Jon Savage – The Secret Public
The following article first appeared in “Linder: Works 1976-2006” (jrp/Ringier, 2006)
THE SECRET PUBLIC
“JS: I’m fascinated by gaps in communication…
HD: I‘m all for them. I don’t believe in closing them up. I believe in trying but not succeeding. They’ve got to be big enough for an average-sized adult to pass through comfortably. There will be communication gaps until they’ve got the whole world bugged. There’s something totalitarian about complete and perfect understanding. Do you see what I mean? They give you room to breathe, time to think”
Jon Savage: “Howard Devoto: Heart Beats Up Love” (Sounds, 5 November 1977)
“S&D: You wrote ‘Autonomy’ – can you say what it’s about?
Steve (Diggle): Well, it’s a discussion between the two sides of your personality – it’s about discipline in yourself, like then you say you’d really like to do something and you haven’t got control: you’re not autonomous.”
Jon Savage: “Buzzcocks” (Search and Destroy 6: April 1978)
The Secret Public was published in Manchester during the first month of 1978. It was the second New Hormones product – catalogue number ORG 2 – after the Buzzcocks’ already iconic Spiral Scratch, and was distributed through Rough Trade and other independent outlets. Priced at 40p (although, as this was nowhere mentioned on the cover, the prices tended to vary), it failed to sell out or make any money. Not that that was the point, which was to do it, get it out there, and see what happened.
Like many products of that time, The Secret Public was the result of a far wider collaboration than just the two featured artists. Linder and I may have physically altered the images, but also involved were: Richard Boon (finance, distribution and support), Howard Devoto (creative and practical support), Ruth Marten (the lettering on The Masculine Principle Has Gone Far Enough), Steve Montgomery and Geoff Travis at Rough Trade (distribution), Malcolm Garrett, Judy Nylon, Vivienne Goldman, Vale of Search & Destroy, Ian from the Worst, and the four members of Buzzcocks, just then recording their first album.
The wider creative matrix of The Secret Public was: David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’, Buzzcocks’ ‘Orgasm Addict’ and ‘Sixteen’, live shows by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subway Sect and the Fall, the first three Pere Ubu singles, Devo’s ‘Live At the Mabuhay’, Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’, Throbbing Gristle’s ‘First Annual Report’, Sounds’ ‘New Musick’ issue, Paul Morley’s Girl Trouble, Eno’s ‘Music For Films version 1′, Wire’s ‘Pink Flag’ and Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. Between the last night of the Electric Circus and the Sex Pistols’ last show at Winterland, this period encompassed the death rattle of first-wave Punk.
Responding to this, The Secret Public attempted to dive further into the sea of possibility heralded by Patti Smith. It seemed possible to do so because of the extraordinary proliferation of the fanzine economy: by autumn 1977, there were literally hundreds of self-published magazines that you could buy in Rough Trade, Compendium, and similar alternative shops around the country. Most were formatted like junior issue tabloids, but ‘zines like Glitterbest’s Anarchy In The UK and Andy Palmer’s Observer dispensed with all but the most minimal text and focussed on imagery and texture. This then was our self-imposed remit.
“enclosed are the latest montages I’ve done – hope you like them…I’m very excited about the idea of doing a magazine – I think our work would mix well together. If we’re going to do a 12 page broadsheet size format (ie Anarchy in ther UK size) we’ll need 13 montages…I can produce 4/5 right now, using old stuff as well by next week. I’ll try and do 2/3 more to give plenty of choice. Cos don’t forget we need one extra for back/front covers…I dont’ know about printing costs etc…Some of them would need screening up from the size they’re at…I can provide up to £100 if necessary but maybe Richard Boon can come up with something between Buzzcocks traumas…it might be cheaper in Manchester too…(should be black and white). Shown your montages to various people – Rough Trade, Viv Goldman, Judy Nylon…general verdict is that they’re amazing – so there you are. New Bowie album is beautiful (dreamt about it last night) – post everything music.”
Jon Savage: letter to Linder, early November 1977
It all came together very quickly. In late October 1977 I went to Manchester to interview Howard Devoto for Sounds and to review the last night of the Electric Circus. During the course of that weekend, I met Linder – who shared a house with Devoto in Lower Broughton Road, Salford – and was awed by her handbill for an October Buzzcocks show: ‘cosmetic metal music/manicured noise’. I thought it was roughly along the same line but much better than the montages that I’d been doing for my own amusement and occasional commissions. By this stage, Linder had just completed – in collaboration with Malcolm Garrett – the now classic single sleeve and full-size poster for Buzzcocks’‘Orgasm Addict’ 45.
Both of us had come to a similar place by chance design. Linder was already receiving art training [ay Manchester Polytechnic]: “I remember the pure pleasure of photomontage. I had spent three years working with pencil, paint and pen trying to translate lived experience into made marks. It was a moment of glorious liberation to work purely with a blade, glass and glue. Almost a scientific methodology. Sitting in a dark room in Salford, performing cultural postmortems and then reassembling the corpses badly, like a Mary Shelley trying to breathe life into the monster. For a short period I’d found a perfect mode of articulation.
“Punk was cutting out the question, ‘Can I do this?’ I began to do bits of collage, quite naturally. I took lots of photographs and wondered, what could I do with them? I started to get bored, and then moved from collage to montage, using scalpels, glass cutting. I’d always loved magazines and I had two separate piles. One you might call women’s magazines, fashion, romance, then a pile of men’s mags: cars, DIY, pornography, which again was women, but another side. I wanted to mate the G-Plan kitchens with the pornography, see what strange breed came out. I did it all on a sheet of glass with a scalpel, very clean, like doing a jigsaw. Rising above it all.”
For my part, the attraction was in being to express myself in purely visual terms. My day job was as a trainee lawyer, my second job as a journalist for Sounds, but neither was enough. I’d always worked with parallel text and visuals but here was a chance, such as would not be found in hierarchical London, to let rip with the imagery of Dawn Ades’ Photomontage: the accumulating skyscraper stacks of Fritz Lang and Walter Ruttman, the dismembering done by Max Ernst and Hannah Hoch, the political savagery of John Heartfield – whose summer 1977 exhibition at the ICA was a major stimulus. Then there was Norman Ogue Mustil’s beat/ surrealist Flypaper and Skot Armst’s contemporary Science Holiday.
It was all coming to one point, and that was given precision by our instrument of choice: as Linder writes, “The knife used was a surgeon’s scalpel still made in Sheffield by Swann Morton Ltd. The packets of blades look like condom packets, I think we used blade No 11a for our cutting out work.” Cut-ups were in the air of 1977, a way to cut through the detritus of twenty years’ plenty – in my case, old copies of National Geographic and Picture Post – the sheer boredom of commercialised punk rock. The knife offerred a certain visceral, brutal control: it was a process at once violent and peaceful, which allowed the subconscious to come through.
Looking at the magazine now, I can see that Linder’s five montages have a distinct unanimity of theme: the dismemberment of women by conventional attitudes to gender and sexuality. They are all set in the home, perhaps the prime location for violence. The centrepiece is T.V.Sex, a startling vision of sexual alienation, where the distinctly human bodies (hairy, a bit fat) are topped by TV heads (the racing’s on: must be weekday afternoon); the background is catalogue furnishing 1977 style, pristine, with no hint of bodily secretions or emotional entanglements. These techno-humans are divorced from their bodies and themselves.
On page 2 is the image that titled Buzzcocks’ first album: a perfect kitchen dominated by a woman, naked and bound, inserted within a saucepan; inverted eyes and a slashed, lipsticked mouth leer from her mixer-head. Pete Shelley: “Another Music in a Different Kitchen was a mixture between Linder, Howard and Richard. We were trying to think up titles for the montages in The Secret Public and Howard said,‘ another housewife stews in her own juice in a different kitchen’. We shuffled it around a bit and it came out like that. It’s like an extension of dada where you get a meaningless phrase and you free-associate with that to find out what it actually means. And it gets a meaning and then you DO the meaning.”
Applying this to the Savage imagery, I can see various strands coming to the surface: Strength and Health is the homoerotic man-machine, taken from a nudist magazine; pages four and five are Metropolis transplanted to New York, with strong hints of media saturation (like the Slits sang on‘F.M’, “my nightmares don’t project my dreams”) and eco-doom. I’m a New World Fan was a simple depiction of my day-by-day life in 1977, going round and round the Circle Line, and The Masculine Principle Has Gone Far Enough is self-explanatory: like Linder, I had been attracted by the freedoms that Punk offered to the sexually divergent. We were both, for different reasons, appalled by the return of culturally-sanctioned laddishness in the latter part of 1977.
Despite the fact that The Secret Public sourced both hetero- and homosexual pornography, we were genuinely surprised when we had trouble trying to find a printer who would print the magazine. As Linder writes: “The one we eventually found wanted paying in cash without receipt. Some left wing bookshops wouldn’t take TSP because of its content.” It seems obvious to me now that the Secret Public is not erotic and that any sexuality in there is either covert or highly polemical. A case in point: the only penises in there, while engorged, are placed next to missiles and lipstick to make a point about phallocentricity in social life rather than sex.
“Then you do the meaning…” The most striking thing, twenty four years and two snake cycles later, is how predictive of our biographical future The Secret Public seems. I look at those images now and see the desire to work with imagery that saw me move to Manchester to work in television, the obsession with sexual politics that has been a constant in my writing, and the sheer fascination with New York that has led me to visit Manhattan over 30 times. Read as a visual diary of 1977, I would have to say that I can’t have been very happy then, but then I don’t remember happiness being possible or even desirable at that point. I feel sympathy with that person, but I am no longer him.
In Linder’s case, The Secret Public marks the meta-feminist concerns that have taken her through montage to music – with Ludus – and video performances, to installations and performance pieces. As she writes now: “I didn’t realise it then but the process of montage (as the ultimate container of dichotomy) has formed an invisible continuum throughout all I’ve done to date. Even The Return of Linderland had the audacity of montage to let Ann Lee cohabit with Clint Eastwood, old with young, faith with nihilism, north Manchester with the West.”
I now think that The Secret Public wrote its own script. It was a deliberately hermetic document that forced you to enter on its own terms. There were few concessions to any ideas of marketing and accessability. Hearts were not worn on the sleeve. It fully explored its dichotomies: cool designed outer images covering angry, savage montages, women placed in bondage but by their own design (or is that in itself a product of internalised oppression?), metropolises that offered opportunity and excitement at the same time as they ate you alive. Its impact was qualitative rather than quantitive: perhaps this is why, at its best, it has not dated at all.
 See “London’s Outrage” (Dec 1976) and “London’s Outrage 2” (Feb 1977) and sundry issues of Sounds, eg Singles Reviews for 5 November 1977.
 Dawn Ades: “Photomontage” (Thames and Hudson, 1976)
 Norman Ogue Mustill: “Flypaper” (Beach Books, 1967) – this and other Beach Books including William Burroughs’ “Apo 33”, were on sale cheaply at Compendium Books, Camden Town during this period.
COPYRIGHT JON SAVAGE 2006 – Republished with permission.