As MOJO magazine #267 hits the shelves, jam-packed with the people and stories behind the UK’s punk explosion of 1976, Sex Pistols’ prophet John Lydon (the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten) contributes an online exclusive perspective on the year that punk broke, including the making of the year’s keynote record, Anarchy In The UK. For more Punk ’76, get the new issue of MOJO magazine, but for now, heeeeere’s Johnny... ----------------------------------------------------
Anarchy In The UK came from all the despondencies and discrepancies within the band in the early days. God Save The Queen was written on my mum’s table, but Anarchy came together at the Pistols’ rehearsal studio [in Denmark Street, in early summer 1976] after some severe arguments with each other. There were some really bad moments and everyone was always on the verge of quitting, except me. They probably had every reason to, because when I first heard what my voice sounded like in the stage monitors [at the Eddie & The Hot Rods support slot at the Marquee in February ’76], I thought, Oh my God! I really had to go back to the drawing board and practise and re-find my voice.
I felt under serious pressure – and so did others, I think – and was trying to coin phrases and write words that would unite us as a band, as we were so bitterly opposed to each other; and Anarchy In The UK was the end result. It was tension on top of stress, and wasn’t helped by that manager [Malcolm McLaren] who’d appear every now and then with his supercilious demands.
“I thought it was about time the world had a slap in the face.”
The ideas in that song had been rattling around in my head for years, but I had never had an outlet. Then there I was all of a sudden, a singer in a band. The people running the country at that time were running it into the ground, with a pompous us-and-them attitude that Margaret Thatcher would come to exemplify. Young people were constantly being told that they had no future. They certainly had no money; I had to bunk on the subway just to get to rehearsals. There would be trash everywhere, it felt like the downfall of Western civilisation – we’re talking race riots, the National Front. It was a society facing imminent collapse, so I threw “anarchy” into that mix, even though there weren’t that many anarchists running around at the time.
That line, “The future dream is a shopping scheme” was about the disappearance of the little corner shops with little old ladies behind the counter, which I remembered when I growing up; they were all turning into supermarkets. And I guessed that the next step after that was a collection of supermarkets built together in the same place. It wasn’t very intelligent, I just observed it. When I’m bored I come up with these things. Be more bored, John!
When I wrote Anarchy, it never crossed my mind that the Pistols would ever be a popular band. There was always the Malcolm and Glen [Matlock] thing of ‘let’s make it more nice’. But no, that wasn’t going to happen. I thought it was about time the world had a slap in the face with a bit of honesty. And it set me in good as [Anarchy] hit a really raw nerve with people. I never thought I’d ever be ‘the voice of a generation’ – which I take with a huge pinch of salt – I just said something that other people were feeling.
No one in our circle got it – except maybe [sleeve artist] Jamie Reid and [Pistols’ office manager] Sophie Richmond, and perhaps Boogie [road manager John Tiberi] maybe. They saw what I was doing as ‘well anarchist and bloody good fun!’ But then I always felt isolated in the band, it was just the way it was. Whatever their original dream of a group was, it imploded the day I walked in. I don’t think I did them wrong at all, but there was always a worrying lump there.
When it came to recording it, we went through several demo versions. Like everything with us, it started out with good intentions then everything went wrong. We did it properly in Wessex studios with Chris Thomas – an enormously funny but silly person at the same time. But I really liked what he did workwise; he created a really warm sound when a lot of people were trying to get out the first punk record. But we didn’t want that scratchy ‘60s f**king indie thing that was going on. We wanted something more powerful.
“It hits all the right spots in your emotions – hunger, greed, selfishness.”
If the songs were going to mean something they had to have a solidity and rigidity. Paul Cook’s timing was quite brilliant, he played things very precisely. If you made a mistake he would try to conquer the challenge, so you had that confidence in each other. Glen could very picky, but it gets good results sometimes. If it was left to me it could have been a scathing noise like Lou Reed’s *Metal Machine Music. You start out a bit ferocious as you come straight out of the running blocks, but you quickly have to learn more control, and that’s what the Sex Pistols had. We didn’t charge into it blindly and make a mess – and hence the explosion on the world.
Doing the Anarchy tour, things like [the church hymn singing outside the venue in] Caerphilly just compounded my attitude towards religion. And the fact we were doing something right. Religion is a form of control, asking you to accept the obviously stupid over reality. And if you agree to do that, you’re a fool to the shit-stem.
When Glen left [in February 1977], I didn’t worry that a musical corner of the band had gone – but it did after! There was an ‘oops cor blimey!’ when we went to record with Sid. But the personality clashes were always there from day one, and something had to give, and I wasn’t going to give up the direction I was taking for musicality. Not ever. That would be anti-me.
Anarchy In The UK is ferocious and excellent. It hits all the right spots in your emotions – hunger, greed, selfishness, and – for me – also that idea of ‘Oh God, I’ve got the chance to write and sing a song.’ And it had better be good, and it was.
As told to: Pat Gilbert
Picture from: Alamy
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