“The Antithesis of Humankind”: The Sex Pistols and their Revolutionary Impact

“My personal view on punk rock is that it’s nauseating, disgusting, degrading, ghastly, sleazy, dreary, voyeuristic, and generally nauseating. I think that just about covers it as far as I’m concerned. I think most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death. The worst of the punk rock groups, currently, I suppose, are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating; they are the antithesis of humankind. I think the whole world would be improved by their total and utter nonexistence.”

– Bernard Brook Partridge, British right-wing politician

 

“I ain’t equipment, I ain’t automatic/you won’t find me just staying static” – Sex Pistols, “Problems”

 

Escapism is both a concept and a desire that has ingrained itself within the human psyche. It must be noted, however, that escapism is simply one half of a cause and effect relationship. It is a direct result of feeling an innate need to transcend external or internal forces that only further complicate the web of extremes that hallmarks the human experience; it is a direct result of an almost maddening need experience and achieve a sense of elsewhere. This notion of actualizing a state of  elsewhere within oneself is discussed by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his work Rabelais and his World, in which he presents the idea of the “carnival” as an entity or force that provides a temporary escape from an often repressive established entity. Within the “carnival,” all sense of order, privilege, and societally-perpetuated senses of hierarchy are dissolved into a lack of existence. In his text Anarchy in the UK: ‘70s British Punk Rock as Bakhtinian Carnival, Peter Jones harnesses Bakhtin’s notion of the carnival and conceptually applies it to the rise of England’s punk rock movement,  which was catalyzed by the Sex Pistols, in the 1970s. Jones argues that, for the English, punk rock was an escape – or a “carnival” – that came into existence as a response to an increasingly traditionalized, conservative political, economic, and social landscape that had amassed on a national level. The sole avenue through which to  catalyze the sensation of carnival the British – youth specifically – so desperately needed was by way of challenge.

This is the manner through which the Sex Pistols created seismic change on a historical, social, political, and musical level – they were the Bakhtinian carnival personified, representing voice and societal escapism for disenfranchised and underrepresented British youth. Together, John Lydon, Sid Vicious, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Malcolm McLaren radically and fundamentally created a new Britain – one that was unafraid to challenge the monarchy, the media, the government. Scholars have often been incorrect in assuming that punk rock – and the Sex Pistols specifically – are unworthy of intensive academic study, branding them as “just a band.” However, it is crucial to investigate the Sex Pistols as scholarly subjects because they provide avenues through which to explore history, economics, subcultures, and government rule and regulation during the 1970s, one of the most fragmented and fascinating periods in modern British history. Therefore, the Sex Pistols were  revolutionary and instrumental agents of change in regards to altering Britain’s political climate, media landscape, and presence of youth culture.

 

“And there’s no future in England’s dreaming…” – Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In the U.K.”

 

It is crucial to understand, explore, and dissect the political and societal landscape of 1970s Britain in order to evaluate the myriad of elements in place that catalyzed the formation of the Sex Pistols and the subsequent revolution they became figureheads of. To begin, select demographics and institutions were still reeling from World War II, which saw the decline of Britain as the imperial powerhouse it had been for a majority of the early 20th century. The decade also saw Margaret Thatcher enter into her role of Conservative Party leader, her power accumulating into what would ultimately result in her election into the role England’s Prime Minister in the latter half of the decade. Furthermore, during this time, England was disgruntled over the national descent into economic disarray despite both Labour and Conservative parties profusely promising to salvage the nation’s fiscal health. The aforementioned economic strife was particularly prevalent in the year 1976, which Benjamin Court describes a “year zero” in punk rock’s chronology in his text, The Christ-Like Antichrists: Messianism in Sex Pistols Historiography. The extent of these financial tribulations that swept across England in year zero were detailed by author Peter Smith in his book, The Sex Pistols: Pride of Punk. In the book, Smith details 1976 being plagued by a stifling heat wave and a large onset of unemployment, a majority of the latter serving as a result of tension among unions and an elongated recovery period from a recent recession. He specifically details how the nation’s economic crisis disproportionately impacted youth, writing that “For many young people, Britain was a cold, miserable place with little promise of employment. The old way wasn’t working, and young people felt powerless over their future.” John Lydon (better known by his stage name Johnny Rotten), the lead vocalist of the Sex Pistols, has said that the band’s formation was a direct result of this economic and social disenfranchisement England’s youth were faced with, stating that “The germ, the seed of the Sex Pistols generated from that…The Sex Pistols should have happened and it did.”

Lastly, the 1970s hallmarked a monarchy milestone: Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. This event largely catalyzed amplification of the nationalist ethos and spirit, latent or bold. This propelled nationalistic glorification into the forefront of England’s culture. The politically, economically, and socially conservative climate of England during the 1970s once again discounted England’s youth, many of whom did not share or agree with these principles or ideologies. It is also worth noting that they were not encouraged to share their own.  After all, the generation of their parents had been dubbed the “silent generation” as a result of their passivity and overall lack of civic engagement. They were a generation that did not embody or actualize the notion of voice, and the 1970s saw them raising children who were fighting to have theirs heard. Their voices were heard, ultimately, but not through a shiny parental-approved pop group like the Bay City Rollers. No, for once, singing of “rock ‘n’ roll love letters” was not enough to satisfy the primal desire for visibility that England’s youth had long been without and, in turn, long deserved. As Smith wrote, “The Sex Pistols and punk were about to provide young people with the power they were so desperately seeking.”

Therefore, with that being said, it is clear that the Sex Pistols were direct byproducts of England’s political and social atmosphere – particularly that which was catalyzed by the events of year zero and the various occurrences that informed it. Scholar Ruth Adams enforces as such in her text The Englishness of English Punk Rock: Sex Pistols, Subcultures, and Nostalgia, where she states that the culture the band drew upon and reflected was distinctively and decidedly English, linking their existence and subsequent legacy to the English culture they were raised in – one of strife, conservatism, and widespread poverty- as a galvanizing element of their very existence. The Sex Pistols were the effect of year zero’s cause.

 

“We declared war on England without meaning to.” – John Lydon

 

This effect bought about a degree of seismic change that England, as it then existed, was unprepared to digest. As the Sex Pistols gradually rose to national prominence over the latter half of 1976, they were met with an increasingly overwhelming degree of moral outcry – a large majority of which stemmed from the fact that they actively amplified the concept of anarchy, both in spirit and song. Not only had they released “Anarchy In the U.K.,” their famed track that called for bedlam and challenge in a nation that had long been comfortably rooted in its monarchic governing style, but exuded their hallmark devil-may-care attitude during an appearance on the “Thames Today” show, in which host Bill Grundy coaxed the band into stating expletives on live television. According to Jon Welch in his BBC News article “Sex Pistols: Anarchy In the UK and the Tour They Tried to Ban,” the band’s infamous stint on the Bill Grundy segment served as the overarching catalyst of the “moral panic” that followed them throughout the entirety of their career. The result of this moral panic, of course, was censorship that amassed on a national level. As frontman John Lydon famously stated, “We declared war on England without meaning to.”

Of course, censorship – especially in relation to the lyrical content of rock songs – was far from a novelty at the time. As James R. McDonald highlighted in his text Censoring Rock Lyrics, A Historical Analysis of the Debate, rock music had been the subject of global censorship laws dating back to the 1940s. By the time the Sex Pistols emerged, England had seen two of the nation’s most beloved rock ‘n’ roll darlings, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, fall victim to these rules and regulations as well. The BBC (famously nicknamed “Auntie Beeb” at the time due to their active participation in the censorship of popular music) refused to air The Beatles’ track “A Day In the Life” for containing the line “I’d love to turn you on,” whereas the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” faced backlash due to its title referencing casual sexual relationships. McDonald detailed that, in the latter portion of 1900s when rock music was experiencing its renaissance, governing bodies redirected their attention toward attempting to censor the artists who created the perceived promiscuous or hazardous work as opposed to the work itself. In essence, the government and society alike were attempting to take action at the source.   

These practices were exemplified in the censorship efforts surrounding the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy Tour, which took place even before they had released their first record. However, that did not mean that their music – and the subsequent messages that fueled it – were not well known. This, combined with the fact that the fury surrounding the band’s perceived callous attitude and striking language on the “Thames Today” program (one viewer was reported to have kicked in his television set in anger) resulted in most of their scheduled tour dates being cancelled. Many of these scheduled performances were set to take place at universities, and their subsequent cancellations ignited student protests – perhaps most infamously at Norwich University. This makes it strikingly apparent that England, as a whole, was largely unreceptive to amplifying alternative voices and viewpoints – particularly that of young people.

As the number of cancelled performances on the Anarchy Tour our continued to grow, it began to take an overwhelming toll on the band. As bassist Glen Matlock detailed in his book “I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol,” the experience was largely insignificant to him as the ratio of wasted time to time spent on stage was unfavorably disproportionate. “ As gig after gig was cancelled, we had no idea what would happen next – or what was happening at the time. We’d just sit around hoping they could find somewhere we would be allowed to play. The whole reason I wanted to be in a band was to be a musician, but we weren’t allowed to play.”

When they were able to perform, though, the band was often faced with acts of violence. Matlock and Lydon, for example, were attacked with bottles of liquor on more than one occasion. The censorship and violent acts the Sex Pistols faced on tour grew to a level so overwhelming that the band often opted to book performances under a series of false monikers – the most notable being SPOTS ially(an acronym for “Sex Pistols on tour secretly”). Eventually, it became widely reported that the band was unable to book performances anywhere in England. While this statement was indeed a generalization as  the Sex Pistols were never prohibited from performing in England altogether, especially with the city of Manchester notably welcoming them for two dates – it was rooted in a fair amount of truth. England had disgraced the Sex Pistols, after all, and even went as far as declaring their work to be treasonous. However, their work was not anti-English as a whole. The England that the Sex Pistols’ music posed challenge to was the England that encompassed aristocracy, complacency, and Thatcherism. Rather, the Sex Pistols’ music amplified the voices and visions of an England that had yet to find itself with a collective sense of national representation or community. It is because of this that Ruth Adams referred to the band as “unlikely guardians of the English heritage,” remarking that their progressive ethos made them “absolutely of their time.”

For as timely as the Sex Pistols and their messages were, the ideological wedge between themselves and that of England as a whole grew exponentially by year zero’s conclusion. This is because the following year, 1977, marked the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. Despite the economic and political turbulence the nation had been dealing with in the years prior, the year of the Jubilee saw a rise in nationalist expression. In his book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, Jon Savage writes that the reason for this rise amidst the unfavorable conditions was due to the fact that the Jubilee infused a “glamour of backwardness” into society, something he claims that 90 percent of the population bought into. He wrote:

 

“What was being celebrated was an edited, English version of what it was to be British. The United Kingdom was not only bereft of the Empire, but it was also divided within itself. Welsh and Scottish nationalism were at peak, while the civil war in Ireland had spread to the mainland.”

 

As Savage alludes to, the Jubilee reinvigorated latent national pride that was largely associated with that of the British Empire. Though Britain’s Imperial Era is most closely associated with the 18th century, it did indeed last until early in the 19th century. With that being said, the 19th century was incredibly transitional for Britain – it began as a unified, dominant global powerhouse hallmarked by a flourishing economy, and was left divisive in  economic and political tatters by its latter half. Those who had witnessed or experienced the benefits of British imperialism reveled in an opportunity to bathe in patriotism – even if it was not wholly conducive to the current national conditions – and the Jubilee offered just that.

It was in this nationalism-fueled climate that the Sex Pistols released their latest single, “God Save the Queen” – something Savage referred to as “the moment it could make the greatest impact.” It did just that and thensome. “God Save the Queen” lifted the title from England’s national anthem, which, per the title, called upon god to watch over the Queen and her so-called “subjects.” Traditionally, it is often performed with a large orchestra and a choir. The Sex Pistols version, however, bared no similarity beyond the title alone. Its raucous guitar solos, commanding rhythm, and snarling lyrics referring to the monarchy as a “fascist regime” that “made you a moron” and had “no future.” The Sex Pistols had successfully created the national anthem for those who felt their nation did not represent them.

Upon the release of “God Save the Queen,” which took place the same summer as the Silver Jubilee, the Sex Pistols faced widespread media censorship. This censorship effort was far greater and fueled by far more fury than any facet related to that of the Anarchy Tour. The track was banned by the BBC, an action that carried immense weight at the time as the famed media conglomerate still had somewhat of a monopolization effect over the British media landscape. Members of the public were recorded calling the track “disgusting” in interview footage taken at the time, and the level of outrage amassed to such a level that it nearly catalyzed strikes at print factories. Conservative, right-wing politician Bernard Brook Partridge appeared on television to state that he would do “everything in his power” to prevent the Sex Pistols from performing in the entirety of London ever again. Despite the widespread outcry and outrage, “God Save the Queen” had more than served its intended population.

For what rang louder than the words of Bernard Brooks Partridge or a concerned parent bemoaning the state of the youth in a nightly news interview was the support and subsequent amplification that came from the many strata of disenfranchised young people who were left to marinate in unfavorable economic and political conditions they were forced to inherit from their elders. Despite active censorship efforts being taken against the track, “God Save the Queen” sold approximately  150,000 copies in a single day. “God Save the Queen” was so successful, in fact, that it quickly accumulated enough sales and success to effortlessly land the number one spot on national music charts. However, it was not there.

The week it was released, there was no number one song. The spot on the chart was left blank. The message was clear: England would rather make callous attempts to quell the momentum of alternative rhetoric than uphold basic journalistic ethics by reporting and publicizing the truth. Akin to the ill-fated Anarchy Tour, the censorship efforts surrounding the release of “God Save the Queen” are exemplary of those described in James R. McDonald’s text. Instead of deconstructing and attacking the music, the British media were deconstructing and attacking the artist who made it – in this case, by attempting to quite literally erase them altogether. Jon Savage writes that this discrepancy largely stemmed from the fact that music industry professionals at the time (most of which were men in their thirties and forties) viewed and interpreted new music from young artists through the context of themselves and their youth, as opposed to that of the youth of the present day. This ideology inadvertently validates the work the Sex Pistols were doing – they were the unofficial spokesman for a large demographic that was not only underrepresented, but that mainstream media was, in essence, working to eliminate from the mainstream cultural dialogue and narrative.

The national tension surrounding “God Save the Queen” culminated when the Sex Pistols gave a surprise concert from a boat in the middle of the Thames River during the weekend of the Silver Jubilee. After they performed “God Save the Queen,” British police officers boarded boats and sailed out to that which the band was performing on, forcing them back to the embankment where they were subsequently arrested. It is worth noting, of course, that the Sex Pistols were not arrested for making music or being on the boat alone. No, they were arrested for the type of music they were making.

In his text Never Mind the Bollocks: The Punk Rock Politics of Global Communication, Kevin C. Dunn argues that England’s governing class felt threatened by the counterculture rise that the Sex Pistols became the faces of.  Later in his text, Dunn outlines two approaches to dealing with threat. The first consists of taming “the other” into obedience. Though, as he later writes, a taming of the other “doesn’t alter its ability to disturb social order.” British government and media alike went through extensive efforts to censor, condemn, and extinguish the Sex Pistols. While they may have succeeded in small-scale contexts, their attempt to tame “the other” did just that – attempt. Evidently, as Dunn writes, the Sex Pistols still very much taking on the role of opinion leaders in regards to national discourse. Much to the distaste of their critics this would not change; for larger than any arrest, condemnation, or erasure method was the power of the support of the youth their music touched.

 

“Oh when there’s no future, how can there be sin?” – “God Save the Queen”

 

The Sex Pistols were responsible for integrating the youth perspective into British cultural rebellion. They cultivate a subculture wherein it was acceptable to outwardly question and critique the world around you, and raise question if one did not feel that they or those around them were being served. The Sex Pistols streamlined this practice into British culture, therefore creating a sector of Englishness wherein fire, critique, and national speculation were just as much of English institutions as the monarchy was. Ruth Adams highlights this, writing that “Punk offers reasons to be proud of being English, that do not rely on the subjugation of other races or nations, or the lower social classes. Punk could be argued to be a reframing of national identity in the image of (certain elements of) the working classes, rather than of the ruling classes, of the (post-) industrial city rather than the pastoral fantasy of the countryside.” The Sex Pistols appealed to a large sector of the British population who lacked any connection to or sense of national identity and gave them one – one to be proud of at that. The Sex Pistols pioneered a distinctive branch of Englishness that spoke to and for those who the British aristocracy had largely ignored before, and they made an everlasting impact on this subculture as a result. Though the Sex Pistols and the disenfranchised youth subculture they raised have since grown older, their symbiotic bond remains ever as strong. The proof of this, of course, is the simple fact that the Sex Pistols performed together long after their official breakup in the late 1970s. In 1996  and 2007 respectively, the Sex Pistols gave large-scale, notable performances in London. John Lydon snarled his famed anti-establishment lyrics with just as much gusto as he had decades ago, and the adult audience – the audience who, once upon a time, were the young people whose ideology their music championed – belted out the iconic “no future” lines of “God Save the Queen” as if they still believed they genuinely did not have one. This illustrates the lasting impact on British culture the Sex Pistols had. In taking a stand, they gained a unique following. That following created a subculture, and in that subculture community blossomed. Much like the Jubilee they protested, the Sex Pistols grew to become regarded as a national unifier in British culture.

 

“Don’t be told what you want. Don’t be told what you need” – “God Save the Queen”

 

The idea of the Sex Pistols as a Bakhtinian carnival was reinforced by Malcolm McLaren, Speaking of the band’s notorious antics (namely, their performance of hit tracks “Anarchy In the U.K.” and “God Save The Queen” on the Thames River during Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee) in the 2002 documentary “The Sex Pistols Story,” McLaren said, “That’s the ticket to the carnival….the real, authentic carnival of a better life…you wanted to make the dreams real and to do that, you had to go as far as you could in creating that provocation.”  The Sex Pistols’ firm embrace of provocation – their ability to stand apart from the societal narrative and the direction it so strongly attempted to propel young people like themselves within – ignited a sensation of carnival. There was escapism, there was glory, there was a breakaway from the rigid confines and social codes that hallmarked English life at the time. The Sex Pistols and the carnivalesque sensation they created actualized a world in which young proletarians were just as emboldened as the bourgeois ruling class and those who blindly endorsed it; they bonded and stood for those who were not heard in the scope of national conversation yet very much deserved to be. The overwhelming censorship efforts inflicted upon the Sex Pistols seemed to only validate this power, for an individual and/or a group(s) do not work to fiercely protect or prohibit something from an entity they do not see as a legitimate threat. The Sex Pistols are a far cry from the “antithesis of humankind” or anti-English – if anything, as Ruth Adams excellently highlights on several occasion, the Sex Pistols are as English as anything. They were byproducts of one of the most fragmented periods in contemporary English history, and the music they made subsequently reflected that – holding a mirror to the nation. As a result, all that followed – their rise, their infamy, their legacy, the punk subculture they created – were inherently English institutions. The Sex Pistols were a response to occurrences in British history, and in actualizing their response, they created a longstanding institution of British history of their own.

 

Works Cited

Adams, Ruth. “The Englishness of English Punk Rock: Sex Pistols, Subcultures, and Nostalgia.” EBSCOhost, 2008, web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=5&sid=cd4a97bc-da01-461d-b197-e15258d0b970%40pdc-v-sessmgr01.

Court, Benjamin. “The Christ-Like Antichrists: Messianism in Sex Pistols Historiography.” EBSCOhost, 2015, web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=f87255c2-932d-4353

Fournier, Karen. “The Song That Had One British Politician Wishing for the Sex Pistols’ ‘Sudden Death’.” The Conversation, 17 Sept. 2018, theconversation.com/the-song-that-had-one-british-politician-wishing-for-the-sex-pistols-sudden-death-77767.

Hall, James. “God Save the Queen at 40: How the Sex Pistols Made the Most Controversial Song in History.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 27 May 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/artists/god-save-queen-40-sex-pistols-made-controversial-song-history/.

MacMillan, Margaret. “Rebuilding the World after the Second World War.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Sept. 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/sep/11/second-world-war-rebuilding.

Matthews, Michael. “The British Empire.” Oct. 2017, London.

“May 31, 1977 – The BBC Bans the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen.’” History Channel, http://www.history.ca/history-topics/latest/may-31-1977-the-bbc-bans-the-sex-pistols-god-save-the-queen/.

Mcdonald, James R. “Censoring Rock Lyrics.” Youth & Society, vol. 19, no. 3, 1988, pp. 294–313., doi:10.1177/0044118×88019003004.

Publicpistols, director. Sex Pistols Report 1977. YouTube, YouTube, 25 Feb. 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLykWsIP91M.

 

Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002.

Simonelli, D. “Anarchy, Pop, and Violence: Punk Rock Subculture and the Rhetoric of Class, 1976-78.” Taylor and Francis Online,

Welch, Jon. “Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the UK and the Tour They Tried to Ban.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Dec. 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-norfolk-38165091.

“Why ‘God Save the Queen’ Was Banned.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 July 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmdteI9mhVI.