‘Anarchy In The Year Zero’ reviewed

❉ It’s almost exactly forty years since the Pistols shocked Bill Grundy, and Clinton Heylin has charted punk’s year zero.

Published earlier this year, it seems the time is right to finally discuss Clinton Heylin’s ‘Anarchy In The Year Zero’, as we near forty years since the Sex Pistols “turned the airwaves blue” with their impromptu appearance on London TV show ‘Tonight’.

That TV spot marks the point at which a grass roots musical movement, fostered by disaffected 70s youths, effectively had its card marked and became another source of ready-made outrage for the tabloids.

Prior to the ‘Tonight’ show, the Sex Pistols had been grinding away, gigging in the provinces and laying down demos in Soho, attracting an underground following of disaffected youths – the disenfranchised children of Ziggy, Iggy and Roxy – but after that TV appearance, the nascent punk movement was about to be commodified as tabloid ‘youth panic’ fodder, and the seeds of its dissolution and inbuilt-obsolescence sewn.


It’s the beginning of the end as far as Clinton Heylin’s ‘Anarchy In The Year Zero’ is concerned. In this book, noted rock biographer and chronologist Heylin has worked hard to tear away forty years of nostalgia, received opinion and myth-making in an attempt to record the whole gory story of how, in a brief twelve-month period, the first stirrings of the punk movement marked a brief window of opportunity for a handful of bored teenagers to grab the moribund post-glam music scene by the scruff of its neck and reinvent itself in its own image.

Quite pointedly, 1976 may have been ‘year zero’, but for the likes of Steve Jones, Paul Cook and their new-found vocalist John Lydon, or London SS’s Mick Jones, courting the talents of the 101ers’ Joe Strummer, it was more a case of drawing a line in the sand between the last time British rock had been genuinely anti-establishment – somewhere around the Stones’ ‘Aftermath’ – and the current swamp of Rick Wakeman, Genesis, David Bowie’s self-imposed exile in Los Angeles, and the arch irony of 10cc. As Bowie/Ziggy had sung just three years ago, where had all the good times gone? Even Slade, glamrock’s unreconstructed bootboys, were stateside, polishing their sound.

Hence, Malcolm McLaren’s boyband were honing their skills with a roster of ragged remakes/remodels of Small Faces’ Whatcha Gonna Do About It, Creation’s Through My Eyes, the Stooges’  No Fun, Jonny Richman’s Roadrunner, and the Monkees’ garage band classic Stepping Stone.

‘Anarchy In The Year Zero’ forensically chronicles the progress from those early Pistols rehearsals in Soho’s Denmark Street, to those key gigs at the Islington Screen in the Green, Oxford Street’s 100 Club and numerous polytechnics, not to mention some hilarious jaunts into the provinces of Leicester, Aberystwyth, and Wolverhampton.

This is an anti-revisionist history of punk. There’s been a lot of nonsense written about the early years of punk, from eyewitnesses with foggy memories to self-serving anecdotes. To rectify the balance Heylin has gone back to the well: eyewitness anecdotes are placed alongside contemporary press reports, and more significantly, Heylin has taken advantage of the wealth of bootleg recordings that have surfaced in the quarter-decade since ‘England’s Dreaming’ to offer a verifiable critique of those early gigs and demos: as a result, one thing is for certain, the Sex Pistols were not a rubbish band; they were tight as fuck and frequently blew the opposition away; even Chris Spedding, who had worked with John Cale and Brian Eno, found them on point when he produced their demos.

Another advantage of the wealth of information and resources available since ‘England’s Dreaming’ is that Heylin has produced as near to an accurate chronology of the nascent punk scene in 1976 as possible, from the Damned’s first meeting to the Manchester Free Trade gigs that captured the imagination of future members of Buzzcocks, Smiths and Joy Division. It’s all here, from those shambolic early gigs, to the aborted early demos, ‘Spunk’, and ‘So It Goes’.

Heylin sifts through data, anecdote and aural document to present a near-as-dammit authentic history of how what started out in the King’s Road, when a scruffy herbert, lapsed Catholic teamed up with two amphetamine-loving Small Faces fans and a Who-obsessed bassist, led to a ripple of energy that became a shockwave, waking up at first a small pond of suburban kids and their provincial acolytes, before taking over the world, cf Henry Rollins, Bob Mould, Frank Black, Perry Farrell.

The wealth of punk memoirs that have appeared in the past quarter century since ‘England’s Dreaming’ also means that Heylin’s punk history is corroborated by some of the scene’s more reliable narrators: Notably Viv Albertine, whose ‘Clothes Music Boys’ is a must-read.

As noted at the top of this review, the British punk scene had an inbuilt obsolescence once the tabloids got a hold of it, all of which is forecasted in ‘Anarchy In The Year Zero’ – which can briefly be summed up by Malcolm McLaren’s media designs versus the original Pistols’ simple desire to be the Spiders from Mars meets The Who – and there’s a sadness in that; but if you want to drink in that brief twelve-month period where the Pistols, the Clash and the Damned represented a rebellion against the forces of Chinnichap, Genesis and 10CC, in the sweltering hot summer of 1976, before it all went horribly wrong, let this tome be your guide.

❉ ‘Anarchy In The Year Zero’ by Clinton Heylin is out now from Route Publishing, RRP £19.99

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