Four singles and an album. That’s all it took for THE SEX PISTOLS to become the most infamous punk band of all-time. Vive Le Punk takes a closer look at those defining moments in the Pistols story.
‘ANARCHY IN THE UK’
The Sex Pistols’ debut single was released in November 1976 on EMI and was a clarion call all for a generation. It was actually the second proper punk single to get released (a week later than The Damned classic ‘New Rose’) but that didn’t lessen its impact one iota. From Rotten’s manic cackle over the intro and Steve Jones’ huge guitar sound, ‘Anarchy’ sounded like no record ever before. Sure, there were touches of The Who or the New York Dolls in its raunch but this was another level.
Lyrically it was spot on. It was a mangle of ‘70s political confusion, with the singer looking for total personal freedom, “I wanna be anarchy” he sneered in the songs white heat meltdown. Few debut singles have ever been this good or had this much impact. Within a few weeks the band had been banned from most venues on their tour, record label EMI dumped them in a total panic and they lost a member when in February 1977 Glen Matlock was out of the band. Matlock was replaced by Rotten's mate Sid Vicious, who couldn’t play bass but was the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll icon. After ‘Anarchy’ things were never going to be the same again. The Pistols’ Steve Jones has always maintained that after Bill Grundy they stopped being a band and became a freak show- he’s right of course but for one brief year it was the best ‘freak show’ in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
‘GOD SAVE THE QUEEN’
For many this is the best ever single in pop history. It ticks every single box – fiercely exciting, brilliant production, a neat line in psychosis and a brilliant tune to boot. Add to this a great guitar sound and raw power and what else do you need? On a new label, Virgin, the band were stoking the fires of controversy releasing this anti-royal diatribe and nihilistic take on the rubbish state of Britain one week before the Queen’s silver jubilee. Whilst most people in the UK had tatty street parties and celebrated the rubbish German family that get away with sitting on top of the pile there were many dissenters. The Pistols was the rallying call for all those that didn’t agree with the decadence of the royals and they gleefully sent it to number one.
A psychotic rush of sound with some of the greatest guitar riffs ever, the Sex Pistols were firing on all cylinders for this single, which is a concise and deadly explosion. It’s hard to think of another number one that sounded so dangerous. Hardly any rock music sounds this powerful and intense. The record was kept at number 2 by the terrified authorities whilst everyone else knew that by far it was the number one selling record. A perfect pop moment.
The closest the Sex Pistols came to pure pop was the anthemic ‘Pretty Vacant’. With words and lyrics by the ousted Glen Matlock it intros with that fantastic guitar arpeggio – the one that everyone learns on their guitars and then crashes into a deceptively simple four chord churning verse half-inched bizarrely off Abba’s ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’. The chorus is sublime. It’s a classic football terrace sing-along. ‘Pretty Vacant’ may not have been as immense as ‘God Save The Queen’ but it was still a delicious, nihilistic anthem for a generation fed up with crap Britain.
‘NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS… HERE’S THE SEX PISTOLS’
The best album title of all time was coined by guitarist Steve Jones as a joke. It was the perfect title for the autumn 1977 album from the band who, by now, were dangerously surrounded by the bollocks of the media and the states attempts to crush them. The album was greeted with mixed reviews on release as the notoriously snooty music press was trying to push the band aside, but the record, which they had spent the summer working on, was a fantastically executed work. Again Jones’ guitars (and bass – as Sid was not very busy on the sessions) and Paul Cook’s great drums provided a perfect platform for Rotten's sneering vocals). There's a terror and neurosis in his singing that no-one has got close to since. The Sex Pistols were not a direct political band – this was the sound of a supremely intelligent, sharp individual with a chaotic and terrifying imagination. The songs are powerful, personal tirades and they were easily identified with that particularity weird and wonderful generation of psychotic mid-‘70s youth. Never has pop music sounded this vital and dangerous.
‘HOLIDAYS IN THE SUN’
Weeks after the album came the Sex Pistols’ proper last single. Yeah, we all know about the later cash-in albums but they are the work of a different band. Quite literally as they had already imploded by early ‘78 and the Pistols existed in name only for the next album, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ – a footnote to manager Malcolm Maclaren's situationist showbiz theories. There were to be great moments after ‘Holidays’ but this was the real Sex Pistols in action for one last time. The fourth and last single release came in the autumn of 1977. Ostensibly a ranting jackboot stomp about a trip to Berlin that year it could also be about the traps of the band’s image and reputation that Rotten felt especially after getting slashed by royalist thugs that summer. This is the singer at his most paranoiac and the ad-libbed “looking over the Berlin wall” vocal at the end is almost terrifying – and bizarre for a top ten hit. The song is many people’s favourite Pistols song from the mighty intro to the song’s chanting, churning psychodrama. Forget all the bullshit, the Sex Pistols were a genius rock ‘n’ roll band. Few bands have ever matched them for their intensity or had their influence.
The Sex Pistols have oddly become a classic British band sitting alongside the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Stones – the very groups they set out to destroy. History still can’t make its mind up about them, the mythology sometimes drowns up the truth – people will still tell you that the band had no talent and couldn’t play but listen to ‘…Bollocks’ and you are listening to one of the best hard rock albums aver made – a powerful mix of guitar action with one of the greats vocalists of all time.
They existed for two short years but they packed more incident and controversy into that time than every other band does in a whole career. Luckily they could back it up with their music.
For the story of the Sex Pistols from 1975-1978, check out the Vive Le Punk mini-mag that's free with the new issue of Big Cheese! (out July 24th)