Unfortunately, the name of the band The Sex Pistols.
Unfortunately, they labeled themselves a punk band, and nobody really knew what that meant at the time.
Unfortunately, they were seen as little more than a curious oddity. They swore during television interviews. The bassist was named Sid Vicious, and their lead singer was named Johnny Rotten. They weren’t very good musicians, and they were always angry, confrontational, and generally nasty. They cut themselves with razor blades on stage. They encouraged audience members to spit on them. They broke up after half a tour of North America, and Sid Vicious would soon die at the age of 21 after murdering his girlfriend and then overdosing on heroin.
It’s unfortunate, and it can be hard to see beyond all of the drama and shock to realize they recorded one of the very best songs in all of rock and roll history. What they may have lacked in skill, they more than made up for in raw, maniacal passion.
The Sex Pistols originally formed in 1975, a mere 11 years after The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and inspired teenagers throughout the world to pick up a guitar and form a band. But the hope and optimism The Beatles inspired eventually turned to anger and revolt (also inspired by The Beatles). We realized that rules were made to be broken. Everything was up for grabs. The feedback from a guitar could become part of a song.. Loud protests against the government were encouraged, if not expected. Unabashed drug use and references became the norm. Anger and rage became an ideal, and when combined with generally poor economic conditions throughout England, that ideal easily took hold with the frustrated, lost and confused teenagers of the 1970’s. Those teenagers found a voice with the Sex Pistols, and a whole slew of other punk bands to follow. But The Sex Pistols were the first, and “Anarchy in the UK” let us all know there were here.
“Anarchy in the UK” begins with a loud thrashing, metallic guitar bashing out chords unison with the bass and drums playing a single repetitive chord. The drums do a slight fill for the chord change, and then we hear Johnny Rotten singing…no sneering…the first lines of the song.
He starts by announcing “Right…now. Heh, heh, heh” and then the first verse begins.
I am an Antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it
I wanna destroy the passersby
‘Cause I, I wanna be anarchy
No dog’s body
Johnny Rotten claims that he was just looking for a good rhyme, but I don’t think we can let him off quite so easily. The Sex Pistols are crashing through the gate, and are turning everything upside down, all while embracing and perfecting a traditional garage band ethos. They are anarchists. To the establishment, they are the “anti-Christ.” We are afraid of them, we don’t necessarily want them here, and we don’t know what they are going to do. “I don’t know what I want…but I wanna destroy the passerby.“
“Anarchy for the U.K. it’s coming sometime and maybe
I give a wrong time, stop a traffic line
Your future dream is a shopping scheme
‘Cause I, I wanna be anarchy
In the city”
This is not poetry. They are claiming the power of change, while accusing the mainstream of being boring drones. Stuck in traffic. Shopping at the mall. We may not want to hear the message, but they are going to say it. They are going to scream it. Out loud.
At the bridge, guitarist wails out a perfectly decent three note repetitive guitar solo while the rhythm section continues non-stop. The music is relentless.
“How many ways to get what you want?
I use the best, I use the rest
I use the N.M.E
I use anarchy
‘Cause I, I wanna be anarchy
The only way to be
Is this the M.P.L.A?
Or is this the U.D.A?
Or is this the I.R.A?
I thought it was the U.K
Or just another country
(Another count in tenenssi)”
Producer Chris Jones continues to layer sound and texture, and in the next verse Rotten uses a series of abbreviations to complain about the world around him. N.M.E is the New Music Express, a popular music newspaper that he scornfully offers in a way the listener hears as the word “enemy.” The other initials refer to paramilitary groups that they think may soon contribute to a civil war throughout the United Kingdom.
All the pieces are there. The three chords. The passion. The anger. The fuzz. There is symbology and obfuscation. Sid Vicious is more personality than musician, but ultimately they are able to pull it off. Johnny Rotten sings with a razor blade sharp anger, with flourishes of panache and style. The rhythm section of Vicious and drummer Paul Cook is utilitarian at best, a little sloppy, but always right where they need to be. I imagine Steve Jones hunkered down in a corner, slashing away on lead guitar and bringing color and light when only absolutely necessary.
The Sex Pistols were around for only a few years, and it is hard to imagine a scenario where they would have still been recording music 10 or 15 years after the release of their first and only studio album Nevermind the Bollocks…Here’s the Sex Pistols. It’s also hard to imagine they ever expected the fame or acclaim they received. Their album is at the top of many lists of the best rock and roll albums of all time. They are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are the founding fathers of punk music.
The Sex Pistols become, much to their frustration (and perhaps amusement) I’m sure, the very establishment they once wanted to destroy. The fact remains that they wanted to record rock and roll music, and even though they did everything they could to burn out, they have yet to fade away.
“Anarchy in the UK”
Written by Paul Cook, Steve Jones, John Lydon, Glen Matlock
Performed by the Sex Pistols
Released November 26, 1976