Few could have expected the electricity of London’s growing punk movement to have sparked an entire generation, across the globe, into making a brand new style of music. Alongside The Clash and The Damned, the Sex Pistols were at the forefront of that movement and made their first big splash with the release of their song ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Below, we’re listening to that song like never before — through the isolated vocals of Johnny Rotten.
Released on November 26th, 1976, the Sex Pistols led by Rotten and backed by Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock and later Sid Vicious quickly became the scourge of radio and entertainment with ‘Anarchy in the UK’. The song, born out of discontent with a society seemingly shrivelling in the wind, Rotten and co. delivered a message to the masses with their aggressive and antagonistic single. The chief protagonist of the cause was, of course, their lead singer.
“It flowed quite naturally to me,” the singer told Mojo in 2008 of the track’s powerful and visceral lyrics. “These are just long, long-term motivations that are there, and you can’t, can’t, can’t ever underestimate the sheer driving energy poverty will bring you—being denied everything and access to everything. Government, schools, the lot, tell you that you don’t count. You are scum. Go with flow or else. That’s an incredible driving energy, to be better than their estimation of you.”
Radio airplay of the song was minimal, and feature spots on television wouldn’t arrive until they got their shot on the Today show a week after the song’s release. Much of the charging around the music was the terminology the band chose to use. The word ‘anarchy’ was already a symbol of revolution. For a straight-laced Britain, still reeling from the cultural explosion of the swinging sixties, the pointedly aggressive tones of Rotten et al. were deplorable. “I have always thought that anarchy is mind games for the middle class,” Rotten later told Rolling Stone about the deeply entrenched motivation behind the song.
“It’s a luxury. It can only be afforded in a democratic society, therefore kind of slightly fucking redundant. It also offers no answers, and I hope in my songwriting I’m offering some kind of answer to a thing, rather than spitefully wanting to wreck everything for no reason at all, other than it doesn’t suit you.”
Released via EMI, one of the most prominent record labels in the world at the time, belying the band’s fiercely independent image, the song would be the only single shared by the label. In the wake of their infamous Today show broadcast, the band would be let go from their contracts and forced to make their debut album with Richard Branson’s Virgin.
‘Anarchy in the UK’ is still recognised as one of the foundational stones of the punk movement. Though certainly more contrived than Rotten and co. would have you believe, the real selling point of the song was the singer’s razor blade delivery. A fascinating figure whenever he performed, Rotten took the guttural wail of his on-stage performances into the studio for recording this track.
The results are both revolting, frightening and utterly, utterly entertaining. Listen to Johnny Rotten‘s isolated vocals for Sex Pistols song ‘Anarchy in the UK’ below.