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…