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Punk Publishing Practices:
The Savoy Archive and etc.
iiii Residency

Hannah Nussbaum


It’s a familiar yarn that punk and its progeny —
the post-punks,
industrial cultures,
no-waves —
were variously strong drinks with heady hangovers — before they were diluted, rinsed-out, and rendered to beatification vis a vis the unquenchable thirst of cultural capitalism. But before recuperation, there was a moment of genuinely anti-establishment defiance, playing out in foci such as San Francisco, LA, New York in America, and Manchester, and London in the UK, fuelled, as we have been told, by the economic crisis of the 70s, the total penetration of global markets, the de-industrialization of cities, disillusionment with utopian psychedelica, and a media-driven environment of foot-loose spectacle. All of this combined to produce the disenfranchised youth, who were employing and performing nihilistic distortions of the signs and symbols of everyday life.

The moment was diffuse, covering two decades: the birth of punk in the early seventies and its transmutations and permutations all the way through to the end of the eighties. Punk leaked into post-punk (which ran with the DIY ethic of punk, but brought in a wider variety of references in a sort of post-mod genre bricolage). Pre-recuperation, punk (and its progeny) was a populist folk movement by virtue of its bottom-up politics and sloganeering simplicity (we are alienated!), and it evolved, as punk marched towards post-punk, into what Mark Fisher has described as popular modernism: class consciousness X popular culture X post-war avant-garde sensibility, dancing around leftwing libertarianism, anarchy, and a specific strain of anti-establishment gallows humour, hijinks and pranking.

It’s well-trodden territory to point out that punk maps onto the same grim pyramid model that all the rest of the avant-gardes do. Originators and early adopters at the top (the first slough of anti-humanist Grand Guignol trailblazers, nihilistic perverts, and abject satirists) followed by a process of photocopying, recuperation, and assimilation into the market. Fashion follows art, picking up its golden shit. The result was that, as Michael Lucas points out in his writing on Re/Search (a punk publishing operation in San Francisco), the most ‘punk’ participants in the movement — that is, those who were most resistant to recuperation and commodification — moved away from an interest in the rock-n-roll and music-per-say elements of punk, and towards other mediums: literature, print culture, performance art, cultural esoterica. For this reason, the later stages of punk saw an explosion into different mediums, perhaps best documented in New York’s ‘No Wave’ scene, which on the heels of punk turned into a ‘vast insane asylum’ (Lydia Lunch’s words) of film, performance, art and literature.

These peripheral manifestations of punk constituted the scraps of the movement that slinked into the shadows, just beyond the reach of the long dog-catchers’ net of culture’s endgame. If the music of the era got swallowed up by lad-rock, the spirit of punk lived on in the form of underground publishing and little magazine networks — not fan-zines so much as writing mired in punk negation,
shock tactics,
gallows humour,
B-grade pulp horror,
Mondo culture,
abject anti-art despondency,
the carnivalesque,
extreme burlesque.
Fiction and text experiments too weird to recuperate or never commercially viable enough to see the light of day, and subsequently ripped off and sanitized, (or else too pulpy to begin with), passing, as it were, for ‘always already en masse’.

Punk humour, perhaps, was one of its most wickedly adversarial and rabble-rousing constituent pieces, and it was through the medium of text and print culture —
situationist-esque gonzo journalism,
pulp publishing —
that this humour, satire if you like, was distributed. And the remarkable thing about satire (no, here let’s call if dark parody for the sake of moving away from the somewhat toothless connotation of the word) is that it is self-designed to avoid recuperation. It cannot, in fact, be recuperated because its very logic inverts the process. Of course, not all punk humour was parody: some of it relied on strategies of shock, spectacle, and deconstructivist sensibilities (think doggerel, pata-physical absurdity, collapse in meaning entirely). A. Keith Goshorn puts it well in his analysis of LA cult punk film ‘Repo Man’:

“[Punk] may be considered an appropriately postmodern phenomenon in that its instinctive gestures resulted in a paradoxical strategy of “mirroring” back to that dominant culture an unavoidable graphic caricature of the worst excesses of that culture in order to register some form of protest and dissent”.

Where have we landed?
Punk print culture and its attendant strategies of comedy.


By way of that sufficiently prolix introduction enters SAVOY, the Manchester-based underground publishing operation whose history I stumbled across in my burgeoning fascination with the working theory that ‘some of the most psychotic, disruptive, and critically important energy to come out of the UK punk scene was actually through the medium of text, rather than music’.

Savoy is still around, sort of, has a website that looks straight out of web 1.0, with a big red banner that reads: SAVOY: ENGLAND'S TRULY ALTERNATIVE AND AUTOTELIC PUBLISHING COMPANY. An underground punk publishing operation which gained some celebrity in Manchester’s underground in the second half of the twentieth century, Savoy, happily, has retained a sprawling, if water-damaged archive.

Perhaps the first accolade to mention is that Savoy is the most banned publishing company in the history of Britain. It was run by two capriciously skull-handy men — David Britton and Michael Butterworth — who enjoyed rabble-rousing, and writing discomforting prose around taboo and transgressive topics: sexual deviance, fascism, scatology, and often permutations of the three with smatterings of Alfred Jarry references and anthropomorphic concrete poetry.

Britton and Butterworth established Savoy in the late 1970s, after being introduced to one another in 1972 by their printer John Muir. Both Britton and Butterworth were active in the counter-cultural little mag scene in Manchester and London. Butterworth was a writer for avant-garde science fiction publication New Worlds and an editor of Corridor (which would later be renamed Wordworks) and was connected to a variety of other broadly speaking ‘punk’ little magazines satelliting around his peer group (magazines like Other Times, Ugly Duckling, Kudos, Grass Eye, FRENDZ). David Britton was also a small press editor, writer, and illustrator, who at the time of his introduction to Butterworth was publishing amateur magazines under a variety of titles — ‘Weird Fantasy’ and ‘Crucified Toad’, primarily — publications with a Lovecraftian style, bizarre and gruesome illustrations, and a propensity for collaged picaresque and Victorian imagery — a distorted vision of art nouveau cut with horror fandom. Andrew Darlington has described Britton’s early little magazine work as having ‘elements of Beardsley’s euphoric pornographic art colliding with Magritte-complex mind-game landscapes of ludicrous and bizarre juxtaposition, all enacted across in-the-head Victorian drawing rooms’. At the time of their meeting, Britton was running an independent bookshop in Manchester called House on the Borderland (which also stocked comics,
underground records,
occult oddities,
U.F.O paraphernalia and
“books of a generally bizarre nature”).

House on the Borderland would later become Savoy, Butterworth and Britton’s co-run publishing platform, bookshop, and small press. Together, their sensibilities were deeply new weird, plowing together superheated nightmares, dandyism, and psychotically fashionable fete-champetre-fuckery. They carved out a wormhole at the centre of a repelling and decadent bookish constellation —
The Wind in the Willows,
Ubu Roi,
Fudge & Speck,
The Satanic Verses,
Mumbo Jumbo,
Naked Lunch,
The Picture of Dorian Gray,
H.P Lovecraft,
Under their choreography, Savoy became a cottage industry of vexingly chaotic print literature, little magazines, pulpy comics, bootleg records, soft-core pornography, obscure B-films, and new-wave sci-fi. As a small press and brick and mortar shop (which became three shops), Savoy functioned as an ambient appendage to Manchester’s punk and post-punk scene, directly linked to Michael Moorcock’s proto-punk band ‘Hawkwind’ and also to Joy Division: Ian Curtis and Stephen Morris, along with the rest of ‘punk’ Manchester — the Buzzcocks, Factory Records and so on — were avid patrons of Savoy, and Butterworth was present in a number of New Order recording sessions (and would later pen ‘Blue Monday Diaries’ recounting them).

But in a concerted effort to squelch this bottom-up fomentation of youth collectivity, and on account of Savoy’s transgressive material and bootleg side hustle, Manchester’s Chief Constable James Anderton began a two-decade-long crusade against Savoy, resulting in their bankruptcy and veritable purging from Manchester’s post-punk scene. Anderton’s Thatcherite moral campaign project (led by his so-called ‘Vice Squad) led around 70 raids of the Savoy shops throughout the eighties, with associated obscenity charges, fat legal bills, and outraged media coverage. Throughout the course of these raids, Savoy was given, if we are to extract a silver lining from this history of censorship, a golden-goose of primary source material to satirize. The antics of Anderton are lifted and aped in a variety of Savoy publications, as are the various outraged headlines, letters, and condemnations from Tory MPs. It all provided fodder for a graphic and textual detournement of a variety of stripes. And certainly, the satire (gallows humour, dark caricature, black parody, whatever it is we have decided to call it) deployed by Savoy must be dealt with critically.

That it has been so largely neglected as a literary operation and watershed art moment in English history, only recently taken up by a soupçon of academics and artists interested in new-weird literature, punk parody, and avant-garde horror fiction, speaks to its serious register of difficulty — that is, to the dark political and ethical wilderness surrounding Savoy’s textual and inter-textual manoeuvres. They occupied a distinctly anti-liberal and also anti-conservative grey area. This grey area is anarchical, but also points towards a frustration — present in the eighties and nineties and indeed today — with the fundamental incompatibility between mainstream leftwing politics (and need it be said, also mainstream rightwing politics) and transgressive sexual and aesthetic gestures.

What then of the Savoy archive? It is a coalfield of punk comedy, a testament to the working theory that some of the most transgressive and provocative punk gestures happening in the eighties, in the UK that is, where taking place in the context of independent publishing, specifically independent publishing in Manchester.

What will follow is something of a tour through this specific swathe of research — a discursive, rhizomatic, unfocused tour, one in which bits and pieces of the Savoy archive will function as prisms and jumping-off points through which one might extract some small insight about punk humour — both its intellectual poverty but also its immensely generative potential. In the chaotic and tentacular and laterally thinking spirit of Savoy, this research excursion will include variously related interventions associated with post-punk literary reference points, work merely tangentially related to the Savoy archive, and still more tangential contemporary culture connected to bleak comedy, leftwing trolling, and hijinks — all at the discretion or indiscretion of iiii and collaborators.