God bless The Sex Pistols. During their chaotic two-year existence, they introduced real musical anarchy to the world, yoking their working-class anger and disgust to a brutal roar that still inspires nascent punk bands.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that a group as self-destructive as The Pistols could have gained so much fame and come to wield enormous influence on rock & roll and the music industry itself.
But the music they played was just one small component of their story.
The brief success of The Sex Pistols represented an inspiring marketing operation by their manager Malcolm McLaren, selling an attitude which expressed contempt for everyone. And you didn’t have to like the music to like the attitude.
The Pistols ethos can be traced back to 1974 when McLaren, managing drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones in The Swankers, supposedly sacked third member Wally Nightingale for being “too musically proficient”.
Renamed The Sex Pistols, and now fronted by leering lead singer Johnny Rotten (real name John Lydon), the group made their debut in November 1975 with a gig at St Martin’s School of Art in Charing Cross Road, London, before quickly getting banned from venues all over the UK.
Following the release of their landmark debut single, Anarchy In The UK, the Pistols made front page news following an appearance on the Today television show – hosted by Bill Grundy – on 1 December 1976.
In fact, The Sex Pistols were last-minute replacements for Queen who had been scheduled to appear on the show but were unavailable. Towards the end of a typically obnoxious interview, Grundy goaded the band, spurring them on to be controversial. The boys did not disappoint:
Grundy: Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on, you’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.
Steve Jones: You dirty bastard.
Grundy: Go on, again.
Steve Jones: You dirty fucker.
Grundy: What a clever boy.
Steve Jones: What a fucking rotter.
The interview generated an incredible amount of publicity, which coupled with Jamie Reid’s provocative sleeve design for their next single God Save The Queen – depicting the monarch with a safety pin through her nose – guaranteed their infamy. The next morning they were national front page news.
Their single reached #12 in the charts but EMI got cold feet and stopped promoting the band. The Pistols set out on their first national tour but were banned from playing all but five of the scheduled twenty dates.
In 1977, bassist Glen Matlock, a talented songwriter, was replaced by the incompetent but iconic Sid Vicious (real name Simon John Ritchie but also known as John Beverley), and God Save The Queen surprisingly managed to top the charts with absolutely no commercial radio airplay at all.
The band earned well over £100,000 in advances from three different record companies as high jinks and constant press attention got them sacked from labels with remarkable frequency.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, the band hired a boat in June and set sail on the River Thames, blasting their anti-Elizabeth anthem (“she ain’t no human being”) at full volume to the whole of London. It was a far cry from the nationalistic tunes piped from other boats in the procession.
The cops showed up and of course, savvy manager Malcolm McLaren, had a camera crew on hand to film the bloody lot. The great rock and roll swindle continued as always.
In July, Pretty Vacant went Top 10 in Britain and the band toured England undercover (as The Spots – which stood for Sex Pistols On Tour). Holidays In The Sun followed Pretty Vacant into the Top 10 in October.
The following month, their debut album, Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols went straight into the UK album charts at #1.
In something of a test case a London record retailer was warned that displaying the album sleeve was an offence under the 1889 Indecent Advertising Act, but magistrates ruled this was not so (Richard Branson called in a linguistics professor to testify to the non-obscene origins of the word “bollocks”).
The Sex Pistols ended 1977 by signing with Warner Brothers in the USA – Finishing up as the ninth best-selling singles act in Britain for the year.
Early in 1978, the Pistols’ highly-publicised and ultimately self-destructive US tour of big venues was a shambles, and it’s no wonder that the group imploded. The farcical tour ended in disarray with The Pistol’s last-ever gig at San Francisco’s Winterland on 14 January 1978.
It was public knowledge that the members of the band never really liked each other, and Sid’s ill-fated drug abuse and John’s intellectual pretensions only exacerbated the situation.
On 16 October 1978, Malcolm McLaren persuaded Virgin Records to cough up the $50,000 bail required to get Sid out of New York’s Rikers Island prison where he was awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
On 9 December, Sid and his new girlfriend Michelle Robinson wound up in Hurrah’s disco at 2.30 AM, where they met Patti Smith‘s brother, Todd. Sid and Todd argued, with Todd punching him and Sid smashing a bottle and slashing Todd across the face. With his bail comprehensively breached, Vicious was immediately hauled back to Rikers’ heroin detox unit where he stayed for the next seven weeks. Virgin’s bail money went with him . . .
Sid Vicious died of a drug overdose nearly eight weeks later on 2 February 1979. He was 21.
It came as no surprise to anyone when Malcolm McLaren unveiled a 1979 Sex Pistols documentary called The Great Rock & Roll Swindle.
In 1986, John Lydon (now a member of Public Image Ltd), Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Mrs Ann Beverley (mother of the late Sid Vicious) sued Malcolm McLaren and his Glitterbeat company for £1 million in unpaid royalties. While hardly anarchic behaviour by the punk rocking Pistols, they won their claim.
A 1996 Sex Pistols reunion – dubbed ‘The Filthy Lucre Tour’ after a tabloid headline from 1977, “Punk? Call it filthy lucre” – was greeted in the British press as the least welcome comeback of all time and a crass betrayal of the original do-or-die punk philosophy.
The Pistols made no bones about their enthusiasm for converting their mythical status into cold, hard cash but despite the wall-to-wall publicity the announcement attracted, the band struggled to sell out the 30,000-seat capacity gig at Finsbury Park in June.
The gig, though, was by no means the embarrassment that many had feared it could be, and the band went on to play around 70 dates in Europe, North and South America, Australasia and Japan.
“I don’t understand why people think it’s so difficult to learn to play guitar. I found it incredibly easy. You just pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music”.
Sid Vicious. 1977