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God Saved the Queen, But Not the Sex Pistols

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Author's Note To Parents: This column contains foul language and has been rated "R" by me. It couldn't be avoided.

The most primitive work of art also can express the strongest experience, and it speaks to us, if only we let it. ~ Ludwig von Mises

In 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 Never Mind the Bullocks, Here's 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 U2's Boy for the first time made me stray.

Despite not being the first punk band (that designation likely belongs to Television) and despite not releasing the first UK punk single (the Damned's New 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 DMC's Raising Hell and Nirvana's Nevermind introduced the world to rap and grunge.

In 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 isn't.

The latter moment arrived on November 26, 1976 with the UK release of the band's 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 boy.

Their music had anything but an easy time finding me.

This Is England

Out came the batons and the British warned themselves ~ The Clash

The 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 its lungs.

It 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 everyone's earnings, and according to Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, "state control, through nationalized industries and a vast bureaucracy, seemed to be on the way to Orwell's dystopia." Mid-1970s England looked much like my New York City during the same period. Socialism had shot its bolt.

Johnny Lydon remembers that "clearly the old way wasn't 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.

The Sex Pistols message of "no future" meshed beautifully with an English tabloid press "full of apocalyptic rhetoric." The tabloids – like pit bulls, only less polite – were experts in yellow journalism. Jon Savage relates the media's "'live in fear', 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 picker's pile – fit their business model's required villain to the T.

Not 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 you'd want living next door to you, let's harbor no delusions.

Paul 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 Dickens's London."

"Steve," 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.

But 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 Bowie's microphones," and if that's not a true story, I don't care because it should be.

The band's 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 weren't 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.

Thanks 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. "He's more of an intellectual, John," remembers Steve Jones and "he seemed like a real prick," an opinion which seemed to be rather widespread.

The young Johnny Rotten was "barely tolerated" by the rest of the group – including the Malcolm McLaren – 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.

And a physically endangered boy to boot. A newscaster from the time described the Sex Pistols as being a great threat to England's very existence, equaling that of the Commie Red Hordes and "hyperinflation." Such inane stupidity emanating from the mouths of Britain's chattering class put Johnny Rotten in harm's 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.

It got to the point where he recalls, "I just wanted out of the country," and it's a shame it got that bad – he didn't have any particular animosity towards his fellow countrymen.

"You don't 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 they're 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 EMI's roster started off the show, and gave punk its entrée to society. It wouldn't be an easy ride.

Their 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.

Forget GDP per capita, a better measure of a people's 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 wanting.

EMI…

We wanted 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

There 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 Matlock's departure from the band in February 1977. EMI had dropped them from their contract a short time before.

One of the main precipitating causes of their short shelf life was the infamous television appearance on Bill Grundy's show. It would propel them to fame, yet destroy the band at the same time. Their reputation would smother them.

Once again showing God's infinite sense of humor, it was England's 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 England's youth.

Understand – unions held the English people in quite a good headlock those days. Steve Jones, the band's guitarist, remembers "everyone was on the dole," not surprising in a place as union friendly and anti-worker as was 1970s England. In Brian Southall's Sex Pistols – 90 Days at EMI, a slender, 150 page book about a music band, unions are mentioned four times.

Besides 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 weren't 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 company's sales force.

The 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 Queen's Somebody to Love video to entertain the teatime TV crowd, "the video wasn't 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.

Johnny Rotten was "not the boy you'd 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.

Bill Grundy, the celebrity interviewer, was much like the Cub's 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.

Actually, it was Johnny Rotten's "f__king" and "shit" that were the warm-up pitches, but nobody seemed to catch on until Steve Jones's "you f__king rotter" alerted England that Circus Maximus was in town; the Sex Pistols had come to steal their children.

"After 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 soundtrack.

The Grundy interview set in motion their eventual dismissal from EMI, ninety days into their relationship, and then from A&M Records in what I'm 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.

Bill Grundy was fired from the show, and his career never recovered.

…And I, Me, Mine

I hadn't received any money…so it went to court. ~ Johnny Rotten, from England's Dreaming

The 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 politicians' control. How much would the world have been deprived of had the British political establishment been effective in their designs to censor the Sex Pistols music!

But even more important, let's 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 – 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.

Thank God for the businessmen of that nation, in particular England's answer to my city's Donald Trump, Virgin Record's founder and CEO Richard Branson – he would personally take the stand to defend his right to sell the Sex Pistols albums wherever they were wanted.

Where EMI's 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.

Jon Lydon's 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, wouldn't have wanted it any other way. And neither would I.

According to Jon Savage's England's 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 you've 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.

Sometimes, God is just.

And Now Back In the U.S.S.A…

"They're here performing their classic song Anarchy in the UK…perfect band for you… please welcome the Sex Pistols." ~ Jay Leno to Ron Paul, The Tonight Show

When all was said and sung, the Queen of England – England's very political structure for that matter – is alive and well, it is the Sex Pistols, that mortal threat to England's very existence, who have gone the way of the dodo bird. They are now little more than a novelty act.

Yet 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."

While 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.

Despite the best efforts of EMI's 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 didn't win – they exceeded expectations.

And, 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 Lydon's 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 who's to say? Punk and its mistrust of a power do mesh rather nicely with Ron Paul.

If you are Ron Paul supporter, and likely you are because you're 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.

The 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 – the constant petty insults, the heavily armed Kevlar-encased searching our bags, the endless calls for endless suspicion, war, inflation, the lies, and let's not forget torture, all bought to us courtesy of our political elite. It brings to mind Johnny Lydon's lament, "I don't have any heroes, they're all useless," because, when I look around for anybody, I see nobody.

Except maybe one – but how useful is a man with no hope of winning?

Will 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 I'm 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 that's 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 Hillary's Village, not Ron Paul's.

As 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 don't bother. A Ron Paul victory would be a miracle composed of a Dunkirk, a Midway, and the ball rolling under Billy Buckner's legs all wrapped up in one. As much as I'd like to, I just can't bring myself to that level of hope.

Regardless, I will continue to lend my time and, most importantly, my money to Ron Paul's quixotic ride with Sancho Panza. I'll 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 Republic's twitching corpse:

No future for you No future for me

November 29, 2007

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