Photo by Koen Suyk; Nationaal Archief, Den Haag
Punk as Fuck is a monthly column in which Associate Editor Collin Brennan discusses issues in punk music and culture. This month’s column explores the far-reaching influence of the Sex Pistols’ debut single, “Anarchy in the UK”, released on November 26th, 1976.
Mere seconds before he introduces himself to the British listening public as a snarling, caustic antichrist on the Sex Pistols’ 1976 debut single, “Anarchy in the UK”, Johnny Rotten (né John Lydon) shouts a phrase that would become even more emblematic of the shape of punk to come: “Right … now!”
Before those two words, the fledgling movement known as punk rock had kept one foot planted in the traditions of rock ‘n’ roll past, even as it gleefully mocked them. In the opening line of Britain’s very first punk single — The Damned’s “New Rose”, which preceded “Anarchy in the UK” by almost exactly one month — singer Dave Vanian takes the piss out of The Shangri-Lahs with his self-consciously Americanized pronunciation of “Is she really going out with him?” But strip away the distortion and slow down the tempo, and “New Rose” isn’t really all that thematically different from a Shangri-Lahs song, or any other song that might have conceivably appeared on rock radio in the ‘60s. The rose itself may be new, but there’s a certain pop timelessness to the lyrics about finding love and not wanting it to slip away.
The same can be said of other early English punk singles like The Vibrators’ “We Vibrate” and the Joe Strummer-fronted 101ers’ “Keys to Your Heart”, neither of which strays far from the back-to-basics pub rock formula that dominated London’s club scene in the mid-’70s. Thousands of miles away, separated by an ocean but united by their membership in the same punk subculture, New York City groups like the Ramones and The Heartbreakers also looked backwards in time, styling themselves after Marlon Brando’s outlaw biker in 1953’s The Wild One and appropriating ‘60s girl-group melodies for their own rebellious causes. Punk in the early half of 1976 was still an unquestionably transgressive movement, but it wasn’t quite as challenging to the status quo as hindsight would have us believe.
It also — with some rare and tangential exceptions — wasn’t overly concerned with confronting the sociopolitical issues of the day, preferring to exist outside of the mainstream rather than contaminate the public drinking system with its own ideologies. As Ramones frontman Joey Ramone once explained: “We decided to start our own group because we were bored with everything we heard in 1974, there was nothing to listen to anymore… We missed music like it used to be before it got ‘progressive.’” From the Ramones’ perspective, punk in the mid-’70s almost resembled a sort of nostalgist’s retreat, a leather- and safety pin-bedecked time machine that took passengers back to a simpler time and allowed them to escape the grim realities of the present.
All of which brings us back to those two words, those two flaming Molotov cocktails Rotten hurls toward us at the beginning of “Anarchy in the UK”: “Right… now!” He wants there to be no question about his song’s time and place, and there isn’t. The time is here. The place is now. For punk rock in 1976, this moment marks a jarring shift to the present — jarring in the sense that it’s accompanied by crude ascending power chords and followed by maniacal laughter, yes, but also jarring in its emphatic announcement of its own relevance. Within 10 seconds of the needle hitting the record, we know that punk’s entire calculus has changed. It’s right there, snarling at you, baring its teeth at you, forcing you to confront what it has to say. It has become, in a word, dangerous.
Any lingering confusion about punk’s newfound potential to frighten and disrupt is blasted away by Rotten’s next set of declarations. As “Anarchy” lurches into its first verse, the skinny, short-haired 20-year-old from working-class London introduces himself to Britain and the world. “I am an antichrist!” he scream-sings, openly inviting accusations of blasphemy. It’s a hell of an entrance, unlike any other in the history of popular music in its weaponized desire to provoke, but it meets its match in the very next line, in which Rotten employs an awkward slant rhyme to call himself an “anarchist” (or an anar-kyst, if you will). He uses the provocative epithet not to state a coherent political philosophy but to rattle the listener into visualizing an amorphous deviant, a boogeyman whose very existence threatens to upset the established social hierarchy.
Photo: Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway)
Years later, in 2012, Rotten would state in an interview that he never really claimed to be an anarchist at all. “I never was. Whoever told you that?” he said, feigning surprise but essentially telling the truth. “Anarchy is mind games for the middle class.” And, really, that’s exactly the point. A more worldly middle-class listener may have heard Rotten’s opening salvo and recalled the events of May 1968 in Paris, which brought the French economy to a virtual halt and briefly threatened to upend the country’s entire social order. But even without any knowledge of events outside the UK, anarchy was a force to be feared in 1970s Britain and in London especially, where working-class grievances had already resulted in both the Colour Strike of 1970 and the postal workers strike of 1971.
Such was the environment that had given birth to the Sex Pistols, a band that at the time comprised Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Glen Matlock (Rotten’s friend Sid Vicious would replace Matlock the next year). Dressed provocatively in studs and safety pins by manager Malcolm McLaren, the group gave off a shabby look with unquestionable economic implications — these were four young, angry representatives of England’s working class, and they were coming to take back what was theirs. This was not punk as Britain had vaguely known it, not merely some louder and more abrasive take on rock ‘n’ roll. This was an overtly politicized style of pop music that flipped The Beatles’ mantra of “All you need is love” on its head and spit in its face, all while calling attention to the very same class divide that pop music is supposed to negate, or at least distract from.
Protest music had, of course, been around for decades before the Sex Pistols came onto the scene. Even The Beatles — the biggest band in the world — felt empowered to register their discontent with the powers-that-be in the midst of the Vietnam War. But such protests had typically been couched in populist terms, accompanied by a sense of righteousness and a basic belief in human goodness. The Sex Pistols were the first to embrace chaos and nihilism as agents of change, repurposing the “protest song” as a means for punks to register their discontent without offering anything in the way of a solution. “Anarchy in the UK” doesn’t try to solve anybody’s problems, nor does it propose anything more meaningful than small acts of violence against the state. “I give a wrong time, stop a traffic line,” Rotten almost jokingly threatens, aware that such micro-aggressions won’t do anything to change the underlying power structures.
But he doesn’t care, and that’s where “Anarchy” gets its charge. After all, it’s really Rotten’s lack of conviction that’s so frightening and thrilling — the notion that he’s saying something just to get a rise out of people, that he and his ragtag bunch of misfits may not actually believe in anything at all. The Sex Pistols “wanna be anarchy” (note how the “anarchist” as lone actor has suddenly morphed into “anarchy” as general concept), and that’s quite the ideological leap for the still-developing genre of punk rock to take. Contrast Rotten and co. with the Ramones, whose self-titled debut from April 1976 features songs with titles like “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You”. All of these wants are simple, easy to understand, a bit rebellious, maybe, but appealing to human impulses that anyone can understand. Meanwhile, the Sex Pistols want to see their country catch fire.
Forty years after releasing their debut single in a featureless black sleeve, the surviving Sex Pistols preside over a complicated legacy. In October of 1977, they released their one and only full-length record, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, an album that went on to spawn dozens of duplicates and cemented their status as one of the most controversial bands in history. But with fame came scrutiny, and later the revelation that the Sex Pistols may not have been the nihilistic punk terrorists they had made themselves out to be. Their mission, as McLaren put it in the 1980 mockumentary film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, amounted to little more than “cash for chaos,” an elaborate and lucrative ruse played on an unsuspecting public.
Whether or not that’s the truth is a matter of interpretation. Rotten never believed it, refusing to participate in the film and claiming in a 1999 interview with the Times that, “If we had an aim, it was to force our own, working-class opinions into the mainstream, which was unheard of in pop music at the time.” But regardless of their stated purpose or beliefs, the Sex Pistols — and “Anarchy in the UK” in particular — are responsible for perhaps the most seismic shift in punk rock’s long development.
“Anarchy” forged an inextricable link between punk rock and the modern political landscape, turning the genre away from the past and refocusing it on the present. The radical political organizations Rotten lists in the song’s final verse — the MPLA, the UDA, and the IRA — have all since disbanded or renounced violence, and their inclusion now serves only to date the song, to help us locate it in a particular time and place.
That’s what Rotten meant when he curled his lip up next to the mic and introduced his band to the world with those two words. Right… now! is right where the Sex Pistols were in November of 1976, and it’s where punk rock has been ever since.