Holidays In the Sun
God Save the Queen
Anarchy In the UK
A few months after the Sex Pistols released their first and only album, frontman John Lydon stood onstage in San Francisco and asked the audience if they ever had the feeling they’d been cheated. The question could’ve been self-deprecating—as in, after a year of hype and rhetoric about the revolutionary power of rock ’n’ roll, weren’t you expecting a little more from the Sex Pistols?
But Lydon could’ve easily been asking the question of himself. The Sex Pistols hadn’t tried to destroy the business and culture of rock ’n’ roll, but they hadn’t planned on becoming a casualty of it either. And now, here they were, sponging up the spit and beer-spray of hundreds of disaffected teenagers who took their messages of blind rebellion to heart. Their manager, Malcolm McLaren, had purposely avoided booking the band in places like Los Angeles and New York in favour of Southern cities where the cultural clash—between young British punks and a presumably conservative part of America—would be more volatile. If it was all just controversy, you’d feel cheated too. They didn’t play another show for nearly 20 years.
Whereas The Clash has a set of politics, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks doesn’t. They don’t like other people (“Anarchy in the U.K.”) but don’t seem to like themselves either (“No Feelings”). They have nothing good to say about the older generation (“God Save the Queen”) and worse to say about the younger one (“Pretty Vacant”). In the same way that a St. Bernard looks melancholy regardless of how it feels, Lydon conveys a disgust that runs so deep, it feels beyond performance. The album’s bleakest song, “Bodies”, isn’t just a snapshot of an aborted fetus and its dehumanised mother—it was written about a fan.
There’s a provocative quality to it, but there’s a purity too: You sense that there is no power they can tolerate, no state they can trust, no tradition by which they can abide. Except, maybe, rock ’n’ roll, which they try to rescue from the jaws of the ’70s by playing as loudly and simply as possible. They’re not here to change things or make them better. Instead, they look at the world like stoics, or prophets of the apocalypse. The scary thing about Never Mind the Bollocks isn’t how serious it is, but how it manages to make everything sound like a joke.