Review Summary: “There is no future in England's dreaming.”
In the summer of 1977 the UK was gripped with unprecedented patriotic fervour, with street parties being held up and down the country in celebration of the Queen’s 25th anniversary rule (her Silver Jubilee). Into this pandemic outpouring of joy, this euphoric coming together of the nation, stepped a man with green hair, rotten teeth and an “I hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt; who promptly gobbed on the home-made cakes, pissed in the lemonade shandies and tore the flags of his benevolent ruler into tiny little pieces.
In one sense Johnny Rotten was the typical teenager, with his desperate desire to shock, such as the gleeful stressing of “c*nt” in Pretty Vacant
and the gratuitous swearing in Bodies
. Except that most teenagers are obsessed one way or another with sex, whereas Rotten seems strangely asexual. He doesn’t write about love and relationships. In fact he even had a massive hit with a song saying exactly that (This is Not A Love Song
- Public Image Ltd).
His sneering take on the national anthem (“God Save The Queen and her facist regime”) was considered so subversive, the BBC had to rig the charts (really!) to keep it off the no.1 spot. The Sex Pistols had already caused pandemonium with their debut single Anarchy in the UK
, causing questions to be asked in Parliament and the national newspapers. The furore forced EMI and then A&M to dismiss them from their recording contract and the BBC to ban them from the airwaves. A record shop that sold the single was prosecuted for indecency.
Listening to the record now, it is surprisingly good. Despite what you may have heard, they sure can play. Steve Jones guitar evokes Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls. Paul Cook’s drumming keeps everything tight. Matlock’s songwriting has plenty enough melodies. With the exception of Sub-mission
, the songs are played at two paces: fast and even faster, recalling the Ramones. But it is the iconoclastic Johnny Rotten who single-handedly spawns the UK punk movement; his lyrics spewing all forms of bile and vitriol, dripping with confrontation and screaming defiance.
Before the Sex Pistols, there was heavy metal, rock operas, glam rock and prog rock: all various forms of musical escapism. Yet thirty years after World War II, the country still writhed not just in economic disorder but social disarray, with unresolved issues such as mass immigration, welfare dependency, terrorism and cold war paranoia. Johnny Rotten returns us to earth with a bump, espousing a basic humanist philosophy, an articulate and eloquent diatribe on a post war dream gone wrong:
“You won’t find me working 9 to 5. It’s too much fun being alive. I’m using my feet for my human machine. You won’t find me living for the screen. Are you lonely" All your needs catered" You got your brains dehydrated!” (Problems
What Rotten is concerned with is the here and now. He attacks all types of invocations to higher powers including God (“I kick you in the brains when you pray to your god” (No Feelings
), political institutions (God Save The Queen
) and business corporations (EMI
). But more specifically he also attacks all forms of escapism (Holiday In The Sun
), whether it be drugs (New York
), moral mendacity (Liar
), indolence (Seventeen
) or intellectual pretension (Pretty Vacant
). Above all else he urges the primacy of life, forever posing the question: what is a human being" Are we “morons”; “faggots”; “fools”; “stupid people”; “flowers in the dustbin”; “animals”" The genuinely disturbing Bodies
reduces the matter of humanity to its barest of bones:
“Die little baby screaming! Body screaming f*cking bloody mess!
Not an animal, it's an abortion! Body! I'm not animal!
Mummy I'm not an abortion.” (Bodies
This album represented a call to arms of the nation that was far more empowering than any Silver Jubilee. Think of all the bands that were formed on this premise that music was about emotion, not technical proficiency: knowing three chords was sufficient. Think of all the fanzines that sprung up to describe these bands and the independent record labels formed. It wasn’t just the birth of a punk movement and its splinter groups. A whole series of radicalised and energised music movements broke out, grounded in realism and humanism, such as Ska (The Specials), Skinhead (Madness), Mod (The Jam), Rockabilly (The Polecats), New Wave (Elvis Costello), Post Punk (Joy Division), even Folk (Billy Bragg) and Irish Folk music (The Pogues); all defiant, confrontational and politicised; and all revering the Sex Pistols.
Don’t let yourself be fooled by Malcolm McLaren, the band’s avaricious and rent-a-quote manager, that the Sex Pistols were some kind of social experiment that he had fabricated. He was just hanging on to their coat-tails, milking the phenomenon for all it was worth. His subsequent interventions, such as his mockumentary “The great rock and roll swindle”, his replacement of Matlock with Vicious (as bass player), of Rotten with Vicious (as lead vocalist), of Vicious with Ronnie Biggs (a notorious career criminal), were woeful. Despite recording only one album and four singles, the impact of the Sex Pistols was phenomenal.