The Sex Pistols
The Sex Pistols
British punk rock band
The Sex Pistols’ influence on rock and roll is far greater than one might surmise from their scant recorded output (only one album and single in the U.S., a few more singles in the U.K.) and their brief existence together as a group (just over 2 years from the time lead singer Johnny Rotten joined to the time he left). Yet, because they were involved in the punk rock explosion from the very beginning and in fact embodied that particular fashion at its height in London, they are the seminal punk rock band without whom the history of rock and roll would have been very different.
Their radical style of playing, the lyrical content of their songs, their attitude, their style of dress, and their behavior succeeded in changing the way rock was played. It brought a new and refreshing relationship to rock’s audience and its performers. As British rock journalist Caroline Coon wrote about the Sex Pistols’ live performances, “Participation is the operative word. The audience revels in the idea that any one of them could get up on stage and do just as well, if not better than the bands already up there.” In fact, future pop
Band made public debut in November 1975 at the St. Martin’s School of Art; original members included vocalist Johnny Rotten (real name, John Lydon); lead guitarist Steve Jones; bass guitarist Glen Matlock; and drummer Paul Cook. Matlock left band in February 1977, replaced by Sid Vicious (real name, John Simon Ritchie; died of a heroin overdose, February 2, 1979).
Group signed their first record contract with E. M. I. in England, 1976; E.M.I, released one single, then dropped the group because of their behavior on an afternoon television show. A&M signed the group briefly, then quickly dropped them. Virgin Records signed them and released their remaining singles and album in the United Kingdom. The group signed with Warner Brothers for the United States in October 1977.
After the group broke up at the end of their American tour in January 1978, Rotten went on to form a new group, P.I.L., also known as Public Image Ltd.; Vicious would achieve greater notoriety when he was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen; Cook and Jones played with various groups, including one called the Professionals.
stars Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux (of Siouxsie and the Banshees) were among the most dedicated followers of the Sex Pistols, traveling along with a group of fans known as the Bromley Contingent to virtually every Pistols performance. The band had a direct influence on such punk rock bands as the Buzzcocks, the Clash, Chelsea, the Damned, Eater, Subway Sect, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
The Sex Pistols represented a break with the past, a new way of performing rock and roll. Johnny Rotten was quoted as saying, “We’re not trying to be commercial. We’re doing exactly what we want to do—what we’ve always done.” He also expressed a disdain for the rock of that time, denying any influences or idols. “I’d listen to rock ’n’ roll, but I had no respect for it. It was redundant and had nothing to do with anything relevant.” Rock was becoming quite decadent, with millionaire rock stars performing banal and trivial songs. Rock needed a change, and the Sex Pistols started it.
Upon seeing the band for the first time, Coon wrote: “What impressed me most…was their total disinterest in pleasing anybody except themselves. Instead, they engaged the audience, trying to provoke a reaction which forced people to express what they felt about the music. Quite apart from being very funny, their arrogance was a sure indication that they knew what they were doing and why.” She noted that “their music had a new rhythm and an abrasive style expressing a hunger and need which was no longer satisfied by antiseptic r’n’b and art school burlesque.”
If the rock scene was bad in England, it was worse in America. Disco was preeminent, and Saturday Night Fever represented the popular music of the time. When the Pistols toured America in early 1978, no one was ready for them. The punk rock movement that was so strong in London didn’t yet make sense to America’s rock fans. To Americans, the Pistols came and went before anyone realized the “new wave” was about to ongin L
When the Pistols made their public performing debut in November 1975 at a dance at St. Martin’s School of Art, someone pulled the plug on their equipment after a couple of songs. Whether or not they could play their instruments is a matter for disagreement. At some point in their brief career they actually played in tune and on time, according to noted rock guitarist Chris Spedding. Many other listeners would have disagreed. The Pistols’ sound was basic and raw and played on cheap equipment. Defining the punk rock style, their music was played fast, the chords kept simple, and the songs rarely lasted more than three minutes.
By February 1976, the Pistols managed to land regular Tuesday night gigs at London’s 100 Club, having been banned from other London clubs like the Nashville, the Marquee, and the Roundhouse for various acts of childish violence. As Coon noted, “The band’s unprecedented commitment to raw energy and iconoclastic blasts at established idols and sacred cows, began attracting fiercely loyal fans.” Their songs were more anti-social than political. Instead of writing protest songs, they were protest. Combining an anti-establishment style of music and dress, they sang anti-love songs, cynical songs about suburbia, and songs about hate and aggression.
By September 1976, the Pistols were able to command an audience of about 1, 000 fans when they headlined The 100 Club Punk Rock Festival. Sharing the bill on the first of two nights with the Clash, Subway Sect, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Pistols had come a long way. As described by Coon, Glen Matlock (bass) and Paul Cook (drums) provided a “bed-rock of taut rhythmic structures.” Steve Jones (lead guitarist), “once the brooding loner unsure of his sex appeal, is now exuding a magnetic confidence which guarantees a screen of exotic women around him.” Johnny Rotten (lead singer), showed a new stage presence: “Lately, he rarely moves. He can be quite sickeningly still. This deathly, morgue-like stance sets skin crawling, and his lyrics are as suffocating as the world they describe.” Without question, the Sex Pistols were the stars of this festival.
Their set at the 100 Club opened with “Anarchy in the U.K.” and continued with such punk rock standards as “Seventeen,” “I’m a Lazy Sod,” “New York,” “Pushing and A Shovin’,” the Monkees’ “Stepping Stone,” “I Love You,” “Sub-Mission,” “Liar,” “No Feelings,” “Substitute,” “Pretty Vacant,” “Problems,” and “No Fun.” Most of their original songs are credited as group compositions, but Rotten wrote most of the lyrics to music provided by Matlock and Jones.
As a result of their performance at the 100 Club festival, the Pistols were signed by E.M.I, in October and quickly entered the studio to record their first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.” The single was released in November and their first major British tour was planned for December. Unbeknownst to anyone involved, a series of unplanned events were about to propel the Sex Pistols into the public eye and make their name a household word, at least in Great Britain.
When British television contacted E.M.I, to request that the band Queen appear on the tea-time Today show hosted by Bill Grundy, they were unavailable. Instead, the Sex Pistols were sent as substitutes to promote their new single. The host, noted for his provocative manner of questioning, succeeded in provoking Rotten, Matlock, and Jones into uttering strings of nonstop four-letter obscenities. The next day, London’s tabloids had a field day, with front-page headlines screaming about “The Filth and the Fury,” “The Punk Rock Horror Show,” and “TV Fury at Rock Cult Filth.” Grundy was suspended for two weeks, but more significantly, nearly every date on the planned “Anarchy in the U.K.” tour was canceled by the student unions at the colleges where the Pistols were to have played. By January, EMI had canceled the Pistols’ contract for a cash settlement.
For the first six months of 1977, the Pistols only played three public performances. Matlock left the band in February to be replaced by Rotten’s friend, Sid Vicious. Their second single, “God Save the Queen,” was to have been released in England by A&M, but the record company mysteriously canceled the contract after pressing the record. The Pistols finally signed with Virgin in May. Virgin, a smaller record company at that time, had been interested in the Pistols all along, but had lost out in the bidding against the larger companies. Now, in the year of the Queen’s Jubilee, celebrating 25 years of her reign, Virgin was probably the only record company willing to issue the Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.”
One of those three performances was for a record release party aboard a chartered yacht named Queen Elizabeth. On June 15, Jubilee Day, the boat set sail on the Thames, only to be boarded by police and forced to dock. Arrests were made, and in subsequent months, various members of the band and management employees were seriously attacked and beaten. Unable to find places to play in England, the band went on a brief Scandinavian tour in August 1977, accompanied by many journalists. When they returned to the United Kingdom, they played a low-key tour under assumed names like Spots and Tax Exiles to avoid bans.
In October, they signed their only U.S. record deal with Warner Brothers, and later that month their first and only official album was released in the United Kingdom and in America. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols raised a national furor in England, because “bollocks” is a slang obscenity there. Some record store owners were prosecuted under the 1889 Indecent Advertising Act. In England, advance orders of 125, 000 copies assured the Pistols of a Number 1 spot on the British charts. In the United States, the Warner Brothers album never made the Hot 100, peaking at Number 107 in Billboard.
The Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, began making arrangements around this time for a film about the band. Because of subsequent legal disputes between the band and their manager after the band broke up, Rotten was portrayed by an actor and never appeared in the film, which was released in 1980 as The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle. The soundtrack album contains only snippets of Rotten’s vocals, with McLaren and others doing the lead vocals.
McLaren and Warner Brothers also were discussing the Pistols’ American tour. Apparently, Warner wanted the Pistols to play large venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden, albeit with a very low admission price in keeping with the band’s image. McLaren felt the large auditorium/stadium format would reduce the band’s intensity. When a compromise was finally reached, the American tour missed most of the major metropolitan cities in favor of several southern locations. It didn’t matter much, though, because most American fans didn’t have a clue as to what the Sex Pistols were all about.
The Sex Pistols arrived in New York on January 4, 1978, where an appearance on Saturday Night Live was canceled at the last minute (Elvis Costello and the Attractions appeared instead). The U.S. tour began in Atlanta on January 5 and continued through Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Tulsa. It ended January 16 with three nights at Winterland in San Francisco, where the show was opened by local punk rockers the Nuns and the Avengers. A 1979 film by Lech Kowalsky, D.O.A., documents the Pistols’ American tour and includes footage of other punk rock bands.
The final show at Winterland would be the band’s last night together, with Johnny Rotten leaving and saying, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” McLaren joined up with the remaining members of the band in Rio, where they recorded with the famous Great Train Robber, Ronald Biggs, singing lead and Sid Vicious doing the Sinatra tune, “My Way.” While these were released as by the Sex Pistols, the Sex Pistols were in fact history.
“Anarchy in the UK,” E.M.I., 1976 (United Kingdom).
“God Save the Queen,” A&M, 1977 (United Kingdom, not released).
“God save the Queen,” Virgin, 1977 (United Kingdom).
“Pretty Vacant, “Virgin, 1978 (united kingdom)
“Holidays in the Sun,” Virgin, 1977 (United Kingdom).
“Pretty Vacant,” Warner Bros., 1978 (United States).
“No One Is Innocent” (with Ronald Biggs), Virgin, 1978 (UnitedKingdom).
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Virgin, 1977 (United Kingdom) and Warner Bros., 1977 (United States).
The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (movie soundtrack), Virgin, 1979 (United Kingdom).
Some Product Carrion (includes radio interviews and commercials), Virgin, 1979 (United Kingdom).
Flogging a Dead Horse (compiles singles releases), Virgin, 1980 (United Kingdom).
The Heyday (contains interviews only, cassette only), Factory, 1980 (United Kingdom).
(As by Various Artists) Troublemakers (contains two songs from the American tour), Warner Bros., 1980 (United States).
Bianco, David, Who’s New Wave in Music: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, 1976-1982, Pierian Press, 1985.
Coon, Caroline, The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, Orbach and Chambers, 1977, Hawthorn Books, 1978.
Monk, Noel E., and Jimmy Guterman, 12 Days on the Road: The Sex Pistols and America, William Morrow, 1990.
The Sex Pistols File, edited by Ray Stevenson, Omnibus, 1978.
The Sex Pistols File—Updated, edited by Ray Stevenson, Omnibus, 1980.
The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records, edited by Ira A. Robbins, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983.
Vermorel, Fred, and Judy Vermorel, The Sex Pistols, Universal, 1978.
Goldmine, February 27, 1987.
Trouser Press, October 1977; May 1979; July 1981.
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