Life & Culture

Iconic Punk Artist Jamie Reid Has Some Advice for Young Creatives

As his first-ever career retrospective opens in Hull, the Sex Pistols artist gives a guide for anyone wanting to do it their way

  • TextPaul Moody

“Destroy your computer,” says Jamie Reid when asked what guidance he would give young artists. “Most jobs are about enslavement, break free if you can.” It’s the sort of no-nonsense advice you’d expect from a man who has spent five decades on the cultural frontline, highlighting social and cultural injustices.

From his iconic record sleeves for The Sex Pistols via posters in support radical causes (Anti-Poll Tax Movement, Occupy) to his on-going collaborations with Pussy Riot, Jamie Reid has waged a visual war on the narrow-minded. His maverick mindset is on full display in his first-ever career retrospective, Jamie Reid XXXXX: 50 Years Of Subversion and the Spirit. Set across three floors of the Humber Street Gallery in Hull, it’s an anarchic multi-media barrage combining archive prints and raw canvasses with a full-size teepee lit by a glitter ball.

The artist’s central message of joyful rebellion is summed up by a bed covered with a bright orange duvet bearing the legend ‘Fuck Forever’. “When people get drawn into the mainstream they lose their radicalism and their spirit,” he says over a cup of tea in the gallery’s cafe. “I never wanted to get drawn into that incestuous world.”

At 71, Reid’s radical flame burns as brightly as ever. Resident in Liverpool since the 80s, he’s currently working on a film of his life with the director Julien Temple. “It’s based around the Druidic Eight-Fold Year,” he says, stressing the value of the ancients’ belief in the earth’s solar and lunar cycles. “My great-uncle George Watson was head of the Druid Order, so it’s part of who I am. It’s so important that we reconnect with the planet. We need spiritual as much as political change in this country”.

Dismayed by Brexit (“it was driven by racism as much as anything”) but hopeful for the future (“I’m an optimist, I can’t help it,” he says, eyes twinkling) the man who helped launch The Sex Pistols continues to shoot from the hip. Here is his guide for anyone else wanting to do it their way.

1. Destroy Your Computer

“I went to breakfast the other day in Liverpool and there were a hundred people in this café. Every single one of them had their face in their computer or their phone. The more we get drawn into this mad digital world, the more we lose contact with each other. I’ve got a friend who knows some of the top computer hackers. They found out that the microchip is an alien technology, implanted to get the world totally dependant. It sounds mad, but it certainly makes you think.”

2. Pick up a Paint Brush

“I was so lucky getting a place at Croydon Art School. The painter Sean Scully and Robin Scott from ‘M’ who did ‘Pop Muzik’ were in my year, and Ray Davies from The Kinks was in the year above me. If I hadn’t gone to Croydon I would never have met Malcolm McLaren. We were both into situationism and Guy DeBord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and would feed each other information. For me, Malcolm was the greatest conceptual artist of the 20th century. Not just for what he did with the Pistols but for everything else he did. He got so much respect from the black music scene in America for (1982 hip-hop single) Buffalo Gals, and he changed the whole of British fashion, too. The irony is that neither Malcolm or I would have got in to Croydon if it was today. What does that tell you about what’s happened to our education system?”

3. Have a Sense of Humour

“A lot of people completely misconstrue what we were trying to do with The Sex Pistols, particularly with something like The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle. Malcolm and I were very much into the politics, but I was bringing a lot of humour into it, too. I was basically carrying on with the same ideas I’d been using in [Reid’s own radical magazine] Suburban Press. That’s why I really enjoyed working with Jimmy Cauty from The KLF (the pair collaborated on a piece called Boudicca Is Coming this year). The KLF completely understood the heart and emotion behind what we were doing. They created a situation within the dance and rave scene to promote very similar ideas. I also love the fact Bill Drummond wrote a book called The Manual: How To Have A Number one Hit the Easy Way. That was very McLaran-esque.”

4. Learn from the Past

“There is so much to learn from history. I wish more people knew about Tom Paine, for instance. I heard an interview on Radio 4 with Richard Attenborough when he was in his 80s, reminiscing about his life. He said that the first book his dad ever gave him was Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, and that his greatest regret had been that he had never got to make a film about Paine’s life, because he could never raise the money. That says it all. If Attenborough couldn’t do it, what hope is there? It’s criminal, because Paine is so relevant to what’s going on now.”

5. Look to the Future

“Radical ideas will always get appropriated by the mainstream. A lot of it is to do with the fact that the establishment and the people in authority actually lack the ability to be creative. They rob everything they can. Look at William Blake. The irony of Jerusalem being sung at all these events by people with completely different ideas about politics and spirituality. That’s why you have to keep moving on to new things. I’ve recently been working with Afro-Celt Sound System on a new album called Flight which is about the whole plight of immigrants and migration. You always have to move on, and move on, and move on.”

Jamie Reid XXXXX: 50 Years Of Subversion and the Spirit is at the Humber Street Gallery until January 6, 2019