Saturday, December 19, 2009

"No One is Innocent" by Ronnie Biggs and the Sex Pistols (1978)

I think punk, as a music genre and as an ideological or lifestyle 'movement', is largely an uneasy alliance of two remarkably different types: one group of people who see it as a rallying call, a form of protest, and one group who see it as an agenda-free release of energy or tension. There are 'revolutionaries', but in just as large measure there are mere empty nihilists as well. People who hate the system for the way it holds people down and seek to destroy it in order to replace it with something better, or people who hate the system merely because it's there and seek to destroy it with no thought whatsoever for what comes next.

The band that is remembered as the founder, the architect and the 'leader' of (British) punk music, the Sex Pistols, contains both in equal measure. Notably, Johnny Rotten, the primary lyricist, was resposible for the words of those epochal early singles that are both undeniably exciting and filled with a sense of self-importance: this was inarguably a band with something to say (much of the band's destroy-passersby sheer nihilism, it must be added, comes from him too). Equally notably, though, is Sid Vicious, the poster boy for vacuous violence and wanton, pointless thuggery. Sid Vicious made real all of the things that 'adult society' were saying about punk. His glorification also spelt the end of punk as potentially a force for real change. The band the Sex Pistols became, certainly after Johnny Rotten's departure but even before it, represented everything base about punk. This was a band that had abandoned incisive social criticism for purposeless button-pushing, a band that had, like lexicographers before and after, confused anarchy with mere chaos. The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle album and its attendant singles are very difficult listening indeed – no improvement whatsoever on the fatuous music they had allegedly set out to destroy.

Among many competitors, the song that stands out as being most tellingly horrible is “No One is Innocent”, sung (if you can call it that) by Ronnie Biggs, an escaped convict living in Brazil. His 'outlaw' status, I supposed, tickled the fancy of the remaining Sex Pistols, so they cheerily went ahead and let a boorish old man bellow tunelessly over punk-by-numbers. His bleating vocals are enough to merit inclusion here, but the self-serving lyrics are so childishly and stupidly baiting and offensive to make the case all by themselves. Glorifying child-killers and Nazis (not to mention glorifying himself, an escaped convict), Biggs associates the Sex Pistols with all kinds of unsavoury connections, sullying their genuinely revolutionary early years and calling into doubt their entire legacy.

It's no accident that punk split on one hand into a more explicitly political camp (including so-called 'hardcore' bands) and on the other hand into trash that was merely boorish at the best or explicitly hateful at the worst, cheered on by the skinheads and ultimately spawning neo-fascist bands like, for example, Skrewdriver. Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious may have worn swastikas as a bait to the older generation's conventions regarding morality, but the repeated baiting, with no observable sense of irony, did nothing to obscure a genuine contempt for the sufferings of others. Putting a swastika on the cover of one of your singles, calling a song “Belsen Was a Gas”, recording Biggs saying Nazis weren't wicked, “that was their idea of fun”... with time such 'taunts' start to sound like convictions, and the Sex Pistols' flirtation with Nazi symbolism starts to look like sympathising. And that's the sour taste their legacy leaves in my mouth. That's the reason that they, in the end, changed nothing, and all their revolutionary zeal was just so much hot air.

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