“Anarchy in the U.K.,” the debut single by the Sex Pistols, was released 40 years ago this week. Forty years is a long, long time; the difference between the “Anarchy” release date and today is the same as the difference between the “Anarchy” release date and the beginning of FDR’s second term. Yet the music, message and triumph of “Anarchy in the U.K.” is more relevant now than ever.
Rock ’n’ roll is a toothless old whore. Generally, this has been the case since the British Invasion. Around that time, the chiming electric pop and faux blues of our well-intended Trans-Atlantic cousins short-circuited the connection rock had with its creators, i.e. those who had been economically, politically, socially and racially excluded from the American dream.
These men and women who had been locked in poverty in inner-city ghettoes and Appalachian hollows had made a desperate and original beat noise; it implicitly meant something because the people who made it were screaming from the underbelly.
I would argue that much pre-Brit Invasion American rock ’n’ roll was political even when the subject matter was romantic or nonsensical. For instance, merely by being descended musically and lyrically from a childhood chant with roots in slave cabins and West African drum circles, “Bo Diddley” is a vastly political song.
Before long, thanks to all those cute “Yeah Yeah Yeahs” (not to mention the skim-milkcow blues of patronizing racists like Eric Clapton), the political soul of rock had been neutered, more or less forever. Who needs to consider the indignities Wynonie Harris, the Treniers or Sister Rosetta Tharp suffered while making their art when we can just smile and sway to Oasis? Who needs to actually go out and protest when we can piss off Grandma by blasting Green Day?
There are exceptions, and we’ll get to that in a second.
Listen, I’ve climbed on this soapbox before. Since rock ’n’ roll was the creation of those excluded from the American dream, the least we can do is actively use music to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised and discriminated, blah blah blah, but here’s my new angle:
Sometimes, something doesn’t need to be precisely or even accurately political to be political.
In April of 1968, NBC aired a television special called Petula, featuring the hugely popular British pop singer, Petula Clark.[i] One of the guest stars on the show was Harry Belafonte. During a duet on a relatively mild but effective anti-war song called “On the Path of Glory,” Clark reached out and put a hand on Belafonte’s arm.
NBC affiliates in the South went berserk; it was the first time in American network television history that a black man and a white woman had been shown exchanging affectionate physical contact (it predates the famous Kirk/Uhuru kiss on Star Trek by about half a year). Executives connected with the show were fired, and the episode made headlines across the country.
Petula Clark was not even a vaguely political singer, but by making an important gesture at a crucial time, she made a political statement that was vastly more impactful than a hundred anti-war and protest songs.
In many ways, the political ideology of the Sex Pistols was incoherent and non-specific. But just by being the Sex Pistols—or more accurately, being the Sex Pistols at the right time in the right place—they became a genuine political band. Their first release, “Anarchy in the U.K.”, remains one of the great political statements in the post-British Invasion history of music.
Until “Anarchy in the U.K.”, Punk Rock did not necessarily have a political context.
Notably, in its New York City ideation (1973 – 1976), Punk Rock seemed actually apolitical, occasionally touching on nihilism, but not current events. Also, many of its early heroes (Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie, Pere Ubu) made work that reflected intellectual, poetic, or collegiate backgrounds. Therefore, it had relatively little explicit connection to the working class, and did not reflect working-class concerns. I am not criticizing this, I’m just noting it.[ii]
This is important, because it is not possible to truly understand the Sex Pistols and the initial U.K. punk movement without understanding its working class ties, and what it meant to be working class in Great Britain in the mid-1970s.
In Great Britain circa 1976, there was an encoded discrimination against the lower class (and the lower middle class) that was, in many ways, unrecognizable and foreign to Americans. Likewise, people were regularly deprived of educational and economic opportunities because of their class.
I recall being shocked by this when I first visited London. As an American, I was “accustomed to” the atrocity of people being treated differently because of the color of their skin; it was shocking to see “white” people snarled at because of their working-class, Irish, or North English accents.
The standard-bearers for Punk Rock, the Sex Pistols, were defiantly and adamantly working class. Likewise, many first-generation British punk bands wore their working-class or lower-middle-class roots proudly. Since the British working class was a group that was an active target of economic and social discrimination, this gave British punk an implied politicism that American punk rock lacked. Even when an American band did emerge from a pure lower-middle-class or working-class background—like, famously, the Ramones—the American tradition of upward mobility regardless of class meant that there was little political “meaning” in their working-class lineage.
For a few staggering, shattering moments, “Anarchy in the UK” and the Sex Pistols shocked the world as no other artist ever has or ever will.
I have noted in the past that I didn’t think the lyrics to “Anarchy in the U.K.” went far enough—it provides slogans, not instructions—but I was wrong. At that moment in British culture, just the idea that the Sex Pistols, serving as the voice and the symbol of working-class frustration and rage, threatened social and political destabilization was enough to qualify their very existence as a form of protest. In other words, when you are sitting on a pile of dynamite, just shouting “Match!” is an incendiary and explicitly political act.[iii]
The fact that the original “Anarchy” 45 was withdrawn only five weeks after its release significantly underlines its political context. Here was a band so dangerous that the Beatles’ label couldn’t handle them. Today, the incident that led to EMI dropping the band seems trivial—until you put it in context.
Shortly after the EMI release of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the Sex Pistols appeared live on a popular English morning television show called Today. Host Bill Grundy was patronizing, dismissive and insulting to the band, whose accents clearly identified them as working class. In order to intentionally underline their “bad breeding” and low social standing, Grundy provoked the band into saying some four-letter words. There was a frenzied media reaction which reflected a desire to “punish” working-class Englishmen for their bad manners, and the Pistols were dropped from the relatively staid label.
The Sex Pistols reached their apex as a political band about six months later, with the release (on Virgin, their third label in half a year) of the “God Save the Queen” 45.[iv]
Although “God Save The Queen” contains no useful directions about how to end the monarchy, nor any helpful suggestions about what to replace it with, it is essential to know that: A) “God Save the Queen” is also the name of the English national anthem; and B) it was released in late May of 1977, exactly one week before the most prominent and public of the official celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
This would roughly be the equivalent of when Green Day recently performed at the American Music Awards, briefly played MDC’s “Born to Die” and sang, “No Trump. No KKK. No fascist U.S.A.,” but change the American Music Awards to Trump’s presidential inauguration.
Like “Anarchy,” “God Save the Queen” is a defiant and political act not because of any activist instruction in its lyrics, but because of the time it was released, and who released it. And then there’s the music.
It would be hugely asinine to discuss all this without talking about the assaultive, engaging and even joyous sonic impact “Anarchy in the U.K.” made (and still makes). The first 14 seconds of the song (that is, everything until the verse vocal comes in) is among the most rousing and triumphant moments in the entire history of rock; it is the thump, clash, crash and clatter of armies, tasting blood and cider and charging into battle.
The listener is greeted by a wall of flaming, pouncing, pounding guitars and a thunder of drums, quickly abetted by Lydon’s arrogant, gorgeous, assertive shriek of “RIGHT! Now!” followed by a deeply sincere laugh that is half Satan and half Falstaff.
It would be very damn hard for the song to maintain that righteous, frightening energy, and, in fact, it doesn’t. The remaining three minutes and 18 seconds is rather fantastic but relatively pedestrian Ronson-esque slashing and riffing made absolutely immortal only by the drama and ire of Lydon’s dry, hectoring, declamatory vocals and those extraordinary opening 14 seconds.
“Anarchy in the U.K.” is also a deeply British song, and I think it’s important to note that. An entire verse references organizations that were unknown to most Americans (the UDA, the MPLA, the IRA, and the NME), there’s a lyric about a “council tenancy” (a concept unknown in the United States), and the song singles out the home country in its title.[v]
Despite the fact that the Sex Pistols debut 45 has become closely identified with the punk movement in general, “Anarchy in U.K.” (along with “God Save The Queen”) were essentially meant to be actions that disrupted the status quo in the U.K. American listeners may have been inspired by these extraordinary tracks, but they weren’t frightened by them. There would be no equivalent (in pop music terms) in the United States until Public Enemy and NWA.
The Sex Pistols released their debut album Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols a full 11 months after “Anarchy in the U.K.”[vi] Like the Beatles’ debut (Please Please Me), it’s a thin record from a great band. Not only were four of its 12 tracks previously released,[vii] but all the righteous anger and multiple guitar tracks (magnificently recorded by Chris Thomas and Bill Price) in the world couldn’t hide the fact that many of the songs weren’t nearly as good as the singles (“Liar,” “Sub-Mission,��� or “Problems” only seem like decent songs because they are on a historic album).
More pertinently, the Sex Pistols as a functioning band were dead in the
Malcolm McLaren was a brilliant and original cultural instigator, but he was one of the most incompetent and destructive managers in music history.
When McLaren (whose name I am tempted to misspell purely as an act of disrespect) engineered the ouster of bassist Glen Matlock in early 1977, he robbed the Pistols of their best musician and most exciting composer; even more bizarrely, Matlock was replaced with a musically inept junkie whose incompetence and addiction issues caused one of history’s greatest bands to rot from the inside. Only a destructive moron who saw the Pistols as a theoretical concept and a publicity-accruing toy (and not as an incendiary and important rock band) would have made that mistake.
I have zero hesitation in saying that if the Pistols had continued with Lydon, guitarist Steve Jones, and bassist Glen Matlock they could have been the freaking Who (nothing against Paul Cook, whose martial drums contributed distinctively to the Pistols sound, but he is not the extraordinary and eye-popping talent that Matlock, Lydon and Jones were).
Within 18 months of the defenestration of the Pistols, Glen Matlock released Ghosts of Princes in Towers with his band The Rich Kids, a prog/punk/pop masterpiece and one of the best albums of the 1970s; John Lydon had put out two visionary albums with Public Image Limited; and Steve Jones and Paul Cook had released some fantastic music as The Professionals, presenting a slightly more pop-angled version of the big-slop/snap rhythm Pistols sound (“Just Another Dream,” the Professionals’ debut single, is very nearly as good as anything the Pistols released).
Imagine if those extreme and diverse talents had stayed together, evolved together, experimented together, fought together and continued as the Sex Pistols; their split was not inevitable, but a grotesquerie engineered by McLaren. I’ll say this again: I think they could have become The Who. Not only that, but judging from the issue-oriented lyrics that appear consistently all over PiL’s work, if the Pistols had continued they might have been one of the most socially important and politically relevant rock bands of all time. But McLaren couldn’t see that far. He was interested in chaos, not actual change.
But for a staggering, shattering few moments, “Anarchy in the U.K.” and the Sex Pistols shocked the world as no other artist ever has or ever will. We can never recreate that moment, the instant when a rock band from the wrong side of the socio-economic spectrum made a loud noise and shouted “Match!” while sitting on a pile of dynamite, but here’s hoping it can happen again.
Now, I’m not saying that effective protest music can only be made by those who find themselves politically, socially, or economically disenfranchised. It’s just that for the last 40 years, artists emerging from (what I will call for lack of a better phrase) the American white middle class have generally played it safe; at best, they preach to the converted and remain within a comfort zone that avoids any commercial risk, ridicule and confrontation (with some notable exceptions, like the Dixie Chicks, Steve Earle, and some others you can happily add).
But today, potentially destabilizing social and environmental issues are being brought directly to our once-complacent doorsteps, so I hold out hope that the spirit of the late Tom Hayden will infect a new generation of artists (in 1962, Hayden wrote an important manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, urging middle class engagement against the horrors of racism and potential nuclear obliteration).
Perhaps today’s “comfortable” American musicians may not plan to be artists/activists, but the times may compel them to take this position. In other words, what the world needs now isn’t someone singing “Imagine” (which has become the modern-day “Kumbaya”). What we need now, to paraphrase Phil Ochs, is a cross between Taylor Swift and Che.
God save the Sex Pistols.
[i] By 1968, Clark and producer Tony Hatch had created some of the most extraordinary, ecstatic and perfect moments in pop history. Tony Hatch should be spoken of in the same breath as Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and Guy Stevens, but we shall discuss that at another time.
[ii] For the sake of simplicity, I am using the term Punk Rock here to cover all music that emerged from the Punk Era; in general, I prefer to use “Punk” specifically to refer to a certain type of music (i.e., the Ramones or the Sex Pistols), and I advocate using the term “Punk Era Music” to refer to artists like Blondie or Television, etcetera, who did not employ “pure” punk forms: I have written about this subject in the Observer before.
[iii] I think it’s significant that in the demo version of the song cut about three months before the recording released by EMI and later Virgin, John Lydon shouts “Follow Me!” before the guitar break; likewise, he also sings, at the top of the song, “I am the Antichrist” (as opposed to “I am an Antichrist”). Both of these seemingly small changes show the singer positing a more active, messianic role in the revolution, and I wish these lyrics had been retained.
[iv] EMI dropped the Sex Pistols on January 6, 1977. They were signed to A&M on March 10, 1977, and dropped six days (!) later (the extremely rare A&M pressing of “God Save the Queen” has sold for nearly $20,000). The band were signed to their “final” label, Virgin, on May 10, 1977.
[v] The UDA is the Ulster Defence Association and the IRA is the Irish Republican Army, both organizations on opposing sides of the Catholic vs. Protestant/Royalist vs. Republican conflict then ongoing in Northern Ireland; the MPLA is the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, the name of the rebel group who had taken control of Angola (they were much in the news in the mid-1970s, especially in England, which was very conscious of the relatively recent re-shuffling of the world’s colonial map); and the NME stood for The New Musical Express, the most prominent of the three English music weeklies that existed in the mid-1970s (and the only one still active today; the others were The Melody Maker and Sounds—here we note that the author of these words was the New York correspondent for Sounds when he was a teenager). Oh, and Lydon citing a “council tenancy” is very, very roughly the equivalent of referring to state or city-run projects.
[vi] Contrast this with both the Jam and the Clash, who released their first albums only one month after their first 45s; the Damned and the Stranglers each had a four-month gap between their 45’s and LP debuts.
[vii] The original American version, released on Warner Bros, is 11 tracks (it inexplicably omits “Sub-Mission,” which is not missed).