Last week brought another of those bittersweet cultural anniversaries that seem bent on reminding us how hard it is to keep the cutting edge sharp, but also why it matters to keep trying.
Monday marked the 25th birthday of the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,” an album that is widely considered the progenitor of British punk rock. Designed to shock, it did just that with songs like “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen,” which went so far as to wonder, in the queen’s silver jubilee year, whether she actually was a human being. Concert venues closed their doors to the group, and radio stations refused to air their songs — all of which kept the new album atop the British charts for nearly a year and helped catapult the Sex Pistols to worldwide notoriety, in Japan as everywhere else.
Today, though, probably the most shocking thing about “Never Mind the Bollocks” is how old it makes us feel. Is this what we took for revolution 25 years ago?
Not that the songs weren’t confrontational. Confrontation was their whole point. For the brief two years they were together, the original Sex Pistols were against pretty much everything that could possibly be deemed bollocks, i.e., conventional, from good manners to royalty to big business. (An exception was made for the important principle of music revenues; as lead singer Johnny Rotten himself put it, “I don’t do nothin’ for nothin’.”)
The group was studiously raw, crude, profane, dirty, bilious and vulgar. And it had the desired effect. In a year when the Bee Gees had the top four singles hits in Britain and America, the Sex Pistols certainly looked and sounded revolutionary. Joyously, a thousand raucous, ill-kempt punk rock bands emulated their new antiheroes’ every move.
But context is all. It seems downright quaint now to recall that in 1977 “bollocks” — an old English word meaning “small balls” or, in modern parlance, nonsense — brought a charge of indecent advertising against a British record-store manager who displayed the Sex Pistols’ album in his window. Compared with the language of today’s rappers and hip-hoppers, bollocks sounds positively euphemistic. If shock is your goal, the threshold has been ratcheted way up since Mr. Rotten sent his first sneer around the world. Revolution, at least where the music business is concerned, is in the eye of the beholder.
This happens all the time with art, of course. The avant-garde routinely becomes the rearguard. The cutting edge is dulled by overexposure. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” triggers a riot in Paris in 1913, but 27 years later Walt Disney uses the score to accompany his dancing dinosaurs in “Fantasia.” And for all their anti-establishmentarianism, the Sex Pistols are now set in rock music’s pantheon as firmly as flies in amber. When Mr. Rotten famously asked a San Francisco audience on the original band’s last tour in 1978, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” he spoke more truly than he could have known at the time.
The group has tried hard to hang on to its authentic offensiveness. When “God Save the Queen” was reissued in May to mark its 25th anniversary as a single (and the queen’s golden jubilee), Mr. Rotten used the occasion to excoriate Britain as a whole, Prime Minister Tony Blair, the present music scene and the newspaper that interviewed him. Yet even this display of ingratitude wasn’t enough to head off a fate worse than death for a would-be revolutionary: Three months later, in a BBC poll, the British public voted Mr. Rotten one of the “top 100 Britons of all time.” Even more distressingly, an Internet music purveyor is currently busy touting “Never Mind the Bollocks” as “an historical artifact.” What’s an aging, angry punk rocker to do? He shouldn’t worry. The Sex Pistols aimed to shock; they succeeded, and now the shock effect has worn off, a victim of the law of diminishing returns. But that doesn’t mean their day is over. Why? Because no matter how gray and respectable Mr. Rotten and his colleagues become, there is still bollocks to contend with wherever we turn.
In this country we can see it at work every day in the Diet, in the Cabinet, in local government, in the media and, not least, in a music industry intent on cloning as many cardboard-cutout pop stars as possible, the boringly inoffensive opposites of everything the Sex Pistols strove to be.
Bollocks: It’s a wonderful word and a necessary concept. Now that they’re having their own silver jubilee of sorts, maybe we should ask God to save them, rather than the queen, for having given it a new lease of life.
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