The Steyn on the Sex Pistols:
But that’s showbiz: ‘The industry’ doesn’t care whether you’re a Great Thinker like Rotten or the bass player from the Rollers (assuming they had one); it’s all the same. The big difference seems to be standards of personal hygiene, as US Immigration found out when they ill-advisedly examined Sid's underwear. At least, that's how Johnny tells it. It's the festering three-decade resentments that make this movie so much more enjoyable than The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle.
Entirely by coincidence, back in 2005, I chanced to see this film the same day as a reissue of The Prisoner Of Zenda, the classic 1937 version with a veritable phalanx of Hollywood's English aristocracy - Ronald Colman as Rudolph Rassendyll saving the Ruritanian throne, David Niven as Fritz, and Sir C. Aubrey Smith as Colonel Sapt. How the archetypal Englishman evolved from Ronald Colman, David Niven, and Sir C. Aubrey Smith into Johnny Rotten,Sid Vicious and Malcolm McLaren in a mere 40 years would make a fascinating film all by itself.
Anyone familiar with Mark Steyn will know which side of the Niven / Rotten divide he sits on. The Sex Pistols were a watershed moment in British popular culture. North Americans still tend to view Britain through the lens of Masterpiece Theatre, Alistair Cooke, Brideshead Revisited and scores of costume dramas. The stiff upper lip, the jovial Spitfire ace puffing his pipe, waiting for Jerry to come back, the first Elizabeth rallying her troops before the Armada, and other sepia images of past greatness. Even the lower classes are portrayed with a certain grandeur. Dickens and Eliza Doolittle. The operative cliche was that all men had a divine spark, some element of the noble that could be appealed to, or betrayed. Whether you take human divinity literally, a gift from a supernatural force, or merely a metaphor for human aspirations, it set a certain base line to personal and public conduct.
For a man who called himself, with dark irony, Johnny Rotten, there was no baseline. The Sex Pistols were denounced by the usual suspects, they instead should have been laughed at for their pretensions. The critical elite welcomed this gang of atonal thugs as an expression of the genuine anger and frustration of English youth. Their parents had endured the Blitz with stoical resignation, the children were to be excused their fascination with vulgarity for vulgarity's sake, after all there was a garbage strike on. Britain of the 1970s was not a pleasant place, yet human beings have survived worse than shag carpeting and the Bay City Rollers. The speed and decisiveness of the decline has always been a puzzle to Anglophiles. To have defied so many of history's worst tyrants, it was a bizarre anti-climax that a great nation was being undermined by mere yobs. The original barbarians at least didn't live off the dole.
Britain's dramatic shift toward socialism in the summer of 1945, the country becoming the Sick Man of Europe by the 1970s and the rise of Rottenism took place at what was, culturally, a breathtaking speed. Evelyn Waugh had spoken of a future dominated by the Hoopers, the bland and ineffectual men he saw coming to the fore in 1945. If only. Hooper was a way stop. The speed and energy of the decline was driven both by the collapse of Empire, an obvious existential blow to the national psyche, but far more important was the decline of the aristocracy. The misunderstood force of British twentieth century history was class warfare. Generations of working class British voters stuck with socialism not because it had improved their lives, though for a few years in the 1950s the welfare state did briefly raise living standards, but because it was revenge against the toffs who had ruled the country for centuries. The half century after the war can be seen as a slow motion version of the French Revolution. What began as an assault on unearned privilege degenerated into an attack on standards and values as such. The Sex Pistols were the sans-culottes of the Callaghan era. The Pistols anti-anthem, God Save the Queen, expressed this view with, for lack of a better word, eloquence. It was naked hatred of the established order. I have been denied my prizes, therefore none shall have theirs. It was envy and nihilism sanctified as a political philosophy and cultural movement.