Sex Pistols

TrackAlbum / Single
Holidays In The SunVirgin VS 191 A-side
Did You No WrongVirgin VS 181 B-side
God Save The QueenVirgin VS 181 A-side
I Wanna Be MeEMI 2566 B-side
Pretty VacantVirgin VS 184 A-side
Don't Give Me No Lip ChildKiss This
New YorkNever Mind The Bollocks
EMINever Mind The Bollocks
SubmissionNever Mind The Bollocks
Anarchy In The UKEMI 2566 A-side

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Contributor: Neil Waite

The morning the news broke of Malcolm McLaren’s death I was driving my daughter to dance rehearsals in Fulham and, as I had time to kill, I thought I’d walk to the King’s Road to find McLaren’s shop SEX, where it all started. I was expecting to see a mass of paparazzi – after all, McLaren was the manager of the most outrageous band ever. I remembered old footage of SEX, with the pavements busy with punks, the Bromley contingent larking in the shop and the general exciting feel around the place. The half hour walk along the King’s Road would give me the time to build up anticipation …

Malcolm McLaren SEX

 

To write about a band who were around for a mere 30 months, who released just one album and four singles should be simple, shouldn’t it … but how can such a brief CV have had such impact and influence? For the Sex Pistols shook up the music scene like no other band has. Their history is well documented, from the legendary Free Trade Hall gig, the notorious Bill Grundy interview, the electrifying TV debut on “So It Goes”, the riverboat concert on the Thames, the label signings or the benefit gig for striking fireman … through to the last gig at Winterland in San Francisco, and finally Nancy’s murder and Sid’s overdose. I’m going to look just at the music, and though choosing a topper-ten from such a short catalogue should also be simple, it really isn’t.

For me, the Sex Pistols were the ‘Matlock’ Pistols, i.e. the original line-up. Sid Vicious was the iconic, archetypal punk. He had the look and the image but unfortunately not the musical ability – though he sang quite well in covers of Something Else and C’mon Everybody. I most liked Jones and Cook’s razor-edged guitar sound, as in Silly Thing and Lonely Boy and this continued after the Pistols in The Professionals. But The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was by various artists (maybe with more ability, but less charisma) and so I’ve always been surprised it carried the Sex Pistols brand. My topper-ten is all Matlock Pistols.

Some say the Pistols were a mere product of their time, with their DIY approach as against the fancy productions of the 70s mega bands. And they were of their time, but they’re of our time too, for the mushroom cloud left by their impact is still there and their recordings are as thrilling now as in 1976. I first experienced this new music – punk – with the Clash (see toppermost #317). This was a good six months before Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols, though all four singles came out before the album. The first Pistols song I heard was Holidays In The Sun, with the marching jackboots, Jones’ riff firing off down the scale and then Rotten’s snarling vocals, rolling his Rs sarcastically as it turns out the ‘holiday’ is to the Berlin wall. Jamie Reid’s artwork is great, as on many Pistols’ sleeves. The advertising for the single showed a fascinating black and white picture of a crowded beach with the slogan ‘Keep Warm This Winter – Make Trouble’.

Holiday in the Sun poster

The story of the Pistols starts in the King’s Road where Malcolm McLaren (their guru/manager) and Vivienne Westwood had a clothes shop called Let It Rock, on a 50s Teddy Boy theme. The shop had its name changed to SEX and soon became the hub of the London punk scene. McLaren had taken an interest in a band called The Strand, with Steve Jones (vocals), Paul Cook (drums), Wally Nightingale (guitar) and Glen Matlock (bass). McLaren’s influence led to Nightingale being fired and Jones taking over on guitar, then in 1975 they were joined by the 19-year-old John Lydon. Lydon changed his name to Rotten (supposedly due to lack of dental hygiene) and the Sex Pistols were born.

They played their first gig in November 1975 at St Martin’s College, where Matlock was studying. They sung a number of cover versions at this time and the one that stands out is a 1964 song by Dave Berry called Don’t Give Me No Lip Child. It starts with Matlock fiddling on an out-of-tune bass under squeals of feedback, then a power riff cuts in and Rotten starts bawling away.

The Pistols gained a following around London and a retinue known as the Bromley Contingent, including Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin and Billy Idol. It’s strange to think I was unaware of all this at the time and still listening to Mud and Suzi Quatro. Punk was getting ready to turn my world upside down, with Joe Strummer playing with the 101ers and soon to found the Clash. At the Nashville in April ’76 the Sex Pistols supported Strummer’s pub band and Strummer is supposed to have said that right away he recognised punk as the future. So they were already having influence. On 4th June, the Pistols did a small gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, organized by Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks and witnessed by future members of Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall and even Simply Red. Davis Nolan’s superb book, “I swear I was there… the gig that changed the world”, documents this seminal event.

In late ’76, EMI signed the Pistols and their first single, Anarchy In The UK, was released. Many see this as their best but I rate it lower than the next three, and nearly omitted it in favour of Bodies. But as the guitar thunders in at the start, I like the relish with which Rotten says “Right … now”, and his crazy laugh. “I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist” seems to miss a rhyme, but the next bit is well put, “Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it – I wanna destroy”. This was nearly the first punk single but was pipped at the post by The Damned’s brilliant New Rose. It has a fine B-side, over-shadowed by the hype of Anarchy; I Wanna Be Me starts with what must be the best ever intro on a single guitar chord, so fuzzed up it might be engine noise.

Next came the infamous Bill Grundy TV show, which ended with Jones, goaded by Grundy, calling the host a ‘dirty sod’ and using the f-word. I’ve always wondered how things would have panned out if the rock group Queen hadn’t pulled out at the last minute with the Pistols being selected as a replacement. The Grundy show was aired on Thames TV only. I don’t believe it would have gained the notoriety it did if the Daily Mirror hadn’t taken notice and plastered its front page with ‘The Filth and the Fury’. This publicity threw the Pistols into the limelight.

In early 1977, Matlock was sacked and replaced by Rotten’s friend John Simon Richie, aka Sid Vicious. Marco Pirroni, a guitarist who worked with many singers including Adam Ant and Siouxsie, summed up the change: “After that, it was nothing to do with music anymore. It would just be for the sensationalism and scandal of it all. Then it became the Malcolm McLaren story.”

The Pistols were dropped by EMI and famously signed to A&M in March 1977 in front of Buckingham Palace, though they had already signed in private. God Save The Queen was pressed by A&M but due to the band being dropped by the label six days later the records were destroyed. A few copies were given to executives and survived, and have become a collector’s grail. The next label was Virgin. They released God Save The Queen with Reid’s blue sleeve featuring the Queen herself, in time for her Silver Jubilee. The band played it on a riverboat by Westminster Pier and the Houses of Parliament in that way that so upset the police. This is their second-best single behind Holidays In The Sun – this time the intro has two notes, again at full throttle, then the guitar alternates chugging rhythms with open chords, pausing for drum breaks. The lyric still seems audacious: “God save the Queen, the fascist regime, they made you a moron …” The song reached No.1 in the NME chart but mysteriously stuck at No.2 in the official chart used by the BBC.

Jones, Cook and Rotten returned to the studio to complete the debut album. Vicious, unable to play, doesn’t appear (though apparently he does on Bodies, but the bass is mixed inaudibly low). The next two singles were Pretty Vacant and Holidays In the Sun, both brilliant. Pretty Vacant starts with neatly plucked guitar notes in what sounds like a new style. But the drums soon roll in followed by roaring chords. The lyric – “We’re so pretty, oh so pretty, we’re … va-cant … and we don’t care” – was said to be knocking the silly notion that if youngsters are inarticulate they must be ‘vacant’.

Did You No Wrong was another stunning B-side (to God Save The Queen). These were the days when B-sides were proper separate songs and not just cop-out album tracks. With its nice chord changes and tuneful guitar breaks you wonder why they didn’t make it an A-side.

Never Mind The Bollocks appeared in October 1977, with a brilliant sleeve design by Reid; the famous kidnappers’ cut-out lettering, pink on yellow, iconic on a level with the sleeve of London Calling. The songs were finely crafted, just right for Rotten’s ferocious vocals, and Chris Thomas’s production and Bill Price’s engineering were spot on. All the tracks could have appeared here. The three best non-singles are New York, Submission and EMI. New York features Rotten speaking/singing through various comic registers. Submission has a heavy circular riff that must be one of their best. EMI has the vehemence of sincerity, as Rotten clearly doesn’t like that label: “blind acceptance is a sign of stupid fools who stand in line … like … EMI – EMI – EMI.” The line as the music stops – “Goodbye A&M” – refers to the next label they fell out with.

The Pistols’ time was short but they packed a punch what with public controversy and great songs. I did say I wasn’t going to retell their well-known story but I do want to mention one episode. Far from the music business, the Huddersfield fireman had been on strike for nine weeks and were struggling to feed their families. So the Pistols, banned from most venues, played a benefit gig for them on Christmas day 1977. There was a party show in the afternoon for kids and an adult gig in the evening. Julien Temple recorded footage of Rotten and Vicious larking around with the children with Rotten letting them cover him in cake, which appears in his fine documentary, “Never Mind The Baubles”. Rather than a publicity stunt this showed the Pistols were human after all.

With many classic albums I wish I could go back and listen to them for the first time. But when I listen to Never Mind The Bollocks it still does feel like that – it’s so vibrant and fresh. I can’t think of any other album that feels like this.

 

Worlds End shop

… so I continued on my pilgrimage to SEX only to find that the shop was now called World’s End, still selling fashion clothes, but there were no punks or paparazzi. A window was open but the door was locked. I took a photo (see above) and was about to go, when a young girl opened the door and invited me in. Feeling nervous, I climbed the two steps that have been fitted outside the door. The girl had a bright pink Mohican, dark make-up and lots of piercings. She couldn’t have been more than 20 and I wondered how much she knew of her shop’s history. She locked the door behind me. “We don’t want any undesirable people coming in,” she said. The inside was like the old photos only smaller than you’d think, with creaky floorboards and a nice old smell of wood and fabric. It was all very weird and I thought it best to go, and anyway I felt sad. The death of the Sex Pistols’ manager wasn’t the huge news I thought it was. The world had moved on despite their atomic impact.

But what’s for sure is that Never Mind The Bollocks will feel just as fresh to whoever is around when I’m also gone.

 

Sex Pistols – The Official Website

God Save The Sex Pistols – fansite

John Lydon website

The Cook ‘n’ Jones site

Sid Vicious timeline

Glen Matlock & The Philistines

Sex Pistols biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #328

5 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jul 28, 2014

    Neil, thanks for this great list and couldn’t agree more as to how fresh and vibrant the Pistols’ music sounds still… Will also plug Julien Temple’s fine documentary, The Filth and the Fury, here, as it gives a good indication of the political background against which the band was formed.

  2. David Lewis
    Jul 29, 2014

    Given the choice of legendary ‘bad’ managers, Sheffield, Grant, Klein, Arden, Parker, Grossman, and the rest, I’d take all of them over McLaren. (By ‘bad’, I don’t mean they were necessarily incompetent: I mean that they were morally reprehensible). All McLaren could do was break up bands. He built nothing. He created nothing. I absolutely agree with your choice of the pre-Vicious Pistols, Neil. They weren’t really punk in music – they were a very solid rock band. Of course, Lydon made them somehting else…

  3. Keith Shackleton
    Jul 30, 2014

    Super list. Good points, David and Andrew.. Temple made a terrific doco (but then he usually does – The Future is Unwritten probably the best), and yup, NMTB is a rock production, and a very good one. McLaren reckoned the Dave Goodman tracks are better, as a ‘better representation of the Pistols’ live sound’, but that may be more due to his rumoured involvement in the leaking of the bootleg. The tracks do merit a decent listen, but to replace any of the above? No. Lydon’s not on his game, for one. You couldn’t really describe Spunk as a production, apart from the fact that Goodman is installed behind the desk and presumably twiddling a knob or two. Not that you’d notice: NMTB leaps out of the speakers, Spunk doesn’t. One song that I might sneak in though is the Winterland encore of No Fun – Lydon’s last stand, and never was a title more apt.

    • Neil Waite
      Jul 30, 2014

      Thanks Keith. Interestingly I nearly included ‘Who Was It?’ from the Goodman sessions instead of the NMTB EMI. It’s the only track I believe comes close but you really hit the nail on the head with your comment regarding the tracks not leaping out of the speaker quite like NMNB. Although listening to Spunk does make you realise how grey NMTB could have perhaps sounded without the great production it afforded (and without Lydon being on form). Without a doubt this has been the hardest toppermost to write by a long way. I gave up more than once but returned after a few days. The Winterland ‘No Fun’ was a dilemma. I agree that it is a worthy inclusion and at one point it was in. But I struggled to distinguish between the music and the moment (maybe I didn’t need to?) and although Lydon’s mid song comment ‘Oh bollocks, why should I carry on?’ and of course the last ‘cheated’ comment (feeling especially poignant now knowing just how much McLaren was abusing his position as well as the band) I couldn’t include it in the end due to Lydon’s slight lacklustre vocal (which was completely understandable at the time). I’m glad Andrew mentioned the brilliant ‘Filth and the Fury’. This was indeed a refreshing and accurate ‘Ying’ to the distorted Great Rock n Roll Swindle ‘Yang’ and although Temple has been productive in putting together so many great documents, I always felt that without Lydon’s involvement ‘The Swindle’ didn’t do his credibility any favours.

      • Keith Shackleton
        Jul 30, 2014

        Chris Thomas did a great job along with Bill Price who, just on the quiet, has an awesome CV. I hasten to add, just in case there’s doubt, I am not including Swindle in my list of essential must-watch Temple. The snippets in The Filth and the Fury are more than enough.

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