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CLASSIC ’70s: Sex Pistols – ‘Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols’

Influenced: Buzzcocks, The Fall, The Jam, Joy Division, Wire, The Raincoats, The Slits, The Cure, Gang Of Four, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Bad Religion, X, Minor Threat, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Billy Idol, Melvins, Misfits, The Pogues, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., The Stone Roses, Nirvana, Green Day, Hole, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Manic Street Preachers, Oasis, Ash, The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys, Fat White Family, Sleaford Mods, Slaves

Influenced by: The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, Ramones

The division of British society in 1977 along the lines of punk, inextricably bound up with the explosion and equally rapid implosion of the Sex Pistols, is a story that has been told and re-told on so many occasions that any further attempt would be next to impossible with any originality. Greil Marcus wrote an entire book just about ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’, for heaven’s sake.

It’s not particularly helpful that the Pistols’ story, just like that of British punk itself, is best told through singles, rather than their solitary studio album. After all the outraged tabloid column inches, all the breathless music press reviews, all the discussion and debate of the previous year, nothing that the Pistols could possibly have delivered would have satisfied their fanbase or won over their doubters. Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols was created under unique and unrepeatable historical circumstances, and retrospective opinions must take this into account.

In any case, the mythology of the Sex Pistols is so much more than just the music. It’s to do with sights, fashion and memories, all of a specific time and place, rather than just blasts of three-chord energy and nihilistic attitude. Never Mind The Bollocks… scans so much as a year zero moment in pop culture that no one album, no single physical artefact, could ever hope to encapsulate the legend.

By the time of its release, a full 11 months after the release of their debut single ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’, the Sex Pistols were already extremely controversial. They had caused outrage in suburban Middle England by swearing on live national television during Bill Grundy’s tea-time show, causing the Daily Mirror to run with the headline ‘THE FILTH AND THE FURY’ the following morning; they had been fired from two record labels and, stoked by alarmist tabloid hysteria, large parts of their UK tours had been cancelled.

Literally, Britain’s establishment and self-appointed moral guardians considered the Sex Pistols to be too dangerous for consumption, poised to undermine the nation’s youth with their debauchery and a threat to public decency and order – or, they were the saviours of music, depending on who you asked.

But, like Elvis before them and the explosion of acid house and rave a decade later, all the efforts of formal censorship only drove punk underground and made it more appealing to the nation’s bored, alienated youth. The 1970s was decade of social unrest, of high unemployment, and with the optimism of the Sixties long since receded, and a generational attitude shift was long overdue. That, more than anything, was punk’s legacy.

Furthermore, under the aegis of the Pistols’ infamous and influential manager Malcolm McLaren, a Machiavellian arch-provocateur who delighted in subversion and who wasn’t one to waste a good headline, all this outrage was made to work to their advantage as they doubled down in their campaign to rile up the authorities. When it finally emerged, the album included the word ‘bollocks’ in the title, an act to deliberately piss off their existing critics, to get the Tory-voting suburban housewives and Mary Whitehouse types fainting with a dose of the vapours. The calculating role of McLaren in the band’s story offers up a third way in which to view the Sex Pistols – not as subversive threat, nor as musical pioneers or saviours, but they might have been a delicious Situationist prank played upon the nation.

BACKGROUND

Oddly, for a band so frequently credited with lighting the fuse for punk, the Sex Pistols were one of the very last of the first-wave punk acts to release a debut album. ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ had been a minor no.38 hit in November 1976, making it one of the first significant punk singles in the wake of The Damned’s ‘New Rose’ that summer. Three more singles followed before Never Mind The Bollocks… eventually appeared. The cancellation of two record deals, with A&M and then EMI, had thrown obvious delays into the works as other labels were reluctant to pick up the most controversial band around. Flush with cash from the massive success of Tubular Bells, Richard Branson’s Virgin swooped in to rescue the album project, so a quick album that was begun in March eventually ended in August 1977.

In early November 1977, the London Evening Standard reported how a Virgin Records shop manager in Nottingham was arrested for displaying the record after police warned him to cover up the word “bollocks”. Chris Seale, the shop’s manager, may or may not have colluded with McLaren and Branson at their behest, as, following Seale’s arrest, Branson announced that he would cover his legal costs and hired Queen’s Counsel John Mortimer as defence barrister.

In typically McLaren-esque fashion, the resulting media furore was a publicity masterstroke, keeping the album in the public consciousness for months as Mortimer produced expert witnesses who were able to successfully demonstrate that the word “bollocks” was not obscene, and was actually a legitimate archaic English term referring to a priest, and which only meant “nonsense” in the context of the album’s title.

VISUAL

Graphic designer Jamie Reid was responsible for iconic cut-and-paste, collage style that was used on every Sex Pistols release, not just Never Mind The Bollocks…. Reid’s contribution to punk visual aesthetics is every bit as important as the likes of Vivienne Westwood. He tapped into the sense of underground danger that the band threatened, producing a garish yellow sleeve with red that captured that sense of samizdat self-production, that the listener was holding something that wasn’t officially sanctioned.

SUBSTANCE

Opening with the sound of jackboots marching, like a tuning fork chiming the notes of dystopia for Never Mind The Bollocks… perfectly, ‘Holidays In The Sun’ is completely iconic but only the fourth most famous moment on an extraordinary record. Inspired by a trip to Berlin, Johnny Rotten said of the inspiration: “Being in London at the time made us feel like we were trapped in a prison camp environment. There was hatred and constant threat of violence. The best thing we could do was to go set up in a prison camp somewhere else. Berlin and its decadence was a good idea… The communists looked in on the circus atmosphere of West Berlin, which never went to sleep, and that would be their impression of the West.”

At the same time that David Bowie was using the Berlin Wall as the basis for a sprawling, epic of hope for humanity with ‘”Heroes”’, the Pistols were using it as a metaphor for how fucked the world was. Rotten’s opening lyric is a reference to a piece of graffiti that appeared during the famous Situationist riots in Paris in 1968 – “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery” – set to a powerful riff cheekily nicked from The Jam’s own 1977 debut single ‘In The City’.

‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ was the Pistols’ visceral debut single, a cataclysmic wall of noise that provided the perfect foil for Rotten’s snarling vocal. His iconic opening verse “I am an anti-Christ / I am an anarchist / Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it / I want to destroy the passerby” still stands up as one of the most perfect introductions to any band in history. Not only because it summed up Lydon and the Pistols’ attitude in one go, but because it so beautifully articulated what a pent-up, largely forgotten section of British youth wanted to express.

England was not a green and pleasant land, but a drizzle-soaked concrete hell-hole of brutalist architecture, no job prospects, chasms of inequality, spiritually empty and cowed. But the breathtaking power of the track comes in its rasping sense of nihilistic glee, rather than woe or despondency. The track encapsulates the entire power of the Pistols’ “get pissed, destroy” auto-destructive ethos. In some ways, we didn’t need Never Mind The Bollocks… at all, as ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ articulated more in under four minutes than most bands do over decades-long careers.

After the controversy of two blistering and scabrous punk singles, it was appropriate that ‘Pretty Vacant’, probably the most musically adept moment on Never Mind The Bollocks… was the track that finally put the Sex Pistols on ‘Top of the Pops’ and into the nation’s living rooms as a musical unit, rather than pantomime hate figures. To many, it’s an ironic middle finger at their parents’ generation for dismissing their kids as lacking moral fibre – as every generation seems to do to the next. Benefitting from the production of Chris Thomas, who had worked with the likes of Pink Floyd, ‘Pretty Vacant’ was a much more professional job but doesn’t sound out of place at all.

Of course, Never Mind The Bollocks… is home to by far the most well-known punk song in history. ‘God Save The Queen’ was the first Pistols track to be recorded with bassist Sid Vicious, and the track seems to benefit from his untutored, attack-minded approach as opposed to the more subtle dynamics from the ousted Glen Matlock, fired in February 1977 because he apparently ‘liked The Beatles’. Released in late May to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the Pistols crashed the establishment’s street party with the perfect pop-culture subversion, playing on a barge sailing up the River Thames on Coronation Day (June 7th) in an attempt to escape a local ban through a loophole by performing on water, before they were arrested.

‘God Save The Queen’ became an alternative national anthem, hitting the top of the NME’s single chart but only at no.2 in the official singles chart used by the BBC (behind Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’) in what many decried as an industry conspiracy after many shops refused to stock the single, and radio airplay all but banned. In 2017, four decades after Lydon’s bellowing call to apathy “There’s no future / in England’s dreaming”, the song’s urgency and sentiment now echoes louder than ever for those of us terrified by the insanity of Brexit, and of neo-liberalism’s general race to the bottom.

The unbelievably ferocious ‘Bodies’ uses a graphic theme of abortion, making it the most straight-up controversial track in the Sex Pistols’ canon alongside the seriously fucked-up ‘Belsen Was A Gas’. With its breakneck pace, Paul Cook’s thudding, brutal drums and Steve Jones’ buzzsawing guitars, it informed a great deal hardcore and trash metal in the years afterwards.

Given the album’s legendary status, a total newcomer to it might be surprised by how uneven it is in places. It seems sacrilegious to say it, but a good third of Never Mind The Bollocks… definitely scans as lower in quality. Once you’ve got past the four totally iconic singles, the excoriating ‘Bodies’ and the album’s two side-closers, the sneering ‘Problems’ and the self-referential kiss-off ‘EMI’, the rest of the content just seems rather lightweight in hindsight.

The ironic celebration of punk’s ‘blank generation’ on ‘No Feelings’ and the sweary ‘New York’ rather lack for original ideas rather than dedication or intensity, whereas ‘Liar’ and ‘Seventeen’, despite their attitude and musical merit, just seem like B-side fodder when put up against ‘God Save The Queen’ or ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ – the two tracks that they respectively precede in the tracklisting. ‘Submission’, while compelling, was nothing that Detroit-based rock acts like The Stooges hadn’t already done. In these moments, it seems that the Sex Pistols were playing up to the media image of themselves as hell-raisers, and they come off as slightly cartoonish when put up against the genuine menace of ‘Bodies’ or ‘Holidays In The Sun’.

Then again, the album’s highlights are genuinely so strong, so utterly iconic and interwoven in the history of punk, as to render the argument irrelevant. Four incredible songs is more than half of all the other bands in history can manage in their whole career, but the concentration of all those ideas in one place is virtually unheard of. As brilliant as The Clash were, they arguably never created such an intense blast on any of their studio albums, not their 1977 debut or even the legendary London Calling.

READ MORE: “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” – An Introduction to The Clash

AFTERMATH

The disintegration of the Sex Pistols came quickly and messily, as now seems so preordained for such a white-hot and chaotic band. An American tour of the Deep South in January 1978 was marred by infighting, drug addictions and hostile band-audience situations, and on the 14th of that month they played what would be their final gig at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, with a deeply disillusioned Rotten uttering the immortal phrase “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” as the last chords of their encore number, their well-known cover of The Stooges’ ‘No Fun’, came to a lacklustre end.

In truth, although his place in British pop folklore is sealed, it was the move to include the avowedly non-musical Sid Vicious at the expense of Glen Matlock that arguably doomed the Sex Pistols to inevitable self-destruction. One gets the impression that Paul Cook and Steve Jones wanted to actually create music; that clashed with Sid’s cartoonish nihilism and Johnny Rotten’s undeniable restlessness in all things generally.

LEGACY

As mentioned before, if one was to be extremely harsh, one might argue that Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols is considered to be A Great Album because of what it represents, not what it actually contains. What simply can’t be denied, however, is its impact on popular culture. While the Sex Pistols were not the first punk band, all of their finest moments were perfectly crafted expressions of punk and the ethos behind the first wave of the movement in 1977.

The Sex Pistols are so bound up with their specific time and place that their influence can hardly be overstated, and their one and only album. Anybody who has picked up a guitar in anger and blasted out rudimentary power chords and snarled down a microphone has done so because Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Malcolm McLaren took the brunt of being the first artists to put themselves directly in the firing line of the scorn aimed at the punk movement by a reactionary, jingoistic British media. Arguably, only Nirvana triggered such a fundamental sea-change in guitar music in the subsequent forty years.

Even elder statesmen of rock like Pete Townshend of The Who recognised the necessity of the Sex Pistols, and why they needed to happen in 1977. “What immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening,” the guitarist said. “This is a bloke, with a brain on his shoulders, who is actually saying something he sincerely believes is happening in the world, saying it with real venom, and real passion. It touches you and it scares you; it makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Furthermore, the Sex Pistols demonstrated what the very first rock’n’roll acts of the 1950s, and the early garage-rock bands of the 1960s, had done – that you didn’t need any great technique to make great music. Aside from a few intelligent art-rock luminaries tending the flame, the 1970s had been overwhelmingly about an established elite of (admittedly talented) rock musicians making increasingly complicated albums characterised by massively expensive studio equipment that nobody else could hope to replicate. Pop music had lost its connection to the kids, and first-wave punk acts like the Sex Pistols and Ramones had offered a back-to-basics antidote, pushing the reset button on all that clutter. As has been endlessly paraphrased – ‘here’s one chord, here’s another, here’s a third, now form a band’.

READ MORE: Ramones // ‘Ramones’ at 40 years old

However, this much-parodied ‘three-chord formula’ of punk was bound to run out of creative appeal sooner or later. Many bands had started outgrowing its strictures by 1978 as the likes of The Clash, Gang Of Four and XTC made more advanced music as punk became ‘post-punk’; indeed, Johnny Rotten himself dropped his stage moniker and became John Lydon, forming Public Image Ltd. within a year of the Pistols’ debut. But its initial impact was utterly seismic, and its aftershocks can still be felt in 2017 with every new punk band, every new act determined to do something on their own terms.

Listen to Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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