Amidst the chaos that was the Sex Pistols, it’s often overlooked just what a great band they are, and what great records they made. The Sex Pistols are no ordinary band; their story is long and complicated, and not without its casualties. Without them popular culture in the last 30+ years would be very, very different. The Pistols didn’t just kick down doors; they kicked them off the wall. For a band who (really) only released one album and four singles, they spawned a sea of imitators; and still do to this day. Not bad for a band that supposedly “couldn’t play”. The Sex Pistols certainly could play; one listen to their ferocious raw rock and roll will soon tell you that.
Despite claims from New York, the Sex Pistols are the true originators of punk; no one else had their attitude, balls, or honesty. The Pistols were inspired by anger and poverty, not art and poetry. “An imitation from New York, you’re cheese and chalk…” There never was a punk movement. There was the Sex Pistols and there was the rest. The Sex Pistols ARE punk; the rest are “punk rock”. Big difference…
History is blatantly being re-written. Fabrications are constantly spouted that when The Ramones came to England in 1976 the Sex Pistols turned up at their first show at London, Roundhouse, and asked them how to form a band. On that very night – July 4th 1976 – the Sex Pistols played the Black Swan, Sheffield (over 260 kilometres away) and had regularly been playing live for over 8 months.
Over the years the Pistols have had to put up with these kind of lies and petty jealousies. There is always someone, somewhere, trying to undermine them. It just proves they were doing something right in the first place.
In 1972 school-friends Steve Jones and Paul Cook decided to form a band originally named The Strand (later The Swankers) other friends such as Wally Nightingale, Jim Mackin, Stephen Hayes, and Del Noones would come and go over the next few years. Glen Matlock later joined in 1974. Disillusioned by the bloated progressive-rock and hippie music scene of the time, the fledgling band took their musical inspiration from the 60s mod and rock n roll of The Who and The Small Faces. However, it wouldn’t be until 1975 and the arrival of John Lydon (later rechristened John Rotten) that the band took on a whole new level and became the Sex Pistols. Steve Jones had spotted someone who looked “a bit different” in Malcolm McLaren’s clothes shop. Bernie Rhodes, one of McLaren’s associates, spotted the same guy on London’s Kings Road; complete with hacked green hair and a homemade “I HATE Pink Floyd” T-shirt. Sacrilege at the time.
Malcolm McLaren – who had become the band’s (mis)manager by this time – persuaded the reluctant and cynical John Lydon to audition in his shop. Miming to Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” in front of a jukebox, Lydon launched into a series of self-mocking fits, hunches, and dances, while the others fell about laughing. However, deep down they knew they had found their man, someone who could help vocalize their thoughts. Lydon was an individual of the highest order. He looked and sounded like no one else on earth, and due to a childhood bout of meningitis, he had a stare that would kill! The perfect front-man, apart from the fact he couldn’t sing. But what did that matter, when he had something to say… The Sex Pistols soon started rehearsing, with Lydon (soon to be dubbed Rotten on account of his decaying teeth) providing the lyrics, and Matlock and/or Jones providing the music. One look at this mixture of madmen and working class delinquents told you they weren’t going to be just any other band.
Having made their live debut as quickly as November 1975, by early 1976 the band began playing live more regularly; playing anywhere that would take them. This was a time where your haircut and clothes could get you into serious trouble. With their unique look and sound, the Sex Pistols were such a bolt out of the blue that they would often find themselves in physical danger. They would regularly have to fight their way to their van after having the plug pulled on them. However, they soon started to attract a following of like-minded souls, some of whom were later nicknamed the “Bromley Contingent”, and would include the likes of Susan Dallion (aka Siouxsie Sioux) and William Broad (aka Billy Idol). Everywhere the Pistols would play, the majority of the audience just didn’t ‘get it’. They thought the band couldn’t play, John couldn’t sing and they looked awful. But there was a small percentage of the crowd they got through to. The Sex Pistols affected everyone they saw, whether it was a positive or negative reaction. They always got a reaction.
It wasn’t long before they came to the attention of record companies; the ever-ambitious Sex Pistols together with Malcolm McLaren’s entrepreneurial (aka blagging) skills had no intention of signing to a small label. They wanted the biggest and best. EMI eventually won the war. The band signed for £40,000 on October 8th 1976. A recent composition penned by Rotten was set to be their debut single, ‘Anarchy in the UK‘! Like his stage presence, Rotten wasn’t scared of saying, or doing, anything. He was more than happy to sow seeds of discontent. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ was eventually released November 26th, 1976; much to the bewilderment of the mainstream music press.
December 1st, 1976 changed the Sex Pistols and the music scene forever. After the group Queen had to cancel at short notice, EMI booked the Pistols to appear on the ‘Today’ TV show, hosted by Bill Grundy. A notorious drunk, Grundy had no time for these young upstarts. Treating the Pistols and their entourage with nothing short of thinly veiled contempt, he proceeded to goad them into swearing. Preempted by an apparent slip from Rotten, Steve Jones called Grundy’s bluff and launched into a stream of F-words. Unbeknownst to the band, the show was being broadcast live throughout London. Not that it would have stopped them anyway. Grundy was one of the first people to learn not to fuck (sorry, rude word) with the Sex Pistols… The following day the Pistols were headline news up and down the country. “Punk-Rock”, as it had been christened, had reached the masses. By early January 1977, EMI had buckled to internal pressure and sacked the Pistols. Honoring their £40,000 contract in full.
Around this time tensions between Matlock and Rotten came to boiling point. They were the proverbial “Chalk and Cheese”. Matlock was steeped in rock and roll tradition, while Rotten clearly wasn’t. Glen officially left by “mutual consent” in February 1977, with McLaren then claiming he was sacked because, “He liked the Beatles.” Matlock would later team-up with the band for the 1996 ‘Filthy Lucre’ World Tour.
Steve and Paul had been friends for years, and John saw his chance to balance things by bringing in his old friend John Simon Ritchie/Beverley, aka Sid Vicious. Sid already got on with Steve and Paul, and probably fitted the bands image better than Matlock. Sid was one of the earliest Pistols fans; he loved the band, and couldn’t wait to join. Despite being practically unable to play bass.
A&M Records became the Pistols’ new label, and their next single was to be ‘God Save The Queen‘, John Rotten’s alternative National Anthem. To announce the A&M deal, the band staged a mock signing outside Buckingham Palace. However, after a drunken celebration at the A&M offices – and probably a mixture of cold feet – the band soon found themselves without a record deal yet again. Only ten days after they signed to A&M, the Sex Pistols were sacked. Finding them £75,000 richer in the process.
The next record company headhunt ended with them signing to Richard Branson’s Virgin Records in May 1977. Just in time for the Queen’s 25th Silver Jubilee. The nation was gripped by Royal fever. The Queen was a national treasure. Everyone loved her, everyone except the Sex Pistols. Or did they? “We love our Queen…”
The release of ‘God Save The Queen’ sent shockwaves up and down the country. The band also had a perfect collaboration with Jamie Reid on artwork. This was Britain 1977 long before Diana, Fergie, Edward and the likes had exposed the Monarchy for what they were. No one had ever spoken up so publicly about them. The nation was up in arms. Government Members of Parliament even called for the band to be hung at London’s Traitors’ Gate!
Since the Bill Grundy controversy, the band had been public enemy #1, but that all paled into insignificance by the protest that met them after Jubilee week. Even though it technically out-sold the Number 1 record of the week – ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’ by Rod Stewart – ‘God Save The Queen’ peaked at Number 2. The powers-that-be refused to acknowledge it but the Sex Pistols were Number 1. This wasn’t a conspiracy theory, this was for real.
While many “punks” and perhaps even the odd journalist, might have supported the Sex Pistols’ rallying cry against the Monarchy, only the Sex Pistols themselves had to fight it head on. John Rotten and producer Chris Thomas were violently attacked by “supporters” of the Queen; with John being slashed several times. Paul Cook was also set upon with an iron bar. It was war!
Undeterred, the Pistols went onto release hit singles ‘Pretty Vacant‘ (July 2nd) and ‘Holidays in the Sun‘ (October 15th). October 28th 1977 saw the release of the Sex Pistols’ one and only true album ‘Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols‘, (that’s Bollocks not BULLOCKS guys!). Pre-release orders were so high it immediately charted at Number 1. Now considered one of the greatest albums ever, ‘NMTB’ towered above all the other thinly recorded “punk-rock” records of the time, the blistering guitars and scathing vocals inspired a generation to “Do It For Themselves.” A record that would often be imitated but never surpassed…
On the album’s release, more controversy surrounded the band when police took exception to its title being displayed in a shop window. The band were charged with the obscure Indecent Advertising Act of 1889! “Bollocks” is a slang name for testicles; however, the Pistols’ lawyer proved that it was actually derived from a nickname for clergymen. Bollocks was legal!
Internal bickering in and around the band had reached a high point by this time, but rather than dealing with the unrest in the camp, McLaren distanced himself from the band, especially Rotten. However, there was to be one last hurrah in Huddersfield, England on Christmas Day 1977. The Pistols volunteered to play two shows for families of striking firemen: a matinee show for the kids and an evening show for the adults. The kids loved the Pistols, they weren’t interested in the media hype – like the band – they only wanted to have fun. The band gave out presents; John was in charge of food duties, ending up in a huge ‘Bugsy Malone’ style pie-fight with the kids! (It’s not quite the band considered “subversive” by British intelligence (MI5) or the picture painted by the tabloid media, is it?).
A U.S. tour was arranged for January 1978. Initially the band were refused entry to the States due to their criminal records, however, their visa problems were eventually sorted with the band only having to cancel two shows from the tour. The Pistols being the Pistols, they decided not to play big American cities. Instead they opted to play a short series of dates in the Deep South of the country, in a selection of country & western venues throughout the likes of Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas. These shows were probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. The pressure of touring, along with the mixture of in-fighting – together with McLaren’s unwillingness to deal with the band as human beings – came to a head. Sid’s ever-increasing drug problem – and the fact he was the only person on the planet who couldn’t see the irony in him being called Vicious – didn’t help the animosity between the group either.
The alienation between the Pistols increased by the day, with things finally spiraling out of control at their last gig at San Francisco’s, Winterland Ballroom on January 14th, 1978. The band was on its last legs. John was fucked with flu, Sid was fucked with drugs, and Cook and Jones were fucked with Sid and John. John Lydon eventually walked out on the others the following day, after trying in vain to get Jones to dump McLaren. The Sex Pistols as we knew them were no more…
Sid Vicious’ destructive relationship with his junkie girlfriend Nancy Spungen finally hit rock bottom on October 12th, 1978, when she was found murdered in their New York hotel room. Sid was the main suspect. Whether he did it or not is still highly debatable. However, Vicious would never get the chance to clear his name as he fatally overdosed on February 2nd, 1979-most likely by accident-a day after his release on bail from New York’s Rikers Island Prison. Unfortunately, aged just 21, Sid Vicious ended up just another sex, drugs and rock and roll cliche. Everything he would have hated…
Post-Winterland, Rotten washed his hands of the Sex Pistols and moved on. Jones, Cook and Vicious kept the Sex Pistols name, releasing a series of singles between 1978-80 for use in McLaren’s new ‘movie’ version of the Pistols story, ‘The Great Rock n Roll Swindle’. A story of how he allegedly manufactured the group and manipulated them to his wishes. A story that, somewhat bizarrely, would be wildly believed by large sections of the media. After winning back control of the band from McLaren in a drawn out court case, the band members got their chance to readdress the balance in the acclaimed 2000 Sex Pistols documentary ‘The Filth and the Fury‘. As John stated, “Only the fakes survive…”
After countless rumors, 1996 finally saw the original band return to play live again on the ‘Filthy Lucre’ World Tour. The perfect antidote for the sickly Britpop of the time. The Sex Pistols would play almost as many gigs on this tour as they ever played in the 70s. Despite being largely ignored or slighted by the press, the tour was a huge success with the band playing to an audience eager to see a legend that thousands had claimed to have seen; but in truth never had.
With the band’s return to the public eye, British TV’s bland ‘Top of the Pops’ show – which had banned the Pistols in the 70s – requested they play on the show. The Pistols duly agreed, always willing to expose hypocrisy; while getting a platform to promote themselves. The band always understood the need for promotion; the Pistols never bought into the pointless small-minded punk-rock ethic of bands’ scared to push themselves in fear of “selling out”. The Pistols always wanted to be the best at what they did. There’s no point in playing to a handful of people if you’re capable of playing to thousands…
The 1996 tour wasn’t without its controversy; the band found themselves banned from playing Northern Ireland on grounds of “blasphemous content”. For some, the Sex Pistols were still too close to the bone to take… With the band’s unfounded reputation of violence going before them, John Lydon has commented, “We have never had problems with our audience and we play some of the toughest places on earth, with crowds whose violent potential cannot be disputed. They are there for us, and we care for them. So if we see any ignorant bouncer manhandling or abusing anyone we step in firmly… ala, just ask the security in Belgium 1996…”
Having played a unique 25th Silver Jubilee celebration show in July 2002 at London’s Crystal Palace Sports Centre, the band decided to follow it up in the States by headlining the ‘KROQ Inland Invasion Festival’. Where they were supported by the likes of Offspring, Blink 182 and Bad Religion. It spoke volumes that the Sex Pistols would be headlining above such popular acts, while their British contemporaries such as The Damned and Buzzcocks were much further down the bill.
By popular demand 2003 would see the Sex Pistols return again, this time for an eventful North American tour. By setting up the tour themselves without the interference or “support” of a record company, MTV or the music press, the Sex Pistols proved-yet again-if you want something done properly, do it yourself. Never scared to confront the real issues of the day, a planned trip to Baghdad to play for the Iraqi people (not troops) was also offered in 2003, only to see red-tape scupper the project.
After years of being fashionably ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Shame the Pistols were inducted without their consent in 2006. The band sent a handwritten letter in their absence stating their (many) reasons for not attending. They were no monkeys for anonymous record industry judges. And they certainly weren’t going to pay for the so-called privilege. CongraDulations.
2007 saw the Sex Pistols return to the recording studio for the first time in nearly 30 years to re-record two of their best known tracks for use in the ‘Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock’ video game. Unable to locate the original multi-track masters for ‘Anarchy in the UK’ & ‘Pretty Vacant’ – John Lydon (aka Rotten), Steve Jones (guitar) & Paul Cook (drums), along with original producer Chris Thomas – entered the studio in summer 2007 to re-record the tracks for use in the game.
The Guitar Hero recordings prompted further live shows. The 2007 ‘Holidays in the Sun’ shows featured 5 now legendary sold-out night’s at London Brixton Academy, plus Arena shows in Manchester and Glasgow. It was followed in 2008 by the ‘Combine Harvester Tour’ over 30 dates including headlining various European Festivals..
Anniversaries come and go but they are largely meaningless. ‘Never Mind The Bollocks, here’s The Sex Pistols’ is not. The album is just as powerful and fresh now as it was 30 years ago. It’s an album that has inspired countless musicians and individuals worldwide since its original release in October 1977. And an album that will continue to inspire – forever.
One of the Pistols greatest achievements is they brought an alternative. People didn’t realize just how bad things were until the Sex Pistols showed them…
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
EMI promo pic, Bravo magazine, Germany 1976 © unknown
Bill Grundy, Today Show 1976: The Filth and the Fury film © Sex Pistols Residuals
GSTQ “Banned” Press Advert June 1977 © courtesy Virgin Records
Sex Pistols in Hyde park, London, 1977 © unknown
Sex Pistols ‘Filthy Lucre’ promo pic 1996 © unknown
Brixton Academy November 2007 (photo: David Wainwright) © Sex Pistols Residuals 2007
Virgin Records Sex Pistols Biography, May 1977
Scroll down for additional pages… (6 pages)
(apologies for any of their errors)
Virgin Records Sex Pistols Biography, May 1977
© courtesy Virgin Records 1977