“Say something scandalous”: Sex Pistols and the fury unleashed by Anarchy in the UK

“Go ahead, you have another five seconds. Say something outrageous.” Presenter Bill Grundy launched guitarist Steve Jones, in full broadcast of his program Today. It’s December 1976, the Sex Pistols had just released their first single, Anarchy in the UKafter signing by the multinational EMI. They had already attended a couple of TV shows to promote their incendiary debut, but tonight -emergency guests after Queen’s withdrawal-, they will be as scandalous with words as on the vinyl groove.

Jones, noticing that Grundy was looking at the singer Siouxsie Sioux, who was standing behind the Pistols, threw him the most scandalous thing that crossed his mind at that moment. “Dirty bastard…dirty son of a bitch.” And he finished it off: “What a fucking bastard!” Viewers, executives and even the group’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, were stunned. It was the first time in the history of British television that a guy dared to curse live and direct. And with that he made it clear that the scruffy punks had come to challenge society.

For the singer John Lydon, then called Johnny Rotten (something like “rotten little john” because of his poor dental hygiene), the incident is explained by the cultural clash with the adult and conventional world of that time. “People in England were super-disciplined according to the typical British education, everyone knew their place, that was precisely what they taught you at school: to be in your place -he tells in his memoirs anger is energy-. The interview is not just part of a show but a portrait of how young people were looking for life in a world that denied reality.

And that was the Sex Pistols. Trying to make a living with an outrageous single that defied convention, in the middle of the era of rock amplified to the size of stadiums while a harsh economic crisis was felt. The optimism of the sixties, the hippies and the colorful clothes of Carnaby Street, had vanished before the ups and downs of the international situation -especially after the oil crisis-, and little by little rock began to strain a wave of misfit young people wanting to make a lot of noise.

The story tells that It was in a London store called SEX that the Sex Pistols originated. It was a place run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, a creative designer who knew how to take advantage of the possibilities of the wardrobe. This led him to intervene garments and even design complete costume sets. “He was a ridiculous person, but incredibly creative. He took advantage of all his obsessions. Everything meant something to her, sometimes too much, and she attached too much importance to it,” recalls John Lydon.

sex pistols web

Precisely, Lydon was one of the young people who came to frequent the store with his friend Simon John Ritchie, whom history will later know as Sid Viciuos. “More than a store, it was the meeting point for all kinds of strange and interesting people. A few months later I worked there for a while”, remember. He was not the only one, besides him, two aspiring musician friends, Steve Jones and Paul Cook, frequented the place and made friends with McLaren, a charlatan with a nose for where the trends were going, and who had tried to manage the band New York Dolls for a time when he had settled in the Big Apple, where he got to know the local scene.

“Malcolm had been manager of the New York Dolls when they were finished Lydon recalls. When they showed up in London I really enjoyed it because they told me what they thought of Malcolm and needless to say it wasn’t very favorable. If there is a person who had not really done anything in life, that was Malcolm.

Malcolm McLaren

At that time Jones and Cook had been part of The Strand, a band that did not end up taking off and they had made good friends with Glen Matlock, one of the dependents, who they ended up inviting to play bass in a new project. But since none of them sang well, they needed a vocalist. According to Lydon, it was Bernie Rhodes (friend of McLaren and later manager of The Clash) who suggested his name to join the band. after seeing him in the store with his hair dyed green and a Pink Floyd shirt, on which he had viciously scratched the phrase “I hate”, in his own handwriting.

And so, bringing together guys who barely knew each other, the Sex Pistols was formed. “Our first meeting was so awful that it’s a miracle we ended up playing together. Lydon recalls. No one believes it, but I had to show off my diplomatic skills. On the one hand, I wanted them to think that I was gross and disgusting, but on the other hand, I also wanted to be part of the group, so my interests were in conflict.”

Stumbling, and with Jones’ mistrust of the “new” singer, the Pistols began the hard work of becoming competent as a band, digging into old songs. A bit destroying the refoundational spirit that has always been blamed on punk. “To be honest, not a single note in tune could be heard. We had started playing songs that could be called mod, classics of the sixties of the Who, the Small Faces and groups like that, the typical verse-chorus pop hits, ”says Lydon.

So debuted live on November 6, 1975 at Saint Martin’s College art school – the same one mentioned by Jarvis Cocker in the lyrics of Common People-, with a repertoire that included accelerated versions for songs by The Who, Small Faces and The Monkees. “There was literally no applause and in the end a monumental row was mounted. He almost always rode, God knows why. Most of the fights were over other gangs,” recalls John Lydon.

But little by little, the group began to create their own material, with Lydon taking care of the lyrics. “In rehearsals someone would start playing and I would come up with the lyrics. We did things in a totally open and spontaneous way (sometimes, I’m aware, that can be a disaster). But it worked very well for us and it has been my working method all my life”.

that’s how it came out Anarchy in the UK. A protest song that distills boredom in a Great Britain plunged into economic and social crisis, after the end of an era of post-war prosperity. “In those days, living in the UK was like staying in the 1940s: energy shortages, power cuts, streets full of rubbish bags. Lydon says. The country had incurred a large debt from the war and, unlike Germany, which was rebuilt on the basis of aid, England, as she had won, nothing at all”.

In the lyrics, Lydon got to the point and put himself in the shoes of someone who, at the point of voluntarism, wanted to give a shovel to that grayer Britain than usual. “I am an antichrist. I’m an anarchist, I don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it,” he sings in the first verse.

According to the singer, the idea of ​​those lines was different. “With the opening verses “I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist” [soy un anticristo, / soy un anarquista] It’s not like I was trying to become the devil or anything.. He never crossed my mind. Not at all: she arose from something that I felt very deeply. I thought that she would see me as a victim of the environment, that it would help them to identify with me and that waves of love and joy would come to me in response. I swear! I didn’t think I was perceived as a cheeky son of a bitch.”

And the line “I want to destroy the passerby”? “I was referring to that type of indolent person who contributes nothing and spends the day complaining. They don’t do anything for themselves or for others,” explains Lydon.

Despite their aggressive attitude and their scandalous shows, the EMI signed the band as a novelty. “They probably thought we were part of a bigger movement and that it was okay to sign us. We weren’t the first punk band to sign a contract. The Damned had done it before, which was really weird,” recalls Lydon. And as the first single for the company, they opted for the thunderous punk protest of Anarchy in the UKwhich hit stores on November 26, 1976.

“From Steve Jones’ descending chord opening barrage to Johnny Rotten’s fantastic vocal sarcasm, this song is a perfect statement, an amazingly powerful piece of punk politics, a lifestyle, a manifesto that heralds a new era,” John Robb summed up in his Oral history of punk.

The song did not go past number 38 on the UK charts. But the tales of excess, the stinging lyrics and the TV swearing incident with Bill Grundy soon took their toll on the group’s reputation. They tried to do a tour promoting their single, but it was a disaster; they couldn’t book enough shows to cover their expenses, and they spent several days with the teams on top of a bus, without playing. Bored, they began to take drugs.

But when they got a show, the situation was not much better. In Plymouth, Lydon says, a violent fight broke out between gangs of skinheads and sailors, which ended up on stage. And in another show, a group of Christians was present with posters that read the very apocalyptic “when the world rots.”

But from then on, the band’s fleeting career foundered between fights, tensions and tabloid attacks, which charged against them. The effect was amplified by the incident on TV. According to Jon Savage, this had “a totally disastrous effect on the group: from then until his disappearance in January 1978, they added just four new songs to their repertoire and their approach to their audience and their music remained the same. They were flies in the amber of notoriety”.

Given the fights, the canceled shows and the scandals -to which was added the attempt to touch his god save the queen, their punk blasphemy against royalty, on a speedboat on the Thames – EMI terminated the Sex Pistols’ contract. After some laps they managed to sign with Virgin, and with this label they released their only album, Never mind the Bollocks. In the meantime, Sid Vicious entered the band in Matlock’s place (he made his live debut in March 1977), and with him, a spiral of self-destruction that would lead the band to its decline in the disastrous tour of the United States at the beginning. of 1978. A vertiginous and chaotic race that ended up consuming them, but that left a wake.

Over the years, Lydon has nuanced the words that he himself wrote on that subject that opened the doors for them. “Anarchy is a terrible idea. let’s clear that up He pointed out a few days ago. I am not an anarchist.