Anger is an energy
London’s Outrage fanzine (December 1976) by Jon Savage
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Punk only lasted about two years, roughly from 1976 to 78. The first punk single was the Damned’s “New Rose” (which still sounds fresh today), but it all kicked off properly with the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”. Released in the autumn of 1976, it was banned from most radio stations (I have a dim recollection of first hearing it, crackling and bobbing on the waves on the pirate station Radio Caroline – “I thought it was the UK / Or just / Another / Country”).
In the foyer of the British Library is a mini exhibition which may have bemused some of the BL’s regular patrons. Marking forty years since the birth of punk, it displays the sleeves of all the significant punk singles, with bands ranging from the Clash to the Rezillos (“Can’t Stand my Baby” with the singer Fay Fife’s lovely Edinburgh lilt). They’re all available to listen to – and people were doing plenty of that when I visited. Also on display are fanzine covers, outraged tabloid front pages from the time. I was reminded of the fact that the Sex Pistols were nominated Young Businessmen of the Year in 1977 – presumably after they’d been expensively fired by the record company EMI (this was not long after they had signed their contract very publicly outside Buckingham Palace). And if you want to revisit the infamous Bill Grundy TV interview with the Pistols, it’s there (and on YouTube).
Was it a movement for social change? Who knows. The country was certainly in the doldrums at the time, and a dull place to live. The Clash, for one, had a political message, and drew attention to racial tensions in songs such as “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”. But I sense it was also about having fun: the Damned’s drummer was called Rat Scabies; the Adverts, meanwhile, would boast that they couldn’t play a note (“One Chord Wonders”); the unfortunate Sid Vicious, who replaced the musically talented Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols, really couldn’t play.
Johnny Rotten, 1976 – Photo by Ray Stevenson/Rex Features
The lead singer of the Pistols, Johnny Rotten (above, and subsequently of Public Image Ltd or PiL, as John Lydon), was recently interviewed at the BL by BBC Radio 6 Music’s Stuart Maconie. Lydon remains combative, verbally taking on a member of the audience. And to the question “what’s punk for you?”, Lydon replied “It’s something you wouldn’t have without me”. He also managed to sound rather like the old codger he has perhaps become (although he is only sixty) – “young people these days – they’re so internetty”.
There was a decent turnout (possibly of ageing punks). Lydon published a lively and somewhat prolix autobiography in 2014, entitled Anger is an Energy (a line from PiL’s anti-apartheid song “Rise”). We read about his childhood afflicted by meningitis (it “came from the rats”) and his tough upbringing in Finsbury Park. He’s rather better read than I’d imagined (he read Crime and Punishment at the age of eleven) and more tolerant of other forms of music (including disco!) than was apparent at the time. Now he “love[s] Mozart, beyond belief”. There is a good deal of score-settling, in particular with the late manager of the Sex Pistols and self-publicist Malcolm McLaren, and several swipes at McLaren’s one-time partner, the designer Vivienne Westwood (“She never ever understood the human shape”); but he displays loyalty to his band members: “Steve [Jones] and Paul [Cook] and Glen [Matlock] did amazing things for me. I will love them till the day I die”. And in case anyone should think the Pistols were just an obnoxious bunch of anarchic hoodlums, he points out that they played two gigs for striking miners in Huddersfield on Christmas Day in 1976.
Their final gig was in San Francisco in January 1978, at the end of a disastrous tour of the US (McLaren, in his infinite wisdom, had chosen to book most of the dates in the Deep South, with predictable consequences). Rotten’s final words to the San Francisco audience were: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” It's a question I'd like to put to the millions who fell for Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaigning lies recently. Far from being cast into the political wilderness for his duplicitousness with the voters, Johnson has just landed the job of foreign secretary. Oh dear.