The Sex Pistols' debut single, "Anarchy in the U.K.," touched off a social and musical firestorm upon its release in 1976. The Pistols were already revolutionary within the British music business, going outside the established avenues for building audiences and media publicity (or, more accurately, notoriety); coupled with their aggressively provocative stance, industry insiders were intensely worried about possible repercussions -- not only from the public, but concerning their own back catalogs, which were decidedly dissimilar from the Pistols' music. And their fears of controversy were justified -- "Anarchy in the U.K." gleefully pushed every button it could surrounding British fears about political instability and youth running wild in the streets. The single was released by EMI toward the end of 1976 and sold over 55,000 copies in Britain before being withdrawn due to the ensuing outcry. The Pistols were subsequently kicked off the label, only three months after signing; they landed on A&M for about a week before settling on Virgin, who included "Anarchy in the U.K." on the Pistols' lone studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks.
The song was chiefly composed by Glen Matlock (except, of course, for Johnny Rotten's lyrics) and hammered into final shape by Steve Jones. It relies on simple, descending power-chord riffs for its anthemic impact, kicking off with a run down the A minor scale (which is reused for the chorus) and punctuating its verses with a descending progression based on the fourth, third, and first notes of the C major scale (a common device in simple yet anthemic songs). There really isn't much else to the song instrumentally, aside from an instrumental bridge that features a repeated riff built around a D major chord. Rotten's performance is supremely brash and snotty, playing up the harsh, abrasive qualities of his voice as well as his personality; yet there's also a subtle playfulness to his lyrics, which indicates that even if he is intent on delivering real social commentary, he never takes the song's anarchist pose all that seriously, instead reveling in -- and laughing at -- the resulting provocation. Decades later, some combination of those attitudes still defines punk rock; moreover, the song and the band helped return rebelliousness and do-it-yourself egalitarianism to rock & roll in general.
"Anarchy in the U.K." has been covered several times since, usually by heavy metal bands (like Megadeth and Motley Crue) who love the song's message of rebellion and the aura of controversy surrounding it, but who often don't understand what made the song musically effective as well (plus, Megadeth didn't even understand all of the lyrics, hazarding its best guesses in a few spots). Where Steve Jones' guitar is noisy and loose (and, well, bordering on anarchic), metal bands tend to play the song with their riffing tightly controlled. The Pistols settle into a mid-tempo groove that even musicians of limited technique can put across with power, but metal bands tend to take the song at a faster tempo, as if to make up for the song's simplicity by presenting themselves with more of a technical challenge; there's often a flashy guitar solo inserted as well. The fact is, "Anarchy in the U.K." simply isn't a vehicle for showboating, nor can it hit home as effectively without a performance hinting that the band itself could fall apart at any moment, just as easily as the society it's threatening to destroy. It isn't likely that the future of rock will have many cataclysmic, genre-transforming moments like "Anarchy in the U.K." in store -- the outside circumstances have to be just right, and a band like the Sex Pistols has to be in exactly the right place at the right time, saying exactly the wrong thing.