God bless those Sex Pistols
Forty years ago the Sex Pistols played live together for the first time in public. Twelve years ago, I sat down to write an assessment of their brief moment of musical and cultural pre-eminence. This is it, with some updating, and grammatical errors reduced but probably not fully eradicated. I think I still broadly agree with myself.
Spirit and intensity were what the Sex Pistols were all about. When they played live, they meant it: the sound, the performance and the message were all there, upfront and in your face.
And frankly, given reports of those who were there, they could inspire a generation even without a full compliment of musical weaponry. When they played the legendary gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall a gig organized by The Buzzcocks and featuring members of bands as diverse as the future Joy Division or the future Simply Red (!) in the audience, they had a great bass-player, but at Winterland, San Francisco in 1978 when America’s youth got it both barrels, they had one who could barely hold the instrument.
In the early days, Glen Matlock, often described as the most musically accomplished of the band, brought structure and width but, if legendary reviewer Greil Marcus is to be believed after Matlock had left, the band’s last shows in the U.S. featured “the only great two-man band in the history of rock and roll”. It was ultimately down to the primal connection between guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook and their passion for exploring the violent possibilities of amplified noise, the creation of a maelstrom from which vocalist John Lydon, dubbed Johnny Rotten on account of his questionable dental hygiene, could slump forth. And it takes a certain kind of bravery and belief to make an album and then go out and tour knowing all the time that the bloke there with you on bass guitar — let’s call him Sid, the replacement ‘bassist’ — was frankly, only there for, well, just the violent possibilities.
Steve Jones taught himself guitar by listening to Mick Ronson on David Bowie’s early records, and Matlock and Cook were both fans of glam’s chugging rock sound, particularly Chris Thomas’ work with Roxy Music, who went on to produce the first couple of Sex Pistols’ singles. But although Rotten, a fan of Alice Cooper as well as Bowie, seemed to adopt a character just like his heroes had done, his approach was different. Ziggy was essentially an opportunity for Bowie to play out his destructive and narcissistic theoretical other self, and doubled as a cautionary tale for anyone who might see the parallels in their own life, although ultimately, the process was primarily a cathartic one for Bowie personally. Rotten was operating in a different time and knew that his audience wouldn’t buy the existentialist catharsis associated with the singer-songwriters of the ‘me-generation’ from which Bowie had taken his cue.
So instead, Johnny sneered. That laugh at the beginning of Anarchy in the UK makes the point clear from the start. Anarchy is suggested throughout the lyrics, but not for the masses. The lyrics reveal that this anarchy is not a positive call to arms, it’s kind of sarcastic, voiced by a self-proclaimed ‘anti-Christ’ that hates the world so much and preaches such utter destruction and loathing he surely shouldn’t be taken seriously. In fact it’s nihilistic and ‘blank’. It’s a complex and convoluted guise that actually ends up being the most revolutionary statement of cultural alienation ever delivered in a pop song. And it’s all down to Lydon’s clear understanding of his peers and his culture which recognized that irony was the only weapon of resistance at that point in British history. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s speaking after 9/11, explained that there are active and passive nihilisms where the former demands “to live authentically you must engage in self-destruction” and the latter where people are “living a stupid, self-satisfied life without great passions”. (Zizek: 2001). Strikes me, writing now, that Lydon had nailed this dichotomy years before.
The singles that followed — God Save The Queen, Pretty Vacant, and Holidays in the Sun — continue Lydon’s central theme of disgust at the state his world is in, and his desire to escape and shut it out. “I don’t want a holiday in the sun, I want to go to the new Belsen” neatly encapsulates his preference for a society where the living is hard but perhaps existentially guilt-free, or as Rolling Stone journalist Dave Marsh interprets it “the culture on the other side (of the wall) seems better able to keep its citizens numb”
The combination of the right intellectually considered message and the right physically-felt and hook-laden music made the Sex Pistols the definitive influence on everything else that followed, and pretty much blows away everything else that came before too. It’s a shame that the album Never Mind the Bollocks — Here’s the Sex Pistols does not do the band justice. It contains all the singles, and there’s Bodies, Submission, Liar and the pointed EMI, all of which spit bile and suitably discordant, but they seem to lack Matlock’s pop sensibility (and bass-playing, which was taken on by Steve Jones at the eleventh hour).
What’s more, Lydon has complained that some of the first-take spirit was sacrificed due to too much time getting multiple guitar parts down on tape, and studio built intensity is no substitute for the real thing. Sure, it was still fast and loose, filthy and furious, but listening back now it’s just not as focused as The Ramones’ Rocket to Russia, Richard Hell and The Void-oids’ Blank Generation or The Clash which were all released the same year. Perhaps they are best remembered as a singles band. Clearly, the band that should have made the debut album no longer existed by mid-1977, and maybe that’s the way it should be. Do you really want to know what a fifth Sex Pistols album would have sounded like??
Lydon left at the end of the U.S. tour while Jones and Cook went on to Brazil to work with train-robber Ronnie Biggs — a fairly pointless and irrelevant idea that only seemed simply like an opportunity for McLaren to invent himself as a postmodern Svengali and anti-hero of the emerging world of advertising as art form. Meanwhile Sid Vicious, the misleadingly most infamous element of the Pistols story, made no discernible contribution to anything in the months leading up to his inevitable and tragic death. Lydon, it seems had got out at the right time. He took a trip to Jamaica with punky reggae DJ Don Letts and then, as the only Pistol who remained rooted in reality at that point, set about reflecting the sounds coming out of multi-cultural Britain with fellow travellers Jah Wobble, Keith Levene and Jim Walker in Public Image Ltd.
That’s another story, but for now and to mark the passing of forty years since that first ever live show. I’d like to raise a glass and “God bless those Sex Pistols’
Steve Taylor — Deputy Dean Media, English and Culture, and Performance Arts
Greil Marcus In the Fascist Bathroom: Pink in Pop Music 1977–1992 Harvard University Press 1993
Dave Marsh, The Heart of Rock and Soul Plume 1989
Slavoj Zizek interviewed by Sabine Reul and Thomas Deichman on 15th November 2001 published online as “The One Measure of True Love Is: You Can Insult the Other” http://www.lacan.com/zizek-measure.html
(Adapted from The A to X of Alternative Music by Steve Taylor (with a foreword by Michael Stipe) Continuum 2004)