Tourists are Money: Joe Corré’s £5 million punk bonfire
On 26 November, The Sex Pistol’s seminal debut single Anarchy In The UK will be 40 years old. On this day Joe Corré, who co-founded the lingerie label Agent Provocateur, plans to burn his collection of punk memorabilia, which he’s claimed is worth £5 million. Corré is the son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who were both instrumental in the creation of the punk movement and its aesthetic. So why’s he doing it?
On 15 March this year, we received a press release from a publicist called Richard Hillgrove with the subject title: ‘When the Queen gives [a] fucking nod to Punk 40th something’s wrong’- McLaren’s son’. The email explained that Corré – who sold Agent Provocateur for £40 million in 2007 – was protesting against this year’s Punk London celebrations, which have reportedly received a £99,000 grant from the Heritage London Fund as well as support from the BFI, the British Library, the Design Museum, Museum of London, The Photographers’ Gallery, Rough Trade and the Roundhouse. With the event – which is expected to take place on a boat on the Thames – so close on the horizon, I caught up with Corré to discuss his ideology, contemporary protest music and the criticisms leveled against him.
So how are you feeling about this now we’re so close to the event?
I think it’s good, people are getting interested in it and that’s the whole point, to create a platform to talk about some of the home truths.
And have you figured out how it’s going to work logistically? I presume you’re going to need a lot of petrol.
It’s been very chaotic, the whole process. We’ve had lots of ideas about how to do it, different venues, different ways to burn it to make it look like something. But in the end, I think it’s going to be something pretty straightforward. We’re not going to need that much petrol I think, we’ve just got to get the fire hot enough and it’ll go up.
Let’s talk about the original idea for this event. What exactly is it about the ‘Punk London’ celebrations that you take issue with?
I’ve lived through the privatisation of everything this country ever owned basically. From the bloody trains, to the buses, to the water. Everything’s being sold off. And it just feels like someone in the tourist office has thought ‘What can we do this year, we haven’t got the royal wedding? Oh wait, I know – Anarchy in the UK. That’ll get a few tourists over.’ It’s the last nail in coffin really, where they’re kind of privatising ideas.
This idea of punk rock has been completely appropriated by the establishment. The British Museum on punk rock, or the Museum of London or whatever. It’s become a trend. It’s become McDonalds. It’s become Louis Vuitton. Car insurance. Beer. I think it’s completely lost it’s meaning, it’s become castrated. It’s lost all of its value to me. Punk rock was never about nostalgia. It was something that was urgent, it was current and it was dangerous. It’s lost any of that meaning. It’s become valueless to me. The Museum of London is doing a workshop called How To Be a Punk. I’ve never heard something so ridiculous.
I think the thing which really got me about the establishment thing is [the Punk London celebrations] being supported by Boris Johnson, the former mayor, with all his history of the Bullingdon club and burning £50 notes in front of homeless people and stuff. I just thought ‘sod that, something’s got to be done’
In your original press statement you released back in March, you suggested that Buckingham Palace have endorsed the celebrations…
That was written by Richard [Hillgrove] who sorted this interview out, he got that a bit wrong I don’t know if the queen had anything to do with it. But there’s certainly the London cultural tourism organisation and what they decide to do is endorsed by the queen and the royal family, they know what’s going on. It’s all part of the same machine.
These days, most musicians are willing to accept corporate sponsorship and take money from brands. New generations are growing up who have maybe forgotten that music could be a counterculture rather than just a form of entertainment. But do you look at young musicians and see anyone who’s channelling a similar energy to punk?
Not really. Do you?
Yeah. I mean, I was specifically thinking of grime artists…
I’ve looked at all those guys, Skepta and whatever. I’ve listened to his lyrics and he’s talking about blacked-out fucking Bentleys and arriving at the fashion show at his tracksuit. I just think it’s boring. There’s nothing that’s keeping it real. What’s he talking about? Then I saw this other punk grime artist, what’s he called, Feed It To the Lions or whatever. I just didn’t think there was any kind of message in that which made me think these people are switched on to something. Punk rock is a state of mind, it’s about not believing the propaganda and coming up with your own ideas. But it seemed very much like they were still stuck in the same kind of ideas.
Well, I’d argue on the contrary that – and there are Skepta lyrics where he specifically references politics, or being aggressively handled by the police – but in my opinion, music that’s completely DIY, that’s being made by people from disadvantaged communities and is making them feel empowered is inherently political.
I think it’s true in saying that there are DIY aspects in making your own music, it sort of started with punk and it’s being going ever since then… Soon as they invented that bloody Casio thing, everyone’s got a bloody recording studio in their bedroom these days. It’s about what you’ve got to say isn’t it? I haven’t seen anyone today who says anything that even remotely touches the sides of what The Sex Pistols did in 1976.
In terms of artists who’ve spoken out there’s people like Novelist, who specifically referenced David Cameron, there’s artists like GAIKA and Dean Blunt. But when The Sex Pistols happened maybe the music industry was geared up so that something like that could get massive, top 40 hits and playing on Top of The Pops. I don’t think the music industry now is equipped to project someone like that.
Maybe it’s not the right medium to be using. Punk rock for me was never really about the music.
Crack was the first publication to report the the news about your event. We got a lot of comments across all our platforms, and one of the most common criticisms was people asking why you’re wasting all this stuff when you could be raising so much money for charity. How would you respond to that criticism?
There’s two things there. Firstly I’m not wasting it because this thing’s being recorded, we’ll have a record which will be so much more vibrant and interesting than exhibiting it to people who don’t even know what the hell it is. The act of burning it, and coming out with a message from it and putting a monetary value on it – that suddenly got everyone’s attention. I’m actually using it for a really good purpose. The second thing I’d say about charities is that I’ve been involved with giving so much fucking money to charities over the years that I’ve got my own charity that I continually fund. I fund loads of important things, from [anti] fracking, to London youth groups like Fully Focused, to rainforest ecological projects, to miscarriages of justice. No one needs to hold me up and say ‘Why doesn’t he give it to charity?’
The other thing is this: Louis Vuitton rip of Vivienne Westwood clothes and send them down the catwalk. At the end all the stuff they don’t sell gets sent back to Paris and burnt every fucking season so poor people can’t get it. Where’s their contribution to charity?! Where’s the contribution from all these people who are [putting] it in the British Museum or the Museum of London and the British Library and all these events? Where’s all that money going? Is it going to the benevolent fund for old punk rockers? I don’t think so.
The welfare state is demolished to such an extent these days that actually it’s charities that do the job of the government. We all pay our taxes but [they] don’t look after anyone, so we’re supposed to pay for charities as well… But I believe very much in helping people. The documentary I’m making for this thing, we’ve done the deal already and 80% of profits are going to all charity.
It’s public knowledge that you’ve been very financially successful yourself. In your opinion, do you think there’s a contradiction to championing the ‘true’ spirit of punk and being lucrative in business?
I don’t think so at all. I’ve heard it all before – ‘spoilt fucking rich kid, throwing his toys out the pram, who does he think he is? The posh cunt.’ I’ve heard it all. Firstly, no one ever gave me anything. I made my own course in life and I have been successful in many areas, and I’ve been a failure in many areas as well. I’ve never asked for anything, no one has even given me anything. I would never have had the confidence to do what I do if it wasn’t for punk rock, if it wasn’t for believing that you could stand up and change something, and that you didn’t have to accept the status quo. And that’s been a tool that I’m very thankful for.
What I’ve managed to do is be successful in business by getting around all the institutionalised ways of doing business. I started a company and I broke all of the rules. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without punk rock. It’s given me that ability, and I’ve taken it.