God Save the “Sex Pistols”
Artwork: Summer 1977. Jamie Reid’s promotional poster for “God Save the Queen.”
On November 26, 1976, EMI dropped “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the debut single from the Sex Pistols. The song, which memorably opens with Johnny Rotten rasping, “I am an anti-Christ. I am an anarchist. Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it. I want to destroy the passerby,” changed the game, bringing the Pistols out from the underground and foisting them upon the mainstream.
Punk, which was a New York invention, had taken London by storm, finding its footing with the deeply alienated, disaffected youth that had inherited the fall out when the hippie generation abandoned their anti-establishment ideals in favor of joining the system. The blatant hypocrisy could be felt across the board, though perhaps nowhere was it as obvious as the bloated carcass of rock & roll swelled to new heights of escapist fantasy.
Youth, forever loathing its elders for their failures, phoniness, and complacency, sought to rebel in ways never before seen. In a little shop in the King’s Road, the revolution was born from the mind of Malcolm McLaren, an impresario bar none. With an eye for style that set teeth on edge in polite society ruled by manners and appearances, McLaren embraced the image of Richard Hell, a young poet and musician who had taken to the stage of CBGB’s on the Bowery.
Hell wouldn’t travel, so McLaren remade him in his countrymen, selecting four young lads who were on the scene: John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock (who was later replaced by Sid Vicious). They had a sound, and they had a look, with a truly remarkable attitude that said “I don’t give a fuck.” They began gigging, making a name for themselves, embracing the spirit of chaos and destruction that young men know and love so well.
By the time “Anarchy In the U.K.” was released, the band had already become something of a myth, setting the bar for how to reek havoc with an unforgettable look. The mainstream quickly caught on, as Bill Grundy invited the band as guests on his live TV show, Today, where he egged them on by hitting on Siouxie Sioux, then part of the entourage. Steve Cook took the bait and called him out, cursing on air. The response was mayhem as the newspapers took them to task, giving them tons of press, establishing them as latest enfants terribles to hit England.
Invariably, the burned hot and hard, and then they burned out, disbanding on January 17, 1978 at the end of a turbulent tour of the United States. It had been a wild, wicked tour-de-force, one that has been brilliantly captured in Sex Pistols edited by Johan Kugelberg, with Jon Savage and Glenn Terry (Rizzoli New York).
Released to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the book is the ultimate compendium of Sex Pistols history and memorabilia. Featuring a detailed chronology and oral history of the group, the book features never-before-published materials including handwritten letters, photographs, album artwork, promotional materials, and fanzines, making it a veritable treasure trove of Pistols history.
“The Filth and the Fury,” as the Daily Mirror spit after the Grundy incident, comes alive on every page, capturing the heartstopping energy of every Pistols incident. Although we’re four decades out from their shenanigans, there’s still something gloriously gorgeous, glamorous, and rude about the band. Perhaps it is simply that in the intervening years no one has come close to embodying their nihilistic attitude, being too afraid to risk it all for the sheer power that a black hole exudes.
Upon reflection, the Pistols could never survive, and for that reason we recognize their truth—everyone was going down, including the group. But in going down, they erased the pretenses and illusions we hold about the sanctity of art, of entertainment, and even—of ourselves. If you are willing to embrace “No Future,” you may just live forever.
All artwork: Courtesy of Rizzoli New York.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.