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Audio Rewind: 40 Riotous Years of Sex Pistols’ Punk

Audio Rewind: 40 Riotous Years of Sex Pistols’ Punk

By 1976, the term “punk” had been integrated into the lexicons of music journalists all over America. Punk, a new fast-paced, noisy, barebones music, was a deviation from ’60s garage rock. As Lester Bangs wrote in a 1971 piece for Cream: “Punk bands started cropping up who were writing their own songs but taking the Yardbirds’ sound and reducing it to this kind of goony fuzztone clatter. … oh, it was beautiful, it was pure folklore, Old America, and sometimes I think those were the best days ever.”

“Punk” was used to describe the devotees of this new music just as readily as its makers, an indication of both the music’s intimacy and its accessibility. Like folk before it, punk rock fostered closeness. A sweatier, more irreverent closeness, but closeness nonetheless. There were bands like The Clash in the UK, and Television and The Ramones in New York City, early torchbearers for the movement’s appeal to the viscera. Only one group, though, truly embodied the punk ethos—that cheeky subculture housed in vomit-covered basements and roiling rock club mosh pits. Never mind those other bullocks, here’s the Sex Pistols.

The Sex Pistols grew out of a London band called The Strand (and sometimes The Swankers). Formed in 1972, the ragtag threesome of working class teens—Steve Jones (vocals), Paul Cook (drums), and Wally Nightingale (guitar)—reportedly amassed their gigging equipment by staying at venues after concerts and stealing instruments when no one was looking. Eventually the band hired local clothes shop owner Malcolm McLaren to be their manager. Nightingale, at McLaren’s suggestion, was kicked out of the group for being too nice, which prompted Jones to shift to lead guitar, led to the hire of bassist Glen Matlock, and made room for the band’s most notorious fellas: John Ritchie (Sid Vicious) and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten).

Fast forward to 1976 and the public emergence of the Sex Pistols. By now Lydon had joined the band as their wild, green-haired lead singer, and the Pistols had attracted a significant following (including a covey of followers called the Bromley Contingent, one of whom was soon-to-be influential alt. rocker, Siouxsie Sioux). They’d also begun performing their first single, “Anarchy in the UK.” Through their riotous anthem, punk became associated with a newly politicized attitude. “I am an anti-Christ” and “I want to destroy thee,” lyrics roared by Lydon, conveyed a sense of an aggrieved, yet euphoric nihilism.

The Sex Pistols’ reputation preceded them, but not so much that they didn’t attract the attention of major record labels. EMI signed the group to a two-year deal in October, prompting them to record and release “Anarchy” as their debut single. The then-foundling music weekly NME reviewed the song 40 years ago this week, derisively proclaiming that “Johnny Rotten sings flat, the song is laughably naive, and the overall feeling is of a third-rate Who imitation.”

Sure, in terms of musicality, the track was shrill and jouncy, but this was punk, and punk didn’t care. Punk hit people in the guts. Colin Newman, who had just co-founded Wire, called “Anarchy in the UK” the “clarion call of a generation.” And this was a generation tired of genuflecting to the idea that urbane musicality could be the only effective mode for rock ‘n’ roll.

Punk culture was more than just music, though. A few days before the NME review arrived, the band demonstrated a personality apropos of their sound’s turbid impiety. Filling in after a late cancellation from fellow EMI band, Queen, the Sex Pistols and their Bromley Contingent appeared on a live broadcast of Thames Television’s program, Today. After the band members swore several times on the program, host Bill Grundy, looking blithely bewildered, engaged in suggestive banter with Sioux. “I’ve always wanted to meet you,” she told him.”Did you really?” he replied. “We’ll meet afterwards, shall we?”

This exchange prompted Jones to curse repeatedly at the host, calling him a “dirty sod” and a “dirty old man” before giving him far more obscene epithets. The story was picked up by national publications and the Sex Pistols’ brand of punk was born and disseminated far and wide, injecting an entire generation with the “clarion call” of a new anarchic breed. Anarchy, though, is hard to sustain.

In 1977, Matlock was kicked out because, according to McLaren, he “liked the Beatles”—a slight to Matlock for not being punk enough. To replace him the band appointed Sid Vicious, a friend of Rotten’s and a diehard Pistols fan. He couldn’t play bass, but he had “the look,” and apparently that was enough.

Vicious worked hard to become better, but when the band recorded their only album, Never Mind the Bullocks, they wouldn’t let him anywhere near the studio. Jones recorded all of the bass parts and Vicious stayed away, fueling his drug-addled habits and inciting various mischiefs. By January, 1978, the new bassist was addicted to heroin and, after several violent incidents, he’d devolved into disarray. The band soon followed. Rotten, at odds with Jones and Cook and disgusted by Vicious, left a San Francisco show early and the band split three days later, just two-and-a-half years after the journey began.

Vicious spun out of control after the breakup. He was convicted of the murder of his fiancé, Nancy Spungen, smashed a beer mug in Patti Smith’s brother’s face, underwent a cold turkey drug detox during a 55-day stay at Rikers Island, and then died of a heroin overdose during his return-from-jail party. He was just 21 years old.

This is hardly the full tale of the smut and debauchery that was the Sex Pistols brief punk foray, and it’s said nothing of the ugly, greed-ridden legal disputes that followed, but it’s a glimpse of the foundation (or lack thereof) of the punk people refer to when they call something punk. With the Pistols, ideas of a “proper” public image went to hell. Propriety be damned, they seemed to be saying, and here’s an outlet for everyone who feels the same way. It’s an attitude that ultimately led to their demise, but the influence of that attitude on punk culture and our zeitgeist at large is inestimable.

In a contenious nod to punk a couple weeks ago, McLaren’s son, Joe Corre, burned five million dollars of Sex Pistols memorabilia on a boat in London. He denounced the fact that punk had been “turned into a museum piece” and set flame to everything he owned. Whether the act was punk or simply a publicity stunt is up for debate, but it affirms that, even to this day, the Sex Pistols remain the paragon of punk. Even now, whenever we have to mind life’s bullocks, we think of them.

Image: Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway) via Wikimedia Commons

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