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. Read more
Here’s a clip of Scottish punk-poppers the Rezillos with their 1978 single “Top of the Pops” performed here, as it happens, on the Top of the Pops TV show for that extra level of irony. The song is included on the band’s self-deprecatingly titled 1978 LP Can’t Stand the Rezillos . It would remain to be their sole release, and this their biggest hit.
Punk rock is often associated with iconoclastic images, aggressive stage antics, and abrasive sonic textures that basically approaches the business of rock ‘n’ roll as something of a blunt instrument. Many punk bands justify that perception, of course. Another important aspect of punk is that it involved the audience, not unlike the 60s folk boom did. It reminded the audience that punk could be made by anyone who really wanted to make it, even if you didn’t play, or perhaps more importantly look, like a standard rock star. Among many attributes, the Rezillos embodied this ideal.
In many ways, it’s entirely appropriate that this is their signature tune. This is one of the songs about fame which has a fun, yet biting, edge to it. Punk-pop is an oft-derided form these days, being as it is something of a worn out form thanks to Blink 182, Good Charlotte, and their ilk. This might be because the biting, satirical side to the music isn’t evident in modern punk-pop. It’s costumes without cleverness.
Once upon a time, punk bands were all about conveying the essence of a pop song without the frills, instead of trying to establish credentials as being ‘punk’. In this, being a punk band makes for something of a catch-22 these days. Perhaps more than any other form,punk is defined by what it isn’t, rather than what it is, and the ins and outs of this are regularly debated among music fans. Yet, with the first wave of British punk rock in the late 70s, these distinctions weren’t really that important.
I love this tune, sung in their ownEdinburghaccents (another punk aesthetic: sing in your own voice), and there is a certain self-awareness to be found in this song beyond its seemingly banal lyrics. What this band did on this tune was to put some art school cleverness in and disguise it as knock-off fun about the thrill of being on national TV.
Ultimately, what’s revealed is the basic absurdity of being in a band in the first place, making your name in the world by appealing to a faceless TV audience. But, there’s not to be attention placed on this as the song is playing. If you really get it, you’re too busy having fun to notice the irony.
Recently, I was exposed to some very odd television; gobby frontman for The Sex Pistols and ex-Public Image Ltd. John Lydon, AKA Johnny Rotten on Judge Judy thanks to a disgruntled sideman on one of his solo tours. Here’s the clip.
Hilarious, and strange. A former drummer takes Lydon to small claims court due to what he considers to be wrongful dismisal, and even more oddly – assault. Maybe the most entertaining aspect of this is watching Lydon attempt to control his mouth – something he’s not been very good at, historically.
Luckily, he shows more restraint with Judge Judy (and her hard-as-nails schtick…) then in the more infamous Sex Pistols TV appearance on the Bill Grundy hosted Today Show in December 1976, when “rude words” were used on live TV by Lydon and Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, goaded by Grundy (who also hit on a disgusted Siouxsie Sioux who was also present, live on camera). Grundy was fired, and the Sex Pistols rose in stature as a group who was capable of anything at any moment.
In this TV appearance from 1997, Lydon is the picture of restraint, although also the picture of barely contained ire and contempt for his would-be legal assailant. And we get the appropriately rendered and trademarked baleful stare from Lydon, who knows the value of showbiz even on daytime TV. And his vindication speech at the end is priceless.
Here’s a link to a song by the stars of UK punk’s first graduating class, Manchester’s Buzzcocks – “What Do I Get?” from 1978.
There are a lot of misconceptions about punk. One is that punks didn’t care about melody or songwriting. Another is that they were uninterested in making pop music. Where a lot of bands may follow this approach, it can’t be said of the whole genre. It certainly can’t be said of early punk champions, Buzzcocks. This group put across just as much of both as they did the signature buzzsaw-guitar sound. If one thing can be said of early punk rock, it was that there was an importance placed on the basics. And this doesn’t mean that they were not competent musicians, which is another annoying misconception.
It does mean that the directness found in the singles of 60s girl groups and early beat group sides, and the equally direct communication to teenaged record buyers, was an important aspect of the punk modus operandi. Take a look at this song, “What Do I Get?” – full of energy, with a rhythm section that races to the next bar as if its tail is on fire, and a guitar which sounds like a drill through a wall. Add to that lead singer Pete Shelley’s almost feminine delivery. This is the voice of the frustrated would be lover that speaks for all frustrated would-be lovers everywhere. This band created a tune which is a shining example of what a pop single should be – direct, energetic, and speaking to an audience by being empathetic in its subject matter.
The group put out an impressive body of work which captured the spirit of the times, and did so independently starting with their landmark 1976 EP, Spiral Scratch. And most of what are now the clichés of punk are nowhere to be seen. These are not songs about anarchy and bodily fluids. OK. Maybe the band’s first single “Orgasm Addict” might be a bit of an exception to the rule. But, the point is that all of the songs from the band’s early period, collected on the excellent and essential Singles Going Steady compilation from 1979, were relevant to their teen fans. Love gone wrong, feelings of awkwardness, and the joys of infatuation all play into the mix in Buzzcocks’ songwriting output. In this, they weren’t really embarking on a revolutionary path that had never before been explored. This is not punk-year-zero stuff here (another misconception, in my opinion, that punks at the time tried to sell, and did sell to many a naïve fan…). This is classic pop writing in new packaging. For all of the bluster many bands at the time portrayed about punk being a new beginning, it was more like an old beginning.
Of course I mean this in the best sense. This is the reason I love punk; not because punk saved the world from Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin (yet another misconception…), but because it sticks to what rock music does best – it speaks to an audience in terms that the audience understands best. And Buzzcocks singles are a prime example of how viscerally explosive music hasn’t really changed in terms of approach since pop records were first made to speak directly to teenagers. The influence this band has had over current pop-punk is immeasurable, proving that the basics are still the basics.
Buzzcocks have broken up and re-grouped a few times, but the guys are currently active and touring. Check out the official Buzzcocks website for more news about dates and record releases.
Also, it might be worth your while to visit the Buzzcocks MySpace page to hear streamed music if you want to find out where Green Day cultivated its musical mojo.