Thursday, 1 December 2011

Anarchy in the UK?

It is exactly 35 years since the Sex Pistols appeared on the live teatime magazine programme, Today, on 1 December 1976, to promote their first single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – a mere two-minute segment of the show in which the presenter Bill Grundy invited the group to ‘say something outrageous’ and they responded with some rude words. The tabloids played their required role in publicising a band clearly seeking notoriety, introducing the Sex Pistols to the nation as part of ‘the new “punk rock” cult’ which ‘specialise[s] in songs that preach destruction’ (Daily Mail, 2 December 1976). Thames Television broadcast an immediate, full apology on screen twice later that day, while Grundy was quickly suspended and his career never recovered.

Historians of punk have tended to see this moment, combined with the release of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ at the end of November, as a pivotal event. In his book England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage argues that the song’s ‘ringing phrases … were powerful enough to insert the idea of anarchy, like a homoeopathic remedy, into a society that was already becoming polarized’. But punk’s success in ‘inserting’ these ideas into society may be exaggerated. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ sold 1800 copies on the day after the band’s appearance on Today but by Christmas it had only reached number 28. The number one record was ‘When a Child is Born’ by the easy-listening singer Johnny Mathis, with ‘Under the Moon of Love’ by Showaddywaddy (a rock’n’roll revivalist band discovered on New Faces) at number two. The atmosphere of moral panic around punk soon abated, reignited briefly during the Jubilee summer of 1977 when the Sex Pistols’ song ‘God Save the Queen’ improbably described the Callaghan government as a ‘fascist regime’. But the cultural work had begun to incorporate punk safely into the mainstream. An issue of Woman’s Own in October 1977 carried an article, ‘Punks and Mothers’, which showed photographs of smiling punks with their mothers accompanying a text which stressed their benignity: ‘It’s not as rocky horror as it appears … punks as it happens are non-political … Johnny Rotten is as a big a household name as Hughie Green.’

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