Forty years ago The Sex Pistols’ debut single was released. Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman remembers it well
For some of us of a certain age it still seems like yesterday. For others it is something to breathlessly boast to our children, or grandchildren, that yes, we were there. On the 26th of November 1976, the Sex Pistols release their debut single Anarchy in the UK and for as long as the record was on the turntable it was as if the world had changed, forever.
Back in ’76 I was anything but a teenage muso. Whilst others raved about Pink Floyd, Bowie, Fleetwood Mac and the like I remained musically nonplussed. Meantime the teenybop phenomenon of David Cassidy, the Osmonds, the Bay City Rollers were as meaningless to me as their fictional televised version, The Partridge Family. Rock n Roll was growing old minus the disgracefulness bit. And then the Pistols appeared on Thames TV.
I was about to have supper, my parents were in the kitchen and I was sent to the lounge to switch the television off. It was incredible. A bunch of misbehaving teenagers, the Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux and the Bromley contingent, telling the disbelieving presenter, Bill Grundy, exactly what they thought of him and his hated establishment with every swear word that I knew enough shouldn’t be used in polite company let alone live on ITV. Thankfully my parents hadn’t heard what I’d heard but I had: every single word. My mind wasn’t exactly on supper that evening.
Their TV appearance not only catapulted the Sex Pistols into the headlines the musical movement they represented – punk rock - sparked a moral panic. Of course youth culture had done this before back in the 1950s with the Teddy Boys or the 1960s Mods vs. Rockers and most recently early 1970s hippy psychedelia. But by the mid-1970s British politics was in such a state of flux, this panic seemed to be of a different order entirely. The miners had been on strike not once, but twice, 1972 and 1974, defeating the Tory government on both occasions.
The army were brought in, unsuccessfully, to break both the fire brigades and dustbin workers when they went on strike. They failed. The fascist bootboys of the National Front were on the march and chalking up big votes too, facing fiercely ferocious opposition wherever they appeared. The Police were using ‘Sus’ laws, stop and search, provoking a militant backlash. And the opposition Conservative Party was describing immigration as ‘swamping’ our culture.
The Pistols, with their foul mouths, wilfully out-of-tune music and whining vocals, torn to shreds clothing and safety pins through their earlobes were a two-fingered response to any establishment attempt to paper over the cracks of this crisis. ‘We’re the flowers in the dustbin, we’re the poison in your human machine.’ Most us didn’t know the word at the time but this was a very English nihilism; ‘Destroy’ as the Pistols’ sang and their t-shirts demanded.
The nihilism wasn’t politically located in any obviously Left vs. Right sense though the Left liked to think it was because Punks were against the same establishment they were opposed to as well.
With the National Front in the shadows there was no guarantee that this propensity to destroy would take a progressive dimension. Not helped either by the Punks’ readiness to wear the swastika as a symbol of the anti-establishment, flirt with Nazi themes in the so-called cause of dissident art and the essential whiteness of the bands and most of their followers. What made this musical moment so special was that not only was any risk of punk’s nihilism becoming a popular force for ugly reaction firmly quashed but an alternative set of connections centred on being both anti-Nazi and against racism erected in its place.
This was the unique achievement of late 1970s punk. It became almost indivisible from Rock Against Racism, a movement shortly to be chronicled in a brilliant new book Reminiscences of RAR, and marching against the National Front behind the punked up slogan ‘Nazis = No Fun.’ Make no mistake the nihilism of punk could have gone either way. It didn’t and a musical movement of change was created, from below, for perhaps the first and last time.
More than any single band or performer The Sex Pistols were emblematic of that moment and the contradictions therein. They ignited the idea that just about anyone could form a band, put on a gig, write and publish a fanzine. Every city, town, village would generate its own version of what punk was and might become. Rock against Racism fed into this, anybody could join because there was nothing to sign up to, no membership form, no committee, just a movement we made our own. A musical, and political, attitude that matched the needs and aspirations of each other. And without the Pistols none of that would have been possible. A bit of fuckology with a lot of do-it-yourself.
We mean it maaaan… and still do!
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.