Originally issued in a plain black sleeve, the single was the only Sex Pistols recording released by EMI, and reached number 38 on the UK Singles Chart before EMI dropped the group on 6 January 1977, a month after members of the band used profanity during a live television broadcast. (Although the EMI version was recorded on 17 October 1976, an earlier demo version was recorded between 10 and 12 October at Lansdowne/Wessex Studios, London. This version later surfaced on the Sex Pistols bootleg album Spunk.)
In the documentary The Filth and the Fury, John Lydon described the composition of the song's opening lyrics, explaining that the best rhyme he could devise for the first line, "I am an Antichrist", was the second line, "I am an anarchiste". (Lydon confirmed that he is not an anarchist in a 2012 interview.)
A limited edition 7" inch picture disc of the single was released on 21 April 2012 for that year's Record Store Day.
With its "inflammatory, venomous lyrics [and] crude energy", the Sex Pistols' debut single "established punk's modus operandi". Producer Chris Thomas layered multiple tracks of Steve Jones's guitar to create a "searing wall of sound", while Johnny Rotten spewed the vocals "as if his teeth had been ground down to points."
The abbreviations used in the lyrics are a selection of civil war references from 1970s headlines, a suggestion of what could happen in the United Kingdom. The IRA and the UDA were the largest paramilitary armies in the conflict in Northern Ireland: the heavily armed IRA (Irish Republican Army) were on the Republican (anti-British, pro-unification) side, while the thousands-strong UDA (Ulster Defence Association) were on the Loyalist (pro-British, anti-unification) side. The MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, or the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) were the political group that took control of Angola, formerly one of Portugal'sAfricancolonies, in a 1975-76 civil war, and still run the country today. When Rotten sings, “I use the enemy,” it’s a deliberate homonym for “I use the NME,” or New Musical Express, the British weekly music newspaper.
The lyrics endorse a particularly sensational, violent concept of anarchy that reflected the pervasive sense of embittered anger, confusion, restlessness, economic frustration and social alienation which was being felt by a generation of disenfranchised youth amidst the declining economic situation and bland music scene of the mid-1970s. Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren considered the song "a call to arms to the kids who believe that rock and roll was taken away from them. It's a statement of self rule, of ultimate independence." In 2007, the surviving members (not including original Pistols bassist Glen Matlock) re-recorded "Anarchy in the U.K." for the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock because the multi-track master could not be found. The Guitar Hero version also appears in the film adaption of the A-Team. The song was also featured in the video game Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 as part of the soundtrack. The song also appears in the Constantine TV series during the episode "The Devil's Vinyl".
Megadeth's version has incorrect lyrics. Dave Mustaine explained that he could not understand Johnny Rotten's singing, so he made up the parts he could not understand (in addition, the country is changed to "USA", though the title is kept unchanged). The song's music video is a montage of live footage of the band, cartoon political figures, various scenes of violence, and of a man being forced to watch (much like Alex's therapy in A Clockwork Orange). Steve Jones played the second solo.
Green Jellÿ's version of "Anarchy in the U.K." is a parody cover of the original. This version takes the original song and combines it with Flintstones references. Although the version's proper title is "Anarchy in the U.K.", it was originally titled "Anarchy in Bedrock" on Green Jellÿ's (then Green Jellö's) Triple Live Möther Gööse at Budokan album.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera took offence to this version and to Green Jellÿ mocking The Flintstones, but later relented, as this version was featured on the soundtrack to the Flintstones film that was released in 1994.