We’re hurtling to the end! Here we go, into the final portion of Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex pistols! (Here’s the previous post).
Anarchy in the UK
This is the big one, I think. It’s certainly my favorite song by the Sex Pistols. Interestingly, it’s not actually about anarchy. It’s about nihilism. Anarchy is a political stance! I often wonder if this song is the reason so many people now get it confused. Basically, anarchy is about self-rule. It usually manifests in small collectives, often of people who will grow food and swap with each other, so there’s no economy between them. Brook Farm is my favorite real-life example of an anarchic commune, given that Hawthorne based his novel A Blithesdale Romance on it. But I imagine the most famous anarchic commune is the one in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Why does that matter? Well, I think it indicates a crossover between the very personal anger that the previous set of songs displayed and the cultural anger that’s been creeping in with songs like “Holidays in the Sun” and “God Save the Queen.” So this song is absolutely about the personal rage the speaker feels, but that rage is caused, here, by the state of the world. There’s no point to anything, because it’s all shit. The callback to the anti-Christ and organizations like the IRA serve to remind listeners of the fear and apocalyptic dangers surrounding them. Maybe the reason the speaker deals with his anger in such bad ways, in the previous songs, is because of the rotten world he’s in.
5 of Pentacles
Aaaaaand nice one. The five of pentacles depicts two people, both poor and injured, limping past a church window that’s extravagant and lit up behind the falling snow. Waite imbued this card with a very late-Victorian sadness for the “plight of the working man,” which in no way allowed the Victorians to see that the problem was systemic. Of course, some did, and in fact the Victorian period was the first in which “anarchist terrorists” were a boogeyman to scare people into submission. This card has everything the song has: the church in the background (the antichrist), the poor, powerless people (the speaker), and the monolithic groups who just don’t care (the long list of social reform groups).
Now, this card isn’t always negative. It could imply that the people just need to go inside the church, that they’re too focused on their pain to notice the help that’s there. However, I would only suggest that reading to someone if the context hinted at it already. No one’s coming out of the church to greet these two. And if you look, there are no footprints in the snow except the two’s. No one else is out at all: they’re alone. The song is about alienation, pure and simple. It’s about the caustic results of that loneliness. When you’re cast adrift by everything and everyone, but those things act as though they’re charitable and kind and decent, you just want to burn it all down.
It’s the naughty sex song! Seriously, it’s funny, but it’s not subtle. We’re “going down” into watery depths. The most interesting thing here is the submarine image, bringing the Cold War temporarily into focus even in this song. It’s just sort of there, like a specter, waiting around until the speaker falters. And he feels as though he does: he feels that the object of his affections drags him down, which isn’t all bad, of course. If our “watery mysteries” are sexy lady mysteries, then getting dragged down is all about, well, getting down. But the language still suggests drowning and death. It could be the good kind, with a renewal at the end. But it could also be Eliot’s… fear death by water.
Yes, obviously water is the last thing to actually fear in The Waste Land, but you know what I mean.
Well, there’s our water and our mysterious lady! I often have a little difficulty with The Star, at least when it comes to my own life and personal readings. I got it today, in fact, on my daily draw. But, basically, the Star is the light at the end of the tunnel. It follows a series of dark, dangerous cards like The Devil. The woman is spiritually balanced, with one foot on the lush land and another in (or on) the deep water. That implies a connection between consciousness and unconsciousness.
And that’s certainly relevant for the song. Sex is often a revelatory, or at least a powerful, experience precisely because it unites the conscious and unconscious mind, at least for a moment. That’s why orgasm can (can) be useful as a form of gnosis in rituals. This is the first damn song on the album that isn’t angry as fuck, and it’s because the speaker’s desire is coming up from his unconscious. He’s spent an entire album trying to protect himself, but he’s suddenly submitting to the grip of a personal connection, even if it’s just because he’s horny.
Here we have a portrait of the good citizen who has given in (submitted!) to the cultural pressure around them. This song is a fascinatingly prescient look at the 1980s, which is widely considered a “selfish” decade. People behaved that way precisely because there was nothing else to do. The cultural revolutions of to 60s appeared to have failed, in the face of recession and war. The 70s inward-turned “selfishness” exploded into a “greed is good” era of computerization and vapid narcissism.
You understand these are all huge generalizations based on pop history. The specific point I want to make is that it was already evident that society was ironing out the wrinkles in people’s brains (yeah, that’s a reference to FLCL, you’re welcome). So the song is making fun of the pretty people who are all so empty inside.
Knight of Cups
The knight of cups is usually someone you’d like to know. They’re in touch with their emotions and able to tap into the force of them. However, their emotions may rule them instead. So they could be the person who just can’t stay calm, and will say it’s a virtue, because they’re being honest about their feelings.
What in the hell does that have to do with the song? The people described in the song are happy, or something like it. Remember, it ends with the sneered line “and we don’t care.” It’s the rational thing to do, being vacant. What else is there to do? I think something interesting about the first wave of punks is that they don’t seem to be pleased about their own anger and nihilism. They always seem to envy the people who just slide into shitty society so easily. The knight does that. He slides into your DMs so easily, because he knows his feelings and how to touch on yours. But there may not be a lot of substance there. He’s not a king or a queen; he has no throne, no foundation. These vacant people are happy, but unfixed. The card is reminding us, here, to look at the vacant people and take them at face value. Have you ever met someone that you feel just gave up and did what society wanted? In the back of your head, have you spent time judging them, feeling that you’re “fighting the good fight” at least? Well, not everyone gets a call like that. Not everyone wants to fuck with everybody else. Some people fit into society because society hasn’t given them a reason not to.
Now, as the good little punks we are, at least while we’re listening to this album, that’s not a great thing. If these people are vacant and empty, and if they’re happy in society, well, what does that tell us about society itself?
“Nothing in your gut.” The person addressed here is as empty as the people in the song above. The song rips into the jetsetting star, going all over the place, to New York and Japan. Those places are as shitty as these places, the song says. What’s the point? If you’re pretending to be something with nothing inside you, what are you getting out of this travel everywhere? The pills come up over and over as a reminder of how dead inside the person is — the drugs aren’t psychedelics or anything, though we don’t know the speaker would approve of that any more. The drugs just knock the person out.
There’s a story Paul McCartney told about a party he went to once. Someone offered him a drug that was “basically a horse tranquilizer.” He asked how it made you feel. The person said it just knocked you the fuck out. Paul had no idea why anyone would do that. Well, if you’re not rich as fuck, you might want to just go to sleep so you’re not anxious for a few hours. But it’s not really healthy to just do that all the time, right? So the addressed person is all of that — fake, traveling the world, escaping feelings, and just generally unhappy wherever they go.
8 of Wands
The eight of wands depicts motion and flight. They wands are in mid-air, like spears or arrows, falling to earth somewhere. They show a lot of energy and a lot of travel. That’s appropriate to the song, at the very least. But the card doesn’t really show anything else. If you got this card and you were asking about your career, that you’ve put hundreds of hours into, I might say “it’ll finally go somewhere.” That’s really simple, of course, but you see the point. If there’s nothing there, at the core, what does it matter if it moves around? If your work is going to send you to a new city, but you hate that job and do as little as you can get away with, well, you’re going to be just as alienated in the new city as you were in the old.
Well, I mean. Fire the Sex Pistols, they’ll yell at you. After an interview where they basically just shouted at the interviewer, EMI cut the band loose from a two year contract. The band went in to re-record and this song appeared, for some reason.
The most interesting part, to me, is where the speaker says they (the label) thought the band was faking, implying that they’d be good for interviews even if they cussed and screamed in their songs. So the song is contrasting the appearance of pissed off nihilism some bands might use to look good with the authentic feeling driving the Sex Pistols forward.
This is a bit of an irony, as many people don’t like the Sex Pistols for exactly this reason — that they’re “fake.” They’re often compared to the Monkees, as the band was put together by a guy who owned a record store. I don’t have much of a problem with that for a few reasons, but the point here is that, basically, everything is “fake” depending on your point of view and what it means to you to be “real.”
4 of Wands
This card depicts a celebration, or the preparation for it. There’s a kind of tent thing, held up by the wands. People are coming with bunches of flowers. Fours are about structure: four points make a square, the most stable basic shape. Here, the passions are stable. Things have a place where they can grow. And I think that’s the important reminder the card gives us: the band found a place they could make their album. It just so happened to be not EMI. And, as the band’s method is to sublimate everything into anger, they just rip into the old record label. Good times.
That’s the album! What do we have, in the end? A lot of high tension, several male authority figures, and a slow shift toward something a little more peaceful, as the band’s ideas and their sound move closer together. In the end, the album weaponizes music to talk about problems in the world. However, it’s not protest music. That didn’t seem to have worked, at this point in history. It depicts the landscape of the ruined world, trying to get people to see it the same way. If you change someone’s perception, you change their ideas. This album is about changing your perception, not your ideas.
It’s been a hell of a ride, going through this album. It was certainly a challenge.