”I am an antichrist,” proclaimed punk prophet Johnny Rotten in the opening moments of the Sex Pistols’ first single, ”Anarchy in the U.K.,” released in Britain on Nov. 26, 1976. There was little in his voice — a snarl that was the aural equivalent of a hate-filled glare — to make one contest that claim. As the song went on, Rotten’s ugly attitude only got worse. ”I wanna destroy passersby,” he ranted, as the band kicked up a truly anarchic ruckus.
Dropped like a dirt bomb onto a pop landscape ruled by the cheerily bland likes of Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton, ”Anarchy” was the Pistols’ calling card, a rude manifesto for an alienated generation. American listeners with their ears to the underground eagerly snapped up import copies of the single, and the band’s nihilistic influence began to spread like a virus. It would infect nascent punks on both sides of the Atlantic, many of whom, like the Buzzcocks and Generation X, started their own rebel outfits.
The Sex Pistols — Johnny Rotten (ne Lydon), guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Glen Matlock (the ill-fated Sid Vicious would shortly replace him) — had formed in 1975 after they met at Sex, a fetish clothing store run by former New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren. At his urging, the group of disaffected working-class youths (at the time, unemployment in England was the worst since WWII) began writing songs, and McLaren assumed the role of manager, egging on their bad behavior.
After the Pistols made a profanity-laced 1976 appearance on London’s Today Show (”Say something outrageous,” host Bill Grundy baited them — and Jones responded by ranking him out in a manner most blue), they wound up being pilloried by the tabloids and were subsequently dropped by their label, EMI. In his autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, Rotten later wrote, ”It was an achievement rather than a detriment when EMI signed and — three months later — dropped us…. EMI struck me as a lame label.”
Their only true album, Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols, was released the following year, featuring such virulent masterworks as ”God Save the Queen,” ”Bodies,” and the label-bashing ”EMI.” It was hardly a hit in the U.S. (the album wasn’t certified gold until 1987), but its influence was incalculable. The Sex Pistols imploded in 1978 at the conclusion of their first and only chaotic American tour, but they had left an indelible stain on pop music. Punk may eventually have been co-opted, sanitized, and trivialized, but the Pistols’ ”Anarchy” is there for the ages.