The Sex Pistols always saw the negative side of things; to them, that’s all there was. It’s not real surprising. England in general was not a great place to be growing up in those days. London, where the Sex Pistols saw their rise to prominence, was particularly bad. There was trash on the streets, abusive police, and rampant unemployment. Opportunities were virtually nonexistent, thanks to the decrepit schooling system. John Lydon says:
Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point blank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks…then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all.
Thusly, the Sex Pistols’ monumental attitude problems are at least understandable, if not condonable. If life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, but what if life hands you dog crap?
One thing is perfectly clear, though. The world has let the Sex Pistols down. And by that I don’t mean just that they didn’t get that promotion at work or someone cut in line in front of them at McDonald’s. I don’t even mean they haven’t been able to live out their dreams – they don’t even have an American Dream to be disappointed by, ‘cause they’re British. Yet even so, they’re famous rock stars now (except Sid Vicious…) so the world treated them pretty well after they complained about it. Could that be all it takes?
In the opener to Never Mind the Bollocks, “Holidays In the Sun,” they filter their angry feelings of disillusionment through a political lens. There’s much talk of going “over the Berlin Wall” in this song. The Berlin Wall can be used as a rich metaphor for separation, differences in ideology or philosophy, and violent defense of one’s politics. Likewise, the metaphorical tearing down of that Wall is often seen as a coming together, and a celebration of freedom. That’s what the actual destruction of the Berlin Wall was about for a lot of people. But for the Sex Pistols (who released “Holidays In the Sun” a full 12 years before the Berlin Wall came down), it’s a metaphor for all the ways life has disappointed them. Back in 1977, East Germany had installed a socialist government that was very wary of West Germany and it not being completely “de-Nazified.” So what was their solution? Build a wall and shoot anyone who tries to cross it. You had an oppressive socialist government on one side of the wall, and a destabilized Nazi regime on the other. Going “over the Berlin Wall,” no matter which side you started on, wasn’t a real good idea. You’re not going to be better off on either side.
But like with “Bodies,” I don’t think the Sex Pistols were very interested in the Berlin Wall itself, just the radical and polarizing emotions the use of that imagery foments. Back in those days, everybody had an opinion on the Berlin Wall, and it was that energy the Sex Pistols wanted to use.
In “No Feelings,” they express disdain for the misanthropic, self-centered attitude that is so prevalent among punks in the late ‘70s. At first glance, this song seems to revel in that violent sort of sociopathy, but a closer listen reveals a subtlety that’s pretty great. Cuts are always more cutting when you don’t see them coming. The cynicism of “I’ve got no emotion for anybody else / You better understand I’m in love with myself!” might seem horrible on the surface, but it’s soon followed by “my beautiful self-ish!” I see what ya did there…
If John Lydon is being subtle and ironic in “No Feelings,” that aesthetic is completely abandoned in “New York.” On the general level, the Sex Pistols are addressing the fakeness they see rampant in America, but Lydon is really expressing his hatred for the New York Dolls.
The New York Dolls was an American proto-punk band who had their day right before the Sex Pistols, and were unofficially managed by Malcolm McLaren, mastermind behind the Sex Pistols. They had a very high sense of pageantry, dressing up in ridiculous drag. In my opinion, when a musical act pays a whole lot of attention to how they look, it’s because they don’t have the musical chops to back it up. Look at KISS… But that is neither here nor there. The New York Dolls were right on the cusp of the glam rock they celebrated in their look and the golden age of punk they helped bring about, two things that are apparent opposites. They’re notable because they were walking a very fragile line.
A close second for Most Famous Sex Pistols Song is “Anarchy In the U.K.,” after “God Save the Queen.” “Anarchy” features the extremely provocative lines “I am an anti-Christ! / I am an anarchist!” The song talks about anarchy in a romantic way, with anarchy being not a political position but a philosophical ideal that the singer wishes to attain. Lydon sings so much about wanting to be an anarchist, but I wonder if this is because he just can’t completely bring himself to actually be an anarchist. Also, given that this is an established pattern for the Sex Pistols (“No Feelings” being the support), I wonder if this whole anarchy thing could be a subtle criticism of those who actually want to see it all burn. The final cry of “DESTROY!!!” makes me look at it saying “really?” I think this could be another case of Lydon being his sarcastic, snarky self again.
And then at the cap of Never Mind the Bollocks, we have one last blast of hate, this one directed at the music industry. “EMI” is a pretty scathing criticism of the British music publishing company that shares a name with the song. EMI basically controls British music, not with an iron fist but a velvet glove. As if to maximize the space that he has to insult anyone he can, Lydon takes the last 2 seconds of the record mention A&M, the Hollywood record label. The Sex Pistols had signed with A&M, but on March 16th, 1977 A&M abruptly terminated the deal, presumably over the Sex Pistols’ flagrant disrespect for the British crown and the political situation it was bound to create. Several thousand copies of “God Save the Queen” had to be destroyed.
Next: Sid and Nancy, taking a taxi into the Great Beyond…