Butthead meets Voltaire

TIME TRAVEL by Jon Savage Chatto pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
Jon Savage's enemies - and he has plenty - will try to convince you that he writes only for the sort of people who spend their time trying to work out ways to slip the word "hegemony" into casual conversation. If it does nothing else, this fine selection of his collected writings will lay that myth to rest.

For all the erudite essays on media integration and sexual politics, it is Savage's sheer enjoyment of the pop process that comes through most strongly here. From Morrissey's Billy Liar trip ("He might have caught the train, but his journey has taken him back into another station") to David Bowie's struggle "to avoid becoming a sharper, futuristic John Inman", his sense of fun is his greatest asset.

Subtitled "From the Sex Pistols to Nirvana: Pop, media and sexuality, 1977-96", this book could just as fruitfully be tagged "From The Beatles to Oasis and Back Again". One of its most beguiling notions - first outlined in Savage's introduction to last year's superb Faber Book Of Pop - is that at some point (and the author's suggestion of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" is as good as any) pop-time stopped being a line and started being a loop. Instead of being the foundation stone of the heard-it-all- before school of criticism, this insight should be the starting-point for a deeper understanding of the relationship between pop's past, present and future.

Instead of treating the ever-more-present abundance of pop's history as a burden, Savage argues, "Why not take all this stuff and engage with it physically and emotionally?" As Oasis's thrilling recontextualisation of their Beatles heritage has triumphantly proved, pop need not be held down by the weight of its past, but can actually gain momentum from it.

Wisely opting not to make the mistake Nick Kent made in his The Dark Stuff anthology by trying to bring his original writing "up to date", Savage's back pages stand mercifully uncorrected. And you don't have to agree with him that "Time has blurred into the everlasting present that has always been the hallmark of the teenage experience" to bask in the light they shed.

"Punk", the first of Time Travel's three sections, is spiky and hilarious. Because he worked for Sounds rather than the NME, Savage's punk writings do not have the retrospective over-familiarity of, say, Tony Parsons'. From The Sex Pistols' jubilee boat-trip - "The only jarring note is the refusal of the bar to serve doubles" - to The Clash at the Rainbow ("Fixed Seats are totally ridiculous"), his first pieces have an enduring and exhilarating immediacy.

They are written almost in note form, as if things were moving too fast to finish a sentence. And an occasional tendency to stylistic over-reach or over-investment in commodities of dubious long-term value ("The journalist asks Numan about his adolescence, seeking clues") is not only excused but actively demanded by the heat of the moment.

By 1981 - in a five-years-after-Punk retrospective for The Face - Savage is sounding world-weary, claiming to know "a bit too much about the pop process to participate with the naivety it demands". "People will look back at this time and say 'they fiddled while the world was burning'," he fulminates. Reduced to interviewing Billy Idol and Chrissie Hynde in a climate of Thatcherite oppression and concomitant Style-saturated vacuity, small wonder that Savage's spirits took such a downturn.

Time Travel's real revelation is its third and final chapter, "Speed". Anyone who doubts the miraculous extent of British pop music's reanimation over the past 10 years should compare the heady brew of outrage and fun that was this year's Brit Awards with Jon Savage's account of the equivalent BPI ceremony in 1986. Remember Wham!, Norman Tebbit, and record mogul Maurice Oberstein's ridiculous Alpine hat? No? Well, think yourself lucky. For returning space travellers needing to be brought instantly up to speed on just how much has happened since that appalling evening, Savage's writing on techno, Nirvana and Oasis is the perfect gift.

He has the happy knack of revealing aspects you had not previously appreciated of subjects you thought you'd read enough about. Hence fascinating insights into the Gallagher brothers' Irish Catholic background, Kurt Cobain's tendency to simultaneously court and flee attention, and the role of Orbital in sublimating a generation's flagging sense of economic self-worth: "Now that Britain has lost much of its heavy industry, its children are simulating an industrial experience for their entertainment and transcendence."

And if Savage occasionally seems to go a little too far (not every reader will concur that: "It is tempting to view Beavis and Butthead as a Janus- faced Candide"), well, better to go too far than not far enough.

One of the things he writes about The Velvet Underground - "refusing to be content with the world as it seems" - is also true of Savage. If there are two basic approaches to cultural criticism, one that attempts to drag art down to the level of life, and another that strives to raise life up to the level of art, then there's no doubt about which team Jon Savage is playing for.

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