Despite their short existence, the Sex Pistols were perhaps the quintessential British punk rock band. Whilst The Clash were both more articulate and politically motivated, and The Buzzcocks had more astute pop sensibilities, no other group better exemplified the punk movement's spirit and inherent contradictions.
Origins and Early Days
The group was formed in sometime in 1972 by Paul Cook, Steve Jones and Wally Nightingale. They called themsleves The Strand, after a Roxy Music song, which the group were big fans of. Around 1973 they started hanging around a shop called 'Let It Rock'. It is here they meet Malcom McLaren. Jones had heard of McLaren's musical connections and wanted him to be manager. McLaren at first declined, as he was not very interested in the group. Del Noones, who they met at the shop, was recruited to play bass. By 1974, the group called themselves the Swankers and played their very first gig at a birthday party of a friend of Cook's. They also began rehearsing in a studio called the 'Crunchy Frog', near London's docklands. Noones left the band shortly afterwards because he was becoming unreliable and not turing up at rehearsals.
The remaining members recruited bass player Glen Matlock. Johnny Rotten, who was among the clientele of the 'SEX' (formerly 'Let It Rock') boutique in Kings Road, Chelsea showed up at the shop in August 1975 wearing his homemade 'I Hate Pink Floyd' t-shirt. He was asked to audition by miming to Alice Cooper's 'Eighteen.' He passed. McLaren became the new group's manager. He was asked to think of a name for the group. Among the list were; 'Le Bomb', 'Subterraneans', 'The Damned', 'Beyond', 'Teenage Novel' and 'QT Jones and his Sex Pistols', The 'QT Jones' part was dropped the name 'Sex Pistols' was born. The name, no doubt, brings to mind the male sex organ, but McLaren has stated that he wanted the band to be "sexy assassins" (in later years band members frequently accused McLaren both of cheating them financially, and of claiming credit for things that were not his idea). Under McLaren's guidance, the band was initially influenced in part by the simple, chord-based style of The New York Dolls and The Ramones. McLaren had given guitarist Jones the Les Paul guitar used by NY Doll Sylvain Sylvain, and the torn-shirt, spiked-hair look of Richard Hell, then bass player for Television. All of these figures were doyens of the New York City punk, and later new wave music, scene. Rotten and his circle of friends walked into the arrangement already possessed of a similar style -- a grunged-out version of the 'soul boy' fashion affected by fans of Roxy Music. McLaren also claimed that he wanted the Sex Pistols to be "the new Bay City Rollers".
EMI and the Grundy Incident
Following a showcase gig as part of London's first punk festival at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, the band was signed (for a large advance) to the major label EMI. The Pistols' first single, "Anarchy in the UK", released on November 26, 1976, served as a statement of intent -- full of wit, anger and visceral energy. The Sex Pistols were, despite common misconception and as evidenced by their live recordings of the time, a tight and ferocious live band, easily as musically skilled as their non-punk contemporaries.
Promotional flyer for an early Sex Pistols gig
However, on December 1, 1976 the group and their close circle of followers, the Bromley Contingent, created a storm of publicity in the UK when, goaded by interviewer Bill Grundy, guitarist Steve Jones used the word "fuck" on Thames Television's early evening television programme Today, as well as calling Grundy a "rotter" after he made a rather inept attempt at 'chatting up' Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Although the programme was only seen in the London ITV region (and although Matlock had, unnoticed, been the first to utter the word, fuck), the ensuing furore occupied the tabloid newspapers for days and the band were shortly after dropped by the label. After a short and disastrous period spent with the A&M record label, The Pistols were picked up by the (at that time) independent Virgin Records. A shambolic tour of the UK followed, with the majority of the concerts dogged by a hostile press and cancelled by local authorities, and many of the rest ending in states of semi-riot.
The Vicious Era and "God Save the Queen"
In February 1977 bass player and principal songwriter Glen Matlock parted company with the band. According to legend he was sacked because he "liked The Beatles" - although in a 2002 television interview Steve Jones claimed the real reason was that he was "always washing his feet". Matlock himself now claims to have quit voluntarily. He was quickly replaced by Rotten's friend and "ultimate Sex Pistols fan" Sid Vicious (real name John Simon Ritchie) of The Flowers of Romance, famously endorsed as a member by McLaren for his looks and "punk attitude" despite his very limited musical abilities. According to Jon Savage's biography of the Sex Pistols, England's Dreaming, at live performances his amplifier was often turned down, and most of the bass parts on the band's later recordings were actually played by guitarist Steve Jones or Matlock, who (according to Lydon's autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs) had been drafted in as a session musician.
The group's second single, eventually released by Virgin on May 27, 1977, was God Save the Queen, a stinging attack on the British Royal Family, and by extension the institutions of Britain, delivered in Rotten's trademark sneer. Coming at a time when deference to royalty was still a predominant trait in both the establishment and the country as a whole the record was quickly banned from airplay by the staid BBC, whose Radio 1 dominated music broadcasting.
Nevertheless, in the week of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, the record officially reached number two in some UK charts (although the number-two spot was, tellingly, left blank in several listings, and many believe, with evidence, that the record actually reached number one, and that the charts were rigged to prevent such a spectacle). Meanwhile, The Sex Pistols decided to celebrate the Jubilee, along with the success of their record, by chartering a boat, upon which they sailed down the Thames, past Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, performing their live set. As usual, the event ended in chaos; the boat was raided by the police, and McLaren, The Pistols and most of their entourage were arrested and taken into custody. Arguably all good fun and a great publicity stunt, but matters took a distinctly uglier turn when young punk followers of the Sex Pistols became victims of physical attacks in the street by 'pro-royalists', and Rotten himself was assaulted by a razor wielding gang of 'Teddy Boys' in Finsbury Park who, it seems, didn't see the funny side of the Pistols' antics.
Never Mind the Bollocks
The promise of the band's early singles was eventually fulfilled by the group's first album Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols, released on October 28, 1977. The album included singles "Pretty Vacant" (released on July 2, 1977), an ode to apathy, and "Holidays in the Sun" (released on October 15, 1977). Again the band faced controversy when a record shop in Manchester was threatened with prosecution for displaying the album's 'obscene' cover, although the case was overturned when defending QC John Mortimer produced expert witnesses who were able to demonstrate that the word "bollocks" was a legitimate old English term originally used to refer to a priest, and that although the word is also slang for testicles, in this context it meant 'nonsense'.
Last UK gig and 1978 US Tour
The Sex Pistols' final UK performance was at Ivanhoe's in Huddersfield on Christmas Day 1977, a benefit for the families of striking firemen. Despite the band's state of disintegration by this time, the gig was considered by some as a vindication of their anti-establishment stance when they were, for once, united with what might be viewed as their true constituency, the dispossessed English working class. They played two shows, a matinee and an evening show. Tickets for the latter were furtively sold for a secret venue, announced shortly before the gig as a tactic to avoid the attentions of local councillors and the like, who had cancelled many of the Pistols' other shows. Those waiting outside for the second show were given turkey sandwiches from the remains of the meal laid on for the strikers' families. The atmosphere in the evening show was counter to the negative publicity that had been generated towards the band by the tabloid press; before the show, Johnny Rotten mingled with the crowd wearing his pith helmet, and the good humour of the matinee (which was a benefit played for free) lingered on. Years later the promoter of the evening show confessed that the Pistols never cashed his cheque.
Early in 1978 an American tour was booked by McLaren. Originally they were scheduled to begin the tour in December 1977, beginning with a performance on Saturday Night Live, but due to the members' minor scrapes with the law, they were unable to receive passports in time. (Elvis Costello and the Attractions went on in their stead). The two-week American jaunt was an exhausting, badly-planned, dispiriting experience for all concerned (Vicious was beaten by the bodyguards hired to protect him, Rotten had a fierce head cold, and the band's performances were plagued by bad sound and physically hostile audiences, mainly at unlikely venues in the South), and on the final date at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on January 14, the disillusioned Rotten quit, famously asking "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" from the stage before walking off. Rotten later claimed to have been bluffing, but McLaren and the remainder of the group soon left for a working vacation in Brazil, leaving Rotten stranded without airfare in America. Warner Brothers paid his passage back to London, courting him as a solo artist.
The Sex Pistols soldiered on without Rotten for a short time, with Jones, occasionally Cook or Vicious, and sometimes Edward Tudor-Pole on vocals, trading on their reputation and engaging in McLaren-concocted gimmicks -- such as recording with notorious British criminal Ronnie Biggs, and Vicious releasing a solo version of "My Way." After the release of the movie, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, a notably expensive and disorganized project using several scripts and directors, Cook and Jones dissolved the band.
Post Sex Pistols
Rotten, then using his given name Lydon, was signed by Virgin and Warner Brothers (in the UK and US respectively), and formed the group Public Image Ltd with his old friend Jah Wobble (né John Wordle), a former contender to replace Matlock in the 'Pistols. Vicious relocated to New York and continued to gig as a solo performer, recording an album of live tracks that many consider substandard. He was shortly afterwards arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in New York, and died of a heroin overdose before coming to trial.
A fictionalised account of Vicious's relationship with Spungen was later recounted in the 1986 film Sid and Nancy (dir. Alex Cox). Lydon has publically dismissed this film, stating that it has little to do with the reality of what actually happened.
Cook and Jones continued to work as something of an 'instant band,' doing many dates as session musicians, and later forming The Professionals, whose records are in a strong continuum with the duo's post-Rotten 'Pistols recordings. Glen Matlock was involved in various projects, the most noteworthy being the Rich Kids, which featured Midge Ure, later of Ultravox, on vocals. Malcolm McLaren went on to manage Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, and later scored a number of hits as a solo artist.
Influences and Legacy
The Sex Pistols remain influential, however, both for their musical style and in terms of their influence on the British cultural landscape. Whereas previous challenges to the class system, and to the postwar British ethos of uncomplaining sacrifice, had come mainly from within, such as from the public school and Oxbridge dominated satire boom of the late 1960s and early '70s (including the Monty Python troupe), or from the social-realist novels and theatre of the 1950s and early '60s, the Pistols communicated directly with a much wider, more vernacular audience and, to some extent, the resulting shock waves can still be felt.
It can be argued that the Sex Pistols were the most influential British band of the post-Beatles era. In pure form, their chord progressions and pounding, primal bass lines can still be heard in the music of bands such as Rancid, The Libertines, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and other revivalists.
Conversely, it can also be argued that the Sex Pistols were a manufactured pop act in the vein of The Sweet, Mud, and other early-'70s 'hard rock' singles acts, inasmuch as their look and sound were in part innovations of Malcolm McLaren's. Opinions, however, differ widely on McLaren's actual responsibility for the band's artistic and cultural relevance, with the evidence suggesting that McLaren was never fully in control of events, and played almost no role in creating the band's actual music and lyrics.
The surviving members of the Sex Pistols have performed reunion gigs in 1996 and 2002, and embarked on a US tour in 2003.
Others that have recorded with the Sex Pistols include;
- Ronnie Biggs, sung on "No One Is Innocent" and "Belsen Was A Gas", 1978
- Edward Tudor-Pole. sung on "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle", "Rock Around The Clock", and "Who Killed Bambi?", 1979
- Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols (October 28, 1977) #1 UK, #106 US
- The Great Rock & Roll Swindle (February 26, 1979) #7 UK
- Some Product: Carri on Sex Pistols (outtakes compilation) (July 27, 1979) #6 UK
- Flogging a Dead Horse (compilation) (February 1980) #23 UK
- Kiss This: The Best Of (October 1992) #10 UK
- Filthy Lucre Live (June 1996) #26 UK
- Jubilee: The Best Of (May 27, 2002) #29 UK
- Sex Pistols (box set) (June 2002)
Vicious Solo album
- from "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols"
- from "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle"
- June 30, 1978 - "No One Is Innocent" #7 UK
- February 9, 1979 - "Something Else" #3 UK
- March 30, 1979 - "Silly Thing" #6 UK
- June 22, 1979 - "C'mon Everybody" #3 UK
- October 18, 1979 - "The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle" #21 UK
- June 4, 1980 - "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" #21 UK
- from "Kiss This: The Best Of"
- from "Jubilee: The Best Of"
References and further reading
- The Boy Looked at Johnny - Julie Burchill & Tony Parsons
- The Sex Pistols - Fred & Julie Vermorel
- Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs - John Lydon
- England's Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock - Jon Savage
- I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol - Glen Matlock
- Please Kill Me - Legs McNeal
- God Save the Sex Pistols: A Collector's Guide to the Priests Of Punk - Gavin Walsh
- Destroy: Sex Pistols 1977 - Dennis Morris
- I Swear I Was There . . .: Sex Pistols and the Shape of Rock - David Nolan
- Vicious: Too Fast to Live - Alan Parker