The Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy In The UK’ arrived like a lightning bolt on November 26th 1976, nobody saw it coming and it would mark a cultural shift. This song gave Britain their very own punk icons who were much more than a run of the mill garage band who may have looked the part but lacked in sustenance — the Sex Pistols were authentic and their charismatic leader Johnny Rotten meant every last word that he snarled.
As far as debut singles go, ‘Anarchy In The UK’ is still unrivalled when it comes to announcing exactly who you are within just three and a half minutes. The fierce anti-establishment message that runs through the veins of the single is infectious and helped make the Sex Pistols the voice of the rebellious young in Britain who were fed up of living within the confinements of the system. Everything about Johnny Rotten was refreshing, ranging from his stage name, his general antagonistic demeanour but especially his canon of ferocious political tunes. Rotten had arrived and he was here to shake up the system.
The Sex Pistols did exactly what they were supposed to, they made the people who were supposed to like them fall in love them and became hate figures for just about everybody else. It can all be heard in their debut. The simplicity of the song was in its message and deliberate delivery of it. The title alone turned them into a polarising outfit, all it took then was one listen of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ to provoke a truly visceral reaction about the band. If this song wasn’t to your taste, then chances are that you would despise every single note played by them elsewhere. But if it was your cup of tea, then Johnny Rotten immediately became the saviour of a generation, giving a voice to the voiceless.
“It flowed quite naturally to me,” Rotten said to Mojo in 2008. “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.”
“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.”
It’s questionable if Rotten offered any real answers within ‘Anarchy In The UK’ but it gave people a source of meaning and a feeling that somebody was finally saying the things they wanted to say but couldn’t. Or, perhaps more simply, to be heard at all.
The single would end up being their only recording released by EMI, it did manage to reach number 38 on the UK Singles Chart despite the reluctance from radio to play the track because of the overtly political nature of it. However, EMI would then drop the group on January 6th 1977, in the wake of the band swearing profusely during a live television broadcast.
This is just one example of the type of wild antics that were normal to the Sex Pistols. While manufactured in many ways, for a brief period, they were the real deal and this rebellious attitude wasn’t for show, unlike some of their counterparts—Malcolm McLaren may have been pulling some strings but Rotten and co. were no puppets. At the time of the release of ‘Anarchy In The UK’, there was no band being as overtly political as the Sex Pistols. While there’s certainly a case for the Pistols playing up to their image and revelling in the rebellion, there’s no doubt that these working-class mavericks were pioneers in turning into something more than just being about the type of music you played or the way you dressed — now it was so much more.