:: Article

Sex Pistols & the Collapse of the Consensus

By Juliet Jacques.

This is the moment at which punk rock moves from the underground to the mainstream.

Headlines: Daily Telegraph, ‘4-Letter Words Rock TV’; The Sun, ‘Rock Group Start a 4-Letter TV Storm’, Daily Mirror, ‘The Filth and the Fury’.

The Sex Pistols’ interview with Bill Grundy on Thames TV’s Today programme, broadcast in an early evening slot on ITV on 1 December 1976, came about by accident, caused huge controversy and was soon swung as a moment of organised chaos. The band had recently signed to EMI for a huge advance, details of which were leaked to the press, and when label-mates Queen pulled out of the show, EMI’s TV “plugger” Eric Hall put the Pistols forward as replacements. What followed was a clash between a subculture that had driven by the energy of its contradictions and an establishment terrified by the threat it seemed to represent to the post-war political consensus.

This subculture grew out of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s clothes shop at 430 Kings Road. Let It Rock originally catered for Teddy Boys trying to revive London’s 1950s youth culture, before McLaren and Westwood became disillusioned with their violence and resistance to change, deciding to focus on fetish wear, renaming the shop Sex.

McLaren became manager of a band called The Strand, which included Steve Jones on vocals and Paul Cook on drums, and recruited Glen Matlock, who sometimes worked at Sex, on bass. After spending time in New York in 1975, around the proto-punk scene of Blondie, Television, Talking Heads and the New York Dolls, McLaren kicked out guitarist Wally Nightingale, moved Jones to guitar and brought in John Lydon as singer, with the group being confrontationally renamed the Sex Pistols.

The group was launched into a nation in socio-economic crisis. After winning the Second World War, Britain had gone from a huge world power in 1945 to a European Union member in 1973, with its stripped-down Empire becoming the Commonwealth. In 1945, it owed 50% of its national GDP, mostly to the United States: Britain’s world market share fell from 25.5% in 1950 to 9.3% in 1973, and increases in real wages, living standards and sales of consumer goods had been funded by American loans, with the post-war lend lease coming to £650m.

The post-war consensus that public services should be nationalised, the welfare state should protect those out of work and that full employment should be maintained was collapsing – by June 1976, there were 1.5m people without jobs, which constituted 6.4% of the workforce, and a return to 1930s levels. The Labour government had to borrow $4bn from the International Monetary Fund, and was ordered to adopt a monetarist economic policy based on heavy public spending cuts.

The rise in unemployment and violence on the streets and in football grounds, as well as the IRA’s campaign of mainland bombings, were particularly disconcerting for a generation who remembered the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism. What made punk so terrifying was its negation: its confused collection of symbols that seemed to have little in common beyond their capacity to affront their sensibilities.

Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Anarchy’ T-shirt referred to Karl Marx, Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti and Situationist slogans from the May 1968 riots, but punks would also wear leather and fetish gear as well as swastika armbands, more from a desire to offend than any commitment to Nazism. Punk was difficult for the media to attack, not just because its politics were so scrambled, but also because its leading figures wore insults as badges of pride: The Damned’s drummer went by Rat Scabies and Lydon became Rotten, and many others took pseudonyms to hide from employers or the dole.

In his book England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage suggests that the Grundy controversy froze punk rock, and the Pistols in particular, in time: the creative processes and fanzine debates that would have explored these contradictions were halted by the need to capitalise on the cultural moment, and replaced by ambition, stupidity and aesthetic conformity. But the Sex Pistols were resisting McLaren’s efforts to manipulate their image, with one big problem being that Rotten was too complex and too clever for his assigned role as unemployed ‘everykid’.

The Pistols’ first single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’, came out a few days before the Grundy interview. Intended as an angry threat to the established order, its lyrics called for chaos but admitted their own limitations, both in their tortured opening rhyme and the self-mocking “I don’t know what I want but I know how to get it”. Although now recognised as a classic punk single, something more serious and focused than Anarchy was needed if the band were going to move beyond the cheap theatrics of the television scandal.

Soon, it was decided that Matlock didn’t fit the band’s image and Lydon, who had never got on well with McLaren, Jones or Cook, brought in his friend John Simon Ritchie, who became Sid Vicious. Amidst the furious headlines, McLaren struggled to get a record label to retain the Pistols or release material, and playing live became harder as venues refused to book them. Under such circumstances, the band barely rehearsed, let alone wrote – but in summer 1977, they hit upon not just the perfect song but the perfect way to unleash it.

‘God Save the Queen’ directly attacked the main institution of the British establishment during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, aiming to overshadow the official commemoration with a statement of pure negativity. There had been barely any criticism of the heavily symbolic celebrations – just articles in the Morning Star and New Statesman – so it became the rallying point for those who rejected the conservative and imperialist view of Britain that the Jubilee represented.

The lyrics retained the sneering sarcasm of ‘Anarchy in the UK’, opening by linking the Queen to Fascism, taking three minutes to trash the aspirations of middle England before reaching the bleak, searing conclusion of “No future”. The song was fiery, fierce and succinct, and by launching it by performing on a boat down the Thames, the Sex Pistols turned the repression of their music into a physical image, with the police waiting for them at Charing Cross Pier.

At this point, everything imploded. The pressures on the Sex Pistols of media demonisation, drug and alcohol abuse and managerial manipulation resulted in a disastrous US tour, and the punk fixation with violence and confrontational imagery, as well as its purging of black musical influences, attracted a large number of Fascists to gigs – there was an upturn in National Front membership, notably amongst the young, with 21% who joined aged 15-20 in 1978. These audiences were both culturally and politically conservative – Sheffield electronic act Cabaret Voltaire were bottled off at the Lyceum, as were The Pop Group, a young band from Bristol, for referencing James Brown.

The Sex Pistols split in January 1978, as Rotten resumed the name Lydon and formed Public Image Limited, who made the kind of claustrophobic, self-questioning music that the punks might have done had the Grundy outrage not arrested their development. Vicious, the youngest and most vulnerable Pistol, died of a heroin overdose in February 1979, shortly after being released on bail on suspicion of killing his girlfriend, Nancy Spungeon. On 4 May, Margaret Thatcher was elected, promising to end the political turmoil of the Seventies with a programme of privatisation, public sector cuts, and a return to Victorian moral values.

Punk, it seemed, had no future: but what came next?

[This is a transcript of a speech given at The Rest is Noise, 2-3 November 2013]

Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer for The Guardian, The New Statesman and others, who writes about literature, film, art, gender and football. Her Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian – the first to serialise the gender reassignment process for a major British publication – was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 6th, 2013.