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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 August 2007, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Shock tactics
Classic pop, reappraised by the Magazine

John Lydon
Anarchy in the UK was released in 1976
Anarchy in the UK is back in the headlines, the phrase being used by the Sun to sum-up a "nation under siege" and by David Cameron on several occasions recently.

You don't generally expect the leader of the opposition to quote from a record that made number 38 in the charts three decades ago.

When Anarchy In The UK first upset decent folk back in 1976, the general response was to not talk about it. Radio stations didn't play it and the record company stopped pressing it. But a phrase had been coined and it hasn't gone away.

Certainly, anarchism was a canny choice of brand for a band looking to grab attention. Neither left nor right - and certainly not hippy - anarchy caught the ear, not least because few people were sure what it meant.

Whose idea was it?

And still its meaning is elusive. The post-Enlightenment anarchists - who believed reasonable people could solve conflicts without the need for an interfering state - share little with Johnny Rotten's "I am an antichrist" or with David Cameron's proposed curbs on video games.

The team managing the Sex Pistols was counting on cruder associations, of anarchists not as collectivists but as nihilists, troublemakers - even terrorists - and the shock tactics eventually worked.

It's never been entirely clear whose idea it all was. With some anarchist documents there's no single author, for political reasons. With Anarchy In The UK, it's more a case of the normal mess you get with rock music.

God Save The Queen cover
The Sex Pistols wanted to shock
At the time, Rotten told Melody Maker the music was several of Glen Matlock's tunes put together: "I came in a bit late and they'd already got the basic melody and I just said, I'll call it Anarchy! The rest of the words came quite easily."

Pistols designer Jamie Reid thinks the lyrical inspiration came from conversations around his art school interest in movements like the Situationist International.

"It came out of a much more eclectic situation than people believe," he says. "Sitting up, rapping to people, talking to John about ideas... He then went away and wrote the song, little Irish poet that he was."

Whatever the truth, Anarchy became part of the Pistols' live set and their first single. Recording it became a problematic, drawn out affair and the results underwhelmed some of their fellow punks.

Captain Sensible recalls anxiously listening to it with his band members in The Damned, then bursting into laughter. "It sounded like some redundant old Bad Company out-take with old man Steptoe singing over the top."

Casio keyboards

But as the scandals around the band multiplied, Anarchy In The UK grew in stature - and in menace. Its performance on a boat by the Houses of Parliament on Jubilee Day in 1977 ended with the usual beatings and press coverage.

And despite the ugly disintegration of the band, Anarchy remained more or less inviolable, as ex-punks became music critics insisting on the import of the heady days of sedition.

The song even inspired a 500-page tome from Harvard University Press. In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus depicted Johnny Rotten as a channel for the voices of history's malcontents.

Keith Harris and Orville
Keith and Orville used the song in a set
As punk ebbed into the past, though, one man had seen a different, less exalted future for Anarchy In The UK and his name was Frank Sidebottom.

Of course it wasn't, his name was Chris Sievey, but he had a vision - an act with a large papier mache head rendering well-known tunes in a nasal Cheshire chirrup.

He recorded himself reciting Anarchy, accompanied by a Casio keyboard, and sent the tape to the major labels with a note reading: "I'm thinking of getting into show business. Do you have any pamphlets?"

Frank made it, sort of. His bursts of fame have always been fleeting at best, his sidekick Mrs Merton going on to have the higher profile. But the model would prove enduring: to take a song that respects nothing and no-one and to treat it with no respect. Where Frank led, many followed.

'I am a Sporty Spice'

By the time the Pistols reformed in 1996 the song had already been used in the film of The Flintstones, with comedy punks Green Jello singing: "I want to destroy Mr Slate/Cause I wanna be Fred Flintstone". And the covers kept coming.

The 1990s also saw a different kind of reunion tour - that of Keith Harris and his duck puppet Orville. The former children's entertainer was on the student and adult circuits, with wet T-shirt competitions and Orville's reading of Anarchy In The UK.

The duck would explain: "Ooh, I love that Johnny Rotten, he's got green hair and wears a safety pin, just like me. I think he might be my daddy."

John Lydon
The song was the Pistol's first single
Once former Spice Girl Mel C had performed the song at the V99 festival ("I am an antichrist/And I am a Sporty Spice"), it was clear that very few people would be put off the song.

Obviously, Sporty doesn't "mean it, man" - the fun is in taking a sacred cow to unlikely places. But that can only happen so many times.

Since then, Anarchy In The UK has appeared at the top of The Daily Telegraph's "Perfect Playlist" of punk downloads; Selfridges has hosted a series of punk lectures, and the 30th anniversary of the song was marked by an ITV4 theme night and a photo shoot of Girls Aloud in ripped tights.

It's become a ringtone, the New York, New York of the "Punk Rock Karaoke" scene and it exists in lullaby form on the Punk Rock Baby CD, to ensure sweet dreams for the offspring of fortysomethings.

At the end of last year, former Young One Adrian Edmonson joined Jools Holland's supper club orchestra to perform a big band version, and this year's Glastonbury saw an Anarchy In The UK sweatshirt as the festival garb of Sadie Frost.

No joke

But just when you thought it had become little more than a neutered music hall turn, Mr Cameron spoke of Anarchy In The UK in a spate of interviews.

As a result the phrase regained its shock value and its place in the tabloid headlines - barely in time for the collectors' edition re-release of the Sex Pistols' singles. Anarchy was scary - then a joke - and now it's scary again.

So where does this leave the real-world anarchists, who don't "want to destroy passers-by", described by the historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto as "a great political tradition, which once threatened the elites and powers of the world"?

They were never part of the story. In his subsequent career John Lydon has made a point of saying: "I am not an anarchist, and I never was." The clue is there in the lyric: "I use the NME and I use anarchy."

In pop culture, as in politics, it seems disorder is often used in a way that frightens people and seldom in a way that inspires them.

Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor.

Below is a selection of your comments:

Anarchy is order. But order without hierarchy. It does not mean the end of law, judicial systems or even nation states. What we have on the UK's streets (with gun crime) is raw capitalism, people with brute force take what they want. The same in parts of Africa or Latin America or the Middle East. I am pleased there is at least one outlet for anarchists to point out that democracy can only truly flourish inside an anarchist system. Where power is decentralised and political and economic decisions are democratised and constantly re-evaluated to stop power being centralised. Anarchism is not about wearing black and throwing stones at police, though sometimes this has to be done, anarchism is about enabling democracy to exist, as opposed to the oligarchies we live in at the moment. In current societies - including the UK - true power is held by a tiny minority, as it is in state capitalism - otherwise known as Soviet Communism. Within 250 years the world will be anarchist.
Y. Zero, London - in the oil industry

The ability of music journalists to over-analyse throw-away pop never ceases to amaze me! I thought the Sex Pistols meant anarchy as in: we despise authority, we want to do drugs, we want to cause trouble & mayhem. Not really a "political movement" and with about as much intellectual credibility as the Spice Girls (highly dubious) "girl power"! However, Anarchy in the UK is a great sound-bite for the tabloids / Cameron... and also entirely accurate in tracing the source of the current troubles on our streets. Since the late 70s, generations have been raised on this excessively rebellious culture. Its impact on society has only been negative... thanks a lot Johnny Rotten et al - you've ruined our country!
Jono, Smethwick, UK

A good article, only spoilt by the Mel C bit, she was not really taking the mickey, Steve Jones was playing guitar with her. Well done on a decent explanation of "Punk Anarchy" without getting the thing swamped by arty w____ers from '76.
Alex, West London

...And yet none of this actually goes on to explain what anarchy actually is... Anarchy was fashionable for a while in the 60s and 70s but now youths are not organised into anarchist groups with an agenda. They just wish to vandalise and hurt for the fun of it. Again, this is unlike the punks of Anarchy in the UK who had a loose manifesto and something to react against. Anarchy was never fashionable. Punk style trousers and T shirts do not make an anarchist.
Heather, Binrmingham

I'm sorry,but I for one was inspired by Anarchy in the U.K. Because of it and the punk movement as a whole,I,as a spotty 16-year-old went out and discovered ideas of Pieter Kropotkin, William Godwin and Raoul Vaneigem. It also inspired many others too: protests against globalisation and climate change all have their roots in punk dream of an anarchist U.
woz, Aberystwyth

Leaving the lyrics of 'Anarchy' to one side let's not forget this was really a rather brilliant rock'n'roll record with as much guts as early Elvis, Gene Vincent, Iggy Pop or Link Wray records. It explodes out of the grooves and being a rnr collector for 47 years I can say that record is powerful and timeless and stands long with the greats.
Trev, London

What a load of pointless, pseudo-intellectual rubbish about (and intended for) uncultured, ignorant people. It is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the idea of culture today - if you believe there is any! We, and our politicians, should be discussing Aquinas, Aristotole and Kant, not Johnny Rotten!
Kant for King, London

Some said the same about the Talking Heads, but David Byrne is now an award winning music director on HBO for Big Love.
Candace, New Jersey, US

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