So Fucking What – The Anti Nowhere League’s Obscene Song

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When you think of Britain’s Obscene Publications Act in 1982, you probably picture armies of culturally backward coppers scooping up video nasties and hardcore porn, and compliant magistrates rubber-stamping destruction orders on this material. Perhaps you might even think of corrupt coppers planting evidence on sex cinema owners in order to put them out of business, or seizing porn videos and mags that were then sold back to the shops that they had confiscated them from, or perhaps material marked for destruction that instead was enjoyed at backroom parties – all things that verifiably happened during the dark days of the rampant obscenity busts of the era.

What you probably don’t picture are OPA officers turning up at the offices of a small record company in order to confiscate entire pressings of songs, based on the lyrics, but that’s exactly what happened  1982, when the Anti Nowhere League’s single The Streets of London – at the time having just squeezed into the Top 30 – was seized and destroyed. It wasn’t the irreverent cover of Ralph McTell’s social commentary folk song that was the problem (though there were no doubt a lot of people who were aghast at the way the song had been treated), but the B-side, a cheerfully offensive little ditty called So What.

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A little history first: punk had emerged in 1976 to the horror of the establishment, which did everything it could to crush this upstart, anarchic new youth cult. That included dragging the Sex Pistol’s debut album Never Mind the Bollocks through the magistrates courts in Nottingham, after a Virgin Records shop refused to stop displaying the cover in the shop window – after a typically ludicrous trial, the magistrates reluctantly declared the shop manager, Chris Seattle, not guilty of public indecency, even though they felt moved to “wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits.”

By 1981, the punk explosion had long since been tamed – the fans who were more attracted to the peacocking than the nasty guitar music and youth in revolt aspects of punk – which seemed to be most of them – had moved on to the far less scary and aggressive world of the New Romantic, while punk’s second era consisted of a mix of politically driven anarchists who used punk as a launch pad to explore social issues and blokish bands who seemed to embrace every stereotyped idea of punk, from the Mohawks to the grubbiness to the yobbishness, all of which began to feel a little contrived. One of the latter bands were The Anti Nowhere League, who revelled in being as offensive as possible – they were not the sort of punk act that would have met with the approval of the NME.

As a mission statement, So What takes no prisoners. It’s a song that mocks the boasts of pub blowhards, with the narrator listing a series of increasingly outrageous claims (“I’ve fucked a sheep, I’ve fucked a goat / I rammed my cock right down its throat” being a particularly memorable moment) while the chorus dismisses the claims with “so what, you boring little cunt – who cares about you?“. It’s not exactly Oscar Wilde, admittedly, but it’s certainly in the spirit of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Derek and Clive records, which also revelled in saying the unsayable – and which never attracted the attention of the law.

But So What had appeared on the B-side of a hit single, which meant that no only was it more immediately affordable and attractive to kids, but was also likely to come as a bit of  a surprise to anyone who bought Streets of London and decided to flip the disc over – especially if they did so in the presence of the rest of the family. Outrage over the song – which came with no warning about just what the lyrics might be – eventually filtered through to the authorities, and the dirty squad moved in, raiding the offices of record label WXYZ and distributors Faulty Products with a warrant from Bromley Magistrates, and seizing 5000 copies of the disc. The record was then declared obscene by the self-same magistrates (nothing dodgy about that, I’m sure you’ll agree) under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, which helpfully allows the police to apply for destruction orders on material without the pesky inconvenience of having to prove it obscene in court. Of course, the record label could have insisted on a full trial – but that would be prohibitively expensive (a fact that the authorities know only too well). With the single already having slipped from the charts, there was probably no real financial motivation for WXYZ to fight the case, and I somehow doubt that they were particularly concerned about issues of free expression. Whatever the reason, the seizure went unchallenged, and so So What became – by default – the first record ever to be convicted of obscenity in Britain.

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It wasn’t the last record to trouble the law – Greater Manchester Police, ever keen to sweep obscenity and dissent from the streets under the regime of God’s Cop James Anderson, raided Eastern Bloc Records and seized A Flux of Pink Indians’ The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks alongside albums by Crass and The Dead Kennedys – all, notably, bands with a political world view that didn’t sit well with Anderson – and saw obscenity charges placed against the band and their record label. The case collapsed before it went to court, however, and Anderson refocused his attentions on Savoy Books, whose records and books would be regular targets for him during the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1990, N.W.A.’s album Efil4zaggin was hauled through the courts on a full obscenity trial – Island Records deciding that this was a case worth fighting (possibly because the 22,000 copies seized represented a considerable investment and potential profit). After two days of court arguments, it took magistrates fifteen minutes to declare that the album was not obscene. The case, though barely reported at the time (the British media that had tutted at prudish Americans during the 2 Live Crew obscenity cases were curiously silent about this and the music industry didn’t even attempt to support Island’s case) seems to have been a line in the sand – no record has been confiscated since, despite the plethora of swearing, aggression, sexual explicitness and violent imagery that is now commonplace.

So What, in the meantime, had become the stuff of legend. Metallica’s cover version of the song notably avoided legal sanction, and made more money for the Anti Nowhere League than all their own recordings combined. The song has subsequently appeared on ANL records and is, of course, a live favourite, though notably, the band themselves have apparently decided that the original version is perhaps a bit much – the line “I’ve even fucked a schoolgirl’s twat” has now been dropped. Perhaps a sensible compromise in a post-Yewtree world, though it hardly tallies with the band’s determination to be as offensive as possible.

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Ironically, the Anti Nowhere League are still causing outrage and still being the subject of demands that they are banned, though the current problem is more a politically correct one than a moral one (though as we know, religious moralising and social justice outrage are not really that far apart). It has to be said that the 2006 song The Day The World Turned Gay is not remotely on the same level of wit and social satire as So What, and pushes the limits of what even we are prepared to defend. Allegedly inspired by a homophobic conversation that frontman Animal heard, it has lyrics like “Now we’ve got puffs, queers, faggots, dykes and lady boys and fuckin’ transvestites” and “gay pride are marching out there on the town / they’re holding hands with their trousers down / they’re sniffing each others arses just like dogs / they’re  being dirty and hanging around in bogs”, and feels entirely driven by contempt, rather than being a satirical piece. The band have said that the song is mocking the attitudes of the narrator, and that’s possibly true – or it’s possibly a rather desperate excuse. Of course, if you want to continue to be the most offensively ‘orrible band on the planet, then you probably need to shift your targets somewhat, and the social justice crowd are pretty easy to troll. But the song seems an uncomfortably crude and hate-driven effort, lacking nuance and with no attempt to contextualise the lyrics – and it’s all too easy to imagine that, even if the band didn’t actually support the sentiments of the lyrics, that some listeners will be cheering along. I’ve met enough virulently homophobic punks in my time to confirm that. As offensive songs go, this is one of the harder ones to defend. And it must be said, their denials feel like desperate scraping of the barrel – including the old ‘some of my best friends are gay’ argument. But who really knows the truth?

That said, the campaigns to destroy the career of the band by having them blacklisted from festivals and trying (sometimes successfully) to persuade promoters and other bands not to deal with them, based on one misfire of a song, make me feel a little uncomfortable. As a fan on the change.org petition page set up by a current band member to defend the League claims, “the band are equal opportunity piss takers”. More to the point, if I was to defend the band at all for recording this, I might say they are blokes of a certain age and certain limited mindset who are probably not all that down with the current rules of social (justice) etiquette – and who almost certainly remained blissfully unaware that there are now distinct limits on the sort of tasteless offensiveness that you can engage in, until it was brutally bought to their attention.

But if we can put aside more recent controversies, So What remains one of the classic moments of second wave punk, a gloriously crass slice of bad taste and a pivotal moment in UK censorship history – still the only record to have been successfully prosecuted for obscenity. And what could be more punk than that?

Buy The Anti Nowhere League

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