EVE OF DESTRUCTION

pistols-1Considering the abundance of pop cultural anniversaries that have been marked here this year, it seems somewhat churlish to ignore an obvious one that was unleashed on an unsuspecting public forty years ago this month. I would have hesitated, as 2016’s corporate celebrations of the movement it sprang from seem so at odds with what it was supposed to represent that I really didn’t want any part of it. Having said that, the fact that Punk has been absorbed into the Rock Heritage industry could be judged as final confirmation that it belonged to the same tradition it was determined to destroy. And when The Sex Pistols were once referred to as ‘the obituary of Rock n Roll’, I think there’s more than a grain of truth in the argument that they were the end game of a revolution that had begun twenty years previously.

By November 1976, the PR machine of EMI was working hard to promote their new signings, and the imminent release of the debut Sex Pistols single was bigged-up by the company’s plugging hustler Eric Hall doing his best to gain the band some airtime. After a Radio 1 ‘Newsbeat’ interview with Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones, a performance on a yoof-orientated ‘Nationwide’ spin-off presented rather bizarrely by ‘Play Away’ star and one-time pop singer Lionel Morton was the first public exposure on TV after the band had signed on the dotted line; they’d received regional coverage a few months earlier on Janet Street Porter’s ‘London Weekend Show’, but now that the weight of the country’s leading record company was behind them, The Sex Pistols were poised to emerge from the underground.

Those in the know – i.e. regular readers of the music press and pub gig-goers – had observed the steady spread of the whole Punk subculture and its leading bands throughout 1976, though the general public outside of the King’s Road were largely ignorant of its existence. At the time, the consensus amongst music journalists was that Punk would deal a fatal blow to the 60s survivors and 70s superstars as well as the Prog Rockers; they were deemed to be the enemy.

The fact is that, though both scored top ten singles in 1976, The Rolling Stones and The Who were way past their best, anyway; Prog’s key landmark albums had already been released and the genre had slipped into rehash and retread; and while Led Zeppelin, Elton John and Rod Stewart had all hit their creative peaks, the likes of Pink Floyd, Queen, 10cc and ELO still had more to offer, as did David Bowie. The latter had adopted his Thin White Duke persona that year, returning to the British stage for the first time since Ziggy’s retirement, causing controversy with his so-called ‘Nazi salute’ at Victoria Station, and preparing to release his most radical album to date, ‘Low’. He was nowhere near being a spent force.

The prevailing chart sound bar Disco in the mid-70s had been Teen Pop, which was ready to be put out of its misery by the time ‘Anarchy in the UK’ was ready for release. Appearing side-by-side with Glam Rock in the early 70s, Teen Pop shared the former’s nostalgia for the classic three-minute single and recycling the simplistic energy that had been lost during the elevation of Pop into Rock at the end of the 60s. Where it differed from Glam was that it eschewed the cross-dressing-up box and arty pretensions; the campy and decadent aspects of Glam were sidelined in favour of wholesome boy-next-door looks and an updated 50s image. Gary Glitter pioneered this distinction, but was swiftly succeeded by Alvin Stardust, Mud, The Rubettes, Showaddywaddy and The Bay City Rollers.

The phenomenal success of the Rollers in 1975 was founded on a string of singles rooted in the Glam formula, though even they struggled to keep the momentum going the following year. Malcolm McLaren later admitted his initial idea as manager of The Sex Pistols was to market them as the Rolling Stones to the Rollers’ Beatles, which says more about which section of the record-buying public his eye was focused on – contradicting the retrospective viewpoint that Punk was supposed to be the Peasants’ Revolt for Prog. Such was the climate The Sex Pistols gatecrashed. Late Teen Pop arrivals such as Hello, Kenny, Slik and Flintlock enabled pop shows like ITV’s ‘Supersonic’ to continue soldiering on, though all were eclipsed in ’76 not by The Sex Pistols, but by Abba.

Bucking the here today/gone tomorrow Eurovision trend, Abba’s songwriting strength-in-depth and the photogenic appeal of Agnetha and Frida steered them away from the cabaret circuit and towards the top of pop’s premier league in 1976. They became the first act to score a trio of chart-toppers in a calendar year since Slade in 1973 and also managed to cross the great divide by being equally successful in the LP charts. The novelty of a two guys/two girls band from a country with no previous pop pedigree made them stand out from the crop of Rollers imitators, and while they were quite capable of composing a ditty with the deceptive surface of bubblegum, their songs had an undercurrent of Nordic melancholy giving them a depth that the competition in the charts lacked.

However, what the charts really lacked in 1976 was the concept of music as a lethal weapon, a nasty virus that could split the generations and give teenagers the kind of anti-heroes they hadn’t had since the Shock Rock of Alice Cooper at his peak. The Sex Pistols seemed to be the answer, and when Eric Hall fixed them a blind date with Bill Grundy on teatime TV, Fleet Street sniffed blood and the public responded accordingly, rekindling an outrage that had been sedated by the trappings of success.

‘Anarchy in the UK’, ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Pretty Vacant’ share the same lineage as ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘My Generation’, and in that respect The Sex Pistols are less a break with the Rock n Roll story as the final chapter of it. After Punk and its various offshoots, the electric guitar would become an instrument as relevant to progress and change as the harpsichord; the future would be electronic. What Punk amounted to was the last rebellious roar of a musical genre before it was reborn as the (admittedly enjoyable) museum piece we recognise today.

© The Editor

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4 thoughts on “EVE OF DESTRUCTION

  1. A well-written piece. I always thought of punk as some sort of aftershock from the musical earthquake that shook the 60s. Punk offered nihilism to the jaded and nothing much else – and its practitioners lacked talent. Fortunately, as you say, it had no staying power.

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    1. I think the most positive legacy is that it acted as a catalyst for the new acts that emerged at the end of the 70s/beginning of the 80s, from Gary Numan and The Human League to The Police and The Specials.

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  2. I believe that the musical decades are counted from 56, 66, 76. In the 50s the big bands dominated the business and their music became ever more complicated. Skiffle was a reaction to that. Here was a music anyone could play. Twenty years later prog rock and metal were dominant and punk was the reaction. Once again, anyone could play it. Just don’t ask me about rap. That stuff may be ok but it will never replace music!

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    1. Yes, there are distinct parallels – for the big bands & Jazz, substitute the mass ensembles of ELP or Rick Wakeman sharing a stage with orchestras; Skiffle and Punk performed the same function twenty years apart.

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