Sex Pistols

Anarchy in the U.K.

Song Review by

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 The single was released by EMI toward the end of 1976 and sold over 55,000 copies in Britain before being withdrawn due to the ensuing outcry.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.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols 1977 EMI / Virgin 3:32
Spunk: The Original 1977 Bootleg Album 1977 Castle Music Ltd. / Sanctuary Fontana 0:00
The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle 1979 Virgin 3:31
No Image 1979 Warner Bros.
Flogging a Dead Horse 1980 EMI Music Distribution 3:33
No Image 1981
Various Artists
Harmony Vision / Vestron
No Image 1984
Various Artists
Mini Album 1985 Creative Man 3:51
The Swindle Continues 1988 Restless Records 4:04
We Have Cum for Your Children 1988 Sanctuary 1:57
No Future UK? 1989 BMG / Castle Communications
Kiss This: The Best of the Sex Pistols 1992 EMI Music Distribution 3:31
Early Daze 1994 Sanctuary 3:52
GB Explosion 1994
Various Artists
Castle Music Ltd. 3:53
Nice Enough to Eat [Receiver] 1994
Various Artists
Receiver 3:31
Pretty Vacant 1995 Receiver 4:10
Politics of Punk, Vol. 3 1996
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill
Agitprop: The Politics of Punk 1997
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 4:20
Back & There Again 1997 Creative Man / Cargo 4:04
Archive 1997 Rialto 3:57
100% Pure Bollocks: The Unacceptable Stench of BullshiArt 1998
Various Artists
Caroline Distribution
Pretty Vacant: The Best of 1976 1999 Cleopatra 4:08
Anarchy, Angst & Bollocks: UK Punk Anthology 1999
Various Artists
Varèse Sarabande / Varese 3:58
Rage the Album 1999
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution 3:31
Sid Vicious Lives 1999 Dressed To Kill 4:00
The Greatest Punk Album of All Time 1999
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 3:52
The Shit Factory: Greatest Punk Swindle [Dressed to Kill] 1999
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 4:01
The Filth and the Fury [Virgin] 2000
Original Soundtrack
Virgin 3:31
This Is Punk 2000
Various Artists
Cleopatra 4:08
Whatever Happened to Harold Smith? 2000
Original Soundtrack
EastWest 3:32
The Entire History of Punk 2001
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 3:52
The Legends Collection: Sex Pistols Collection 2001 Dressed To Kill / Legends Collection 4:00
There Is No Future 2001 Sanctuary / Trojan 4:10
Punk Generation: My Way 2001
Various Artists
Simply The Best (Netherlands) 3:31
The Sex Pistols Collection, Vol. 1 2001 Dressed To Kill 4:00
Jubilee (Best Of) 2002 Virgin 3:31
Sex Pistols [Box Set] 2002 EMI Music Distribution 4:55
24 Hour Party People 2002
Original Soundtrack
London 90 3:33
Essential Punk Rock 2002
Various Artists
BMG Special Products 3:59
Hang All DJ's, Vol. 4 2003 Waxed Soul Recordings 1:56
No Image
Never Trust a Hippy Hippy
No Image Raw Power Records