The filth and the fury
24 Feb 2013 5 comments. tbs.pm/2330
Nowadays television is liberal towards bad language. Although there is still a 9pm watershed, before which bad language is strictly controlled, “fuck” can quite easily be found in dramas, films, stand-up comedy routines and in reality shows such as ‘Big Brother’. Indeed, catching five minutes of this reality show a few summers ago, two housemates let rip with a pile of obscenities that, had it been shown in the seventies, would have led to its immediate cancellation by the IBA, the resignation of several television executives and a public furore that would have lasted for weeks.
Instead this kind of behaviour is considered acceptable for a programme like ‘Big Brother’ and “fuck” is frequently used now in hard-hitting dramas with few complaints beyond the usual Daily Mail editorials that few people take any notice of. Rather than feeling offended by bad language, most viewers are now desensitised to it and in some cases see it as essential to add realism to a post-watershed drama. Certainly it would look comical now for characters in a violent drama not to swear, whereas in something equally violent like ‘The Sweeney’ from the seventies, the language is very restrained by today’s standards.
Although television had moved on with the permissive society of the 1960s, a naive and completely dated series like ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ was only finally put to rest in 1976, its portrayal of the police seemingly stuck in the fifties. And while displays of nudity and the use of mild profanities were allowed in series like ‘Play for Today’, television was still very conservative by today’s standards.
Thames, where the Sex Pistols conducted their infamous interview with Bill Grundy, had a hit with Opportunity Knocks, a talent contest created in 1956 which tended to feature totally uncontroversial, middle-of-the-road singers, cabaret acts and working men’s club comedians, hosted by notorious right-winger Hughie Green, whose audience, had Green commented on how awful punk rock was, would have mostly agreed with him. Britain, in spite of the liberalisation of the sixties, was still largely a socially conservative country and the hostility, not just from older people but by the majority of teenagers, towards the Sex Pistols and punk rock was not surprising.
The country was also going through a major economic crisis, with unemployment well above a million for the first time since the thirties, double digit inflation, industrial unrest and the humiliation during the autumn of 1976 of having to approach the IMF for a bailout as the country was apparently bankrupt. It was not without a grain of truth when the Sex Pistols spoke of “No Future UK”, as the country seemed to be in terminal decline. For the punk movement, the economic crisis could not have come at a better time as its music was just right for the downbeat nature of the times. Conversely, the pretensions of bands like Yes, with their triple concept albums and massive guitar solos, were just as big a turn-off for punks.
Nick Hornby wrote “in 1976, England was a dark shade of grey. We had just come through the ruinous three-day week, with its attendant blackouts; we ate Wimpys, watched ‘On the Buses’, and hurried to the shops before they shut at five. Our rock music was dreary and pretentious, and our comedians told racist jokes on prime-time TV”. Punk in the autumn of 1976 was still very much a tiny sub-cult and attracted little attention beyond a few articles in the NME. A television interview was to change all this.
‘Thames Today’ was a highly successful news magazine for the London region, hosted by Bill Grundy since 1970. Born in 1923, Grundy was the son of a factory owner and a geology graduate from Manchester University. His main interest in life was journalism and Grundy successfully auditioned for a newsreader’s job with Granada when it opened in 1956. Just as Grundy became famous, or infamous, for introducing the Sex Pistols to the world, he had presented the then-almost unknown Beatles on a Granada show to perform their first hit, ‘Love Me Do’. After a successful career with Granada, Grundy, whose reputation as a witty and penetrating interviewer was well known in the industry, was invited to host ‘Thames Today’, a show which regularly attracted three million viewers in the London area. He also became famous nationally when he appeared as an interviewer in the film version of ‘Man About The House’.
Grundy became notorious in a matter of two minutes when Freddie Mercury of Queen, ironically a musician punks hated as they considered him part of the rock establishment, had to pull out of an interview on ‘Thames Today’ on 1 December 1976 due to ill health. EMI decided to send along their latest signing, the Sex Pistols, who turned up at the Euston Road studios in full punk attire, with John Lydon, then using the name Johnny Rotten, wearing a swastika armband (a deliberate shock tactic as the war had only been over for 31 years and memories were still strong), and the band’s hangers on, who included future punk star Siouxsie Sioux. Grundy, whose musical tastes were mostly classical, took an instant dislike to the group and decided to destroy them on air, knowing that most of his viewers would feel the same about such an anti-social looking group.
That this was not to be a typical Grundy interview as would have occurred had Freddie Mercury turned up was made clear early on. The interview began when Grundy proceeded to introduce and provoke the band, with tongue firmly in cheek, even making a joke about “the nice clean Rolling Stones” to wind the Pistols up and provoke a response, although the band ignored it. He joked that he was under the influence as he introduced them – “…they are as drunk as I am!” Initially he received mocking but polite responses from Glen Matlock.
However, Steve Jones, when asked by Grundy what the band had done with the £40,000 given to them by their record company, said: “Fuckin’ spent it”, which was apparently not noticed by Grundy at the time. This was followed by two more uses of the word “fuck” by Jones (only the fourth and fifth occurrences of this on British Television at the time, the only previous occasions being on BBC2 on two little-watched arts shows). Following this, when Grundy asked the group what they thought about his musical heroes Beethoven and Mozart, John Lydon gave a sarcastic answer about the composers and then muttered the word “shit” under his breath, but when asked, said that it was nothing but a “rude word”. Grundy insisted that Rotten repeat what he had said, which he did loudly, and then responded mockingly when Rotten complied.
Next, Grundy jokingly made advances on Siouxsie Sioux, who appeared in the background, by saying “let’s meet afterwards shall we?” Steve Jones responded by calling Grundy a “dirty sod” and a “dirty old man”. Grundy further goaded Jones to “say something outrageous”, a challenge Jones was ready to meet. He called Grundy a “dirty bastard” and a “dirty fucker” (to which Grundy mockingly responded “what a clever boy”) and finally proclaimed “what a fucking rotter.” As the interview ended, Grundy commented acidly “I hope I never see you again” to the band. Some viewers, who were by now aware that Grundy had made a massive mistake by goading the Pistols that would cost him his career, noticed he seemed to mutter something on the lines of an obscenity under his breath as the credits rolled.
Although this was a programme that was only broadcast in the Thames region, the repercussions were immense. Thames switchboard was jammed with complaints, although to be fair to the Sex Pistols many viewers rang in complaining that Grundy was drunk and had goaded the band into swearing on air. One viewer was so incensed with the interview he kicked in his television screen and others were disgusted with Thames for allowing such an anti-social looking group airtime.
However, the appearance on ‘Thames Today’ gave punk rock the attention it needed to become the most controversial music cult of all time and I often wonder if its sudden explosion on the scene would never have happened if Freddie Mercury was available to be interviewed. Nick Hornby wrote in The Guardian in September 2007 “Until December 1, 1976, very few people had taken much notice of punk. There wasn’t much music you could buy: the Pistols’ single Anarchy in the UK had been released the week before, and the Damned’s New Rose a month or so before that, but it was perfectly possible to own every English punk record ever made without spending more than a couple of quid. The very next morning, however, it became a national phenomenon, and the cause of a hilarious moral panic”.
Indeed, something as foul and controversial as the Sex Pistols was a complete change from what was dominating the pop charts of the time: Abba owned the singles chart in a way not seen since The Beatles and were the sort of band even grandparents liked; the Christmas number one would be Johnny Mathis warbling “When A Child is Born”; the album charts were dominated by American rock bands like The Eagles and home-grown rock bands with long hair and longer guitar solos. Suddenly punk, which was the polar opposite of all this, was thrown into the limelight and met with the kind of scorn and opposition that made the original hostility towards rock and roll twenty years earlier look tame.
The reaction was immediate. Bill Grundy was immediately suspended from Thames, and ‘Today’ was cancelled two months later. Grundy would later be relegated to local television in the North West and would die in obscurity in 1993. EMI, fearing a backlash from record buyers, revoked The Sex Pistols contract. The day after, the Daily Mirror led with the headline “The Filth and the Fury”, featuring a photograph of the band in an anti-social pose, which also drew more attention to them and probably helped kickstart the careers of other punk acts like The Clash and The Damned. Punk was now thrust into the big time and the reaction was swift, the popular press attacking it for its grimy image and fashions, and many local authorities banning punk acts from playing at their auditoria, fearing outbreaks of violence and anti-social behaviour (not always totally far from the truth, as punk fans had a habit of spitting at their favourite bands, while non-fans sometimes attended gigs merely to attack punks).
As for the media, the reaction to punk in the early days was, in the case of ILR stations, not play it as it was considered unattractive to advertisers, or in the case of BBC Radio One, then the only national pop station, restrict it to specialist shows like John Peel’s late at night programme as the music was not considered suitable for daytime. ‘Top of the Pops’, as it was supposed to reflect what was in the Top 40 each week, never had a ban on punk rock, it was just that bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols hated the “establishment” pop show and refused to appear, although later bands like The Boomtown Rats, who were more melodic and suited to TOTP, were always willing to turn up. (I do recall the Top of the Pops dancers did occasionally forsake their disco routines for a token punk record to show the programme wasn’t biased, performing a very bad interpretation of The Clash’s “Bankrobber”).
Also, the minority Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2, more noted as the home of progressive and American rock under host Bob Harris, gradually shifted to a new wave/punk direction in the late seventies and Harris found himself steadily elbowed out by younger presenters like Anne Nightingale, though it must be said round about 1977-78 the show was an uneasy mix of punk and progressive acts with Harris and possibly most of his audience showing little enthusiasm for the new music.
However, when the Sex Pistols decided to name one of their songs “God Save The Queen”, referring to the Queen as they sang “they’ve made you a moron, a potential H bomb”, and released the single in Jubilee week in 1977, it was too much for many people. Britain in 1977 was swept up in a patriotic tide not seen since the Coronation 24 years earlier, with flags and bunting and patriotic displays everywhere (except for the punk hardcore, most young people were swept up in the Jubilee celebrations as well), and here were a group of badly dressed yobbos rubbishing an institution that most people held dear.
The reaction was swift from the print media. As “God Save The Queen” headed up the charts and looked likely to become the Jubilee week number one, the BBC and IBA decided to ban the single, leading Record Mirror to comment on 2 June 1977, “150,000 sales! Now Total Blackout” (at the same time, some patriotic workers at the single’s pressing plant refused to press copies). On the ban on “God Save The Queen”, the controller of Radios One and Two, Charles McLelland commented, “the single is in gross bad taste. We don’t feel the single is suitable to be played on Radios 1 or 2. It is unfortunate because we would like to be able to play everything”. An IBA spokesman also commented on the single as “offending good taste and decency.”
Many punk conspiracy theorists believe the BBC manipulated the charts so that “God Save The Queen” was replaced as the Jubilee number one by a Rod Stewart ballad. However, it has to be said all through the year of punk, punk acts found it extremely difficult to break the stranglehold on the charts by conventional musicians as in the socially conservative atmosphere of the time most young adults simply didn’t like punk, so maybe Rod Stewart was more popular after all.
The often belittled and sometimes physically assaulted punk poster boy John Lydon received a savage beating shortly after the “God Save The Queen” furore by a group of long haired young men, while punk musicians and followers battled on against a largely hostile media. However, by 1978, about the same time unemployment and inflation started to fall, punk seemed to have passed its peak and new trends such as the Mod revival, a second generation of punk inspired heavy metal acts like Motörhead and American disco music competed for the teenage market.
John Lydon walked out on the Sex Pistols during a disastrous American tour, telling the crowd “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”, and formed a new post punk act called Public Image Limited where he dropped the Johnny Rotten name and the punk clothes, while the Pistols struggled on as a pantomime act with the hopeless Sid Vicious on vocals until Vicious’s death in February 1979 from an overdose more or less spelled the end of an era. The following year the place for protest music moved from the dying embers of punk to Two Tone, an update on reggae and ska from the sixties, where an even more severe downturn at the start of the eighties found Two Tone acts singing far more articulate songs like “Stand Down Margaret” about the state of the nation than “Smash It Up” by The Damned from a few years earlier. Also the sixties style suits the bands wore and the more melodic nature of Two Tone/ska music was far more media friendly.
For all punk proved to be a shortlived, if legendary to its followers, trend, its influence was gradually felt in the media. In 1978 Thames finally axed the veteran ‘Opportunity Knocks’ after 17 series, with Hughie Green’s infamous “Stand Up and Be Counted” rant against the Labour government leading to his dismissal after ignoring warnings from the broadcaster not to mention politics on his show. Even more dramatic than Bill Grundy’s fall from grace, Green was never seen on television again and an attempt by his followers to get the show back on air was a damp squib.
In his place came a show just right for the punk era, ‘The Kenny Everett Video Show’, a completely anarchic comedy and music show with rapid fire sketches, performances by contemporary music acts and, of course, a punk send up in the shape of Gizzard Puke. The punks, and plenty of non-punks including this author, loved it as it was completely the opposite of the rather stolid ITV light entertainment of the time and light years of the ageing Hughie Green intoning “I mean it most sincerely folks”, which he probably wasn’t sincere about, as he introduced another cabaret act on his show.
Also just right for the times was ‘Tiswas’, again a completely anarchic Saturday morning kids show that had started on ATV in 1974, but whose popularity in the Midlands had gradually persuaded most other ITV regions to ditch their Tarzan repeats and tame offerings like ‘The Saturday Show’ and show ‘Tiswas’. Still fondly remembered now, ‘Tiswas’ was two hours of mayhem – OK it fulfilled its IBA remit to be educational by having brief serious features amid all the custard pie throwing – where Chris Tarrant, Sally James and Bob Carolgees behaved as badly as they wanted, celebrities were gunged and showered with water, and the audience behaved like they would at a punk gig.
Again, like Kenny Everett, it was a show you loved or hated as it was up against the more sober and respectable ‘Swap Shop’ on BBC-1, where entertainment was provided by tame pop acts like Liverpool Express, John Craven interviewed Margaret Thatcher and the whole atmosphere was respectable and middle class. (Indeed, ‘Tiswas’ haters, who mostly preferred ‘Swap Shop’, frequently vented their anger in the letters page of Look-In, one letter I remember saying “Tiswas is so unfunny and boring I wish someone would throw a custard pie at it.”) However, what would the majority of teenagers really want to watch: John Craven discussing the economy with Margaret Thatcher or the Phantom Flan Flinger? Chris Tarrant was probably right when he made a coded attack on ‘Swap Shop’ when he said “this is what will take over from Waggoners Walk” [a tame radio soap on Radio 2 that was being scrapped in 1979].
However, the punk influence really began to make its mark in comedy and entertainment in the eighties. Comedy in the late seventies was dominated by an old guard who were perceived by a new wave of comedians, often punk fans, to be racist, sexist and unfunny. The so called alternative movement, where young comedians performed a politicised and totally non-racist and non-sexist act, began to gain ground at the start of the eighties. Some of the acts had a madcap edge to them, which could have been influenced by Kenny Everett, that was completely at odds with traditional stand up. (The madcap, anarchic edge to alternative comedy was best represented by the alternative movement’s first sitcom success, in 1982, with ‘The Young Ones’)
Although traditional comedy acts and entertainment shows continued to dominate the television in the early eighties, a gradual change started to appear. The launch of Channel 4 in 1982 and its determination to be radical and cutting edge – one could almost class it as the punk rock channel as it was determined to move away from the BBC and ITV style of programming – saw alternative humour rise to prominence with the often political and obscenity strewn ‘Comic Strip Presents…’ becoming its first major comedy hit and comedians favoured by BBC-1 and ITV not welcome on shows like ‘Saturday Night Live’.
Although punk was just about dead by the time Channel 4 launched its ‘Top Of The Pops’ rival, ‘The Tube’, in 1982, the show was hosted by a former new wave musician, Jools Holland, who was the keys man in Squeeze, and the show had an anarchic, punkish edge to it that contrasted with the ordered format of Top of the Pops, which had barely changed since 1964. However, Holland had his own Sex Pistols moment in 1986 when his use of “fuck” in a promo for ‘The Tube’ led to the show being cancelled and several Tyne Tees executives receiving warnings. The more conservative BBC and ITV gradually moved with the times and by the end of the decade, with the spectacular dismissal of Benny Hill by Thames in May 1989, entertainment’s version of the punk revolution was almost complete with entertainers popular at the start of the decade either dead, retired or relegated to hosting game shows and the new guard in charge.
Also attitudes to bad language were gradually relaxed, with EastEnders and Brookside sometimes featuring language that was far stronger than that heard in Coronation Street, although the f-word was still banned before 9pm, a situation that exists now. By the mid-nineties no-one under 50 seemed shocked by swearing on the television and nowadays a housemate letting loose with a string of obscenities in the ‘Big Brother’ house is barely commented on. Certainly the successor to the IBA, OfCom, seems to regard the use of bad language as acceptable after 9pm and certainly would not ask Channel 4 to drop the show as would have happened in the seventies. However, while someone using the f-word no longer shocks, the way it is often used wantonly by some comedians tends to look boring and immature.
Even punk now is seen as little more controversial than the music trends that have come and gone in the last fifty years. Radio 2 will quite willingly play old punk songs on Sounds of the Seventies, while John Lydon has become almost respectable by appearing on I’m A Celebrity (the Sex Pistols in their heyday openly hated most television entertainment shows) and making adverts for butter. Nick Hornby commented in The Guardian about how attitudes towards punk have changed, saying “if ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ were to be released now, Daily Telegraph readers would be offered an exclusive free download”.
Punk is now seen as no more harmful than glam rock was and no one is threatened by it. However, the music, just as it totally altered the music industry in the late seventies, has also had a lasting impression on television.
This article originally stated that Kenny Everett’s punk character was Sid Snot. It has since been corrected to note that the character was actually Gizzard Puke.