Anarchy in the EU: the Sex Pistols’ drummer on why Brexit isn’t punk

Paul Cook on fame and notoriety, patriotism and the EU

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

It is 40 years since the band in which Paul Cook banged the drums, the Sex Pistols, detonated a bomb called punk in post-war Britain. The shards are still visible. ‘We didn’t have a manifesto, but we wanted to shake things up,’ he says. ‘We didn’t know how much we would shake things up. Music, art, design, films, books. Punk is part of our social and cultural history.’

We’ve come a long way from 1976, when Johnny Rotten and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ put the pestilential Pistols on the front pages, and a prime-time television exchange with Bill Grundy, the celebrated ‘fucking rotter’ interview, kept them there. The band were banned from concert venues, denounced in every bully pulpit, damned as ‘illiterate sub-humans’. The work of the devil, no less.

The teenage Cook was an apprentice electrician at the Stag brewery in Mortlake, trying to find his path to freedom. ‘Get a trade, that’s what they used to say. And when you were done, you’d get a gold watch. I’m not disrespecting that life, but I wanted to be free of those constraints.’

A Shepherd’s Bush lad, Cook was pally with Steve Jones, the band’s guitarist, from childhood. They attended (sometimes) the Christopher Wren School on the White City estate, where he enjoyed himself, particularly on the football field (he was a good amateur player) but, like many intelligent working-class children, formal education passed him by. The son of a carpenter, ‘though I don’t make a big thing of my working-classness’, he read Alan Johnson’s autobiography, This Boy, about a similar west London upbringing, with admiration. ‘Though I didn’t have things as hard as he did.’

Cook and Jones ‘were pretty sharp kids. We loved music and fashion, as you do. It was all part of working-class life. I was into Motown, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and those groups. Ska, too. That late Sixties skinhead thing.’

Putting together a band called The Strand, Cook and Jones needed a place to rehearse, and something to play on. They found rehearsal space in the Riverside studios, at Hammersmith, which are now being expensively restored for the benefit of wealthy westsiders but which were then an empty shell by rotting docks. ‘A friend’s father had a key to the building, so we just slipped in.’

For larks the pair would take themselves off to World’s End. ‘The no. 17 bus, every weekend. We used to hang round a shop run by Malcolm McLaren, which seemed to change its name every month. It was the only shop which had a bit of an edge. In many ways, although this was the mid-Seventies, it still felt like the Sixties hadn’t ended.

‘We used each other, I’d say. Steve and myself could see the benefits of hanging round the shop, and I think Malcolm saw himself as Fagin, who wanted to turn us into his band of urchins. We were looking for a bass player and Glen Matlock was working in the shop. Then lo and behold, John Lydon turned up and took our eye. We needed a singer and he was bright, thought a lot of himself and became our mouthpiece. No matter what people have said about him, and they’ve said a lot, he was fantastic for us.’

And so the great adventure began. ‘You must remember how different things were back then. In many ways it was a very conservative country. The war was still in people’s minds. There were bomb sites in London, and I remember the three-day week, when we sat around with candles. There were a lot of very angry young people who thought, “What is this Great Britain we’ve been told about that is not all that great?”

‘They were violent times. I was beaten up by a bunch of teddy boys in Shepherd’s Bush. You didn’t have to be that different to stand out. It was quite difficult for Tom, my dad, when the media ran stories about us. Pistols outrage! Monarchy outrage! He liked to go down the pub and enjoy a pint with his mates. My mum used to stand up for me. She’d chase people down the road!’

Punk’s ‘Bastille moment’ came not in London but at a concert in Manchester on 4 June 1976. The venerable Free Trade Hall, where Gladstone once addressed 6,000 people, resounded to a different strain that evening. Overnight, it seemed, the world of rock music came crashing down like Humpty Dumpty, and the pieces could not be put back together again.

‘We tapped into the mood of the country, certainly among young people, and things grew and grew. There are parallels with New York because both cities were on their arses. But the kinds of punk rock that came from the two cities were totally different animals. We weren’t influenced by them at all. For us it was far too pretentious. And they weren’t influenced by us either.’

In modern British history, 1976 stands out as a shocker. March brought Harold Wilson’s resignation as prime minister, and the infamous ‘Lavender’ honours list for his cronies. August saw riots at the Notting Hill carnival, and the woeful September song was a humiliating IMF bailout which confirmed the United Kingdom as the basket-case of Europe. No wonder so many disaffected young people thought ‘Anarchy in the UK’ was not so much a prophecy as a statement.

‘There was a lot of dross. There always is. And punk turned into a caricature. But the British love caricatures. Look at the Carry On films. You can go back to Dickens, if you like.’ Eight years ago, when they reformed for a few shows, the Pistols were supported one night by Ray Davies, the Kinks man, who sent them a note after watching Lydon/Rotten gurning for England. ‘It’s nice to know,’ he wrote, ‘that the age of vaudeville isn’t yet over.’

Is there a ‘punk position’ on the EU referendum? ‘I think we have to go with it, though I say that with some reluctance. If you look at history, and I’m interested in history, you see what Europe has been like in the past. There’s a lot I don’t like about the European Union but I think coming out would be like going back to Little England.

‘I feel quite at home in cities like Paris, Berlin and Barcelona, so I suppose I feel European, which I know is not the same thing as belonging to the EU. But I can tell you this — you will never curtail the uniqueness of British youth culture. We will never end up with homogenised European pop music here.’

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Show comments
  • FrancescaMacfarlane

    “..you will never curtail the uniqueness of British youth culture”

    There have been many weak arguments put forward over the past few weeks by the “remainers”, but this surely has to be the most feeble of the lot.

  • Blindsideflanker

    ” I think coming out would be like going back to Little England.”

    The EU cause cannot stand by what it is, but by making derogatory comments about others, mostly the English.

  • Bardirect

    The 76 gig was at the Lesser Free Trade Hall – a smaller venue. I remember the posters on the lamposts. Oh how my life might have been different if I had been allowed out that night!

    But a Free Trader should be voting OUT

  • Vinnie

    another reason to vote Brexit. I don’t care if you were in a “punk” band you were manufacturers by McLaren and Westwood. You don’t represent the working class at all. You bang drums for a living like I’m going to listen to your political spin. You’ve made a career out of playing the class card.

    • red2black

      Even so, they revitalised the British music industry in the mid-1970s.

  • Hermine Funkington-Rumpelstilz

    I never liked the SP (have you fixed basic auto-moderation, Spectator?).

    • red2black

      That seemed to be the idea – in contrast to how nice, sanitised, safe and bland things had become.

  • Anthorny

    The headline today is “Markets lose faith in the ECB as mass stimulus measures falter”. So it doesn’t matter what the political elite, big business or celebrity / semi-celebrity types tell us, the greatest risk to the UK comes from staying in the EU. The currency and illegal immigrant mismanagement crises of today are just the start. The EU is going to collapse and how foolish it would be if we had this generational opportunity to save ourselves, yet stupidly voted to stay on-board the sinking ship. How foolish and how costly.

    • Disqus Bolloqus

      It won’t make a blind bit of difference. If the Euro goes down, the U.K. Economy will burn, In or Out of EU

  • Disqus Bolloqus

    Pretty Vacant

  • red2black

    “There’s no point in posting… You’ll get no reply…”

    • Chamber Pot

      Yes Paul is Pretty Vacant.

      • red2black

        Seems like a nice enough bloke.

  • Lothlórien

    Jeez – all that flannel just to get to “There’s a lot I don’t like about the European Union but I think coming out would be like going back to Little England”

    Get thee behind the Establishment that man!

    In the words of the Pixies – “Cookie I think you’re tame”.

  • Nick

    I remember punk in it’s heyday and I absolutely love the music.But we need to Leave the EU as fast as possible.

  • King Zog

    Belsen was a gasser.

  • mr humphreys

    There lies the rub. The seventies punk dismissing what came before his decade as little England. That was the powerhouse 60’s you stupid boy, invented in Britain. No little England there. Never mind the bollocks.

  • eevantussel

    this is the creep who performed ‘cosh the driver’ with ronnie biggs.

    • Sanctimony

      Well, Ronnie needed a bit of a leg-up at the time…

  • trobrianders

    As if “Pistols drummer” is a sign we should read on.

  • beelzebub

    The ‘Little England’ slur is so tedious.

    Which bit exactly is so awful, the ‘Little’ or the ‘England’?

  • Discuscutter

    Now establishment figure likes the status quo – shocker.

  • William Matthews

    Looking for advertising deal with ‘President Butter’ is he?

  • John Moss

    Fantastic musical times – born of a frustration at a “supergroup” elite which seemed out of touch and obsessed with doing things which we simply could not understand which in the end weren’t that good.

    Politically just the same and now we have the EU…..

    • Chamber Pot

      Thank you I loved the Clash.

    • Chamber Pot

      Safe European Home; “i went to the place where every white face is an
      invitation to robbery an’ sitting here in my safe european home
      i don’t wanna go back there again”. Now you don’t have to go abroad anymore ?

  • Typical conservative!

    • tragni5

      I really really doubt it!

  • Riktorscale

    A Punk in favour of big buereaucratic governance? What the balls?

  • Chamber Pot

    BS. Paul Cook. Why would we return to Little England the idea is as absurd as a Punk supporting the status quo ? Go back to beating the skins.

  • Polly Radical

    Nice chap, but evidently not the sharpest chisel in the toolbox.

    • boiledcabbage

      Do people really think that weekends in Barce and caffe lattes will all disappear the day after Brexit?

      • tragni5

        No not at all! But the Brits sipping their cappuccino, sitting at the bar in Italy or Spain will look like racist spoiled brats who want a share of Europe but are not willing to share their country!

  • boiledcabbage

    With a bit of luck, Merkels’s invitation to 77million Turks will be the end of Schengen, at the very least. God help Europe with leaders like these, but which God?

  • Katabasis

    Just when I think the barrel has been completely scraped with no idiotic rock unturned by the remain camp, along comes something like this. Sheesh.

  • LB

    ” We will never end up with homogenised European pop music here”

    Sorry Paul, we’ve already had that to increasing degrees since the late 1990s.


    POOR OLD STAY INS. Your left much on your own from the news of the last 36 hours. Leader, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has been found to be up to his neck, with his family, of hiding his money off-shore in order to not pay his tax to the U.K. Cameron with his lies about how good membership of the E.U. is, has been outed by the revelations from Panama. He has been found out, and being found out, for this breed of vermin, is the worst ‘ crime ‘ of all. His standing is shot through. The ‘ We are all in it together ‘ is now proved to be a lie. His actions to the poor, sick and lame, via the D.W.P. with the list of deaths attached to it, can now be viewed in the right context of ‘ I’m alright Jack ‘. The only honourable action for him now is to resign as P.M. – but that will not happen as it involves honour, and he is real short of that.
    So, do the stay ins find themselves another lier ? – I am sure there are many to choose from, or do you take a deep breath, realise that you have been following a total disgrace. If your vote to stay is dependent on anything told by him, I think you should re-examine those items. Some people will start to call you fools, but if that happens, then I must join you, because back in the 70s, I voted to join the Common Market, upon the lies told by Edward Heath. I therefore am unable to view myself as better than today’s people, just better informed ! Oh yes, should Cameron get to hear of my comments and fancy his chances of taking me to Court for my ‘ street language ‘ and accusations about him, please make my day. The Conservative Party will of course do nothing until they see which way the wind blows, but they should kick him out of their Party A.S.A.P. THE GAME IS UP FOR THE STAY INS. – Heath got away with it, but Cameron has failed by his greed and I would bet that the Appointed Few at the top of the E.U. are cancelling all promises made.