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The moment Joe Corré set fire to £5million worth of punk rock memorabilia

At the core of punk there is the Situationist theory of ‘the spectacle’. Guy Debord’s famous notion posits that advanced capitalism is futile and this is reflected in the system’s total dedication to objectifying human experiences and commodity fetishism.

Whether he was aware of it or not, this is what Joe Corré, son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, was protesting against when he burned five million pounds worth of his families punk memorabilia on a barge on the River Thames in November 2016. 

Speaking to the crowd, one element of his speech directly appealed to Debord’s notion, he said: “Punk was never, never meant to be nostalgic – and you can’t learn how to be one at a Museum of London workshop.” Detailing further, Corré explained: “Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need. The illusion of an alternative choice. Conformity in another uniform.”

The protests coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, which Corré, his mother, and others, thought was a hollow anniversary, showing that punk had been totally devalued through the establishment (the BFI and Mayor of London) celebrating its 40th lap around the sun, and in turn, totally missing the point of punk. 

It was what Corré used the date and platform for, however, that really stands out in living memory. During a retrospective interview on ITV news some two years later in 2018, Corré explained the true driving force behind his spectacle. Was he burning all his punk memorabilia to get a reaction? Yes. But why? As to many, this also seemed like an example of how much of a caricature punk had become. He explained that it all comes down to price and value. He argued that as a society, our concern with the price of everything is what underpinned his actions. We understand the price of a house, but not the value of a home, and he didn’t mean a home in the architectural sense, rather in the environmental sense. 

A lifelong protestor against fracking, and supporter of the Green Party, Corré used the spectacle to draw attention to the failures of the government and the impending climate crisis, and boy was he right. Five years later we find ourselves at the critical juncture he was warning about. 

His detractors might posit that’s all well and good, but a multi-millionaire burning Johnny Rotten’s PVC pants and a host of acetates was doing nothing to help to the climate crisis. Furthermore, the cost of the memorabilia could have been donated to charity to help the cause, but this was his point: “It was very intentional to manipulate people and trigger them in that way.”

On the day, Corré said: “Everyone’s obsessed with the price of destroying this stuff, but you have to think about value—what is really important. Why is that stuff of any value whatsoever? Because it represented a moment in time when people thought they could do something. And then it (punk) just turned into a pose. And it’s been a pose ever since.”

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Urging people to switch to green energy suppliers amongst a backdrop of burning punk memorabilia and burning effigies of the British cabinet including David Cameron and George Osborne, Corré’s point, if a little muddied, was fairly clear per the sign on the barge that read: “EXTINCTION!”. 

Nothing else matters apart from the environment. The government have failed us and the planet, and they must be held accountable. This was true punk, regardless of what Mr. Rollins might say. Notoriously, a reporter from The Sunday Telegraph asked him: “Did this feel like burning a Picasso?” to which Corré responded: “I don’t know what burning a Picasso feels like,” he said, before adding: “But I thought that was great. Punk rock is not important. Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need.”

He continued: “What’s important is that if people in this country and internationally don’t get serious about backing renewable energy instead of fossil fuels—if they don’t start moving in the way that has been agreed upon by the international scientific community—then we’ve got to get them out. Because they’re not representing your kids and they’re not representing your future.”

Typical of society, people were up in arms about Corré’s protest before they’d even attempted to comprehend his point. Furthermore, this wasn’t a one-off thing for Corré, it was all part of a process. A longtime opponent of fracking, regardless of his financial or familial background, Corré used the ashes of the burnt memorabilia to create an art installation which he sold for the original price of the memorabilia and donated the money to anti-fracking charities. He was raising awareness.

Corré created a narrative and completed it. He started a conversation about price and value, and the way that we’re talking about it five years later shows just how effective his argument was. He finished the ITV interview by saying “for me, punk never had anything to do with music.”

He’s right. It’s a way of life, an attitude, an outlook, a modus operandi. They can commodify it through craft beer and car insurance, but they’ll never truly understand it. This doesn’t even matter either. Our home is at risk, and it’s time to act.  

Watch a clip of the spectacle below.