The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious on the cover of the bootleg album “Drugs Kill.” (Photo: vinylmeister on Flickr)
Music / Punk

Top Shop Tyrants

“God save the queen/the fascist regime/they made you a moron/potential h-bomb”

In the year 1977, Johnny Rotten’s vocals struck hard, fast, and right at the throat of the English monarchy. Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, released in 1977, is an unforgiving and violently crude middle finger to the plight of the United Kingdom. At a time when IRA bombings were a norm, the Cold War was heating up, and London’s economics were not quite stable, Johnny Rotten and the other members of the Sex Pistols put words and a megaphone to the thoughts of youth around the country and cranked the volume to eleven. The criticism of the establishment was cool, sexy, and refreshing; however, The Clash were not doing favors for themselves with the punk crowds by signing with CBS (very uncool, Joe Strummer, very uncool). Many issues spoken—shouted is more apt—aloud by Johnny Rotten were bedrock problems the UK still struggles with today: the antiquated nature of the monarchy, faux-working class politicians, and the need for changing an elitist establishment to work for all people. The Sex Pistols set a very high and jagged bar for other acts to clear: how do you go forward with criticism for the world you live in if you are not actively showcasing how much you hate it?  Few acts have come close to reaching their level of uncensored, honest work. It is hard to imagine their image being taken as raw and uncensored with issues of public image being manipulated for the sake of headlines and social media spotlights. It is difficult to see someone who once shouted the aforementioned lyric to crowds and ears of millions now comes out in support of an American fascist regime, supports the imbedded racism behind Brexit, and criticizes gay marriage for not being “balanced enough” in the raising of children. If Johnny Rotten can’t take the weight of criticizing scousers anymore, who’s left to take up the mantle of protest music? It is impossible that there will ever be a group that can rile up audiences, news, and politicians like the Sex Pistols did, but their ability to cast a spotlight on injustices and systemic issues is most impressive. IDLES, slowthai, and Declan McKenna are artists with a smorgasbord of genres and sounds that use their music to practice much of the same polemics that the Sex Pistols did, without the fascist and sexist undertones.

“Just give them an anthem and they’ll sing it/Still they don’t know the meanings in it/Just saluting flags ‘cause it’s British”

Active since 2009, IDLES reign from Bristol and are loud and proud about their beliefs. Do not, however, call them a punk band. Frontman Joe Talbot actually was heard at a concert in 2018 saying, “for the last time, we’re not a fucking punk band.” Regardless of the media’s spin, Talbot’s group certainly cannot say that they are not at all influenced by the genre. Of the three artists, IDLES music is the most pulsating, violent, and expressive…or most akin to being punk rock. Their music is that rickety-looking rollercoaster that you decide to go on simply for the thrill rush or a thrill of the experience, despite the clearly underage park attendant manning the controls and the rotting wood foundation. Tracks like “Danny Nedelko” speak to the group’s love of immigrants in the country, a direct counter to the premise and ground upon which Brexit was built. Their new record, Ultra Mono, hones their focus on topics of machismo, or the hyper-masculine approach common among the UKs male youth. A track like “Ne Touche Pas Moi”’ is a consent-anthem that could not hit the listener over the head harder on the topic, with a chorus consisting of “CONSENT!/CONSENT!/CONSENT!” Subtlety is not lost on this group, and it especially is not lost on its audience members. Interestingly, though, IDLES has been criticized from a number of those on the left-wing as being more stylistic than substantive with their music. Concerns around Talbot’s pro-working class lyrics clash with his and his bandmates’ Exeter background, as does the lack of support for female artists. This has changed, however, with an all-female led 2021 supporting cast for their Ultra Mono album tour, with Talbot admitting to being a part of the issue by saying they “haven’t had enough of a mix of people who are representative of the whole demographic of what we’re about.” It is difficult, sadly, for some people to take what they are trying to do with their platform at face value, and critics of IDLES are an example of this. Nevertheless, they shred, and they love to shred the conservative system in place in the UK.

IDLES at the Haldern Pop Festival in 2017 (Photo: Alexander Kellner)

“Mrs. Thatcher/Your cruel heart navigates the world we live in/With its anger/Going nowhere, coming at ya/Rapture in my head”

When Declan McKenna’s debut single “Brazil” dropped in 2014, much of the UK music scene stopped and wondered where this kid had come from, a sixteen-year-old, of all people. Following an outpour of criticism of FIFA’s treatment of workers in the 2014 World Cup—held in Brazil—Declan’s single allowed him to quickly rise through the scene and come out as a leading voice of left-wing activism in the UK. His music jumps about from issue to issue, speaking up for groups that do not have a platform in mainstream music. His sound is a medley of UK pop: David Bowie’s glam rock, Donovan’s eccentricity, and Queen’s stadium anthems. A track like “British Bombs” calls out British imperialism and the lasting effects of the arms trade and its implication on a global scale as he yells in the chorus, “Great way to fool me again hun/Great actin it’s good what you tell ‘em/Great Britain won’t stand for felons/Great British bombs in the Yemen.” On his new record Zeroes, he tackles these themes through a lens of a concept album, following a character named Daniel as he travels through a world dealing with climate change, government surveillance, and the weight of saving the planet placed on a generation just now old enough to vote. His crowds could not be more different from IDLES’ roaring mosh pits…but that’s not the way he goes about things. His sound and deliveries are more nuanced than either of the other groups, but that does not make any one group better than the other, just different sounds for different groups.

I said there’s nothing great about the place we live in/Nothing great about Britain/Sip a cup of tea whilst we’re spittin’/There’s nothing great about Britain”

slowthai isn’t a fan of the current state of Britain and certainly isn’t afraid to let that be known. His sound is difficult to pinpoint; think of The Streets and Blur joining forces and you begin to ‘define’ the man. slowthai’s debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, reflects just as much. His opening eponymous track sees profanities hurled at the Queen. In an interview with The Guardian, he says, “I didn’t ever say I wanted a queen. The only queen I know is my mum. It’s a primitive thing, kings and queens”, speaking to a level of self-awareness that is lost on most of the British public. Another track, “Northampton’s Child,” is an autobiographical account of his impoverished youth, which details and points out the harsh inequalities that are often overlooked by the UK government. He stands to pay quite the tribute to The Sex Pistols and their on-stage antics. During the 2019 Mercury Prize ceremony, his performance of “Doorman” saw him brandish a decapitated Boris Johnson doll and repeatedly shout “Fuck Boris,” throughout the song. Subtlety, again, is not lost on anyone with his music.

Despite many subsequent governments, economic crises, and changing social attitudes since Nevermind the Bollocks, the core issues that pervade British society remain the same. What has not changed, however, the distinct anti-establishment tone to British punk music as a means to call out inequity. Methods of contention may change and continue to change, artists may continue to call out misdoings, and in doing so, get criticized for stating the obvious. At the end of the day, though, these artists revel in criticism, their pungent misanthropy blasting over the bleating jeers of the powers that be.