Punk is dirty, punk is clean, punk is anti-establishment, punk is establishment, punk is controlled chaos, punk is uncontrolled, punk is anarchy, punk is whatever the hell you want it to be. Punk is dead, punk is alive.
The Sex Pistols formed in 1975 and are widely considered to be the most incendiary of the bands to ride that startling first wave of British punk rock. By 1978 after four singles and only one studio album the band was over, almost guaranteeing their place as the influential, combustible force that many bands would later draw from.
Stories began to emerge from constructed imagery whilst fans and band members alike felt the deception. Johnny Rotten famously spat the line “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” at the their San Francisco show, the final date of their ill-fated tour of the US in 1978 and what is considered the site of their split.
The feeling was only exacerbated thanks to Malcolm McLaren’s growing ego and claims of being the master puppeteer and Svengali of The Sex Pistols. Was he really that far removed though?
Forefathers of punk and fuckers of authority, The Sex Pistols set the benchmark for the dispute, disarray and vitriol which drove their genre to the world stage.
Evolving from the London band The Strand, formed in 1972 by teenagers Steve Jones (vocals), Paul Cook (drums) and Wally Nightingale (guitar), the band were reportedly so poor that when they went to concerts they would wait until the band had finished and then approach the stage, stealing as much musical equipment as they could handle.
Future Sex Pistols credential? Check.
The members would often hang around a store called Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. That store would go through multiple reinventions as they followed trends before finally settling with SEX Boutique, a shop self-billed as “specialists in rubberwear, glamourwear and stagewear.”
It’s widely considered ground zero for the birth of The Sex Pistols. John Lydon later recalled “Malcolm and Vivienne were really a pair of shysters: they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto.”
After a line-up switch, seeing Nightingale ousted and John Lydon (later nicknamed Johnny Rotten) entering, the Sex Pistols began to build a following playing around London. A core group of followers were the Bromley Contingent made up of Steven Severin, Siouxsie Sioux, Soo Catwoman, and Billy Idol.
Two university students, Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley were at an early gig and immediately went on to form their own group, the Buzzcocks. Devoto would later state, “My life changed the moment I saw The Sex Pistols.”
A young Joe Strummer, at the time fronting a pub rock band called The 101ers caught the band at a gig at local London club the Nashville, a club the Pistols were later banned from for starting a brawl. It was only a short time later that Strummer opened for The Sex Pistols with his newly formed group, The Clash.
Anarchy in the U.K. was released in 1976 and landed like a bomb, in some ways acting like a premonition for the events to follow. The song linked a newly politicised stance for punk and the primary image associated with the record was Jamie Reid’s Anarchy Flag poster.
The Pistols were nihilistic, ecstatic and volatile and Rotten’s sneering howls of “I am an anti Christ” reached a restless youth ready to explode, hailing the single as their own personal manifesto.
After the “You Fucking Rotter” incident, where they swore on live television, the Sex Pistols finally achieved the infiltration that they, McLaren at least, were searching for.
Front-page news the day after the incident declared the Pistols “The Filth and The Fury” by the Daily Mirror and the episode had made the band a household name, brought punk into mainstream awareness and brought a fame that seemed as much concerned about their image as it was their music.
After a second line-up shift where Matlock left (or was fired, depending on what side you hear) and Sid Vicious arrived, the bands tempestuous nature was at its height.
Despite all accounts of Vicious’ lack of musical ability, he had the look and the punk credentials in spades. It was an image that Vicious bought in with aplomb, holding several assault charges to his name, later a murder charge for the stabbing of his girlfriend Nancy and finally his overdose on heroin at only 21.
Despite it all, The Sex Pistols have cemented a lasting influence over music and popular culture, a popularity that they raged against even as they imploded. Whether they were McLaren’s creation or not, their fire was undeniable, even as God Save The Queen peaked at number two on the charts and they essentially entered popular culture.
It seems only fitting that they should leave us with Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, an album and band with ideals and energy that was simply too wild to contain. Their importance in music and pop culture cannot and should not be ignored.
Johnny Rotten’s lyrics frequently addressed the taboo topics within the music industry, consumerism, abortion, violence, fascism and of course the monarchy. Rotten once said, in regards to the furore surrounding the band;
“I don’t understand it. All we’re trying to do is destroy everything”.
A statement from a man who gave little fucks then and hasn’t really seemed to gain many since.
Here’s to the shysters, the shit-kickers, the beaten, the damned, the anarchists and the jokers.
Happy Birthday Johnny Rotten.