By Brian Howe
One album. That’s all it took for the Sex Pistols to change the world, a claim that is much less hyperbolic for them than for most other bands. With Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, they unleashed an embryonic punk movement’s volatile, provocative style on the mainstream, spearheading the most significant (and arguably still unsurpassed) pop upheaval since Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
They lanceted the boils of hippies, hair bands and singer/songwriters from the bloating body of rock, replacing decadence and hero worship with working class malaise and indiscriminate rebellion. They put pro-anarchist and anti-royalist screeds on the top of the U.K. singles charts, breaking through corny sentimentality with ground-level evidence of social unrest and economic chaos. They tore down the music back to its rudiments. They slaughtered sacred cows, going so far as to fire a band member for liking Paul McCartney.
They changed the face of rock music forever and spit in it for good measure, setting the template—the pale and gaunt look, the chains and safety pins, the repurposed bondage gear, the artwork appropriating terrorist letters and government propaganda, the posture of diffidence—for thirty-plus years and counting of post-punk, indie and alternative counterculture. And all of it was underpinned by the notion that a self-sufficient attitude can make up for a lack of musical ability (an ability that punks outwardly regarded skeptically).
Punk wouldn’t make as large an impact on the mainstream again until Nirvana, who were just the Sex Pistols for a more media-saturated and complacent age, even referring to their pugnacious forebear’s breakthrough album in the title of their own. The image of punk became the new starting point for the image of rock in general, and the Sex Pistols, born at a fashion boutique, contributed more to it than anyone else. Under the cagey guidance of artist and designer Malcolm McLaren, they did it all in two or three short, turbulent years—laden with scandals, tragedies, and manipulations—in the mid to late ’70s.
Early in that decade, working class London teenagers Steve Jones and Paul Cook formed a garage rock band called the Strand. They took to hanging around clothing shops on Kings Road, including Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, a boutique owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood that became a lightning rod for the London punk scene in the same way that CBGB and Max’s Kansas City did for New York’s punk scene. McLaren, finding garage-rocking mannequins good fits for the rebel-inspired image he was selling, became the Strand’s manager, getting them rehearsal space and placing one of his employees, Glen Matlock, on bass. For maximum provocation, McLaren and Westwood changed the name of their shop to Sex and shifted its emphasis to S&M.
After kicking out one member and shifting Jones from vocals to guitar, the Strand, soon to be synergistically re-branded as the Sex Pistols, began its search for a proper vocalist. McLaren failed to coax leading lights of the U.S. punk scene such as Richard Hell and Sylvain Sylvain into singing for the group, and auditions that included Kevin Rowland (future founder of Dexy’s Midnight Runners) proved equally fruitless. As recounted in the autobiography of the eventual choice, John Lydon—a.k.a. Johnny Rotten—the 19-year-old was spotted by McLaren on King’s Road while wearing a defaced Pink Floyd T-shirt, green hair and his infamous sneer. He became the vocalist based on the strength of his look and charisma, auditioning by improvising to Alice Cooper on Sex’s jukebox in his first performance ever.
With the original Pistols lineup—Rotten, Matlock, Jones on guitar and Cook on drums—in place, they began opening for pub rock bands with chaotic and comical results. They didn’t have many other options other than pub rock acts, as likely compatriots such as Siouxsie Sioux and Joe Strummer were in their audiences soaking up their influence and had yet to start their own punk bands. The Sex Pistols’ gear-trashing, fourth-wall-breaking, fist-fighting antics drew their first big notices when they opened for Eddie and the Hot Rods in early 1976 at the Marquee, the first of many clubs from which they were soon permanently banned.
From there, things happened astonishing quickly. The Pistols toured England and soon made it to Paris, performed their infamous first single “Anarchy in the U.K.” on the television program So it Goes and headlined the flashpoint 100 Club Punk Special festival, organized, of course, by McLaren. By the end of 1976, the Sex Pistols had signed with major label EMI, which released “Anarchy in the U.K.”; a song that injected the most essential gestures of rock with radical politics to galvanizing effect. They got drunk and swore on national television programs, passing from enthusiastic NME coverage to an alarmist mainstream media. “The Filthy and the Fury!” blared The Daily Mirror; minting a phrase that the Sex Pistols would appropriate for an autobiographical documentary decades later.
The media furor was at a feverish pitch as the Sex Pistols embarked on their Anarchy Tour in the U.K. with opening bands the Clash and the Heartbreakers. Religious groups protested. Local authorities shut down more than half the concerts before they ever happened. Factory workers refused to package “Anarchy in the U.K.” Denunciations flowed forth from Parliament. EMI dropped the Pistols almost as soon as they were signed. By 1977, Matlock, the aforementioned McCartney fan, was out of the group, replaced by drummer-turned-incompetent-bassist John “Sid Vicious” Ritchie, one of the most famous (and doomed) punk musicians of all time.
A Sex Pistols super-fan and Johnny Rotten hanger-on, Vicious was a contradictory jumble of innocent sweetness and destructive impulse. He was notorious both for popularizing buoyant pogo-dancing on the London scene and for throwing a glass at proto-punk band the Damned, which shattered and put out an onlooker’s eye. He looked like a heroin addict even before he was addicted to heroin, and he once beat a journalist with a bike chain. Heroin came with his disastrous relationship with Nancy Spungen, famously portrayed in the movie Sid and Nancy, which ended with her stabbing murder (perhaps by him, perhaps not) and his subsequent overdose. But first, he got his chance to write his name in the annals of history.
Early in 1977, the Sex Pistols signed with another major label, A&M, only to be dropped a week later after Vicious bled all over their offices when he cut his foot kicking in a toilet, among other offenses. Despite the band’s increasingly erratic behavior, third label Virgin Records persevered through censors, boycotts and protests to release provocative second single “God Save the Queen,” a nihilistic middle-finger swathed in insincere patriotism, during Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. Virgin even had the band perform the song on a barge floating down the Thames right past Parliament, which ended in a police shutdown and multiple arrests.
At the same time, the Pistols were recording what would become their debut album, without a bassist. Jones played most of the bass himself, though Vicious was reportedly allowed to play on “Bodies” while being turned down to imperceptibility in the mix. Two more top ten singles, “Pretty Vacant” and “Holidays in the Sun,” came out of the sessions, and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols was released in October of 1977. The album was hailed by no less an authority than Rolling Stone as the most exciting rock record of the ’70s. Punk had indisputably arrived in the mainstream, which could only lead to its implosion.
By the time the Sex Pistols made it to the United States in early 1978, the end was already near. It didn’t help that Vicious was deteriorating rapidly and that McLaren had deliberately booked the band in the deep South for maximum pandemonium. Vicious wandered off in Memphis, Tenn., to look for heroin and was recovered at a hospital with “Gimme a Fix” carved into his chest. He got in fights with everyone from audience members and security guards to bodyguards and photographers. Rotten famously ended a set in San Francisco with a cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun” before asking if the audience ever got the feeling it had been cheated. He then dropped the mike and walked offstage. With that, the Sex Pistols were no more.
More or less, anyway. There was still McLaren’s pet project, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, a Julien Temple-directed mockumentary that cast the Sex Pistols as puppets in McLaren’s shell game, which was Situationist art with a dash of media theory. The film was cobbled together with music by Cook, Jones and Vicious, without Lydon’s participation or approval. Then there were the interminable lawsuits over rights and royalties between Lydon and McLaren as the erstwhile vocalist found a second and longer musical relevance fronting post-punk band Public Image Ltd. There were the endless reissues and compilations—odd for a band with only one studio album—and there was the frankly cynical 1996 reunion tour, dubbed “Filthy Lucre,” which was followed by even more half-hearted reunions in 2003 and 2008.
The lingering question is whether the Sex Pistols were a cultural force of nature or a publicity stunt. The answer is complex and likely lies somewhere in between. There’s no doubt that McLaren cannily shaped their image and courted controversy to mold them into his style, and that people such as Westwood fed them radical ideology that reflected their concerns more than the band’s.
But there’s also no doubt that the Sex Pistols lived and breathed the image of danger and destruction that was cultivated in them. They eagerly “sold out” from day one on at every opportunity, but what they were selling was always pure untrammeled chaos, unpredictability and malice for the institutions they inhabited. When they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, they gleefully rejected the honor, calling the museum a “piss stain” among other colorful phrases. Belying its image, punk was compromised by commerce from the very beginning, but that doesn’t make the Sex Pistols’ seismic achievement any less revolutionary or authentic. Their handlers believed that music could shape culture, but they themselves didn’t believe in anything, just like they said in their songs.