In 1976, Johnny Rotten arrived into our collective conscience, like a tiny, mad, staring, ragged pixie. He was like nobody else, and like an enchanted creature from a dark twisted fairyland, he’d come to save us.
On December 1st 1976, the Sex Pistols appeared on Bill Grundy’s “Today” programme.
Our hero was responding to Grundy’s smug and irrelevant question about Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Bach – Rotten replied, “Oh yes, wonderful people, they really turn us on!” and Grundy responded with, “What if they turn other people on?” to which Lydon replied under his breath, “That’s just their tough sh*t!” When challenged by Grundy, Lydon composed himself again and said, “Sorry! Rude word! Next question.” asking Grundy to go on with the interview. Grundy insisted that Lydon repeat what he had said and when Lydon did so, on prime-time, pre-watershed, family TV, we all heard it, and far from being outraged, Grundy simply mocked him and goaded for more.
Much has been said about Steve Jones’s contribution to what would be the final segment of that night’s show, goaded by Grundy he managed to unleash “dirty old man” “dirty f*cker” and “f*cking rotter”, just as the credits prepared to roll, but to me “dirty f*cker” was just pub talk – it was the politely delivered “sh*t” that carried all the weight.
Like the Toto in the Wizard of Oz, Rotten revealed the man behind the curtain, not just exposing Bill Grundy as an unimaginative, cynical, arrogant, brown suited hatchet man of the status quo, but on a much wider level – he exposed the dreary, lo-fi future that Grundy, the TV, all the newspapers, and the establishment, had lined up for us. This was the sh*t that we’d all been thinking for so long without even knowing it. By saying it out loud on prime time TV, it was as if Rotten was not only calling every smug, beige, boring TV programme and it’s dreary unimaginative resident host “sh*t”, but he was also reviewing everything around us; our schools, politics, parents, music, fashion, tastes, homework, the patterned carpets, the three day weeks, the secondary moderns, everything we’d been busy believing in and living through. Actually, it was all sh*t.
The “Sh*t” served as a dog whistle to anyone wanting change, to anyone who wanted to hit the reset button to start again.
The next day, the Daily Mirror reported the alleged outburst of a lorry driver who had been so incensed, so furious by the appearance of the Sex Pistols and their potty mouths that he’d actually kicked in the screen of his own TV in front of his child. No prize for guessing which of these actions his actual child would have been more terrified by; a boy on TV saying a swear word or his father leaping up and destroying his own television, but somehow the lorry driver was seen as some kind of right-thinking, even moral voice of the rest of the country. The next day’s “Filth and the Fury” headlines, replayed and reminded us of the dangers of allowing this degenerate horror show into our living rooms.
Television played a huge part of our lives in 1976. There was no internet, no mobile phones, no twitter, and only 3 television stations. Far from making a mockery of the Pistols, the interview all but ended Grundy’s career, and helped to kick-start the biggest counter-culture revolution since The Beatles.