what was your reaction when you heard Margaret Thatcher had passed

James: You know what -- for everyone it was a very divisive thing, but for me it was so long ago that she was in power in the UK . . . I just wish everyone would fuckin' leave it alone. It doesn't matter. She was in power 30 years ago, she was a divisive figure.

A lot of the stuff that I thought at the time that she did was really, really terrible, but as I got older I realized that maybe she had to do it. Like, if you want to get political we can get into a whole thing there, which I don't really want to do in this interview.

But one example I'll give you is that when the miners' union, when her and Arthur Scargill were at loggerheads, you had secondary picketing where the miners were picketing hospitals, deciding which ambulances could get through to the emergency room. And you cannot have that -- she had to smash that, which is what she did. But then a lot of other stuff she did was really, you know . . . people say she decimated communities, but do you really think the British mining industry would've survived if she hadn't -- it wouldn't've survived anyway.

Glen: It's a really tough call. I hated her, obviously, at the time...

James: I have a vintage-guitar store in London, and my partner, his wife is Scottish, and she has had a bottle of champagne in the freezer in her fridge for 20 years, waiting for Maggie to die. And she opened it, you know, a few weeks ago. So that's the kind of figure she was.

The reason I bring it up is that you guys are identified with -- as cliché as this sounds --

Glen: They were tough days you know, hard days.

You were identified with the youth movement, with some degree of protest music from that era...

Glen: But one thing people always forget is when punk came out, Thatcher wasn't in government.

After the jump: "I think that punk rock wasn't about protest -- it was more about conformity and nonconformity than protest."

 

James: I think that punk rock wasn't about protest -- it was more about conformity and nonconformity than protest. There's a massive difference between the two things.

Glen: You've got to remember what music was going on before the whole punk explosion. All the . . . namby-pamby kind of music, and then everybody else were like superstars who were like the aristocracy of rock 'n' roll looking down on everybody else. And punk really was about do it yourself, start again, reboot.

James: I can remember seeing on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975, there was this band called Racing Cars. They were like, "This is the new thing," and I just thought, "This cannot be true. And then punk came, thank God.

Glen: I remember the first time I heard the New York Dolls. It was like, at least there was some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.

Clem: It depends on how serious you take it. I really think at the end of the day, I'm an entertainer. But then I was in a bubblegum band, you know? I like the 1910 Fruitgum Company, I like the Archies. "Sugar Sugar" is one of my favorite songs. I wanted to get on the radio.

Glen: Why don't you guys do that? Debbie would sing that great.

Clem: I've been begging to do "Sugar Sugar" for years. But I wasn't in his position [points to Glen], he was more political. These guys.

Glen: When I was in school, all the people who really took their music seriously would come in with these progressive rock albums . . . and everybody looked down at, like, T-Rex, but now everyone remembers T-Rex.

Is that just the nature of music, to constantly reinvent itself, sample the old?

Glen: You've got to just give it a go somehow.

Clem: We've all played with a lot of people, and people always ask me who would you like to play with now? And I always say Little Richard and Chuck Berry. That's the essence of rock 'n' roll. I mean, we're rock 'n' roll musicians. I think the one precedent punk set was that it brought back the roots of rock 'n' roll . . . I think what everyone was trying to project was the idea of the basics of rock 'n' roll, and the essence of it.

Glen: You've got to put it in the context of what was going on with all the progressive rock bands and all the high-flying "15 Lives of Henry XIX" or whatever it was . . . we were just trying to simplify things, and make it that kind of youth club thing that it was first . . . like skiffle.

Clem: But it is an evolution, you know. Artists always take from other artists. Because most people were musicians and wanted to be successful. It wasn't like, you know, they were trying to . . . Music itself changes things. Music is like oxygen. Without it, the world would be a much more boring place.

After the jump: Is punk inherently political? Is it possible to protest Barack Obama? Is American Idiot a major political statement?

 

Clem: How do you feel about punk rock? You think it's like, more, serious -- this big political movement with a manifesto?

I'm not going to lie. Some of my favorite bands are politically oriented or straight edge . . .

Clem: Like Midnight Oil or Fugazi or the Clash?

Yeah.

Clem: My favorite artist is super politically oriented -- Bob Dylan. He's the greatest politically motivated artist of all time. You know, he changed the world. Was he punk? I don't think so -- maybe he was. What do you think of Green Day?

That's a big question. What do I think of them now?

Clem: No, I mean their motives. They made one of the most politically motivated records of all time, American Idiot, and during the George Bush era.

It wasn't as good as Dookie, I guess.

Clem: But wasn't that a major political statement?

I guess, but it wasn't as profound as, say, Maggie's Farm, or . . .

Glen: What's different is anybody can make a really good point literally and write out a good lyric attacking this, that, and the other, but to put it in an accessible popular form is a real art form. People all around the world realized that Americans weren't kind of puppets of George Bush, just through that one song. I thought that was quite an achievement.

Clem: Because there's a whole thing of certain people that will go unnamed saying that Green Day is just a Sex Pistols rip-off, but I think the fact that they made American Idiot at the time and place that they made it, with the degree of success that they had, was a major political statement, but people still put them down for being so-called commercial.

The thing is, what kind of protest songs do punk bands right now? I mean, do we protest against Obama?

Clem: Why would you protest against Obama? There's no reason to protest against Obama. People protest against Obama because they're racist. He's fucking the best thing that's ever happened to the United States in the past 50 years.

Glen: I agree. Or at least since Bill Clinton.

James: When you talk about a band like the Clash, people say they're a really political band. But really they were just talking about the state in which we lived. It was politics in the broader sense. They weren't left or right wing, you know.

Glen: They weren't evangelizing or preaching.

James: They were among the greatest rock 'n' roll bands of all time. That's what's important, really.


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