Following his appearances in “I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” and the advertising campaign for Country Life butter, some people were eager to label John Lydon (Johnny Rotten that was) as a sell-out. The Sex Pistols’ reputation was further tarnished when the original members reunited in 1996 for the aptly named Filthy Lucre tour, an obvious money making exercise. It would be easy for latter day music fans to dismiss the Pistols as just another band and wonder what all the fuss was about during the punk era.
Fair enough, but nobody who was around at the time will ever forget the intoxicating moment when they first heard “Anarchy in the UK” or “God Save the Queen”. These exhilarating punk classics sounded a ferocious blast through the musty halls of the establishment, blowing away the boundaries of what had previously been considered socially acceptable, as they embraced controversy with a rebel yell.
“Anarchy” might be considered the first punk hit single, one of the greatest rallying cries in music history, a perfect anthem for teenage youth at the time. The music journalist John Robb described the impact of the record, “From Steve Jones’ opening salvo of descending chords, to Johnny Rotten’s fantastic sneering vocals, this song is the perfect statement … a stunningly powerful piece of punk politics … a lifestyle choice, a manifesto that heralds a new era”. This record immediately established the Pistols’ potent dance stance – aggrieved, euphoric and nihilistic. Rotten’s manic cackle at the beginning of the song sets the tone for the derisive lyrics: “Right! Now! Ha ha ha ha ha/I am an anti-christ/I am an anarchist/Don't know what I want/But I know how to get it”.
This heady mix of punk rock and a highly politicised attitude was maybe even surpassed in “God Save the Queen” with its virulent anti-monarchy message. Although the single’s release was timed to coincide with Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, the band always claimed that it had not been written specifically for this event. Whatever the motives, the effect was sensational, as the Pistols famously performed the song on a boat sailing down the River Thames, passing Westminster Pier and the Houses of Parliament: “God save the Queen/Her fascist regime/They made you a moron/Potential H-bomb”. Without any radio airplay, the song reached number two on the BBC charts – and many believed that it was only kept off the top spot by a conspiracy. Either way, for the impact the song made on the public consciousness, this was arguably punk’s crowning glory.
It was sorely needed. The rock world had settled for the bland, safe music purveyed by the likes of Abba, ELO, Foreigner and the Bee Gees. The bloated arrogance and complacency of these old farts was utterly irrelevant to the younger generation, as they had few aspirations to changing things. Instead, these groups were happy to maintain a middle of the road state of affairs, while a few wealthy superstars like Elton John haughtily wore the gaudy trappings of the nouveau riche rock aristocracy, as opposed to writing any decent songs.
Then there was the social context in which the Sex Pistols came together, which Lydon eloquently described: “Early Seventies Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down. There was trash on the streets, mass unemployment, just about everybody was on strike. Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point blank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks, then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all”. Throw in the high taxes, power cuts and feeble music and it became clear that disillusioned youngsters had almost nothing to look forward to. The optimism of the 60s was just a distant memory. It was in this atmosphere that punk was conceived – to channel the anger of dole queue Britain.
"Johnny B. Goode"
At the forefront of the uprising were the Sex Pistols, featuring Johnny Rotten – a frontman, lyricist and vocalist like no other. Visually, he was ideal with spiky green hair, a permanent sneer on his face and a ripped “I hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt, but he also possessed a fierce intelligence and astonishing onstage charisma. The truth was that Rotten was far cleverer than people appreciated, as the most cursory listen to the provocative, anti-establishment lyrics that so successfully skewered Britain’s disintegrating society would have revealed.
His bitterly sarcastic attacks on pretentious affectation were deliberately carried out in the most confrontational, challenging manner imaginable. Nobody could miss the frustration, rage and venom in Rotten’s startlingly original rabid delivery. Few moments in popular music can match his guttural cry of “No future for you”. Every word was spat out with contempt as he dissected the moribund social order, using inflammatory language and profanity that was downright shocking at the time, but somehow his message was still uplifting.
"Twist and Shout"
Rotten’s genius is one of the reasons why the Sex Pistols’ only studio album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” is just about the most exciting rock’n’roll record of the 70s – a truly inspirational work that is powerful, angry and not afraid of anything. Although some die-hard zealots foolishly believed that the Pistols releasing an album somehow damaged the punk mythology, the rest of us gloried in its sustained excellence, as the brilliance of the quartet of early singles was matched by the other tracks. Yes, there was a hint of “greatest hits” about the disc, as it included “Pretty Vacant” and “Holidays in the Sun”, as well as the first two masterpieces, but it does mean that the album stands as an exemplary tribute to the band’s vision.
Anybody seeking a generational anthem for the period needs look no further than “Pretty Vacant”, which was even shown on “Top of the Pops”, highlighting what it was like to be young, just hanging around: “I don't believe illusions/Cause too much is real/So stop your cheap comment/Cause we know what we feel/Oh, we're so pretty/Oh so pretty/We're vacant”. The last authentic Pistols hit was the apocalyptic “Holidays in the Sun”, which was inspired by the Pistols’ trip to Berlin to escape the constant threat of violence in the UK. Opening to the sound of crunching Nazi jackboots, the uncompromising lyrics painted a sobering image with the first line, “A cheap holiday in other people’s misery”, and followed this with a search for the “new Belsen”. Nasty stuff, but the history they were describing was indubitably evil, so they justifiably gave it both barrels.
"Oh you silly thing"
The Sex Pistols are rightly regarded as one of the most influential groups in the history of popular music and the impact of “Never Mind the Bollocks” cannot be over-stated. This was an album that altered the face of rock music forever. Although there had been plenty of protest records before, there had never been anything that felt as remotely dangerous or anarchic and there’s probably never been anything quite like it since. It was punk’s great wake-up call, a new beginning that brutally erased all that went before, when, just for a moment, music seemed capable of changing everything, such was the hysteria in the air.
In the context of today’s world where any limits of taste and decency have been all but forgotten, much of the Sex Pistols’ shock value looks tame, but everything about them was controversial back in the 70s. They sparked intense outrage with lyrics that took no prisoners, as well as Jamie Reid’s iconic cover art. Everything was designed to shock, from the garish pink and yellow colours on the album cover, to the track listing in a typeface reminiscent of anonymous ransom demands, to the ripped up Union flag held together by safety pins.
Of course, the album’s title was not just considered to be provocative, but, incredible as it might seem now, was actually accused of being obscene, leading to it being banned by major chains like WH Smith, Boots and Woolworths and even the prosecution of a Virgin record shop owner for displaying it in the window. However, eminent QC (and wonderful author) John Mortimer successfully argued that “bollocks” was a legitimate Old English term, originally used to refer to priests, now meaning “nonsense”, which forced the chairman of the hearing to grudgingly conclude: “Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty of each of the four charges”.
For the Pistols, nothing was sacred and no target was spared, as they attacked the monarchy, British society, its institutions, social order and (some believed) public morality and common decency. It’s difficult to deny that they raged, maybe not against the dying of the light, but certainly against conservative attitudes. Lydon’s Catholic upbringing emerged with a scathing condemnation of abortion in the harrowing “Bodies”, inspired by the infamous Pauline from Birmingham, one of the many lunatics following the band around: “She was an animal/She was a bloody disgrace/Body, I'm not an animal/Mummy, I’m not an abortion”. Equally filled with loathing was the criticism of “E.M.I.”, their former record label who dropped them only days after signing the band: “And you thought that we were faking/That we were all just money making”.
"Usual tabloid under-reaction"
Britain had no idea how to handle the Sex Pistols phenomenon, with intensely disapproving press coverage leading to many gigs being cancelled. The exotically named London Councillor, Bernard Brook Partridge, typified the common reaction of local governments: ”Most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death. The worst of the punk groups I suppose currently are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating. They are the antithesis of humankind. I would like to see somebody dig a very, very large, exceedingly deep hole and drop the whole bloody lot down it”.
Debatably, what made the authorities so nervous was that underneath the shock tactics and rampant negativity, there were forceful social critiques carefully designed for maximum impact. The Sex Pistols spoke to a new generation of kids, perfectly articulating their unhappiness with an intensity that few other bands could capture. Although they sang about not caring, it was clear that Lydon was far from apathetic: “If we had an aim, it was to force our own, working class opinions into the mainstream, which was unheard of in pop music at the time. You don’t write God Save the Queen because you hate the English race. You write it because you’re sick of the way they are being treated”.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
Their sense of despair came through in “Problems”, which targeted the humdrum, “Eat your heart out on a plastic tray/You don't do what you want/Then you'll fade away” and the terrace chant of “Seventeen”, which described young people giving up before they had even really begun their lives. Guitarist Steve Jones said, “Everybody goes through that period. Unfortunately, most English people stay there”.
Loud, raucous and irreverent, “Never Mind the Bollocks” was punk at its very best, when it was still a force for change, before it became fashionable and even acceptable. The gusto of their performance is too convincing for it to be an act and you really believe Rotten, when he screams, “We mean it, man”, but the man himself would later be contemptuous about what punk had become: “The term's been applied to a genre of music and it's been transformed into a uniform and a list of rules, regulations and rigid attitudes. It's humorless, bland outright copying. It's fake, and I don't like it. It's the enemy”.
In a funny way, the Sex Pistols gave comfort to both sides on the question of social decline. Their fans thought that their music reflected the gloom and doom around them, while their critics saw their presence as further evidence of the downward spiral. “Shot by Both Sides”, if you will. The group offered no particular alternatives to the prevailing system, only attacking the status quo (in both senses) as vehemently as possible. In the end, the only thing they destroyed was themselves – in the case of Sid Vicious, quite literally – and it was hardly their fault that they only cleared the way for the rise of Thatcherism, though they had spookily predicted it in “No Feelings”, with its “Looking After Number One” attitude: “I got no emotion for anybody else/Better understand I'm in love with myself”.
Ironically, the band’s unsavoury reputation turned out to be advantageous in the world of commerce, especially when they came to the public’s attention with a bout of swearing during Bill Grundy’s televised interview on the “Today” programme. As Virgin’s Richard Branson commented, “They generated more newspaper cuttings than anything else in 1977 apart from the Silver Jubilee itself. Their notoriety was practically a tangible asset”. This resulted in the album selling extremely well, proving that as well as challenging existing values, it was also something that people would want to buy – despite the apparent contradictions with the punk philosophy. As The Clash would later sing, “turning rebellion into money”.
"Take a chance on me"
Since the early demise of the Pistols, their former manager Malcolm McLaren has lost no opportunity to tell the world that he was the mastermind behind their seditious approach, a master manipulator, a crafty Svengali. While there is little disagreement about his marketing talent or his ability to improvise a media circus, my own view is that he was actually a chancer who got lucky, who initially was more interested in selling his punk clothes. The band ridiculed him in their songs with the self-explanatory “Liar” and “New York”, which mocked McLaren’s stories about his role in the punk scene in the Big Apple. The always-quotable Lydon dismissed McLaren’s influence, "We made our own scandal just by being ourselves. Maybe it was that he knew he was redundant, so he overcompensated”. Even the laid-back drummer, Paul Cook agreed, “Malcolm milked situations. He didn’t instigate them; that was always our doing”.
Nor was this just the story of Johnny Rotten (as Neil Young might have you believe). The music has a raw energy, producing a tight, abrasive sound that complements the biting lyrics with simple, effective chords. Steve Jones’ multi-layered guitars created a veritable wall of noise with retro riffs that were straightforward, but devastatingly effective, like the spine-tingling intro to “Pretty Vacant”. The other half of the engine room was his mate Paul Cook, whose no-nonsense drumming style provided a pounding beat. Although in many ways the album sounded like a rejection of everything that rock music had to offer, it’s deep, rich sound was also surprisingly traditional, thanks to experienced producer Chris Thomas and there were echoes of rock dinosaurs like The Doors, The Who and The Kinks on tracks like “Submission”.
"Some band before Rich Kids"
Some accused the Pistols of being influenced by The Ramones, but Lydon dismissed this accusation in his own unique manner, “They were all long-haired and of no interest to me. I didn’t like their image, what they stood for or anything about them. They were hilarious, but you can only go so far with duh-dur-duh-dur. I’ve heard it. Next. Move on”. What is undeniable is the influence that the Sex Pistols had on other bands. Within a year of “Anarchy”, countless other teenagers had picked up guitars, mastered three chords and formed punk bands, while legends like The Clash, Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and the Banshees have all cited the Pistols as their inspiration. Members of Joy Division, The Fall and The Smiths remember seeing the Pistols play the Manchester Free Trade Hall back in 1976, while even later the likes of Nirvana and Oasis acknowledged their debt to punk’s originals. Morrissey put it best, “I think they changed the world and I’m very grateful for that”.
While Rotten clearly had plenty to say for himself, the music was largely written by the original bassist, Glen Matlock and his creative input was badly missed, after he was thrown out of the band for “liking The Beatles”. His replacement, Sid Vicious, may have had the look and reputation on the punk scene, but he couldn’t play a note and his arrival marked the beginning of the end. Vicious (or Mr. Ferocious, as Freddie Mercury once called him) went on to become punk’s cartoon figurehead, but in reality he was little more than a gigantic dickhead, finally overdosing on heroin in 1979. As Marco Pirroni, later to come to fame with Adam and the Ants, said, after Matlock’s departure, “it was nothing to do with music anymore. It would just be for the sensationalism and scandal of it all”.
"The Thin White Duke"
In many ways, “Never Mind the Bollocks” signalled the beginning of the end for the Sex Pistols, as they broke up only three months after its release, when Johnny Rotten famously finished the 1978 San Francisco gig by asking the audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” The Sex Pistols were great and then they were gone. After all the mischief and mayhem is stripped away, this is an utterly magnificent album, one of the most influential ever. In “Sound of the Suburbs”, The Members ironically sang, “They play too fast, they play out of tune/And I … can't hear the words”. And that was the point: if you didn’t get the Sex Pistols, they weren’t meant for you.