Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, 1977, Virgin Records
Holidays in the Sun
God Save The Queen
Anarchy in the UK
Formed in 1975, the Sex Pistols started the UK punk movement with a little help from their manager Malcolm McLaren and the woman who would become the grande dame of British fashion, Vivienne Westwood. The original band where John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon on vocals, Steve Jones on guitar, Paul Cook on drums and Glen Matlock on Bass. John “Sid Vicious” Ritchie replaced Matlock as the bassest at the beginning of 1977. The Sex Pistols’ reputation for chaos became far more important than their music and they are credited with creating a moral panic in the UK media.
McLaren and Westwood’s shop Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die on Chelsea’s Kings Road was where the band liked to hang out with others who embraced the punk lifestyle. Originally called Let it Rock and catering to Teddy Boys, the pair saw that there was money to be made from the new subculture of young people who liked to customise their clothing and jumped on the punk bandwagon. They eventually renamed the shop Sex and became the premier purveyors of punk fashion, indeed shop assistant Jordan essentially created what is now seen as the typical punk look - clothing held together with safety pins, ripped and modified (originally because the wearers had no work and couldn’t afford new clothes). Followers of the band’s early gigs including Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol were religious about punk fashion and new fans followed their lead, perpetuating the trend and increasing the importance of Sex and Vivienne Westwood as a designer exponentially.
The Sex Pistols only ever released one album, they were a live band and their gigs were important in cultivating their image due to Johnny Rotten's on stage antics, physically interacting with the audience (especially Jordan) and throwing chairs and equipment and wandering on and off stage at will. This and escalating audience violence led to them being banned from various London venues including the Marquee and the 100 club (despite the band having previously played a residency there).
The band signed to EMI in October 1976 and released Anarchy in the UK as their first single to significant acclaim from the music press. It’s angry political message was groundbreaking, as was McLaren’s promotion - the single was released in a blank black sleeve.
Although they were already big news in London, the Sex Pistols came to national attention in December 1976 following an appearance on the Today programme where various band members swore live on air and there was a particularly expletive laden exchange between Steve Jones and the presenter. Watch it here:
Although the show was only broadcast to viewers in London the exchange was headline news in a number of national newspapers and because of this the band’s subsequent tour became a media obsession and a source of outrage. So many venues cancelled shows that the band only managed to play seven dates in total. There were protests outside numerous venues and workers at EMI’s production plant refused to handle their single. The moral panic surrounding the band led EMI to drop them from the label after just one single.
Following on from being dropped by EMI there were power struggles within the band that led to Glen Matlock being replaced by Johnny Rotten’s friend Sid Vicious who was a regular at Pistols gigs and a big fan of the band. Vicious had the look and the temperament that both Rotten and McLaren wanted for the band’s image, but he had hardly any experience with a bass guitar, indeed he only played bass on one song, Bodies on this album.
The Sex Pistols signed with A&M records on 9th March 1977, 7 days and a number of violent incidents later, A&M ended the contract and destroyed most of the 25,000 copies of their new single God Save The Queen that had just been made. Two months later the band signed with the fledgling Virgin Records and God Save The Queen with it’s cover art, iconic to both the band and punk in general was finally released. 1977 was the Queen’s silver jubilee year and the release of the single was timed to coincide with the public celebrations. The single was banned by the BBC and numerous radio stations and record stores but still shifted 150,000 copies in its first two weeks. Virgin Records boss Richard Branson staged a performance by the band on a boat on the Thames two days before a royal flotilla was planned. The well-publicised performance ended in numerous arrests and much controversy. The official chart for the week following the boat escapade shows Rod Stewart as number 1 and the Pistols as number 2. Malcolm McLaren has claimed that the chart was rigged to prevent a scandal if the Sex Pistols were number one for the Queen’s Jubilee and there is evidence that for this particular week, sales from shops owned by record companies, such as Virgin whose London store was a significant part of their business model at this time were excluded from the chart (For more on this check out this article from The Independent)
Released in October 1977 and with considerable swearing on the tracks as well as the album cover, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols was banned from many chain stores and TV and radio adverts for it were also prohibited. It still got to number 1 and it spent over a year in the chart. The album lasted longer than the band themselves and in December 1977, just two months after its release, they played their final UK concerts.
In January 1978 they embarked on their ill-fated US tour. Sid Vicious was now a heroin addict and the tour was plagued by violence and controversy. At the final show in San Francisco, the band only played one song before Johnny Rotten walked off stage. 3 days later the Sex Pistols were over. Although members of the band recorded music for the soundtrack to the Sex Pistols film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle their parts were recorded separately and without Johnny Rotten. Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in February 1979
So that’s the back story, what about the album? Holidays in the Sun begins with a military march and then it explodes into Johnny Rotten's angry whine. From the start it’s relentless and uncomfortable, but it’s Bodies that shows you what this album is really for. Lyrically, like every Pistols song, it’s meant to shock you, it truly is a horrific song, but the beat is great and it’s a real headbanger, it might make you uncomfortable but you can’t help but move to it. No Feelings is actually a really well crafted, if very angry love song (written about loving yourself - who knew the Sex Pistols were all about confidence boosting?). Rotten’s voice is even quite melodic on it. God Save The Queen remains the angry anthem of every authority hating youth. Problems is a highlight, completely tight with really strong guitars. Seventeen could be the band in one line; “We like noise, it’s our choice” Anarchy in the UK actually feels like one of the weaker tracks (not that I dislike it), since it’s clearly there more for shock value than anything else. Submission is another great, well crafted rock tune, with a very strong Nirvana vibe. Pretty Vacant is as brilliant as ever. It’s just such a classic anthem of the dispossessed. Like the whole of this album, it gives the lie to the idea that punk bands just made senseless noise. The final two songs are diss tracks worthy of any rapper. New York takes aim at the New York Dolls (which is a bit harsh since the Dolls gave McLaren the idea for the Pistols) and E.M.I is a great, funny and well observed slight at their former record label which shows that Rotten was far more than just an angry youth.
I love a good drummer and while Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious are the faces of the band, it’s Paul Cook that makes this album great, there is nothing anarchic about the quality of his drumming, it’s powerful but it’s also tight and focused. Rotten is every bit as powerful a frontman as Mick Jagger in his own way. His unique voice and pronunciation, his lyrics that are astute rather than simply angry and his stage presence - and much like Jagger he is often imitated and never bettered.
There is genuinely not a bad track on this album, it is well made, angry rock and roll and it’s brilliant, it’s music that really makes you feel alive and there is really nothing else quite like it, it’s completely of its time, yet still seems fresh and relevant. I was surprised to learn that it has actually been covered in full by other artists a number of times.
After the art rock, prog rock and glam rock of the early 1970s, the Sex Pistols were a complete change. They influenced every punk and heavy rock band to come after them and the media storms surrounding their single and album releases were significant moments in British popular culture. To many people they are synonymous with punk and a shift towards society understanding the importance of youth, hope and opportunity and how the lack of hope and opportunity can affect people. They also had a huge influence on British fashion. Vivienne Westwood remains one of the most influential designers in the UK but many others, such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Yohji Yamamoto have incorporated a punk aesthetic into their clothing. Indeed punk is so important to fashion that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City held a punk fashion retrospective exhibition in 2013.
Nobody can really say whether the Sex Pistols were one of the most important cultural phenomenons of late 20th century Britain or just a PR exercise to try to make as much money from controversy as quickly as possible (indeed Malcolm McLaren would have agreed with both assessments depending on the day) but they mattered so much not really because of the music but because of what happened around them, and because of what happened because they were there.
It’s fair to say that without the buzz created by the anarchy, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols might never have been made. It is still shocking and powerful even now, it’s designed to be provocative and unsettling and it is. There is a reason that the angry lyrics that speak of teenage alienation and hatred for everything around them are seen as a punk stereotype, because the Pistols did it here and made it iconic. It’s pretty offensive throughout, but then, that’s the point. It’s genuinely a great album though and one that I continue to come back to again and again. If you have been put off from listening to it because of everything that surrounds it, I urge you to have a listen and enjoy it for itself. Ignore the filth and the fury and enjoy an amazing piece of punk history. The Sex Pistols didn’t shine for long, but the fire was bright while it lasted and the music has stood the test of time.
If your still interested and you’d like to learn more about the chaos that surrounded the Sex Pistols, British punk in general and its importance to Vivienne Westwood’s career I’d recommend Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming, (2005, Faber & Faber). It’s well written and researched and an accessible and interesting read!