During a week in which it was revealed we can now have our very own Sex Pistols-themed credit cards, I thought: why not share with you a couple of Sex Pistols-based conspiracy theories? The band is, as anyone who knows me well will be aware, a big favorite of mine, along with the almighty Ramones. So, with that said, what’s the deal with punk-based cover-ups and government secrets? Well, let’s take a look.
David Shayler is a former employee of Britain’s domestic intelligence-gathering agency, MI5, which is the British equivalent of the United States’ FBI. Shayler, a definitive whistle-blower, shook the British establishment to its core in 1999. That was the year in which authors Mark Hollingsworth and Nick Fielding wrote a book titled Defending the Realm: MI5 and the Shayler Affair.
One of the many and varied revelations of the secret kind from Shayler were focused on London’s most famous, loved, and hated, spiky-tops: the Sex Pistols, of course. According to Shayler, while working for MI5 he saw and read a file titled Subversion in Contemporary Music, which contained numerous newspaper and magazine clippings on musicians whose output was deemed by MI5 to be controversial and inflammatory. And, no surprise, that included the Sex Pistols.
Shayler said: “You can imagine some Colonel Blimp [a British caricature of an out of touch military man] character compiling this file, whereas anybody with half a brain knew the Sex Pistols talked a good talk – wrote a lot of songs about it, but when it came to political activism did absolutely nothing.”
Interestingly, in the 2002 documentary The Filth and the Fury, Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones stated that, while on tour in the United States, the band had been followed by elements of both the CIA and the FBI. Moving on…
In the summer of 2001, I was commissioned by a British newsstand magazine called Eye Spy to interview David Shayler for a forthcoming edition of the magazine. I traveled down to London with the magazine’s editor, Mark Birdsall, and the interview was conducted in Shayler’s apartment. It was an extensive, recorded interview, which included questions about the Sex Pistols, and about MI5’s interest in them and their music.
Well, I sent the article off to Mark and didn’t think anymore about it – at least, I didn’t for a while. When the article appeared a couple of months later, and the relevant issue of the magazine was splashed across the nation’s newsstands, Mark Birdsall phoned me up to say he had received a visit at his North Yorkshire, England home from (and I quote exactly) “two lads from the Metropolitan Police.”
They explained to Mark that they were not at all concerned by what was contained in the article – indeed, it didn’t contain anything that wasn’t already in the public domain, in Defending the Realm, and in the pages of numerous newspapers that covered the Shayler affair at the time. Nevertheless, as Mark explained to me, Scotland Yard wanted the audio-recording I made of the interview.
That much became evident when, around October 2001, I received a phone call from Scotland Yard, specifically from a representative of what is called Special Branch. It was made very clear to me that I would hand over the recording of the interview, which was done on an old-school, small, voice-activated mini-cassette-recorder. I was also asked if I had made any copies (which I had not, as the recorder wasn’t tape-to-tape). And a lot of strange things happened around that time too, all of which led me to believe I was under some form of brief surveillance.
Things don’t end there. Paul Simonon, bass-guitarist with the Clash, was asked about the possibility of there being a government file on his band. He said: “There probably is, yes, alongside the file on the Sex Pistols. It’s hard to fully appreciate now, but we certainly stood out back then, we really made a noise. It wasn’t just us, it was every punk – anyone, in fact, who wasn’t wearing flares was making a big political noise that terrified the Government.”
And David Shayler also confirmed that MI5 had files on the English band UB40 who, in the early 1980s, released a number of excellent, highly-charged songs that justifiably attacked the iron-fist regime of Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister at the time.
Somewhat apocryphal, but highly intriguing, are the rumors that MI5 and Special Branch – at the request of Buckingham Palace, no less – were involved in a shady affair to ensure that the Sex Pistols’ single, God Save the Queen, did not reach number one on the charts when Queen Elizabeth II was celebrating her 25th anniversary, in the summer of 1977. Similar rumors abound concerning attempts to have the band’s 1977 album, Never Mind the Bollocks, banned, due to its title supposedly being obscene. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the laughable and pathetic case was rightly thrown out of court.
And, finally, a decade or so ago, a retired member of Special Branch told me that his former employers had compiled extensive files on the controversial, so-called “Oi!” movement of the early 1980s. For those who may not know, “Oi!” was an offshoot of punk that attracted an extremist, right-wing following – parts of which were politically oriented. There is, apparently, an entire file on what was, without doubt, the most infamous of all the records which fell under that banner, Strength Thru Oi!
A word to bands everywhere: in light of all the above, it may not just be your fans who are watching you closely…