Archive for April, 2013

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.

well, you’ve got a bloody cheek…

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…

The Sex Pistols

The Sex Pistols

The Sex Pistols were not into making overt political statements. They weren’t passionate about any causes, and weren’t backing any particular politicians. They were, however, interested in shocking people. There’s value in using your art to force people out of their accepted patterns in order to listen to what you have to say. But where so many shock artists (including the Sex Pistols) trip up is that you need to be actually saying something. It’s one thing to get everybody’s attention – any idiot with a couple pounds of ammonium nitrate can do that. There has to be something behind it or you won’t have people’s attention for very long.

Nowhere is the Sex Pistols brand of shock more, well, shocking than on the song “Bodies.” It’s the account of a girl named Pauline who had an abortion. By that I don’t mean she went discreetly to a clinic and had it done by a doctor. The song never really says this outright, but I have a feeling a coat hanger was involved.

John Lydon wrote “Bodies” about an actual girl named Pauline that he knew. There’s a legend about Pauline showing up at John’s door with blood all over her, clutching a newborn in a blanket, dead. Whatever the truth is, John was obviously very affected by his association with Pauline, such that he wrote his most violent, vitriolic and profanity-laced song ever.

The lyrics of “Bodies” explain in gruesome terms about Pauline’s multiple “abortions,” always emphasizing that she was completely insane. The line “Her name was Pauline, she lived in a tree” is a reference to Pauline sleeping in a makeshift treehouse on the grounds of the mental institution she was in. The lyrics also make much of the messy and disgusting physicality of her actions, using words like “gurgling,” “squirm” and “bloody mess.”

Johnny Rotten

Johnny Rotten

The chorus is generally just repeated screams of “Mommy! I’m not an animal!” The easiest way to interpret this is the aborted child speaking, begging for its mother to not abort it. Lydon’s use of the term “animal” is a little strange. Apparently, the child doesn’t deserve to be aborted because it’s “not an animal,” but Pauline herself is described as an animal. Apparently, what makes you an animal, and thus deserving of abortion, is actually having an abortion. It’s also ironic that towards the end of the song, Lydon is repeating “I’m not an animal!” so fast that the words just tumble out, and his voice makes him sound rather bestial.

At first, the harsh language about abortion suggests the Sex Pistols are making a comment about the subject. But listening for just a second reveals that the comment can’t be pinned down to a pro or con position. Based on this, I don’t think they really care about the positions; they’re much more interested in the violent, gruesome and disturbing imagery that abortion very easily lends itself to. The Sex Pistols aren’t really raising a question about abortion, or about anything; that’s not what they do. They create exclamation points, not question marks.

When “Bodies” is mentioned in a scholarly context, it’s sometimes touted as a pro-life song. I find this utterly ridiculous, and I’m sure the Sex Pistols would as well. First off, not a single pro-life organization out there would accept this as an anthem  because its focus is all wrong. The term “pro-life” (as ridiculous and wrong-headed as I find it to be) is oriented in the “life” direction, and “Bodies” is all about death.  Then there’s the fact that it mentions the word FUCK five times in the space of ten seconds. Objectively, the song is not fit for public consumption. And when John Lydon swears, he means it. Somehow, Lydon saying “fuck” is much, much worse than anyone else saying it.

When I was a senior in high school – at a school of 18 students which taught an extremely conservative (and thus imbalanced) curriculum – I had to write a 30-page research paper in order to graduate. In preparation, we read papers by other seniors who had already graduated. I read one that was on abortion. It detailed the history of abortion, explained several different types, and gave a step-by-step description of what physically went on with the procedure of each one. Even separated from all the political, moral and ethical issues connected to it, it’s still pretty horrifying.

Kermit Gosnell

Kermit Gosnell

I don’t care what you think about the pro- or con- positions, which side you come down on, or how vehemently you defend either viewpoint. Abortion is not only one of the most hotly contested issues of our day – it’s also one of the most complicated. But you just have to be a living, breathing, feeling human being to understand something like this. Everyone, no matter what side of the abortion issue they’re on, has some sense of what Kermit Gosnell did being wrong. And if you are one of those feeling human beings, you need to ask yourself if all that rhetoric about a woman’s right to choose or violation of the freedom of religion even matters in light of the cold, hard facts of what happens in an abortion. You have to make up your own mind about it.

Next: everything sucks!

Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks - 10/27/1977

Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks – 10/27/1977

Frank Zappa once said, extremely derisively, that punk was not a genre of music, but a fashion statement. He went on to explain why this was true: it had been created not by a bunch of musicians, but by a clothing store proprietor. He was referring to the most visible aspect of punk, being the ripped jeans and t-shirts, safety pin earrings, leather jackets and outlandish hairstyles, most of which involve long hair sticking up in various directions.

While ol’ Frank was being a little obtuse, he was right about one thing: the fashion that’s instantly recognizable as “punk” was purposefully created by a clothing store co-owner named Malcolm McLaren. He and his partner Vivian Westwood managed a store called Let It Rock, which focused on the ‘50s-era rock and roll Teddy Boy look. They later it changed to Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, selling Marlon Brando clothes to attract the young rocker crowd. When the mid-‘70s came around, they changed it yet again to Sex, specializing in punk clothes.

Malcolm and Vivian were described by Johnny Rotten as “a pair of shysters: they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto.” Apparently, what I said about record executives goes for clothing store owners, too. Malcolm also dabbled in band management. After informally managing the New York Dolls in 1975, he threw himself into a local band who hung around Sex, called the Strand. McLaren would later rebrand them the Sex Pistols.

Johnny Rotten

Johnny Rotten

John Lydon (later Johnny Rotten) was another one of those layabouts at Sex, brought in by McLaren to sing for the Strand. He walked into Sex wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt with “I HATE” scratched in above the words in marker; it was ripped in two then held together with safety pins. McLaren took one look at him and said, “that’s the guy.” He had already booted out the lead singer (the band was then called QT Jones & the Sex Pistols). Johnny’s voice sounded like a length of razor wire being drawn across violin strings – exactly what McLaren wanted.

All the resentment, anger and malcontent that had been building in London over the past 10 years were reaching a breaking point, and it started breaking in 1975. At that particular time, London was a really crappy place to live, and what became known as “punk” was brought to the forefront. But it didn’t enjoy the type of success that means lots record sales and concert attendance. Rather, the world was watching while young people all across Britain were working themselves into a tizzy. Malcolm McLaren had positioned himself to provide the visual look of the movement with Sex, and the Sex Pistols provided the soundtrack.

Arguably, they weren’t the only ones. There was the Clash in England, as well as the Ramones and X in the United States. While important to the movement overall, none of those bands have the visceral nature or raw negativity of the Sex Pistols. When you listen to Never Mind the Bollocks, you really believe that they wanted to see the whole world burn. They hated everything, from capitalism to the British monarchy to the very music industry they were participating in. They hated the United States, governmental control, materialism and Christianity. They even hated fellow punks.

The most grievous and damaging slight they had to offer, though, was to the British crown. “God Save the Queen” was their third single, released before their debut album. It came around after the Sex Pistols already had the world’s attention, and they used that platform to say what they really thought of the their country’s monarchy. “God Save the Queen” is a blazing and angry comment about England’s conformity and allegiance to the crown. The snarling and hateful disrespect of the lyrics is pretty startling. And the viciousness wasn’t lost on the British public. The song outraged virtually everyone; it was boycotted in several chain record stores; BBC refused to play it, along with every independent radio station; workers at the factory where the album was pressed even laid down their tools. In light of Britain’s somewhat draconian attitudes about slander towards the Royal Family, I’m surprised the Sex Pistols weren’t hanged for treason.

“God Save the Queen” is more than just dirty words about Queen Elizabeth II. It’s also a pronouncement of the hopelessness and cynicism embodied by the punk movement. The refrain of “no future for you!” concisely captures this attitude – they mean that literally. Music had been this negative before, and it had also had the power to change things socially and politically, so that’s nothing new. But the change the Sex Pistols wanted to bring about wasn’t good. If they had had their way, society would look very different now.

Next: Oh no they didn’t…

cue Empire Theme from Star Wars...

cue Empire Theme from Star Wars

When I was about 13, my sister and I were watching TV and saw a news story about some up and coming boy band (I don’t remember their name). They were riding the crest of the Backstreet Boys/*NSYNC success, and were just one of the hordes of imitators. My sister was a big New Kids On the Block fan in their day. And because I wanted to be just like my big sister when I was 9, I was too, but that was more about my fawning admiration for her than any attachment to the band.

Anyway, this story had cameras follow them through a typical day in the life of their band: voice lessons, dance rehearsals, and since they didn’t have actual press appearances yet (‘cause nobody knew who they were), they practiced them – honest to God. Part of their preparation as a musical group was sitting in a row at a covered table with a microphone in front of each of them, fielding imaginary questions about their favorite color, whether they have a girlfriend or some useless crap like that.

I took offense to this; it violated some high-minded idea I had about “tainting the purity of music” or something. But while I took offense to the fake press conference, my sister took offense to my offense. She saw my disgust, and in an equally disgusted voice said, “What, you think Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins don’t do that same thing? You think they don’t need to learn how to talk to the press? Get off your high horse!”

Nobody knows how to push my buttons better than my sister. Maybe she does it because she knows I’ll always love her and be there for her, no matter what.

Some people (and record executives only barely meet the definition of “people,” in my opinion) work their hardest to suck all the art, joy and transcendence out of music and turn it into a business. They view it not as an art form but as something they can use to make money. It may as well be manufacturing washing machines or cooking meth for all they care. They don’t see the art in it, and even if they do, they don’t care. Whether or not it’s good art has no bearing on whether or not it’s good business.

That was the right side of my brain talking. Now I’ll let the left side have its say.

It is a business, of course. A musician can produce 20 Hallelujah Choruses a day, and it’s all meaningless if no one hears it. That’s where the business kicks in. The record industry, aside from all the other things it does, gets music heard. When you go to the iTunes Music Store, there’s actual money changing hands. This isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself – commerce is one of the things that makes the world go ‘round. Two of the bedrock American principles, for good or ill, are these:

1)      Find something you love to do, and then find someone willing to pay you to do it.


2)      If you’re good at something, never do it for free.

How do you balance that? There has to be some happy medium between artistic freedom and financial success. Some bands have found it; R.E.M. is a good example. From the very start of negotiations with Warner Bros., they made it very clear that they wanted to have complete artistic control and they never wanted to be in debt. But for nearly every other band out there, it’s almost exclusively a matter of record executives taking advantage of them to line their own pockets.

In 1975, Pink Floyd was really struggling to find that balance. Perhaps in those days, it was worse than it is now. With the advent of the internet and the readiness of information, music has an easier time getting into the public’s hands, sometimes without record companies’ involvement at all. But before the days of Facebook and Bandcamp and SoundCloud, it was cigar-smoking fatcats and empty suits.

“Have a Cigar,” the first song after the vinyl flip of Wish You Were Here, is a biting examination of one money-grubbing dirtball as he drools over Pink Floyd’s musical potential and the money to be had from that. Its lyrics are a second-person account of this empty suit flattering, exaggerating and outright lying. And in doing so, he reveals his selfish motivations.

Here’s a piece of the lyrics:

Well, I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincerely

The band is just fantastic / That is really what I think / Oh, by the way… Which one’s Pink?

He has a “deep respect” and thinks they’re “just fantastic” and the douchebag doesn’t even know Pink Floyd is the group’s name and not the lead singer’s. I bet he had visions of a t-shirt that had “Pink” up front and the other members in the shadowy background.

The lead vocal on “Have a Cigar” is performed by Roy Harper, a legendary folk musician who just happened to be in the studio at the time. Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour recorded versions of the song singing lead, but neither of them were happy with the results. In swoops Roy Harper with just the right tone and character to his voice to play the part of a smarmy A&R man. His take wowed Waters and Gilmour; it was meant to be, I think.

“Welcome to the Machine” decries the slavering dogs of the music industry as well, but comes at it from a different angle. It’s still a second-person account from the antagonist (in this case “the machine,” being the soulless mechanizers of an entire art form, or society in general). But it starts with a young and green musician dreaming of rock and roll stardom. It ends with the chatter and clinking of glasses of a high-class party.

“Welcome to the Machine” is one of those iconic Floyd songs, creepy and unsettling. It has the rich, human tones of a strummed acoustic guitar, as well as cold and mechanistic synthesizer rhythms. And both “Machine” and “Cigar” have shifting time signatures that keep you on your toes, something that’s become a bit of a Pink Floyd trademark.

Wish You Were Here is my favorite Pink Floyd record because it communicates an extremely important message: never let the demands other people place on you make you forget who you are.

Next: the Fascist Regime!