Rock and roll was never the same after the Sex Pistols. They ignited the punk-rock revolution in Britain, and the reverberations carried to all corners of the rock and roll world. Expressing the cynical, restive mood of youthful Britons, the Sex Pistols restored a sense of danger to rock music. This wasn’t the theatrical danger of Alice Cooper’s onstage guillotine but the very real possibility of injury to the body and a jolt to the senses. At Sex Pistols concerts during their two-year British heyday - from their first show on November 6, 1975, through the end of 1977 - there was gobbing (spitting), fistfights, flying bottles and insults hurled in both directions.
There was also gloriously loud, venomous rock and roll that took dead aim at whatever subjects incited vocalist Johnny Rotten’s ire, from British royalty (“God Save the Queen”) to record companies (“EMI”). They also unleashed the splenetic rock and roll anthem “Anarchy in the U.K.” The anarchy commenced in 1975, when Rotten hooked up with guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Glen Matlock and drummer Paul Cook at an outré London clothing shop called Sex. It was run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who became the Sex Pistols’ manager and would-be Svengali, plotting their conquest of recession-era Britain using controversy and confrontation.
Even without McLaren’s machinations, Johnny Rotten was a one-man publicity department who stated his views plainly and defiantly. Early in their career, Rotten had this to say about the Sex Pistols and the mainstream audience: “The great ignorant public don’t know why we’re in a band. It’s because we’re bored with all that old crap. Like every decent human being should be.”
“Actually, we’re not into music, we’re into chaos,” opined guitarist Jones.
The Sex Pistols were signed and quickly dropped by two major labels, EMI and A&M, with only the brief release of “Anarchy” emerging from either. (The group got to keep their enormous advances, however.) They wound up on Virgin Records, where they issued a viscerally powerful and stunning series of singles that rank among the most noteworthy events in rock history. In certain quarters, they were comparable in reach and impact to Elvis Presley’s Sun singles of the Fifties. These earth-shaking 45s were, in order: “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “God Save the Queen,” “Pretty Vacant” and “Holidays in the Sun.”
For a spell, every move the Sex Pistols made resulted in headlines and controversy. As word spread about the group, shows were canceled and bans implemented. The negative publicity only enhanced their notoriety. A few words of televised profanity uttered by group members after goading by a disapproving tea-time talk-show host resulted in screaming front-page headlines in the British press: “The Filth and the Fury!” and “Punk? Call It Filthy Lucre.”
The Sex Pistols shocked and scandalized the island nation, which was beleaguered by poverty, unemployment, workers’ strikes and the death of empire. The punks’ overt hostility, especially in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), offended a country that had always taken pride in its mannerly ways. In effect, the Sex Pistols announced that the niceties were over. “God Save the Queen” found Rotten excoriating the Queen (“She ain’t no human being”). The song concluded with the chant “no future,” a taunt that could just as easily apply to the monarchy as Britain’s oppressed and unemployed. “God Save the Queen” went to #2 in Britain. By now, Matlock had been fired for “liking the Beatles” and replaced by John Simon Beverley (a.k.a. Sid Vicious), giving the group an even more menacing image.
Never Mind the Bollocks...Here’s the Sex Pistols, was issued in Britain in October 1977, where it quickly hit Number One. It fared somewhat less well in the U.S., where it peaked at a lowly #106 and then dropped off after 12 weeks. The Sex Pistols came to America for a bizarrely plotted seven-date tour through the South and Southwest. Their very presence in the country incited excitement and protest, and their crazed juggernaut concluded at the Winterland in San Francisco, whereupon the group broke up. “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” were Rotten’s last words from the stage as a Sex Pistol. He went on to form Public Image, Ltd. and reclaim his birth name (John Lydon).
Jones and Cook kept the Sex Pistols’ name alive for several more singles, including one made in Brazil with an on-the-lam Ronnie Biggs, who was among the gang that carried out Britain’s notorious Great Train Robbery. Sid Vicious took up residence in New York, where he attempted a solo career. It yielded the single “My Way,” a punky, sarcastic remake of Frank Sinatra’s hoary chestnut, and the album Sid Sings. He and his manager-girlfriend Nancy Spungeon lived out a tragic, drug-soaked pas de deux at the Chelsea Hotel that culminated in Spungeon’s fatal stabbing. While out on bail for murder charges, Vicious himself died of a heroin overdose. (The biographical movie Sid and Nancy was made about their decline and fall.)
Malcolm McLaren oversaw a fictionalized Sex Pistols film biography, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, directed by Julian Temple and released in 1980. Johnny Rotten was conspicuously uninvolved, having plunged himself into a new group, Public Image Ltd. The double-album soundtrack that came out in Britain featured several early Sex Pistols recordings, later singles and live cuts. While marred by the inclusion of novelty numbers, it served to complement Never Mind the Bollocks in telling the band’s deliriously reckless story.
The tale of Sex Pistols might’ve ended there, except for the fact that the group’s stature kept growing as the extent of their achievement sunk in. What these four penniless punks had done was shock and upend the music industry, reclaiming by force of will a place within it for those who were young, restless, bored and angry. Punk-rock has never gone away since the Sex Pistols threw down the gauntlet, surviving over the decades as rock’s most combative and vital subgenre. It is hard to imagine Green Day’s “American Idiot” without the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” having come before it, and that is true of countless punk-rock recordings.
Given the reverence for the Sex Pistols’ legacy - Never Mind the Bollocks was judged the Number Two album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone - it is perhaps not surprising that they reunited for a 20th anniversary tour. Still not lacking in black humor or pretending to conceal their motives, they dubbed this 1997 outing the “Filthy Lucre Tour,” and the ensuing live recording was entitled Filthy Lucre Live. It featured the original lineup of Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock. They sounded (God forbid) musically tight and eager to please. If the very idea of a Sex Pistols cash-in tour motivated by punk-rock nostalgia went against the grain...well, isn’t that exactly what the Sex Pistols had always done best? The band reunited to tour again in 2002 and 2007.