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The Sex Pistols

The Sex Pistols. Photo: Koen Suyk / Public Domain

It has become the habit amongst some to criticise the Pistols for being ‘crap’ or ‘selling out’ but such an attitude is to massively miss the point, writes Simon Duckett

With the release of Pistol, Danny Boyle’s new six-part TV series on Disney Plus and accompanying references to their iconic single God Save the Queen, as well as some ‘noises-off’ concerning the platinum jubilee celebrations of one Elizabeth ll (gawd bless ‘er), now would seem to be a good time to take a brief peek at the Sex Pistols and the impact that they had on the second half of the 70s in Britain. 

And what a miserable few years it was. The post-war settlement of jobs, houses and free healthcare was teetering towards its grave ably assisted by the very party that had brought it into existence, unemployment was rocketing with the subsequent shrinking of opportunities for young people and such ‘career opportunities’ as there was were largely devoid of meaning or creativity. Meanwhile on the cultural front little was speaking to this changing world with dying cinemas full of feature-length TV spinoffs, three channels on the telly, and pubs either barred to teenagers or, in some cases, arenas which were breeding grounds for the adults that their parents had become long ago.

And the music. Dear oh dear, the music. Flabby, flatulent stadium rock stars far more interested in “making love to their egos” as Bowie would have it and who, as somebody else memorably wrote, far from storming the reality asylum, were having increasing trouble opening the toilet door.

The ‘alternative’ to this was a few radio stations playing the same tightly restricted playlists of safe pop and endless replays of ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Hey Jude’. These were compered by completely moronic establishment ‘disc jockeys’ whose main function was to tightly control what was acceptable for the youth to enjoy which certainly didn’t include complaining about the state of the nation, sex (straight of course. It was effectively illegal to be gay) or, worst of all, absolutely no swearing whatsoever. Oh yes. Smashy and Nicey were real people!

Underneath this dreary surface, however, something was stirring. Effectively shut out of the mainstream, the youth started populating cellars, old churches, abandoned Victorian hotels and some clubs and university venues to put on music that meant something to them. One of which was the iconic 100 Club where a young Don Letts was the impromptu DJ between acts. He had nothing to play except his collection of imported Jamaican reggae 45s so he played them and kickstarted the punks’ love of reggae music, recreating their mod and skin parents’ enthusiasm for the sound.

With no money, few instruments and fewer previous opportunities to learn how to play what they had, they emerged from the garages and bedrooms with whatever clothing came to hand, just so long as it wasn’t flared trousers or denim shirts (the shiny biker jackets and daft tartan ‘bondage’ trousers came later). It was a do-it-yourself sensibility not dissimilar to the development of earlier Jamaican dancehall and later dance cultures. There were loads of them and many came and went in bright flashes, burning up like butterflies in front of a blowtorch. 

Out of this maelstrom emerged one band whose name has become synonymous with ‘punk’. Managed by the late art provocateur and sometime Situationist Malcolm McLaren, they were catapulted to the front of the stage largely by two moments. The first was an interview on Thames TV with corpulent media old fart Bill Grundy which descended into a slanging match of swearing on (tea-time tv) prompting the over-excited headline in the Daily Mirror “The Filth and the Fury” and a subsequent orgy of media outrage and denunciations.

The second was their single God Save the Queen, released during Elizabeth ll’s jubilee celebrations in 1977, (silver this time for those who are keeping count). At the time, the monarchy was far more popular than it is today, peaking at the marriage of Charles and Diana in 1981, so the release of a single so gleefully disrespectful was a rallying point for the dissidents amongst the population. It was the alternative anthem to the flag-bedecked street parties and ceaseless media toadying, along with an all-day pub crawl on the day itself. (The government had graciously authorised all-day opening for the first time since the WWl, bringing an almost medieval atmosphere with all its massive contradictions to the occasion.)

So, inspiring other bands with a longer lifespan than their own chaotic creation permitted, the Sex Pistols were a symbol for dissent and resistance and a screen onto which the events of that joyful, raucous era were projected. It has become the habit amongst some to criticise the Pistols for being ‘crap’ or ‘selling out’ but such an attitude is to massively miss the point.

They were in many ways the embodiment of a moment that passed all too quickly but left a lasting legacy. They were the skirmishers for a generation that upturned a table or two of the rigid, boring, ossified society that was suffocating ordinary people and scattered some of its most sacred icons: racism, sexism and homophobia, not to mention an obsequious deference to a gang of hereditary robbers. The Pistols were right about one thing: there was no future so a new one had to be made. It is still unfolding.

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