Punk as Fuck is a monthly column in which Associate Editor Collin Brennan discusses issues in punk music and culture. This month’s column explores the far-reaching influence of the Sex Pistols’ debut single, “Anarchy in the UK”, released on November 26th, 1976.
Mere seconds before he introduces himself to the British listening public as a snarling, caustic antichrist on the Sex Pistols’ 1976 debut single, “Anarchy in the UK”, Johnny Rotten (né John Lydon) shouts a phrase that would become even more emblematic of the shape of punk to come: “Right … now!“
Before those two words, the fledgling movement known as punk rock had kept one foot planted in the traditions of rock ‘n’ roll past, even as it gleefully mocked them. In the opening line of Britain’s very first punk single — The Damned’s “New Rose”, which preceded “Anarchy in the UK” by almost exactly one month — singer Dave Vanian takes the piss out of The Shangri-Lahs with his self-consciously Americanized pronunciation of “Is she really going out with him?” But strip away the distortion and slow down the tempo, and “New Rose” isn’t really all that thematically different from a Shangri-Lahs song, or any other song that might have conceivably appeared on rock radio in the ‘60s. The rose itself may be new, but there’s a certain pop timelessness to the lyrics about finding love and not wanting it to slip away.
The same can be said of other early English punk singles like The VIbrators’ “We Vibrate” and the Joe Strummer-fronted 101ers’ “Keys to Your Heart”, neither of which strays far from the back-to-basics pub rock formula that dominated London’s club scene in the mid-’70s. Thousands of miles away, separated by an ocean but united by their membership in the same punk subculture, New York City groups like the Ramones and The Heartbreakers also looked backwards in time, styling themselves after Marlon Brando’s outlaw biker in 1953’s The Wild One and appropriating ‘60s girl-group melodies for their own rebellious causes. Punk in the early half of 1976 was still an unquestionably transgressive movement, but it wasn’t quite as challenging to the status quo as hindsight would have us believe.