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Monday, June 20, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: The Sex Pistols
There are few bands in the history of rock that have left a greater impression in such a short time as the Sex Pistols. The band was together for about two years, they never charted a single in America, and they never recorded an album together; their lone album was a singles collection.
However, had there been no Sex Pistols, the current musical landscape would be a vastly different one; everything that came after their 1976-1977 existence has somehow been touched by them, either directly as a musical influence, or indirectly in terms of the recontextualization of rock music the Pistols achieved in their brief moment. Punk, indie rock, and alternative rock all owe a tremendous debt to the band whose stated goal was to destroy rock 'n' roll. They might not have succeeded in their mission, but they did manage to change its face forever.
Their music was raw and nihilistic; The Ramones were a cheerful pop band in comparison. In England, they were more than a dangerous band; they were a bona fide threat to the social order and the monarchy itself. In America, most people didn't hear of them until they were already gone; still, the shadow cast by their small clutch of releases had immediate and irreversable effect on punk rock; the overwhelming rage and sonic attack their music held, and their defiant, do-it-our-way attitude were the cornerstones of a whole new generation of music.
Their story begins in 1975 when Malcom McLaren, owner of the London boutique SEX, decided to take some principles learned from the French situationist art terrorists of 1968 and apply them to the staid boys' club of rock music. The idea was to shake things up with a large dose of provocative anarchy that would fly in the face of the pomposity of progressive rock and the flaccidity of country-rock and singer/songwriter music. Having very briefly worked with the provocative New York Dolls at the end of their career, he had some rock experience; this time, he wanted to be fully in charge of a band from the start, and orchestrate their attack like puppetmaster.
Fortunately for McLaren, he had the nucleus for a band hanging around (and occasionally shoplifting from) his boutique. Working at SEX as shop assistent was bass player Glen Matlock; a pair of scruffy regulars were guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook. By late 1975 the trio had formed a band called the Swankers, with McLaren managing. It wasn't enough; McLaren wanted a frontman so outrageous, so rude and in-your-face, so snotty and acerbic that the band couldn't help but get noticed.
A McLaren buddy, Bernie Rhodes (who would go on to manage the Clash) made the discovery of a generation when he spotted a green-haired, nearsighted, scrawny and ill-looking kid named John Lydon, who was decked out in a T-shirt emblazoned with "I Hate Pink Floyd" on it. Rhodes talked the skeptical Lydon into auditioning for McLaren.
The audition came at a pub not far from McLaren's shop on Kings Road; Lydon sang a ridiculous version of "Eighteen" by Alice Cooper. McLaren saw what he wanted, and told Lydon to be at a rehearsal the next week at another pub called The Crunchy Frog, in Rotherhithe. Lydon duly arrived, but Cook, Jones, and Matlock took an instant disliking to him; Lydon was disgusted that the three hadn't bothered to tune their instruments. He immediately called McLaren and told him the deal was off, but Mclaren wouldn't let him leave; despite the animosity present from the moment Lydon entered the door, Lydon and the band practiced together, and the lineup was set. Lydon's contribution to the noisy, poorly-tuned band was his quick wit which masked an intelligence he tried to keep hidden behind his nihilistic flair for fashion and his obnoxious, confrontational pronouncements. The band was on its way to becoming the most subversive of all time.
Cook and Jones, despite their initial sloppiness, were actually very good musicians; Jones in particular had already developed the no-frills style that would land him plenty of sessionwork after the Sex Pistols ended. The band began playing London art colleges in early 1976, and became notorious overnight. A small but rabid crowd of misfits glommed on to their music, which was noisy, rudimentary, and abrasive, giving birth to the very first stirrings of the punk movement in England.
Lydon, who had taken the stage name Johnny Rotten, re-invented the concept of frontman virtually on his own; there wasn't really anyone to base his persona on. His image was one of utter contempt, delivered with a sneer that would've left Elvis' lip trembling. He was an instant icon of the anti-rock star, and rapidly became the focal point of the band.
The band's confrontational style was designed to anger audiences, and the threat of violence became very real at their shows; sometimes the band would get pissed at each other, nearly coming to blows onstage. Other times, the audiences they baited would be whipped into a frenzy of fists, gobs of spit, and flying beer bottles. This managed to get them banned in many of the venues they played; the band responded by playing in unconventional venues such as cinemas and prisons.
By October 1976 their notoriety was getting them mentioned in the newspapers; EMI records, who had once had the Beatles recording for them, signed them for a sizable advance. A tour was set up with The Clash, the Damned, and the Heartbreakers, but after the first few gigs erupted in mayhem, there were mass cancellations by the venues. Meanwhile, the band's first single, "Anarchy In the U.K.", a powerful, leering attack on the status quo and a statement of purpose, was banned by the BBC and many retailers. Despite this, it still managed to reach #38 on the charts.
National awareness of this growing menace came in December 1976 on the stolid tea-time show London Today. Trusted host Bill Grundy introduced the scrawny, malnourished band dressed in rags and tatters; the band promptly cussed him out on national TV. The outraged headlines the next day spoke of moral degeneration and made the band the hot topic of the week, igniting their career.
There was a price to be paid, however. EMI dropped the band like a hot potato in January 1977; the band was banned from playing all over the country. The band itself was still at each others' throats. Somehow, Cook, Jones, and Lydon discovered Matlock was a Beatles fan; this couldn't stand in the world's most dangerous band, and he was kicked out. Lydon brought in a friend, Sid Vicious (aka John Beverley or Simon Ritchie), an almost cartoon version of punk rocker. Vicious coudn't play his bass at all, and wasn't very bright; his inability to play clashed with Cook and Jones, who could play. Fans greeted him with suspicion, and in some cases, outright hostility. His American girlfriend, groupie Nancy Spungen, introduced him to the heroin that would ultimately kill them both.
A&M records decided to take a chance, signing them for a hefty bonus outside the gates of Buckingham palace. Ten days later, they were dropped, after A&M employees refused to work on the band's behalf. This threatened to kill McLaren's (and now Rotten's) vision; fortunately, a reprieve came in the form of Richard Branson, hippie capitalist and owner of Virgin records, no stranger to controversy himself. It was Branson's Virgin records that released the band's most notorious single, "God Save The Queen" in time for the Queen's Jubilee celebrations.
It was an explosive piece of dynamite, and its anti-monarchist message earned them instant enemies around the kingdom. It received zero radio airplay, nor was it carried in many shops, but nontheless became the biggest selling record in the country. On the day of the Jubilee, the band played on a Thames riverboat; the police shut them down and took the band to jail for the night.
All of this was better than McLaren ever imagined, but there was a serious backlash. The punk revolt in England gave birth to the anti-punk response; punks were randomly beaten up on the streets; Rotten and Cook received a serious beating themselves. The band embarked for Sweden, where unsuspecting venues awaited, and released two more groundbreaking singles, "Pretty Vacant" and "Holidays In The Sun". The band returned to England and often played unannounced; it was the only way they could get in front of an audience. An album was assembled from the singles, the B-sides, and a few leftover tracks, Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols. Released in November 1977, it went straight to #1, despite the usual boycotts and blacklist. One record shop clerk in Nottingham was arrested and tried for obscenity after putting it on display; he was ultimately acquitted. The album stands as a tour de force that many have copied but none have come close to equalling. It remains the quintessential punk album of all time; its chief assets are Rotten's snarling vocals and Jones' powerful guitar. Vicious' bass is absent; most of the cuts feature Matlock.
This success despite everything lacked only one last necessary ingredient; the band needed to conquer America. True to fashion, a tour was put together in the most aggresively confrontational manner possible; the band played gigs throughout the Deep South in January 1978 to rednecks who cared nothing for the music, but wanted to see a freakshow. Vicious, seriously addicted to heroin at this point, slashed and mutilated himself on stage and traded insults and spit with audience members; the band was booed and catcalled at each stop.
The tour lasted two weeks and concluded at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, a hippie mecca. Rotten's last taunt to the audience was "Ha ha! Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" He then walked out, not just on the audience, but on the band as well.
McLaren tried to get Rotten to reconsider, and was told to fuck off, or words to that effect, so he decided to salvage what he could without him. Cook and Jones were dispatched to Brazil, where they recorded "Belson Was A Gas" with Great Train Robbery fugitive Ronnie Biggs. Vicious recorded some Eddie Cochrane numbers, and gained a signature tune with a cover of Frank Sinatra's "My Way". McLaren was hoping to mold Vicious into the band's new frontman, but events finally got out of control.
Vicious suffered his first overdose on a flight to New York City; landing in a coma for a spell. On October 12, 1978, Vicious awoke in his Chelsea Hotel room to find Spungen lying in the bathroom, dead of a stab wound. He was arrested and booked for murder, although he swore he remembered nothing from the night's events, due to heavy drug usage. Virgin records bailed him out, and he attempted suicide with a razor, landing in Bellevue mental institution. On December 9th, he smashed a glass in the face of Patti Smith's brother at Max's Kansas City and was arrested again. This time, he remained in jail until February 1, 1979; upon his release he immediately shot up some bad heroin his mother had gotten for him; he was dead within hours.
Without the band, McLaren set about cashing in. October 1979 saw the release of the film, The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle; out of spite, McLaren saw that most of Rotten's appearances were left out; Matlock is absent altogether. Thus, the film is useless as the documentary it purports to be; still, it is compelling (if difficult) viewing, in the same manner as a car accident.
Johnny Rotten reverted to John Lydon and formed the experimental band Public Image Limited, whose first release, Metal Box, appeared in 1979 to considerable praise. In 1986, the band sued McLaren for back royalties and won. In 1996, the original band with Matlock embarked on a reunion tour. While Lydon made no secret the tour was a money-making venture (it was called "The Filthy Lucre" tour), it did settle a question once and for all: the band really could play, and their music was every bit as powerful as it had been 20 years earlier, when it still meant something. A documentary, The Filth & the Fury, appeared in 2000.
Weekly Artist Overview appears on Mondays.
Listen to the Sex Pistols: Pretty Vacant (1977)