Interview by Manisha Ganguly

“Welcome to the Great Punk Rock Swindle!”, Joe Corre announces, as a chest full of Sex Pistols posters slowly catches fire. A little further away, fireworks explode, lighting up the barge. Dummies of Theresa May, David Cameron, Boris Johnson, dressed in vintage punk attire slowly incinerate as behind it all, a giant banner reads, “Extinction: Your Future”.

On 26 November, 2016, Corre, son of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, and designer and activist Vivienne Westwood, set fire to £5million worth of punk memorabilia on a barge, to protest the state celebration of the 40th anniversary of punk (the release of the Sex Pistols single ‘Anarchy in the UK’). The stunt went viral, drawing harsh criticism from some who thought the memorabilia was best auctioned for charity, while others lauded it as a “punk” anti-establishment gesture. Lost in the polarised coverage was Corre’s central message about climate change, which was supported by Westwood, founder of Climate Revolution, with a speech about switching to renewables as part of the spectacle.

We meet with Corre to talk about climate change, his stunt and the death of punk, labels, and fashion.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Wikipedia calls you a “social militant” – do you think that’s an apt description or a liberal definition?

It’s just a label isn’t it? For someone who fights for social things? It’s like “domestic extremist”- what’s that supposed to mean? You go from social militant to domestic extremist [laughs]. The trouble with labels is that definitions are changing rapidly. With Corbyn coming back into Labour, you’ve got this idea of socialism coming in. Until that point people didn’t really know what the Labour party was with Tony Blair. I don’t know if I’m more into social change or climate change, I think the latter is far more desperate.

Do you think they’re inter-linked, with some social processes functioning as a distraction from climate change?

Aldous Huxley wrote about the idea of hypnopædia: nationalist ideology, non-stop distraction and organised lying; a daily pill you take. He set out non-stop distraction as the worst because when you’re not even focused you don’t realise what’s happening. We live in a very manipulated and controlled world where nobody knows what the hell is going on, with Brexit and Trump.

Though Trump is more interesting than Clinton. Clinton was the Darling of Goldman Sachs and the arms industry: you know she’ll drone you; it’s business as usual, corrupt deals to keep on this perpetual war machine. With Trump you’ve just got someone who’s like a blob- an ego package who’s not a member of that club. The club looked down on him thinking he’s a bit brash and full of himself but they’re also scared of him. And he doesn’t know what he’s doing either so there’s more chance of him accidentally doing something quite good.

For the 40th anniversary of punk, there was a huge furore about your barge burning spectacle. A lot of people didn’t seem to understand the motive behind the stunt- why do you think your act was misinterpreted?

There’s a huge gap between culture and politics now. There’s just this obsession with money and price. People know the price of everything but don’t know the value of it, and let’s be honest here- who said the stuff I burnt was worth five million pounds? I did. That’s how cynical it was. People didn’t even want to know how it was worth five million pounds. They said, how dare you! They don’t even know what I’m burning- just some “stuff” worth this amount.

Joe Corre’s Studio

Did the media, while covering the stunt, try to find out what you burnt?

Halfheartedly. They printed the story they wanted to write- it was a trigger. In a situation where people don’t have any money, suddenly there’s a story of somebody who’s going to burn all this value -that’s shocking. What I was trying to do was actually talk about values themselves- and how we’re obsessed with price but don’t know values anymore. Particularly, in London, where everything’s being bought and sold.

Nobody owns punk rock. Growing up through the 1970s, I have witnessed in my lifetime the sell-off of everything from school playing fields to prisons, water, electricity. So, it felt like punk rock was being packaged and sold off. It was about privatising ideas – we now own the idea of punk- and everybody from the British Museum and Library, British Fashion Council, to the Tories were involved. Like punk rock credit cards or punk rock car insurance, a commodity to add to cool Britannia. “Please come to England to visit our punks.”

It was an opportunity to say, No, I don’t think you can’t have it. Because you can’t just have ideas. I’m not really interested in punk or punk rock, it happened a long time ago. I was in a unique position where I could use the platform to talk about some important things.  

There were 2 main objections to your act, most vocally by Henry Rollins in LA Weekly: he said it was disrespectful to the artists and that you could have donated the five million pounds to charity- would you like to address these concerns?

The artist, Vivienne Westwood, who designed those clothes, gave a speech on the barge. Jamie Reid, who did all the Sex Pistols artwork, donated some new works for the barge. My father, who was a specialist in Situationist art would’ve thought it was brilliant. I don’t see which artists I’m disrespecting.

The charity idea’s an interesting one connected to the sell-off of everything. The welfare state has been destroyed now the charitable sector does the job of the state. I believe in being generous to people in hardship but with charities, I see a lot of gala dinners and special auctions where they don’t make much money because it all goes to the bloody dinners. The charities that do get the money have salaries like 300,000 pounds a year. It’s a big sort of racket: they need to perpetuate these causes for income, like corporations.

I started my own charity where one of the fundamental principles is to spend as little as possible on administration through voluntary work and make sure we give back 99% of all the money we raise. Also, it’s me who said it was worth 5 million pounds and nobody can argue with me because they don’t know what was actually burnt. Besides, Henry Rollins can’t have watched what happened, because according to his description, the fire brigade came and put it out, which never happened. He didn’t even investigate the story because it might upset his pose.

What exactly did you burn on the barge?

Clothes that some of the bands or Vivienne wore, and artefacts. People were reacting as if I burnt the nation’s baby photos. The stunt was filmed as part of this documentary we’re making, “The Great Punk Rock Swindle”. 80% of profits from the documentary is going to help charitable causes, like youth organisations in London and anti-fracking.

The message to the establishment was, you can’t just take what you want, you don’t own punk rock, you can’t sanitise it. We also wanted to show how people are manipulated on a daily basis, to give them a little shock. All this stuff is not going to go and sit in the Museum of London and behave itself.  

Do you think that in the current climate it’s possible to make punk political again and weaponise it against the establishment?

Punk’s dead. It’s arguable if it was alive in the first place because it doesn’t mean anything. People think it’s all about music. Punk was never about music for a lot of people in the beginning. The movement was saying – we’re fed up with the status quo, we’re not going to listen to you anymore, we’re going to spit, jump around, drink beer, listen to all this music. That’s when it became stupid because it didn’t offer any alternative. What’s your solution? If you don’t have a solution, all you’re left with is oppose and most of these people have been using that same pose for the last 40 years. They decided that burning this stuff was sacrilege.  They said, Who do you think you are, you’re not punk! Ok then, who are you then, are you punk? It’s a uniform that’s got no currency at all.

For some, their discovery of Crass or Sex Pistols when they were young may have inspired them to think alternatively but it doesn’t mean you wear this badge for the rest of your life. It’s a vague term- what does it mean to be punk? The Museum of London had workshops with fake plasterboard walls, where they were encouraging middle class kids to graffiti on them, writing things like “spit”, “puke”, as if that’s what it means to be punk. I think it’s wrong to sell to kids that this illusion of an alternative product. That’s what marketing is all about, why kids queue up outside shops to buy a puffer jacket that’s got a tiny little label on it.

Read part two of this interview, where we discuss Fashion, Fracking and Fighting the government, later this week.