Johnny Rotten - punk, baboon and gargoyle

The Sex Pistols' singer wasn't scary because he puked on stage. The perceived threat lay deeper in the English psyche - much deeper. By Andrew Graham-Dixon

It has been 20 years since the wildest anarchs of post-war England, the Sex Pistols, came into being, although it is not quite in the spirit of the group to point it out. It was not the punk way to celebrate anniversaries, unless puking and mewling and howling and spitting and wailing and thrashing around in disgust and nihilism can be counted as a form of celebration. The Pistols themselves, it may be remembered, marked the most auspicious anniversary to take place during their own short period of eminence - the glorious day of Her Majesty's Silver Jubilee - by renting a boat, sailing down the Thames and performing their masterpiece of less than entirely patriotic sentiment. John Lydon, as Johnny Rotten, spat out the opening lines ("God save the Queen/ the fascist regime"), and by the time the police launches had moved in, he had entered the terminal, spastic, convulsive phase of his performance and was numbly screaming the lines of the chorus over and over like a mantra: "No Future, No Future, No Future for You!"

Punk has been widely and dismissively recalled as a briefly notorious uprising of dissatisfied youth. That view receives an iconoclastic hammering in Paul Tickell's fine documentary for BBC2's "Arena" strand. Punk and the Pistols is by some distance the most ingenious and enlightened treatment accorded to the Sex Pistols on film.

The group was brought into being quite cynically by Malcolm McLaren as an advertising gimmick to promote sales of the fetishistic clothes and other devices designed and sold by himself and Vivienne Westwood. But the Sex Pistols became something quite beyond McLaren's expectations and entirely beyond his grasp. Tickell's film mimics that strange parabola of the Pistols' own history by beginning as a study in deviancy and ending up as an improbable mirror of English society itself.

The group provoked the last genuinely widespread Great British Moral Panic. As they gained popularity, it seemed to many that the forces of Antichrist genuinely stalked the land. The Sex Pistols were censored, officially or unofficially, for most of their existence, and one of the many oddities of their odd career is the fact that they remained largely invisible until almost the end of their greatest notoriety, when their only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, was released. The idea that four young men singing on a stage could induce such outrage now seems almost inconceivable - perhaps it is inconceivable, and perhaps the rise of the Sex Pistols coincided with the twilight of an old, straitlaced consensus about what was or was not permissible in England.

The clothes that became associated with punk, that collage of sexual fetish items which became the uniform of Pistols followers, were taken by many as the visible sign of this liberating (or corrupting) enchantment. The truth is more complicated, however. Punk clothes told a lie. They suggested that the effects of the Pistols' music on those listening to it could be limited to something as relatively safe as a relish for sexual perversity: a mild, momentarily transforming interest in experimental forms of sexual activity involving whips and chains and leather and rubber gear. They also suggested that the followers and practitioners of punk, however strangely or violently they might seem to behave, were fundamentally in control of themselves. But this was not the case. The Sex Pistols in performance were truly deranged and deranging, not just coyly or artfully so. Punk clothes were (as Lydon hints in Tickell's film) a conservative attempt to disguise this. The truest marks left on people by punk were the real scars of real disfigurement: bodily and psychic wounds, not safety pins through leather trousers.

"Actually, we're not into music. We're into chaos." The first Sex Pistols remark quoted is a very good description of the nature of their eventual achievement. The Sex Pistols realised the old dream of the Dadaists and Surrealists by genuinely convulsing an entire nation. They managed it in part because they themselves regarded anything vaguely resembling the culture of intellectuals as an irrelevance. "Right! Here we go now," Lydon sang at the start of "No Fun": "A sociology lecture, with a bit of psychology, a bit of neurology, a bit of fuckology". Of course, that (except for the fuckology part) was what the Sex Pistols never gave their twisting, writhing, leaping, gobbing audiences. The paradox of the Sex Pistols was that they achieved significance by devoting themselves wholeheartedly to a complete and nihilistic avoidance of significance.

Malcolm McLaren, who went to art school and once said that all his ideas about the 20th century derived from his knowledge of art history, liked to believe that the monster which he had unknowingly brought into being might be respectably avant-garde in those terms. But the twisted, inflammatory rage of Lydon's stage manner owed nothing to Dadaism, Surrealism, Situationism, Fluxus, pop or performance art. The power of the Sex Pistols lay in the fact that they were so disrespectably avant-garde. Lydon did not mime or posture as the spirit of anarchy, he incarnated it. The effect of seeing or listening to the Sex Pistols was not challenging or engaging. It was far more disturbing and powerful than that. It took people over.

One of the cliches about punk is the notion that "anyone" could have done what the Sex Pistols did. The fact is that nobody else did. Punk was the Sex Pistols; more specifically, it was Lydon performing with the Sex Pistols, losing control of himself. There were many groups who took punk for art (American antecedents like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, who modelled themselves on the French symbolist poets such as Rimbaud). There were many groups who took punk as an opportunity for social comment (The Clash were the most famous and most ponderous of those). There were many groups who took punk as an excuse to inject some pace and energy back into the moribund, post-hippie world of popular music (The Jam, Buzzcocks, The Damned and too many others to mention). But only the Sex Pistols understood the potential of punk to go beyond anything as well-mannered or civilised or trivial as art or politics or pop music and into something altogether different - pure frenzy.

Lydon's hysteria and the hysteria it provoked uncovered two deep and abidingly English attitudes: a yearning, desperate need to lose control, and a positive terror of the possible consequences. It was Lydon's gift (it did not last long and it could not have done) to push performance to the point where it became something very much like demonic possession. "I don't understand this bit at all," he wails at the end of one of the last Sex Pistols songs, "Holidays in the Sun". It remains the most articulate statement of the almost panicky inarticulacy that made the Sex Pistols the force they briefly were.

There is of course ostensible content in their songs, most of it cartoon sociological commentary or political posturing suggested by the profoundly unoriginal McLaren and injected perfunctorily into the lyrics by Lydon, but it only exists to set up the moment when content is abandoned and the flailing descent into a blank nothingness occurs. The most memorable footage of the Pistols in concert records those moments when Lydon surrendered most completely to compulsions entirely beyond reason and became entirely inarticulate, shrieking and moaning and shivering like an epileptic or holy fool. This was not so much music as incantation.

The most common attitude to the Sex Pistols has been to revile or dismiss them as deviants or oddities. Their extremism is generally regarded as an exception to the general rule of quiet, repressed, compromised gentility that is the eternal English character, at least in myth. But there are other traditions of Englishness in which the Sex Pistols come to seem less marginal than central.

Their iconoclasm and tendency to spit on things, to bring them down and smash them up, is very traditionally English - there is a sense in which the antics of the Sex Pistols were almost direct parodies of the rather more idealistic but equally violent activities of the Ranters, Diggers and Puritans of the English 17th century.

But their truest Englishness is older still, perhaps. There is an interesting passage in The Englishness of English Art in which Nikolaus Pevsner discusses the origins of the so-called "baboonery", or "piece of monkey-business", in medieval art.

He is referring to those grotesque, curious figures painted gratuitously into the margins of old illuminated manuscripts, and the gargoyles that still grin and stare from the roofs and misericords of medieval churches. "If one traces the baboonery to its source," he goes on to say, "one finds that it originated in England."

The tradition may be traced throughout British art. Medieval babooneries became the animistic mutants conjured up by James Gillray and other satirists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Eventually, they became the twisted, elongated faces of Francis Bacon's screaming Popes. Lydon in concert was the last of the line and the most worrying because animate - a living English baboonery. On film, he even looks like a baboon (arms strangely too long for his body) and he has the manic, glaring face of a gargoyle. His sin was not, perhaps, to have been radically new but disturbingly old - an ancient imp, an old spirit of native anarchy come back to haunt the English with the terrors of a half-suppressed and irrational past.

'Arena: Punk and the Pistols' can be seen tomorrow night at 9.35pm, BBC2

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