Anarchy for the UK: A History of the Sex Pistols

They were nihilistic, belligerent and primal, and they captured the feelings of an entire generation and started a musical mass movement called “punk rock”. Never mind the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols…

A promotional poster for the Sex Pistols album “Never Mind the Bollocks” (photo from Wiki Commons)

In 1974, three young men in London formed a band that they called The Strand. Paul Cook and Steve Jones had been friends since grade school; Glen Matlock joined the band after a couple years. The band did mostly covers of 60’s rock, especially The Who, but they were looking for a new look and sound (and, it turned out, a new name).

Matlock worked part-time at a London leather-wear shop called “Sex”, owned by Malcolm McLaren, an anti-establishment wanna-be artist who had spent some time in the United States managing a band called The New York Dolls, and now served as The Strand’s de facto manager. It was McLaren who introduced the band members to Johnny Lydon, a regular customer at the shop. With his spiky green-dyed hair and his “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt, held together with safety pins, Lydon had exactly the look that the band was searching for, but he had never been in a band and had never sung before. So as an audition, the band put Alice Cooper’s anthem of teenage rebellion, “I’m Eighteen” on the jukebox and had him sing along. Lydon was hired, and was dubbed “Johnny Rotten” by the other band members (according to legend, the name came from the decayed state of Lydon’s teeth). The Sex Pistols were born.

Fueled by Johhny Rotten’s snarling attitude and by looks designed to shock, and a dose of anarchism from McLaren and Matlock (inspired by the 1968 Paris student rebellions), the new band began performing its own songs, with lyrics by Rotten and music by Jones or Matlock. The sound and the lyrics were angry anthems of teenage rebellion against a world with, as put in one of their signature songs, “no future”.

By November 1975, the Sex Pistols were playing gigs at bars and clubs–any place that would book them. But at a time when the music industry was still the realm of long-haired peace-and-love hippie bands, the Sex Pistols, with their “punk” appearance, their simple three-chord sound and their intentionally provocative stage antics, were more than most people could take. Most audiences thought that the Pistols looked weird, couldn’t play, and couldn’t sing, and the band members, who responded to the crowd’s taunting with acid tongues of their own, often found themselves getting in physical fights with audience members both onstage and off. It became routine for venue managers to literally pull the plug on the performance, and as the band’s reputation for provoking violence spread, a growing number of clubs simply refused to book them.

Nevertheless, the band was developing a core of devoted followers who embraced their look and attitude. Dubbed the “Bromley Contingent”, they included Susan Dallion (who would go on to form the influential punk band Siouxsie And The Banshees), and Billy Idol (who would later take the punk look to the American Top 40).

By late 1976, the band had attracted the attention of British record label EMI, who signed them to a contract for a payment of 40,000 pounds. Although the Sex Pistols didn’t have an album yet, EMI released “Anarchy in the UK” as a single on November 26, 1976. “I am an anti-christ”, went the lyrics, “I am an anarchist.” Most radio stations refused to play it.

A week later, on December 1, the British band Queen had to back out of a BBC live television show because of a scheduling conflict, and as a last-minute replacement, the Sex Pistols were brought in. The host, Bill Grundy, had no idea how to deal with the surly band members, and when he goaded them to “say something outrageous”, they obliged, taunting him as a “fucking rotter”, a “dirty fucker”, and a “bastard”. The incident was splashed all over the tabloids and EMI hurriedly dropped the band’s contract (though the band members got to keep their signing money).

By this time, Johnny Rotten was the de facto band leader and spokesman, and he and Matlock were at loggerheads. Shortly after EMI fired the band, the band fired Matlock. As their new bassist, the Sex Pistols turned to a friend of Lydon’s, a drummer named John Ritchie, who had been one of the band’s earliest fans. Ritchie, who had never played bass before, was hired mostly because he matched Johnny Rotten’s punk-rock look and attitude. He took the name Sid Vicious.

Punk rock, meanwhile, had found its niche. New bands like The Clash and The Buzzcocks, and in the US The Ramones, were filling clubs and signing record deals. Punk rock was now a potential money-maker and, for better or worse, the band that epitomized the punk movement was the Sex Pistols. The British record label A&M signed the band to a 75,000-pound deal, and it was announced that their next single, “God Save the Queen”, would be released shortly. As a publicity stunt, the Pistols signed their contract at a table set up in front of Buckingham Palace. But less than two weeks later, during the signing party at A&M’s office building, the band members got drunk and caused several thousand pounds worth of damage, with Johnny Rotten reportedly puking on an executive’s desk. They were promptly fired (though once again they got to keep the money).

In May 1977, the Sex Pistols signed on with their third record label in less than a year, making a deal with Virgin Records. The single “God Save the Queen” was released during Queen Elizabeth’s Jubillee Celebration. It caused a sensation and an uproar. With lyrics like “God save the Queen, the fascist regime, that made you a moron” and “God save the Queen, she ain’t no human being”, much of the public thought the song scandalous, unpatriotic and disrepectful. The BBC promptly banned the record, and most independent radio stations also refused to play it. Nevertheless, the single quickly became an unofficial anthem for the young generation of the Thatcher years who were facing a bleak prospect of no jobs and no hope. The song quickly shot to number two on the music charts (though the title was censored out in all the public listings). The Sex Pistols were now the most famous (and infamous) band in the UK.

To capitalize on the publicity, Virgin rushed to put together what would be the band’s only LP album, “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”, released in October 1977. Since Sid Vicious still couldn’t play a bass guitar, the label brought in former band member Glen Matlock to play bass on all the studio tracks. Everything about the album, from its title to the song lyrics to the cover artwork (done in a pasted-letter ransom-note style) was calculated to offend the British establishment. The band gained new notoriety (and publicity) when the British government prosecuted the record label for the “obscene title” (“bollocks” being a slang term for testicles). On Christmas Day 1977, the Pistols did a free benefit concert for the families of striking firemen. Meanwhile, they were being investigated by MI5 as “subversives”.

In January 1978, the Sex Pistols arrived in the United States for a tour. Not surprisingly, they once again calculated to offend, and most of their gigs were booked for clubs in the southern United States. Fights broke out at most shows, and many of their concert dates were cancelled. There were also internal fractures. Sid Vicious had been turned on to heroin by his girlfriend, a former prostitute named Nancy Spungen, and his increasing periods of nonfunctionality provoked fights with Johnny Rotten. The band also suspected their manager, Malcolm McLaren, of screwing them out of money. On January 14, 1978, the Sex Pistols played the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and when it was over, Johnny Rotten took the microphone, said to the audience “Did you ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” and walked off the stage. The band broke up the next day.

By the end of the year, Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in the hotel room she was sharing with Sid Vicious. Sid was charged with the murder, but then himself died from a heroin overdose before the trial.

In 1996, the three surviving band members reunited with original bassist Glen Matlock to tour Europe and the US. They mockingly called it “The Filthy Lucre Tour”. In 2004, the Sex Pistols were nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in true Sex Pistols style, they refused to attend the ceremony, declaring, “We’re not your monkeys. Piss off.”

Since then, “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” has been routinely named in lists of the top 100 most influential albums of all time.

3 thoughts on “Anarchy for the UK: A History of the Sex Pistols”

  1. Although there are times when Lydon seems to be straining a little to live up to the image he’s created for himself, he’s also full of down-to-earth honesty and self-deprecation; on the whole I’m really glad he’s in the world.

    I just read “Anger Is An Energy” a few weeks ago, and it’s an engaging (and long-anticipated) followup to “Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.” A lot more has happened to the guy in 20 years.

  2. Glen Matlock didn’t play on Never Mind The Bollocks (only in Anarchy in The U.K.).Steve Jones played bass on all the other tracks.

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