Words on Music: ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’

Rotten Singing


“Anarchy in the U.K.,” by the Sex Pistols (1977)

So, there are about six of us, if I’m remembering right. It’s Saturday night – could be 1983 or ’84 – and we show up at what’s probably a church basement or middle-school rec room. There aren’t a lot of people here, a couple of dozen at most. There may be a disco ball. The music is Boy George or some such abomination popular at the time. This is what passes for a party in my college town.

But we know the DJ at this particular party and, earlier, in an effort to get us interested, he promised to play the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones if we showed.

Are we punks? Only a couple of us look the part, with the spiked hair and torn clothing. One of those is the girl I’m with. But me, I’m in an army surplus jacket. My fashion aspiration is Zonker from Doonesbury.

Fifteen minutes in, or so, the DJ comes through. The first sonic crunch of “Anarchy in the U.K.” clears the room, and the effect on us is immediate. It’s like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. In an instant, we go from scowling spectators to manic dervishes.

We run onto the suddenly empty dance floor just as Johnny Rotten spits the explosive opening line – “I am an anti-christ-TAH!”

The Sex Pistols had long since imploded by this time, but I’m in the mountains of North Carolina deep in the Reagan years and a song like “Anarchy in the U.K.,” in that place and time, is still cultural dynamite. And, in that musty church basement, we feel the detonation that night.

We swirl around a bit and then shoot across the floor like billiard balls, arms helicoptering. I slam into my buddy Dave, who sings in a punk band and is 20 pounds heavier than I am. His shoulder meets my jaw but I’m soon ricocheting off Dave and crashing into Stevie, his swinging arm catching me in the back of the head.

Do we have any clue about the context in which this song was written? Do we have any political commonality with the yobs of industrial, working-class England? Not a bit. We’re a bunch of soft suburban American mooches who’ve seen “A Clockwork Orange” a few too many times. We think we’re dangerous.

If “Anarchy in the U.K.” had been any longer than three and a half minutes, I probably would have ended up in the ER that night. I remember Stevie having a bloody mouth, yet grinning through it all, then theatrically snarling at the other kids, holding their red plastic cups, looking at us in horror.

Stevie was an idiot then, and so was I. He’s probably a slightly seedy middle-aged coffee-snob dad now, just as I am, just as the others are. Today I would no sooner slam dance to the Sex Pistols than stick my arm in a band saw. But when I hear Johnny Rotten choke out that opening line, something inside still flutters. It’s faint, but it’s there.

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