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Never mind the Politics, here’s the Sex Pistols

Posted on 2nd November 2009. 2 Comments

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Luke Turner discusses the Sex Pistols’ impact upon music and politics

“It reflected the cry of a nation…”

dfp76tbb_25hbvpmfgk_bThe year is 1976. From the stage hall comes the roar of guitars, the crash of drums followed by Johnny Rotten’s snarl as he bawls out “I am an anti-christ, I am an anarchist” to the packed crowd. The crowd in response mosh, a new form of violent dancing invented by the bizarre phenomenon known as punk. A man is left with a bloody nose as he is head-butted, but continues to sing along. What would have been shocking only 20 years prior is now greeted with only a jaded stare.

 Why is this scene so poignant? It reflected the cry of a nation. The band, the Sex Pistols, were a bunch of disillusioned lads from London who gave as much of a damn about politics as they did about their personal hygiene. Rotten, so called because his teeth were green with decay epitomized the disillusioned 70s youth with no job prospects and no hope.

Rewind back about 30 years. Britain has emerged victorious from the Second World War, together with Soviet Russia and the US as the last great powers of the world. The spectre of German nationalism that has haunted Europe for the past half century has been banished, the troops have come home and a socially progressive government is about to be elected. It would appear nothing could go wrong.

Fast-forward through 30 years of suffering under the anti-imperialist glare of the American eagle and Russian bear, the prejudice of Charles de Gaulle and rampant trade unionism and you understand the country Johnny and co grew up in. Britain had been diminished from a world power to an isolated island within 40 years, beset within and without by political divisions and terrorism. The IRA were on the streets of London, religion was a cause of derision and division and the decline in traditional industries meant unemployment was rife. Britain faced a serious identity crisis. “Just another country” indeed.

But this lack of identity was not confined to politics and extended to the music scene. The hippy culture of the 60s had given way to pretentious mysticism and excess in the form of the golden locks of Robert Plant and the pompous bombasity of Queen. Rock was turning into prog- time signature changes, gongs and 30 minute drum solos were the order of the day. Pissed off and with nowhere to go, the youth took to the stage.

…the Pistols very own Steve Jones’, a man who confessed he didn’t even know the name of the Prime Minister…

Nothing was sacred anymore. The old values had led to a nation of twolg_sexpistols halves which can be seen in the lead guitarists from two leading bands of the day; on the one side Queen’s Brian May’s, academic, gifted and talented and on the other the Pistols very own Steve Jones’, a man who confessed he didn’t even know the name of the Prime Minister. Angry at being marginalized, the Pistols poured their rage into their debut (and only) album, “Never mind the Bollocks”. Taking pot shots at the royalty on “God save the Queen”, and society in general in the previously mentioned “Anarchy in the UK”, the band would accept no limits. Fan response was massive with “God Save the Queen” reaching number 1 on the charts on the Queen’s silver jubilee, but was forcibly kept at number two by the authorities. 

At the heart of the Pistols’ success were power chords and a DIY ethic. The working class had a voice, albeit unrefined. But while punk never pushed the boundaries of musical finesse it made up for this with its sarcastic sneer and rampant substance abuse- the factor that would ensure its untimely demise. dfp76tbb_26c2c2ngcm_bWhile Page of Led Zeppelin could be viewed as the Coleridge or Wordsworth of his day, a brilliant mind with an addiction to opium, a punk like Sid Vicious was just a junkie.

Lacking Rotten’s sardonic wit, Sid was an accident waiting to happen, and happen it did. The Sex Pistols relentless nihilism, having already resulted in the destruction of the band in 1978 led to the death of one of its own. Vicious stabbed his then girlfriend, Nancy Sungen to death before subsequently overdosing on heroin, just another victim of the postmodern age.

“In its impact on politics, punk has done nothing..”

Vicious’ passing brought reality to the scene. Punk was dead. The Ramones0_clash_on_the_street began to turn to pop, The Clash began to shift towards reggae and the sonic and social assault which had maintained such cohesion in the late seventies was destroyed. The void was filled with decidedly softer new wave bands such as The Jam. On the political stage, Thatcher and Reagan heralded a new era for the West, while Sunny Jim and Carter slunk ignominiously into the annals of history. While some bands such as The Southern Death Cult continued waving a flag recognizable as punk, it wasn’t long before they had traded their jeans in for spandex and the rewards of stadium rock success.

Was punk merely an aberration? Some 30 years on from the Pistols’ demise, they have reformed and are playing clubs across Europe, just another band cashing in on past successes. While bands such as Zeppelin are content to leave their legacy well alone, the Pistols seem determined to destroy what credibility they retain. In a musical sense, their influence remains. Pushing the boundaries and the growth of extreme forms of metal owes as much to Rotten as it does to metal pioneers such as Sabbath. For an example perhaps more familiar to the casual reader, the Pistols’ own style has been bastardized and sanitized to great commercial success by bands such as Blink 182 and Green Day.

sex-pistols-0001In its impact on politics, punk has done nothing, save reinforce the feelings of cynicism towards politicians. Given the recent failings of the Thatcherist system that have been highlighted by the economic depression, one cannot help feeling the punk’s viewpoint was justified. No one yet has come up with a satisfactory answer as to where Britain’s place is in the post-colonial world. Are we to revert to being a province of Rome, a pawn of America, or to stride out alone and hope we can make it?

Or are we, as Rotten said, to believe there’s no future in England’s dreaming?

Luke Turner

2 Comments »

  • Calum said:

    The guy in the crowd had his part of his ear bitten off by a girl. A little known person called Shane Macgowan (fairytale of New York, Pogues)

  • Luke said:

    Really? You should do an article on “The Pogues” Calum, it’d be awesome!