The Sex Pistols
Despite their short existence, the Sex Pistols were perhaps the quintessential British punk rock band. While The Clash were both more articulate and politically motivated, and The Buzzcocks had more astute pop sensibilities, no other group better exemplified the punk movement's spirit and inherent contradictions.
The group was formed in 1975 by Paul Cook and Steve Jones. They recruited Glen Matlock and Johnny Rotten, who were among the clientele of the SEX boutique in Kings Road, Chelsea. This shop (previously known as Let It Rock) was owned by the situationist- influenced Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren; McLaren became the group's manager. The name no doubt was intended to bring to mind the male sex organ, but McLaren has stated that he wanted the band to be 'sexy assassins' (the band has frequently accused McLaren of both cheating them and making revisionist history). The band was initially influenced in part by the style of The New York Dolls and Television, who were doyens of the New York City new wave music scene, although McLaren claimed that he wanted them to be "the new Bay City Rollers."
Following a showcase gig as part of London's first punk festival at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, they were signed (for a large advance) to the major label EMI. The Pistols' first single, "Anarchy in the UK," released in November 1976, served as a statement of intent, full of wit, anger and visceral energy.
However, in December 1976 the group and their close circle of followers, the Bromley Contingent, created a storm of publicity in the UK when, goaded by interviewer Bill Grundy, guitarist Steve Jones used the word "fuck" on Thames Television's early evening television programme Today, as well as calling Grundy a 'rotter' after he made a rather inept attempt at 'chatting up' Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Although the program was only seen in the London ITV region, the ensuing furore occupied the tabloid newspapers for days and the band were shortly after dropped by the label. After a short and disastrous period spent with the A&M record label, the Pistols were picked up by the at that time independent Virgin Records. A shambolic tour of the UK followed, with the majority of the concerts cancelled by local authorities and many of the rest ending in states of semi-riot.
In February 1977 bass player Glen Matlock departed from the band to be replaced by Rotten's friend and 'ultimate Sex Pistols fan' Sid Vicious, whose real name was John Simon Ritchie, famously chosen by McLaren for his looks and his punk attitude rather than his somewhat limited musical abilities; reputedly, at live performances his amplifier was often turned down, and most of the bass parts on the band's later recordings were actually played by guitarist Steve Jones or Matlock, who had been drafted in as a session musician.
The group's second single, eventually released by Virgin in May 1977, was "God Save the Queen," a swinging attack on the British Royal Family, and by extension the institutions of Britain, delivered in Rotten's trademark sneer. Coming at a time when deference to royalty was still a predominant trait in both the establishment and the country as a whole the record was quickly banned from airplay by the staid BBC, whose Radio 1 dominated music broadcasting.
Nevertheless, in the week of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, the record officially reached number two in some UK charts (although many people believe they actually reached number one and the charts were rigged to prevent them topping it), although the title and artist were replaced with a blank space in many publications. Meanwhile, The Sex Pistols decided to celebrate the Jubilee, along with the success of their record, in their own way by chartering a boat, within which they sailed down the Thames, past Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, performing their live set. As usual, the event ended in chaos; the boat was raided by the police, and Mclaren, the Pistols, and most of their entourage were arrested and taken into custody. Arguably it was all good fun and a great publicity stunt, but matters took a distinctly uglier turn when young punk followers of the Sex Pistols became victims of physical attacks in the street by 'pro-royalists', and Rotten himself was assaulted by a razor-wielding gang of 'Teddy Boys' in Finsbury Park who, it seems, didn't see the funny side of the group's antics.
The promise of the band's early singles was eventually fulfilled by the group's first album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, released in October 1977. The album also included singles "Pretty Vacant," an ode to apathy, and "Holidays In The Sun." Again the band faced controversy when a record shop in Manchester was threatened with prosecution for displaying the album's 'obscene' cover, although the case was overturned when defending QC John Mortimer produced expert witnesses who were able to demonstrate that the word 'bollocks' was a legitimate old English term originally used to refer to a priest, and that although the word is also slang for testicles, in this context it meant 'nonsense.' The Sex Pistols' final UK performance was at Ivanhoes in Huddersfield on Christmas Day 1977, a benefit for the families of striking firemen. Despite the band's state of disintegration by this time, the gig was considered by some as a vindication of their anti-establishment stance when they were, for once, united with what might be viewed as their true constituency, the dispossessed English working class. Years later the promoter of the show confessed that the Pistols never cashed his check.
Early in 1978 an American tour was booked by McLaren. This was an exhausting experience for all concerned, and on the final date at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on January 14, the disillusioned Rotten quit, famously asking "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" from the stage before walking off. The remainder of the group soldiered on for a short time, trading on their reputation and gimmicks, such as recording with notorious British criminal Ronnie Biggs and Vicious releasing a version of "My Way", but after the release of the movie The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, they finally split.
Rotten, now using his given name Lydon, went on to form the group Public Image Ltd. Vicious was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in New York but died of a heroin overdose before coming to trial. A fictionalized account of Vicious's relationship with Spungen was later recounted in the 1986 film Sid and Nancy (directed by Alex Cox), which toned down much of the band's outrageous exploits. For instance, the movie's Sid Vicious wears a red shirt with a hammer and sickle, rather than the swastika worn by the original Sid.
The Sex Pistols remain influential, however, both for the musical style they were pivotal in helping to define, and in terms of their influence on the British cultural landscape, helping to change the cultural climate. Whereas previous challenges to the class system had come mainly from within, such as the public school and Oxbridge dominated satire boom of the 1960's or the socially realist theatre of the 1950's, the Pistols communicated directly with a much wider audience and, to some extent, the resulting shock waves can still be felt.
It can be argued that the Sex Pistols are the most influential band ever to exist in the genre of punk rock, and their no-prisoners style non-conformity can still be seen across the entire cultural spectrum.