[8 April 2008]
Instead of identifying a contemporary sociological problem, the headline of a March 2008 issue of Time, “Unhappy, Unloved and Out of Control”, could well have been the definition of the punk-led youth of England just over 30 years ago. The year 1977 began with the International Monetary Fund lending Britain £2.3 billion in order to stay the declining value of sterling. The Labour Party’s popularity was falling in the polls. A dynamic Conservative opposition leader was putting James Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister, in difficulty; only a pact with the Liberal party would postpone the eventual demise of his minority government.
Although Labour was suffering in Parliament during those first few months of 1977, media interest was turning its attention to the nostalgia-fuelled Queen’s silver jubilee scheduled for the weekend of 4th June. But not everyone was caught up in the bunting and flag waving. A shadow was being cast. Writing in his essay ‘The English People’, George Orwell suggests that “England is the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less humane and decent manner”, the English people he claims “are not good haters”.
Ten years after the Summer of Love, 1977 had its Summer of Hate. This is how Jon Savage summarises the jubilee celebrations in his seminal punk history, England’s Dreaming (1991):
Out of the morass of mid-1970s pluralism emerged the old spectres thinly disguised with a fresh lick of paint. Here was the blind superiority that had characterised the English world-view after the Second World War; here was a concentrated dose of all the unappealing traits—snobbery, insularity, xenophobia—that rendered England’s continued claim to be a world power meaningless.
Savage’s insistence on England rather than Great Britain suggests that the Silver Jubilee was an English moment—the United Kingdom had no Empire, Scottish devolution was a burning question, Welsh nationalism was high, and the IRA campaign had spread to the mainland. As if the Establishment needed reminding of England’s social frailties, at 7.30pm on 7th June a boat called the Queen Elizabeth sailed down the Thames with the Sex Pistols onboard. The Sex Pistols were banned from playing on land and so a water-bound performance of the song “God Save the Queen” must have seemed like a good idea.
Except that the self-congratulatory act of performing to a captive audience put John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, the vocalist and lyricist of the Sex Pistols, ill-at-ease. Neither was Lydon quite comfortable with sharing the stage with Richard Branson his hippiesque record label boss. Lydon’s performance was spiked with added resentment and when the boat docked there was a stand-off between the audience and the police. As night fell tensions increased and the police lost patience.
John Varnom, an associate of Richard Branson’s at Virgin, recalls:
We reached a high point, from which short steps descended to the pavement. It was at precisely this point that Malcolm [McLaren] raised his fist and, in full view of about five or six police, screamed: “You f**king fascist bastards!” It was a direct invitation, and it was not declined.
The release of the single was itself fraught with difficulties. The original release date had been decided as 27th May so that the single would reach the top ten by Jubilee week. But workers at the CBS pressing plant protested against the single’s content, downing their tools on various occasions. Once released, the promotion of the single was equally difficult—the Independent Broadcasting Authority deemed the single to be in direct contravention of Section 4 (10) (A) of the IBA Act, i.e., “against good taste or decency, likely to encourage or incite crime, or lead to disorder.” The commercial television stations and radios were instructed not to broadcast the single and the BBC banned the record altogether. Regardless of these efforts, or perhaps because of them, the single sold 150,000 copies within five days of its release sending it to number 11.
You would think that three decades on, the antics of the Sex Pistols would be viewed favourably; John Lydon bestowed the doubtful status of being an ‘institution’. And yet the Silver Jubilee seems to remain a touchy subject. After 30 years the secret government files of 1977 were taken to the National Archives in Kew and released to the public. Of the six files covering the Silver Jubilee, however, only two have been opened. The others have been held back under Section 40 ‘Personal Information’ and Section 40 ‘Information Provided in Confidence’. As Martha Kearney put it in her BBC Radio 4 documentary, UK Confidential, we may never know how the Queen felt about being “gobbed at by Johnny Rotten”.
In English popular musical terms, 1977 began at 6.15pm on 1st December 1976. This was the day of the infamous interview of the Sex Pistols by Bill Grundy on the Thames Television Today programme.
Goaded by a drunken Grundy, within two minutes punk, as a liberal socially complex phenomenon, was reduced to a flurry of four-letter words. So it was that 1977 was set up as the year decency died. Punk would still prove to be violent and political, but it had already been subsumed by the Establishment as bad boy rock. What had been an underground musical development was transformed into a media circus typified by the front page of the Daily Mirror published the next day.
Councils began cancelling tour dates, the record company EMI was urged to take action. Neither the group’s manager, McLaren, nor EMI had condoned the behaviour of the Sex Pistols on the Today show. This was the media condemning a scandal of their own making.
Was this a reflection of the age-old fear of a rebelling younger generation? or perhaps the indication of yet another moral panic sweeping the country? This then appears as an example of what Jurgen Habermas says about Late Capitalism and its propensity for crisis tendencies where policy becomes the management of these crises, a management which contains in itself the possibility of further crises, rather than the resolution of the fundamentals (see Habermas 1975). The fundamental issue in 1976 and 1977 was not punk but that great negator of common public decency: unemployment. As the Clash sang on their début album: “Career opportunities are the ones that never knock / Every job they offer you is to keep out the dock.”
As the closing comments of Steve Jones during the interview with Grundy suggest, it is the journalist, the broadcasting institution, and his proposition directed at Siouxsie Sioux that were seen as being indecent. Writing in the fanzine Bondage shortly after the interview, the singer of the punk band the Nipple Erectors and future member of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan, immediately identifies the vagueness of the notion of decency and projects it as a heuristic fiction:
Since when did EMI or any of those old c**ts put “public duty” before their precious money or the security it gives them. What it really is is they feel that security is threatened just by what the Pistols represent. And how could anything that appears on ITV offend public decency. There isn’t any public decency—people only know what’s decent by being told by ITV and the rest of the media and EMI too. (Shane McGowan in Bondage, N°1, December 1976)
Though placing the Queen at the head of a fascist regime in a song is defendable as the right to free speech in a democratic country (although there is no constitutional guarantee of this in the United Kingdom), this may not have been useful to the Sex Pistols and their anti-establishment stance. The message may have been one of decency, but the medium had to consistently be indecent to ensure the vibrancy of that message. Even this, however, would prove difficult to sustain as Lydon later admitted when talking about Public Image Limited, or PiL, the band he would form after the demise of the Sex pistols:
I formed PiL because I got bored with the extremist point of view that I’d had with the Sex Pistols… I attempted to move toward a liberal point of view and see if that could slowly but surely change society into something more decent… (Lydon 1993)
The Sex Pistols as “the poison in the human machine”, to quote from “God Save the Queen”, ensured that they would enflame the stereotypes of middle England they were reacting against, all those that the song “Liar” claimed to be in “suspension”. One such candidate was Bernard Brooke-Partridge, chairman of the Arts Council who had banned the Sex Pistols from performing in London. Writing in Rolling Stone Charles M. Young recounts his exchange with Brooke-Partridge:
“I will do everything within the law to stop them from appearing here ever again,” he says. “I loathe and detest everything they stand for and look like. They are obnoxious, obscene and disgusting.”
“Doesn’t the question of who should decide what’s disgusting in a free society enter in here?”
“I am the person who decides,” he says. “The electoral put me here. My power is not in question. If the Sex Pistols want to change the system, they are free to stand for election from my district.”
“In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution says the government is not allowed to make such decisions.”
“We have our own way of doing things here. The Sex Pistols are scum trying to make a fast buck, which they are entitled to do under the law. I am entitled to try and stop them. We’ll see who wins.” (Rock Is Sick and Living in London, 20 October 1977)