I know no single band that encapsulated so much what a musical movement was all about than The Sex Pistols, England’s most remarkable punk rock outfit. Every characteristic feature was palpable in them: the musical abrasiveness, the rampant political stance, the self-destructiveness, and the instrumental lack of prowess. I thought the last part of the previous statement over and over. I did not want to use an expression like “musical ineptitude”, but the fact remains that the true identity of those who played on their one and only album (“Never Mind The Bollocks – Here’s The Sex Pistols”, released in 1977) remains unknown.
The band was fronted by Johnny Rotten (real name: John Lydon). The instrumentalists were guitar player Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock, an art student who didn’t really fit in, and who left the band early on due to the edgy relationship with Rotten. He was replaced by the infamous Sid Vicious (real name: Simon John Ritchie), one of the Pistols’ deadliest followers and a former drummer for Siouxsie & The Banshees. It is unclear whether or not he could play the instrument – I have read accounts of a second bass player behind the stage playing his parts live, while he was for sure not featured on “Never Mind The Bollocks”.
A figure that must also be mentioned since it played a major role is manager Malcolm Mc Laren – the band members met at the clothing shop he ran, and he was one of the main provocateurs all along, helping it define its image along with his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood and publicist Jamie Reid. He had an egocentric role that would prove to be impossible to handle, yet he was a vital part of it all, and as conflictive as any other Pistol. He was on the papers as much as them, spouting punks philosophies and ethos to all and sundry.
The Pistols were together for about two years and a half. They released four singles and their genre-defining album amidst chaos and censorship, and imploded during their first American tour. There was only one steady friendship (Cook and Jones – they had known each other for quite a couple of years, they were the first members of the band to play together), and they worked for a while afterwards under the moniker of “The Professionals”. Rotten started a band called “Public Image Limited” that arose some interest (specially early on), whereas Vicious died at 21 of an overdose after one of the most tumultuous lives you could imagine, partly owing to his girlfriend Nancy (she was stabbed to death shortly before his demise, under circumstances that were unclear. Vicious was arrested and charged, and he overdosed while on parole. Evidence now points to a drug dealer). Original member Glen Matlock also released some solo records and a biography. In 1996 the four of them reunited again, and they are still performing nowadays.
I think a band with all the characteristics of The Pistols could only emerge in a setting as conservative as England. Keith Moon’s biographer Tony Fletcher describes the impact their infamous Bill Grundy interview had brilliantly, comparing it to the opening of a seismic fault between the older and younger generations, the latter thrilled by someone who finally dared not only challenge but actually spit on the status quo.
Ultimately, their one album is a mandatory listen for every person who is interested in the history of music. “Never Mind The Bollocks” is comparable to the works of poets like Rimbaud and Verlaine in the sense that it represented the most radical response possible to a sanitized form of entertainment, wholly disconnected from the public’s innermost feelings. You might like “Nevermind The Bollocks” or not, you might find it too loud, too vulgar, too decadent… But it is a milestone in the history of music. Having it is not a matter of “being hip” or not. It is a matter of understanding how the rebellious spirit spurring musicians since Elvis took the stage never died, and how it manifested itself time after time. And how and why it will continue calling through the years.