Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… February 22, 2004: 'Anarchy in the UK' Named Most Influential Record of the 1970s

Five days after their debut single reached its peak chart position in early 1977, the Sex Pistols were dropped by EMI for swearing on live television.

sex pistols anarchy in the uk
Source: mega

'Anarchy in the UK' only charted at No. 38 on its original 1976 release.

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In an exclusive poll conducted by Q magazine, it was announced on February 22, 2004 that “Anarchy in the UK” was the “most influential record of the 1970s”, beating Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” into second place, and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” into third.

The Sex Pistols’ debut single, released in November 1976, was the only recording of the group put out by EMI – and the story behind how the band came to leave the label just five days after “Anarchy in the UK” reached its peak of No. 38 on the chart is almost as legendary as the song itself.

The Sex Pistols had been put together would-be impresario Malcolm McLaren in 1975, after auditioning a 19-year-old John Lydon. According to one version of the story, McLaren spotted Lydon wearing a t-shirt with “I Hate Pink Floyd” on it; another has it he bumped into him spitting on posters on the King’s Road in Chelsea. After an audition in which Lydon shouted along to Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” while, in the words of bassist Glen Matlock, “flapping his arms round like an over-excited seagull,” Lydon became Rotten, and McLaren set the band to work writing songs.

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Incendiary early gigs at venues including the 100 Club in the spring of 1976 quickly drew a devoted following (and a host of imitators), and the nascent punk movement was born. By the summer the Pistols were at the heart of a youth explosion that saw fellow agitators the Clash, the Jam, the Damned and the Stranglers all kicking up a three-chord racket, as well as adopting the “anti-fashion” fashion of safety pins, ripped clothes and DIY aesthetic pioneered by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s King’s Road boutique, SEX.

In July the band premiered their newest song, “Anarchy in the UK” at a gig in Manchester – and the tabloid cliché of punks as yobby, gobby, mindless hooligans was turned on its head. The music was raw and furious enough… but the lyrics, for anyone who bothered to pay attention, were something else altogether.

The spitting derision of “Your future dream is a shopping scheme” and the howled cry that the U.K. had become “Just another country, another council tenancy” were a crystallization of the late 70s political despair felt across Britain, and when juxtaposed with the ominous warning of “Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it” and the killer “I wanna destroy the passerby” made for a terrifying – and terrifyingly intelligent – call to arms for an entire disaffected generation.

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sex pistols johnny rotten
Source: mega

Johnny Rotten's lyrics of disaffection and alienation caught the imagination of a generation.

“Anarchy in the UK” would be like nothing ever committed to vinyl before. So when EMI took on the most talked-about band in the country in October 1976, it made perfect sense that it should be their first single.

On November 26, Anarchy was released. Although packaged in a blank, featureless black sleeve, the accompanying artwork by Jamie Reid reinforced the lyrical nihilism: a Union Flag, ripped up and safety-pinned back together.

Five days later, the Sex Pistols appeared on the teatime Thames TV show Today, booked as last-minute replacements for Queen. Crowded on to the sofa along with members of the so-called “Bromley Contingent” including Siouxsie Sioux, their item was presumably meant to debunk and ridicule the nascent youth uprising. It did precisely the opposite.

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The Sex Pistols' appearance on Bill Grundy's 'Today' show would propel them into the national discourse.

After introducing the band as “punk rockers, the new craze, they tell me,” presenter Bill Grundy asked his first question: “I am told that that group have received £40,000 from a record company. Doesn't that seem to be slightly opposed to their anti-materialistic view of life?”

Matlock replied “the more the merrier”, before guitarist Steve Jones interjected: “We've f**kin' spent it, ain't we?”

The first swear-word seemed to pass Grundy by – but after Rotten used the phrase “That’s just tough sh*t” after a bizarre exchange about “Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms”, he goaded the singer to repeat the word. Which he duly did.

The serious trouble came after Grundy turned his attention to the Pistols’ entourage, asking Siouxsie Sioux (who was still a teenager) if she was enjoying herself. She told the 53-year-old, “I always wanted to meet you,” to which he replied: “We’ll meet afterwards, shall we?”

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What happens next is best relayed verbatim:

JONES: You dirty sod. You dirty old man!

GRUNDY: Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on, you've got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.

JONES: You dirty b**tard!

GRUNDY: Go on, again.

JONES: You dirty f**ker! [Laughter from the group]

GRUNDY: What a clever boy!

JONES: What a f**king rotter.

The Sex Pistols had arrived – not only that, they had forced their way, sneering, laughing, mocking, into the teatime living rooms of Middle England. Although the show had only aired in the London region, the story was picked up nationwide, provoking country-wide outrage. For Malcolm McLaren, it was gold dust. For EMI it was horrific.

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malcolm mclaren vivienne westwood
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Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood shaped the look and the 'cash from chaos' ethos of the Sex Pistols.

The following week, at the EMI Annual General Meeting, Chairman Sir John Read declared: “The Sex Pistols incident, which started with a disgraceful interview… has been followed by a vast amount of newspaper coverage in the last few days.”

On January 6 1977, just six weeks after “Anarchy in the UK” was released, EMI issued a press statement, declaring that the record company and the band had “mutually agreed to terminate their recording contract,” adding that EMI felt “unable to promote this group’s records… in view of the adverse publicity which has been generated over the last two months.”

Although “Anarchy in the UK” barely made the Top 40 under its EMI release, its significance has far transcended its chart position. As well as the 2004 Q poll, it has also been placed at No. 56 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.


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