Anger is an Energy: 40 Years of The Sex Pistols

Friday 6th November 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of The Sex Pistols’ first gig at Central St Martin’s College on the Charing Cross Road supporting Bazooka Joe. Alongside other appearances by the Pistols, such as their gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June of ’76 or their final show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in ’78, their live debut at St Martin’s has become much mythologised, another flashpoint of insurrectionary rupture in the history of popular music. As with all things Sex Pistols, the reality is often contradictory and at odds with the ideas surrounding punk and its subsequent impact. Punk as Year Zero, a rupture in pop historiography? They played covers of songs by The Who, Dave Berry and The Small Faces, and they would of course go on to cover ‘Stepping Stone’ by Paul Revere and The Raiders/The Monkees alongside The Stooges’ ‘No Fun’. Listen back to Never Mind The Bollocks… particularly Steve Jones’ guitar playing, and it’s not difficult to hear a bunch of Chuck Berry-inspired licks and a pretty basic verse/chorus structure to most of the songs. It’s easy to be cynical, but it’s perhaps not really The Pistols’ music that is or was the most revolutionary thing about them.

“Sex Pistols in Paradiso — Johnny Rotten 1” by Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945–1989 — negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang 2.24.01.05, bestanddeelnummer 928–9661 — Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons

When I was about eleven or twelve my cousin played me ‘Anarchy in the UK’ for the very first time. It was on a Walkman, and after about a minute I pulled the headphones off and complained that it all sounded very angry and that I didn’t get why he might want to listen to it. It took me a few more years to get why that anger was so important. As John/Johnny Lydon/Rotten would point out with Public Image Limited some years after the Pistols’ demise, ‘anger is an energy’, and it wasn’t one I was used to hearing in pop music at that time. The Sex Pistols were never as musically revolutionary as popular culture might recollect, Nevermind…, for all its snarl and swagger, is a really well-polished and produced album that despite its nihilistic modernity, is also heavily indebted to the rock ’n’ roll of two decades previously. Malcolm MacLaren, the Pistols’ manager, was fascinated by rock ’n’ roll style and the historiography of pop culture. To understand The Sex Pistols as something wholly new isn’t really the point. You can hear the signposts in the feedback that prefaces The Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine’ , the hooligan clamour of Them’s ‘Gloria’, the histrionics of Screaming Jay Hawkins or the thrash-boogie of Jerry Lee Lewis. Instead, what made The Sex Pistols significant, and MacLaren understood this, was that they represented a powerful sense of thwarted primal id, bang in the middle of mainstream pop culture. Crass for example might always be a much more ‘punk’ act in terms of production, songwriting, the DIY aesthetic, an alternative utopian plan for living, but they never got on tea-time telly, on the covers of the tabloids, in the nation’s heads. To experience The Sex Pistols was to understand that pop music, The Carpenters, The Eagles, Elton John and Peters and Lee, had another side, something a bit sick and poisonous and very loud. Something angry.

In an era where ‘punk’ has become just another style of music offered up by the majors, and where the extremity of human experience has been more than adequately explored by popular music, it’s perhaps hard to hear the Pistols in quite the same way, or to imagine a music that might represent what they represented in the 1970s. Sleaford Mods, in their stripped down candour about Austerity Britain, perhaps come close, musically reductionist, lyrically acerbic. But what the growl and howl of the physical sound of The Sex Pistols represented in the late 1970s, that primal noise clad around the three minute pop single, never quite loses its power even as the context changes. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ is still one of the greatest singles of all time, not because it challenges pop but because it is pop. But pop with real vitriol, spite and precision. We could do with a bit more of that in the twenty first century perhaps.

Dr Nathan Wiseman-Trowse

Associate Professor in Popular Music

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