At a time when factions of the punk movement were trying to establish a collective identity, Johnny Rotten maintained an outsider stance while ripping into the darlings of the hip punk set with the same ferocity he applied to the living dinosaurs of establishment rock.
In his history of British punk, England’s Dreaming (New York: St. Martin’s, 2002), Jon Savage recounts the 1975 debut audition of John Lydon (soon-to-be Johnny Rotten) with the (soon-to-be) Sex Pistols. It took place at Malcolm McLaren’s shop, called "Sex", in front of the jukebox. Lydon was given a shower attachment as a substitute microphone and was told to karaoke-sing along to Alice Cooper’s "Eighteen".
Masking his shyness behind macho bravado, Lydon began to jump around madly, posing and preening while screaming out a bunch of loosely improvised lyrics. Although guitarist Steve Jones was not immediately taken with Lydon’s display, commenting in Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury (New Line Films, 2000) documentary, "I though he was a wanker for taking the piss and not being serious," Savage reports of the incident that "[Rotten’s] first audience dissolved into laughter" (p.120). Thereafter, John Lydon became Johnny Rotten and the most sarcastic, cynical, and barbed sense of humor in the history of rock was born.
A year later, Rotten would return the laughter over the introductory strains of the Sex Pistols’ debut single,"Anarchy in the U.K." (1976), dishing up a cackle that proudly pronounced the band’s arrival as the British establishment’s worst nightmare. Against an ensuing barrage of soaring guitars, chugging bass, and pounding drums, Rotten proceeded to pour scorn on the sorry state of the culture ("just another country"), warning of its imminent demise. Citing the omnipresent Irish "troubles" and the increase in street violence, Rotten sided with the rebels, screaming, "I wanna be anarchy / It’s the only way to be." Not content with merely mocking the decaying state, though, Rotten also tagged wanna-be punk anarchist poseurs whose idea of revolution was to "give the wrong sign, stop the traffic line".
Such broad-sweeping swipes would become the calling cards of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. It appeared that the band rarely contemplated an institution (or individual) not worthy of despising or attacking, and Rotten was quite cognizant that subversive humor was the modus operandi to their incitements and indictments. "There was a lot of humor and a lot of provocation," recalls Lydon in his 1994 autobiography, Rotten: No Irish No Blacks No Dogs (New York: Picador,1994. p.180). "There’s always a sense of piss take and fun to it," he assessed later in The Filth and the Fury, adding, "There’s a sense of comedy in the English that even in your grimmest moments you laugh."
Before "Anarchy" and even before his band audition, Lydon had celebrated his provocative sense of humor in sartorial form by strutting up and down the King’s Road in a Pink Floyd T-shirt that he had personalized by scribbling "I Hate" above the band’s name. Such a statement of distaste signified opposition to rock’s immediate predecessors, as well as showcasing the negative identity and energy that would be pivotal features of punk’s contrarian essence.
For Rotten, Pink Floyd represented the smug attitudes of pompous self-indulgence, artistic pretension, disconnected escapism, corporate pandering, and over-earnestness, essentially all that he felt had gone wrong with rock music. "Before the Sex Pistols, music was so bloody serious," recalls Lydon. "All run by university graduates" (Rotten, p.66). Declaring war on rock’s present and past, the Pistols, as Greil Marcus puts it, "used rock and roll as a weapon against itself" ("Anarchy in the U.K." Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. New York: Random House, 1980. p.452).
Of course, the band were not alone in their dissatisfaction with the state of mid-1970s rock. For years, critics like Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs (in the States) and Charles Shaar Murray and Caroline Coon (in the UK) had bemoaned the stale sleep-walking of stadium rock. Along with the insurgent proto-punks on both sides of the pond, these scribes articulated their craving for a new rock pulse. The Sex Pistols were aware of these rumblings as they crafted their act in 1975, but Rotten was suspicious of the Big Apple decadents, seeing more rebel-pose than resistance. The New York Dolls provided an important early template for the Pistols, and the latter’s guitar-based swagger owed much to Johnny Thunders et al; however, as the Pistols song "New York" (1977) suggests, Rotten was not as taken with the Dolls’ mystique as others (like his manager [and their ex-manager] Malcolm McLaren) were. With straight-edge vitriol, Rotten mocks the Dolls’ art-decadence and waster chic. "Still out on those pills," he jibes. "Four years on you still look the same."
At a time when factions of the punk movement were trying to establish a collective identity, Rotten maintained an outsider stance while ripping into the darlings of the hip punk set with the same ferocity he applied to the living dinosaurs of establishment rock. Such across-the-bow shots of in-punk fighting established the Sex Pistols as a band willing to swipe at anyone and anything that, to them, smelled phony.
The band’s second single, "God Save the Queen" (1977), proved to be their most controversial thanks to a combination of the band’s daring wit and impeccable historical timing. For many young people in the UK, the luster of royalty had worn thin; for them, the Queen and her cadre of hangers-on represented a by-gone age, one incompatible with the "democratic" ideals of modern Britain. The Sex Pistols, tapping into these feelings and pinpointing the Queen as a symbol of the contemporary generational divide, wrote "God Save the Queen" to coincide with her Silver Jubilee celebrations. This was no patriotic anthem like its namesake, though, but a snarky assault on a nation out-of-touch, out-of-step, and sleep-walking out-of-time.
Often misread as a personal attack on the Queen, the lyrics are actually more concerned with attacking the ideals, institutions, and power that she, as "figurehead", represented. Rotten’s brand of superiority humor assesses her "regime" through a stream of mocking invective and through a "title" he twists with ironic glee. As with "Anarchy", a generational warning is immediately established through pronouns, as the "we" of youth is set against the "you" of the adult system: "We’re the flowers in the dustbin / We’re the poison in your human machine / We’re the future / Your future." He sarcastically explains the "value" of royalty ("Cause tourists are money") and teases the listener with his mock-seriousness ("We mean it maaaan").
Not surprisingly, "God Save the Queen" was shunned and censored by the very British establishment that the song targeted. Nonetheless, despite being banned from the airwaves of the BBC, it soared to number two on the national charts (curiously, number one on most other charts!) during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee festivities in the summer of 1977. Never has subversive rock humor shown such impeccable comic timing.
As the punk subculture expanded from musical expression into a cultural phenomenon, the band expanded their range of provocations. Under the scheming administration of manager Malcolm McLaren the Pistols affected a series of guerrilla stunts that had more in common with theatrical terrorism than with rock and roll. McLaren had long been intrigued by the French Situationist Internationale, an art group active during the 1968 Paris uprisings. Their graffiti, subversive advertising, and practical jokes had aimed at undermining the French establishment while unraveling its coercive media processes. The Sex Pistols -- particularly McLaren -- became interested in such pragmatic street art, particularly in its practical joke component.
When invited to be on London’s widely-watched Today news program, the band used the opportunity to turn the interview into an incident, hailing torrents of abuse down on the unwitting host, Bill Grundy. "It was perfect stand-up comedy. It was Arthur Askey", Rotten later recalled of the riotous mayhem (Qtd. in The Filth and the Fury). During Jubilee week McLaren orchestrated another publicity stunt, satirizing the pomp and circumstance of the occasion by setting up the Pistols’ own alternative gig party on a boat on the River Thames, presenting a lampoon upon the Queen’s own flotilla. Such stunts cut through the complacency of the conservative establishment, while it needled the enemy on its own turf.
As the band’s series of practical pranks -- and the attendant tabloid press -- kept them consistently in the public eye, the Sex Pistols recorded then unleashed their debut album. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977) bore a title as wittily shocking as the band’s own name. As with their previous singles, legal attempts were made to ban the album, the word "bollocks" deemed by some in the UK to be too offensive for public display. The moral watchdogs should perhaps have been more concerned with the content within, which consisted of twelve songs with scathing anti-establishment messages and inflammatory call-to-action slogans. In the album’s series of tongue-lashings, Rotten is as iconoclastic as ever, setting his snide sneers on targets near and far. In "EMI", the band’s first label owners are stripped of their corporate facelessness, revealed as "stupid fools who stand in line". Caricatured as naked emperors, these "suits" are portrayed as a bunch of number-crunchers robotically driven by "blind acceptance".
Conformity and inertia are by no means the sole preserves of the establishment, though, according to Rotten. They are inherent to the broader cultural condition. In "Pretty Vacant" and
"Seventeen" the band paint nihilistic portraits of a youth culture bored into inaction, ceasing to care. "We’re pretty vay-cunt," puns Rotten aggressively in the former, and "I’m a lazy sod", he (ironically) affirms in the latter. Such dispirited assessments offer comic inversions to the activist progressivism of the '60s generation. Today’s youth have grown bored and cynical with such idealism, suggests Rotten; they have become the defeated products of the "blank generation".
In "No Feelings" Rotten turns his attention to the clichés of rock, comically inverting the romantic symbols of the conventional love song. "There ain’t no moonlight after midnight / I see you silly people out looking for delight," he chides playfully. In a back-handed declaration of affection, the lover addresses his love saying, "I only ever leave you when you’ve got no money", before launching into the celebratory narcissism of the chorus line: "I got no feelings for anybody else / Except for myself / My beautiful self-ish." Similarly, "Submission" toys with the clichéd concept of the pursuit of a lover, but manipulates the language into a dark representation of power and sexual intrigue. "I’m on a submarine mission for you baby...going down," puns Rotten, playing with the "submission" concept while displaying the double-edged wit of a cunning linguist (sic[k]).
Despite vociferous official opposition, Never Mind the Bollocks shot to the top of the British charts on release in October, 1977, and has remained one of the most critically acclaimed albums in the rock pantheon. Rotten’s departure from the band at the end of the year would not stop McLaren from "flogging the dead horse" that would become the post-Rotten Sex Pistols, but few recognize this post-1977 version as anything more than what their next album title proclaimed it to be: a "Great Rock & Roll Swindle". Recent years have likewise seen the original Pistols line-up reforming to cash in on the 20th anniversary of the band, then later the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, but the significant contributions of the group are almost entirely those produced in 1976 and ‘77.
Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor is now available at Amazon.com.