Few records in history can claim to have impacted the world as much as the music industry like the Sex Pistols and their one and only studio album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols.
Released in 1977 in the first wave of punk, it was unprecedented in anything that came before it, quite literally the scuzziest, grimiest, loudest and crudest music on record and it sparked an absolute white hot inferno of outrage across a Britain in the middle of a socioeconomic nightmare. Challenging the over-starched status quo and giving a sneering middle finger to sensible British establishment in a way nobody else had ever dared to.
Fast forward to about 2004, where a 14-year-old Australian kid in a rural town of just 6000 people picks up a copy of Never Mind The Bollocks for the first time and falls in love with it. Despite it being over three decades later and despite (then) knowing nothing about the social and political backdrop that album was created upon, it utterly hooked me and changed the way I looked at music forever.
It was my first punk record.
It wasn’t the first punk record by any means, that distinction belongs to the Ramones and their self-titled debut album in 1976 that first kicked the door down for bands to thrash their instruments to within an inch of their lives and make the unholy racket known in part as punk. The other part was the lifestyle: gritty, grimy, nihilistic and aggressive. Word crossed the English channel fast, via the Sex Pistols eventual manager Malcolm McLaren, who had been in New York City and became enraptured with the burgeoning punk scene there. Never Mind The Bollocks saw the Sex Pistols take everything the Ramones had paved the way doing and ramped it up to 11.
They were a gang. Steve Jones (guitar) and Paul Cook (drums) the founding members, first playing on instruments they had stolen. John Lydon, or as he came to be immortalised, Johnny Rotten, was found on the streets of London sporting green hair and the now infamous safety pin-riddled Pink Floyd t-shirt with ‘I Hate’ scrawled above the band’s name (I still can’t bring myself to like Pink Floyd to this day because of how badass I thought that was). Bassist and eventual real life Shakespearean tragedy Sid Vicious was the last to join the eventual Never Mind The Bollocks lineup, in true punk fashion replacing original bassist Glen Matlock despite having what basically amounted to zero aptitude for the instrument.
The band had already caused a stir across Great Britain before a record had even been released, appearing on television drunk and dropping shits and fucks in an era and a country where even saying ‘pants’ on television was frowned upon (probably), and all but bringing the hard-working people at EMI, the label who signed them, to the brink of a nervous breakdown as well as being banned from playing live just about everywhere. Nothing could have prepared them for the shitstorm Never Mind The Bollocks would unleash though.
From the very first song Holidays In The Sun, opening with the uber-aggressive sound of stomping jackboots, the metaphorical noise of the first wave of British punks coming marching in heralded by a frantic gutter riff and. Rotten shocks out of the gate, declaring he’d rather go to ‘the new Belsen‘, a concentration camp, than a holiday in the sun. It’s a sarcastic look at post-war Britain, the Sex Pistols definitively sneering they’d rather climb over the Wall and be in shitty East Germany than in what present day London had turned into for them.
Bodies is even more confronting, a snarling narrative of ‘a girl from Birmingham‘ and her abortions. Graphic and profane lyrical content as well as the repeatedly shouted line ‘I’m not an animal‘ lead many to presume this was an anti-abortion song, though Rotten would claim the opposite in later years.
No Feelings was by far my favourite as a snotty, angsty teenager. Damn near every teenager is as selfish as it fucking gets and I was oftentimes a right piece of shit. It was a no-brainer then that a song whose chorus howls about not feeling a thing for anybody else (‘except for myself’) would be my absolute anthem. So was Pretty Vacant, perhaps the all-time song for teenage apathy.
Even with Bodies repeating the word fuck and vividly describing the Pistols idea of abortion and Holidays In The Sun comparing post-war East Germany with London, it might have been what now seems mildly irreverent but back then caused a near uproar in God Save The Queen. With its symbol a Union Jack behind a picture of Queen Elizabeth II with her eyes and mouth blacked out, the song split Britain into the appalled and the electrified.
The BBC refused to acknowledge it, let alone even play it. This didn’t stop it from rocketing up the charts as a disenfranchised generation of youths latched onto the unquestionable ‘fuck you’ the Sex Pistols had spat at the feet of the monarchy. When it only reached number two there were claims of it being rigged to prevent such a shocking song climbing all the way to number one.
How many other bands in history can say the government actively tried to stop them making music before they incited riots? The only two I can think of are the Sex Pistols and N.W.A.
The establishments fears of a punk uprising would only be heightened by another incendiary song and perhaps the most famous to come from Never Mind The Bollocks in the gleeful Anarchy In The UK. You can almost hear the collective jimmies being rustled in higher society from Rotten’s opening snarl ‘I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist’ to comparing the UK to the M.P.L.A., the U.D.A. and the I.R.A. in the space of a breath while the rest of the Pistols get positively violent on their instruments behind him. It feels dangerous, the pissed off threat of an entire fed-up generation.
The entire album was a screeching, hissing, spitting absolutely primal rebuttal to shitty circumstances and served as the raised fist of the downtrodden and the marginalised. It raised thousands if not millions of British youths on safety pins and shredded clothes and, despite their government’s desperate attempts to prevent it from ever happening, showed that regular people could stand up and challenge authority.
The Ramones may have been the first punk band but the Sex Pistols were the first punk band who lived and breathed punk as a lifestyle. It was what Green Day tried so hard and failed so spectacularly to replicate on American Idiot. That was what I thought was ‘punk’ as a clueless kid. To first hear the Sex Pistols by comparison then at 14, when the only ‘punk’ bands I’d ever known until that point were all whining about the girls who’d broken up with them and the home towns they wanted to leave, it was a total revelation. This was a band that was legitimately pissed off and had every right to be, not just fawning in the studio over first world problems. This was real, and my raging adolescent hormones latched onto the raw anger and the unforgiving sarcasm of Never Mind The Bollocks, despite never knowing just how lucky I had it.
I walked around with a permanent sneer, trying to emulate Johnny Rotten. I spiked my hair to unspeakable lengths and painted my fingernails black trying to look like Sid Vicious. I was a tragic, but at the time I felt like I had been just as marginalised as the Sex Pistols and their peers had been in late-70s Britain. Stupid, I know, but to a 14-year-old kid who doesn’t know a thing, the Sex Pistols and their music were cocaine. I bought a bright yellow Never Mind The Bollocks t-shirt and wore it to school on a casual dress day, daring any of the teachers to challenge me about it. The only one who noticed asked, slightly bemused, where I’d gotten it from before giving me a knowing smile. He had been a punk once too.
The Sex Pistols were also my gateway to countless other bands I still listen to today. The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Dead Kennedys and of course the Ramones. Their filthy, furious brand of rock and roll sounded like it had been recorded through layers of shit and piss and bile and blood and it still had a profound influence on so many bands who followed them. Artists like Kurt Cobain, Black Flag, The Stone Roses, Social Distortion, even Noel Gallagher who doesn’t like anything acknowledged how good Never Mind The Bollocks is. Every punk band that came after them owes them a debt.
It all went to shit for the Pistols in the years after, and Sid Vicious’ downward spiral into addiction has been well-documented, but the mark they left on popular music with the atom bomb that was Never Mind The Bollocks still won’t rub off.
The mark they left on me will never rub off.
Image: New Statesman.