Listen to this track by British punk outliers and anti-boyband upstarts The Sex Pistols. It’s “Anarchy In The U.K”, a late 1976 single that would appear on the band’s sole studio album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. That album was released in the fall of 1977, which was a banner year for British punk. This song would mark the time when music and the culture out of which it came in Britain would change forever, with new costuming, and a new banner under which to rally.
A lot of the classic elements of rock music are found in the music of The Sex Pistols. On that level, it’s not really all that revolutionary. But, as with the first generation of rock n’ roll that appeared twenty years previously, musical innovation wasn’t really the point. What was the point was the visuals, the presentation, the personalities involved, and a fundamental perception shift from the audience’s point of view. By the mid-to-late 1970s, something was needed to inject new life into the rock millieu. By then, rock music had grown dangerously close to respectability. The Sex Pistols would certainly prove to be a tide in the opposite direction on that score.
What made this song, and this band so compelling within that? Well, I think the reason was this: they lived the lyrics of the song outright when it came to the gap between their generation and mainstream culture.
By now, you almost can’t talk about Sex Pistols without also talking about how authentic (or not) they were, or how they embodied a cultural sea change that made their music almost peripheral. This is pretty strange when you really look at it. Because the model for producing The Sex Pistols was initially about marketing, so that manager Malcolm McLaren and his partner Vivienne Westwood could help sell an image on a grander scale, and in turn sell a lot of clothing from Westwood’s shop Sex, after which this band got their name. McLaren had managed the New York Dolls for a while, and based the whole punk angle in London with the Pistols on the one he’d encountered in New York. He was the classic rock svengali figure looking to exploit a trend. How conventional was that?
Having said that, it wouldn’t have mattered at all if the band hadn’t hit on something themselves as vectors of a pervasive attitude that was circulating in youth culture at the time. “Anarchy In The U.K” is a laser-guided expression of that. It deals in vivid imagery and attitude like the best rock songs do, drawing from hard rock, glam, and heavy metal, all of which had been around for some time by 1976. Also, it’s very well realized as a record, hitting all the right buttons that fans expected in rock music in terms of attack, texture, presentation, and pinpoint subcultural accuracy. As much as this song was a shock to a lot of people, using incendiary language like “Anti-Christ”, “Anarchist” and “get pissed, destroy!”, ultimately this is a pop song, well written and well played, and aimed at an audience who, perhaps, didn’t know they wanted it, but found out that they did.
As well suited to this mission to deliver this song as the band was, McLaren was right about its social implications when he marketed them for the mainstream. It was the personalities in the band, and what they revealed about themselves in interviews (particularly the one on live TV with Bill Grundy that got Grundy fired, and the band dropped from EMI) that made them seem so different. They seemed like underdogs rejected by the mainstream, and having been banned from playing live shows at one point. This spoke volumes to everyone, albeit with different messages depending on who was listening. They were reviled by the mainstream, because they themselves showed contempt for it very publicly. They were not stars. They were not entertainers. Yet, they were not the cultural thugs as they were portrayed to be, either. The perception that these guys really were anarchists was just that; perception. This, as we know well in the 21st century by now, is all too often more important than facts.
This was all thanks to the tabloid media that deliberately framed them as being culturally dangerous, as if their attitudes were reflective only of themselves as individuals. Their notoriety was not because of anything they really espoused on a political level, but mostly because they were outwardly defiant, and maybe a little naive, too. Headlines about The Filth And The Fury where the Sex Pistols were concerned were, as always, a great way to sell papers. The “bollocks” in the title of their album referred to this directly. It really was bollocks. The members of the band weren’t political or instrinsically violent people. They were just young, and getting bored with what their culture at the time were offering them, and were actually expressing something that a lot of people felt. They wrote this song all about that. That’s what all bands do, especially ones looking to be heard by a mass audience. And the reaction to this song by the establishment and the press certainly proved them right.
In this sense, outside of the machinations of Malcolm McLaren on a marketing front, they were certainly authentic in the way they reflected the attitudes of many people still in their teens or just outside of them at the time. To me, this was the most punk rock thing about them; they represented their generation at being tired of the same old same old, having to endure the patronizing attitudes of the generations before them who controlled the channels to mainstream self-expression.
Despite all the furore around the band at the time outside of their musical output, “Anarchy In The U.K” is an anthem of its times. In this song, “anarchy” is about a feeling, a certain restlessness that people who are growing up feel when they’re too old to be kids, and too young to be accepted as a full member of society. As ferocious as this song sounds, particularly Steve Jones’ multitracked guitar, and Johnny Rotten’s feral delivery up front, this tune represented a modern and relevant banner for teens at the time to rally under. It is a song of dissatisfaction, and a rejection of what has been offered. It is a song about feeling unrepresented. At the root, any calls to punk authenticity and cultural relevance should be directed here.
The Sex Pistols were a short-lived entity, with their story marred by lost opportunities, internal dischord, drug abuse, and even murder. But the spark of dissatisfaction and defiance that is found in so many rock songs from many different eras can be heard in this song, and in many others in their limited catalogue.
To learn more about The Sex Pistols, check out sexpistolsofficial.com.
And in this year that will see “Anarchy In The U.K” turn the big four-oh, here’s an article from Rolling Stone that talks about the cultural significance of punk in Britain, along with news that the flat that the Sex Pistols called home on the famous Denmark Street between 1975-77 is to be historically listed.
Enjoy … riiight … NOW, heh, heh, heh ….