God Saved the Queen, But Not the Sex Pistols
by C.J. Maloney
by C.J. Maloney
Note To Parents: This column contains foul language and has been
rated "R" by me. It couldnít be avoided.
primitive work of art also can express the strongest experience,
and it speaks to us, if only we let it.
~ Ludwig von Mises
the dying days of 1978 a friend of mine blessed with a very cool
uncle received a Christmas gift, the Sex Pistols' one and only album
Mind the Bullocks, Hereís the Sex Pistols. From the opening
goosesteps of Holidays in the Sun it was a "who is this"
moment for me, and when the band paused mid-song in Bodies to
come roaring right back with "f__k this! and f__k that!"
I swore on my honor that I would sneak this album past parental
guard and into my collection, I did snuck, and it was good. Punk
had arrived for a young Cyd Malone and for some time afterwards
all other music sucked. Outside of my wife, punk was my longest
relationship, a faithful one until hearing U2ís Boy
for the first time made me stray.
not being the first punk band (that designation likely belongs to
Television) and despite not releasing the first UK punk single (the
Rose took that honor) the Sex Pistols displayed a marked
ability to generate scads of publicity, had loads of musical talent,
and were in the right place at the right time. It was the Sex Pistols
who set established notions about what was music on their head and
introduced punk to England; in much the same way that Run DMCís
Hell and Nirvanaís Nevermind
introduced the world to rap and grunge.
the business of music there are moments that can be identified with
growth of a new product, in this case the product being sound. You
will be able to tell when that moment arrives by trendsetters announcing
"a new sound." Sometimes it is all part of a pre-packaged
marketing scheme but sometimes it isnít.
latter moment arrived on November 26, 1976 with the UK release of
the bandís first single Anarchy
in the UK. It was anything but a marketing scheme, the Sex
Pistols were upon England, sometime soon to travel with a cool uncle
into America, and into the life of a very grateful nine-year-old
music had anything but an easy time finding me.
the batons and
the British warned themselves
Sex Pistols were birthed among the mounds of garbage that covered
London during their formative years the result as
Johnny Rotten remembers, of "a garbage strike that went on
for years and years," and there we have a statement which has
"unions with political backing" screaming at the top of
was a time of economic depression and unemployment that was the
highest since the Second World War. Public spending was running
at 45 percent of everyoneís earnings, and according to Jon Savageís
Dreaming, "state control, through nationalized industries
and a vast bureaucracy, seemed to be on the way to Orwellís dystopia."
Mid-1970s England looked much like my New York City during the same
period. Socialism had shot its bolt.
Lydon remembers that "clearly the old way wasnít working,"
and it would soon result in a swing towards liberty, but not just
yet. The Sex Pistols, a bunch of teenagers who had no political
consciousness, were merely a burst of rage at a system that was
smothering them and so many of their fellows.
Sex Pistols message of "no future" meshed beautifully
with an English tabloid press "full of apocalyptic rhetoric."
The tabloids Ė like pit bulls, only less polite were experts in
yellow journalism. Jon Savage relates the mediaís "ílive in
fearí, there are enemies within" credo, and the Sex Pistols who took a liking to wearing swastikas and clothing that looked
as if pulled from a rag pickerís pile fit their business modelís
required villain to the T.
that they would have had it any other way. Repulsive and rude to
polite society, the people who made up the actual group were not
the kind of people youíd want living next door to you, letís harbor
Cook, who would play drums, and Steve Jones, who would play guitar
and start it all off by pestering a small-time businessman named
Malcolm McLaren to promote them, were street kids who came from
"a sprawling council state that, despite the benefits of thirties
town planning, were as much a rabbit warren as the slums of Dickensís
remembered an old buddy, "was going to be a petty criminal,
as simple as that," and by the time he was not yet twenty years,
he had already been convicted of (sing along now) "burglary,
breaking and entering, stealing ignition keys, theft of a motor
vehicle, and driving without a license while uninsured and under
age." So admission to Oxford was looking increasingly sketchy.
all was not lost, because young Mr. Jones was nothing if not adaptable,
and he used his skills as a burglar to outfit the Sex Pistols by
stealing equipment from bands that came to tour the local area.
Johnny Rotten claimed at the time to be "singing into David
Bowieís microphones," and if thatís not a true story, I donít
care because it should be.
bandís most normal member was the bass-player Glen Matlock, who
was the "only competent musician in the group" and would
write the tunes. Steve Jones remembers that "I never really
got on with Glen, I found him a bit poncified, he werenít one of
the lads," and that combined with his much maligned taste for
the Beatles, Kinks, and Rolling Stones would keep him in perpetual
outsider status, but not as outside as the eventual lead singer,
the charismatic Johnny Lydon, soon to be blessed "Johnny Rotten"
due to the state of his teeth.
to an extraordinary mother, who home schooled a young Johnny after
he suffered a mind erasing illness, life granted him the advantage
of a superior education combined with a natural intelligence and
an insufferable arrogance. "Heís more of an intellectual, John,"
remembers Steve Jones and "he seemed like a real prick,"
an opinion which seemed to be rather widespread.
young Johnny Rotten was "barely tolerated" by the rest
of the group Ė including the Malcolm McLaren Ė and this, combined
with the British tabloids whipping up their readership into a lather
over the mortal threat to their children embodied by the Sex Pistols,
must have made Johnny a lonely boy at a trying time.
a physically endangered boy to boot. A newscaster from the time
described the Sex Pistols as being a great threat to Englandís very
existence, equaling that of the Commie Red Hordes and "hyperinflation."
Such inane stupidity emanating from the mouths of Britainís chattering
class put Johnny Rotten in harmís way on a personal level. Before
time mellowed him and gave him a penthouse suite in Hotel California
he was knifed, slashed, and physically attacked by gangs of royalists.
got to the point where he recalls, "I just wanted out of the
country," and itís a shame it got that bad Ė he didnít have
any particular animosity towards his fellow countrymen.
donít write a song like God Save the Queen because you hate
the British race but because you love them (and notice he said them
rather than it) and you hate the way theyíre being treated,"
he relates. He shows pride in his fellow British at a point in The
Filth and the Fury when he talks of that most English of stereotypes,
their wit under duress.
Through relentless touring and hard work, the Sex Pistols built
themselves enough of a buzz to attract the attention of EMI, the
BBC of the English music industry. Their October 1976 signing on
to EMIís roster started off the show, and gave punk its entrée
to society. It wouldnít be an easy ride.
music was banned by BBC from airplay, their album when released
was pulled from retail stores, some of which fell under attack,
and any concert they tried to play publicly was more likely than
not to be cancelled, all done with the approval of their fellow
citizens, some of whom physically attacked the band members.
GDP per capita, a better measure of a peopleís level of civilization
is in how they respond to those who disagree and/or are different.
In the case of the Sex Pistols, the people of England were found
to sign with a big label, we were a proper band and we wanted
to get our music out to as many people as possible.
Glen Matlock, 2006
are certain bands that you just know are every bit the lunatic
fringe they claim to be, they hold a certain something that no marketing
team can create, only enhance. Therefore, you also know that they
are not going to be around for long, you can just mentally picture
the train wreck coming. Guns-n-Roses and Nirvana gave off that glow.
The Sex Pistols burned fast and bright, and their time as an actual
creative unit was short, ending with Glen Matlockís departure from
the band in February 1977. EMI had dropped them from their contract
a short time before.
of the main precipitating causes of their short shelf life was the
infamous television appearance on Bill Grundyís show. It would propel
them to fame, yet destroy the band at the same time. Their reputation
would smother them.
again showing Godís infinite sense of humor, it was Englandís pro-union
stance, surely designed to "preserve jobs" (in embalming
fluid if necessary) that directly contributed to the widespread
marketing of the Sex Pistols to all of Englandís youth.
Understand unions held the English people in quite a good headlock those
days. Steve Jones, the bandís guitarist, remembers "everyone
was on the dole," not surprising in a place as union friendly
and anti-worker as was 1970s England. In Brian Southallís Sex
Pistols Ė 90 Days at EMI, a slender, 150 page book about
a music band, unions are mentioned four times.
the aforementioned garbage guild, we have us a gravediggers guild
up in Liverpool, threatening to force the living "to bury people
in the Mersey estuary" if their demands werenít met, an "all-important
musicians union" holding up a music video from Queen, and an
EMI executive "getting a rap over the knuckles for breaching
union rules and almost causing a walk-out at the factory" for
trying to rush a marketing piece out to the companyís sales force.
infamous Grundy interview catapulted the Sex Pistols to overnight
notoriety in their native land much like the Ed Sullivan show catapulted
the Beatles to fame in New York City. It was set into motion because
while the original schedule called for Queenís Somebody to Love
video to entertain the teatime TV crowd, "the video wasnít
cleared by the all-important Musicians Union" and hence empty
airtime. Someone had the poor foresight to suggest the Sex Pistols
for the job. The coming disaster quickly gained steam, propelled
by a perfect storm of bad management decisions.
Rotten was "not the boy youíd ask to hand out the scissors"
in the words of one who knew him, and here was EMI, 50 percent owners
of the TV station the Sex Pistols were about to appear on, asking
Johnny to hand out the scissors to the nice tea-time television
crowd. But wait, there was more.
Grundy, the celebrity interviewer, was much like the Cubís announcer
Harry Carey, though probably not as proudly and openly drunk. He
was also described by some of his contemporaries as "mercurial,"
and he most adamantly did not want to interview the Pistols. He
was, in retrospect, probably not the best choice of venue, and he
added on by deliberately goading the band, most of whom were drunk
due to a well-stocked bar in their waiting room, to "say something
outrageous," and it was only a matter of time before someone
all live on air said, "you dirty f__ker," and the host
and audience noticed.
it was Johnny Rottenís "f__king" and "shit"
that were the warm-up pitches, but nobody seemed to catch on until
Steve Jonesís "you f__king rotter" alerted England that
Circus Maximus was in town; the Sex Pistols had come to steal their
Grundy it was a media circus," said Steve Jones, and much of
England turned hostile to the band, in a very real sense. Despite
releasing one and only one single to date (Anarchy in the UK),
the Sex Pistols became an overnight sensation, entering the public
eye not as a music band but as a circus freak show with a repulsive
Grundy interview set in motion their eventual dismissal from EMI,
ninety days into their relationship, and then from A&M Records
in what Iím sure must still be the industry record seven days. Eventually
the Sex Pistols stuck to the "third time is a charm" path
with their marriage to Virgin Records. There they released their
three other singles Pretty Vacant, God Save the Queen, and
Holidays in the Sun, to be followed by their one and only full
length album. A good seller, it is still available in pretty much
any record store you venture into and, thirty years after its release
date, that says a lot.
Grundy was fired from the show, and his career never recovered.
I, Me, Mine
received any moneyÖso it went to court.
Johnny Rotten, from Englandís Dreaming
ability of the Sex Pistols to have three separate record labels
bid for their services and put out their music, despite its effective
censorship by a politically controlled media (responding to a public
whipped up by the press) gives warning about mixing politics with
media and lends credibility to the absolute necessity of alternative
avenues of distribution outside of the politiciansí control. How
much would the world have been deprived of had the British political
establishment been effective in their designs to censor the Sex
even more important, letís look about it from a progressive point
of view. The British political class, which under a just system
would have protected the Sex Pistols from the braying mob,
instead actively worked to prevent them from selling to a willing
customer base all they had to give Ė their musical talent. They
were, in a very real sense, stealing from these four young kids
the ability to earn their keep. That is not justice.
God for the businessmen of that nation, in particular Englandís
answer to my cityís Donald Trump, Virgin Recordís founder and CEO
Richard Branson Ė he would personally take the stand to defend his
right to sell the Sex Pistols albums wherever they were wanted.
EMIís CEO Sir John Read was too busy licking the boots of his friends
in Parliament to bother defending his employees, Richard Branson
proved himself, through no fault of his own, a very effective check
on power, a freedom fighter on par with Larry Flynt. He played a
big part in introducing me to punk and in allowing the Sex Pistols
to earn their keep from selling music.
Lydonís career in music has taken him from a London slum to a beach
house in Malibu. My purchase of Sex Pistols material doubtless has
paid for a part of it. Mr. Lydon, doubtless, wouldnít have wanted
it any other way. And neither would I.
to Jon Savageís Englandís Dreaming, the slum where Paul Cook
and Steve Jones grew up has morphed into "a very desirable
area." Things change, sometimes for the better, and if youíve
got something that the workers want, they in their multitude will
make you very rich. Power to the people who win such power for themselves.
It can take an utterly deserving young street urchin and elevate
him onto a beach house in Malibu.
God is just.
Now Back In the U.S.S.AÖ
here performing their classic song Anarchy in the UKÖperfect band
for youÖ please welcome the Sex Pistols."
Jay Leno to Ron Paul, The Tonight Show
all was said and sung, the Queen of England Ė Englandís very political
structure for that matter Ė is alive and well, it is the Sex Pistols,
that mortal threat to Englandís very existence, who have gone the
way of the dodo bird. They are now little more than a novelty act.
despite a life span shorter than our current Iraq War, they set
music onto a completely new course, created a new ethic for judgment.
Punk is now an accepted, profitable genre. Decades after the Sex
Pistols are no more, California punk band Green Day is keeping things
going and selling millions of records. Johnny Rotten once said "I
want to change it so there are rock bands like us" and if I
may quote a great man, "mission accomplished."
this was a small victory for liberty, it was a victory nonetheless,
and a victory I got to savor as a nine-year-old boy, to experience
that ear-popping "who is this" moment.
the best efforts of EMIís Sir John Read and all his political friends
in high places the music of the Sex Pistols is alive and well today,
thirty years on in a business that re-invents itself at a breakneck
pace. That attests to the talent of the kids who wrote and played
the music, the ability of Malcolm McLaren to market it, and to Richard
Branson for having the means and the willingness to defend and distribute
it. They fought the law and the law didnít win Ė they exceeded expectations.
speaking of having a knack for exceeding expectations, presidential
candidate and 72-year-old grandfather Ron Paul recently was involved
in a little stir with none other than Johnny Lydon himself. If you
are one of the Ron Paul supporters, you might have gotten caught
up in the brouhaha that erupted over Johnny Lydonís public shout
out to, and public butt shake towards, our man Ron Paul during a
shared television appearance. Whether or not Johnny Lydon is in
fact a fan of Ron Paul I have no way of knowing, but as my brother
John said, "hates authority, seems like someone who would fit
in." But whoís to say? Punk and its mistrust of a power do
mesh rather nicely with Ron Paul.
you are Ron Paul supporter, and likely you are because youíre on
this website, as things stand at the time of this writing like all
the punks from the late 1970s you are the loser, you are
outside the Establishment, you are the fringe. The mainstream
press only deigns to admit you exist in order to rip on you, to
mock you, to warn of sinister connections with Nazis, if not worse.
Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bullocks is a fitting soundtrack
for the Ron Paul Revolution; Jay Leno hit the nail on the head.
All around is ample reason for concern Ė the constant petty insults,
the heavily armed Kevlar-encased searching our bags, the endless
calls for endless suspicion, war, inflation, the lies, and letís
not forget torture, all bought to us courtesy of our political elite.
It brings to mind Johnny Lydonís lament, "I donít have any
heroes, theyíre all useless," because, when I look around for
anybody, I see nobody.
maybe one but how useful is a man with no hope of winning?
the Ron Paul movement amount to anything over the long term; will
it win the battle of ideas? Only time will tell, and being the naturally
pessimistic type Iím inclined to the negative. Some wag once wrote
that Ron Paul is running for office in America one hundred years
too late, and I think thatís correct. Ron Paul is a classic liberal
in a country where the very idea of individual liberty and the rule
of law is at odds with what the majority of Americans want. Having
lived amongst Americans all my life, I believe a voting majority
want to live in Hillaryís Village, not Ron Paulís.
I gird myself for the deluge of e-mails, all eager to assert possibility,
I respectfully urge you to save yourself and me the time and donít
bother. A Ron Paul victory would be a miracle composed of a Dunkirk,
a Midway, and the ball rolling under Billy Bucknerís legs all wrapped
up in one. As much as Iíd like to, I just canít bring myself to
that level of hope.
I will continue to lend my time and, most importantly, my money
to Ron Paulís quixotic ride with Sancho Panza. Iíll be at the rallies
where you can talk to me about music, baseball, life, politics,
children, or movies but this is where we will end our discussion
on hope, with the Sex Pistols in the background singing the epitaph
over our Republicís twitching corpse:
future for you
No future for me
[send him mail] lives and
works in New York City.
© 2007 LewRockwell.com