Started english punk rock band The Sex Pistols
The Sex Pistols were an English punk rock band formed in London in 1975. Although they lasted just two-and-a-half years and produced only four singles and one studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, they were one of the most influential acts in the history of popular music, initiated a punk movement in the United Kingdom, and inspired many later punk and alternative rock musicians. The first incarnation of the Sex Pistols included singer John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), lead guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bass player Glen Matlock. Matlock was replaced by Sid Vicious early in 1977. Under the management of Malcolm McLaren, a visual artist, performer, clothes designer and boutique owner, the band provoked controversies that garnered a significant amount of publicity. Their concerts repeatedly faced difficulties with organisers and local authorities, and public appearances often ended in mayhem. Their 1977 single "God Save the Queen", attacking social conformity and deference to the Crown, precipitated the "last and greatest outbreak of pop-based moral pandemonium". Other subjects addressed in their frequently obscene lyrics included the music industry,consumerism, abortion, and the Holocaust.
- Johnny Rotten – lead vocals (1975–78, 1996–2008)
- Steve Jones – guitar, backing vocals (1975–79, 1996–2008), vocals (1978)
- Glen Matlock – bass guitar, backing vocals (1975–77, 1996–2008)
- Sid Vicious – bass guitar, backing vocals (1977–78), vocals (1978; died 1979)
- Paul Cook – drums (1975–79, 1996–2008), vocals (1978)
Musicians, other than the band members who recorded songs with Steve & Paul, on The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle:
- Ronnie Biggs – lead vocals on "No One Is Innocent", "Belsen Was a Gas" (1978)
- Edward Tudor-Pole – lead vocals on "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle", "Who Killed Bambi?", "Rock Around the Clock" (1978)
- Dave Goodman – bass guitar on "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" (1978)
- Andy Allan – bass guitar on "Silly Thing (single version)" (1979)
In January 1978, at the end of a turbulent tour of the United States, Rotten left the Sex Pistols and announced its break-up. Over the next several months, the three other band members recorded songs for McLaren's film version of the Sex Pistols' story, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. Vicious died of a heroin overdose in February 1979. In 1996, Rotten, Jones, Cook and Matlock reunited for the Filthy Lucre Tour; since 2002, they have staged further reunion shows and tours. On 24 February 2006, the Sex Pistols—the four original, surviving members and Sid Vicious—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they refused to attend the ceremony, calling the museum "a piss stain".
Origins and early days
The Sex Pistols evolved from the Strand, a London band formed in 1972 with working-class teenagers Steve Joneson vocals, Paul Cook on drums, and Wally Nightingale on guitar. According to a later account by Jones, both he and Cook played on instruments they had stolen. They would go to music performances and, when the concert was over, would go up on stage and steal as much musical equipment as they could carry.
Early line-ups of the Strand—sometimes known as the Swankers—also included Jim Mackin on organ and Stephen Hayes (and later, briefly, Del Noones) on bass. The band members hung out regularly at two clothing shops on Kings Road, in London's Chelsea neighbourhood: John Krivine and Steph Raynor's Acme Attractions (where Don Letts worked as manager) and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die.
The McLaren–Westwood shop had opened in 1971 as Let It Rock, with a 1950s revival Teddy Boy theme. It had been renamed in 1972 to focus on another revival trend, the rocker look associated with Marlon Brando. As John Lydon later observed, "Malcolm and Vivienne were really a pair of shysters: they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto." The shop was to become a focal point of the punk rock scene, bringing together participants such as the future Sid Vicious,Marco Pirroni (who became a guitarist, songwriter and record producer), Gene October (who became the singer for the punk band Chelsea), and Mark Stewart, among many others. Jordan, the English model and actress noted for her work with Vivienne Westwood and the SEX boutique, was a wildly styled shop assistant, who is credited with "pretty well single-handedly paving the punk look".
In early 1974, Jones convinced McLaren to help out the Strand. Effectively becoming the group's manager, McLaren paid for their first formal rehearsal space. Glen Matlock, an art student who occasionally worked at Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, was recruited as the band's regular bassist. In November, McLaren temporarily relocated to New York City. Before his departure, McLaren and Westwood had conceived of a new identity for their shop: renamed SEX, it changed its focus from retro couture to S&M-inspired "anti-fashion", with a billing as "Specialists in rubberwear, glamourwear & stagewear".
After informally managing and promoting the New York Dolls for a few months, McLaren returned to London in May 1975. Inspired by the punk scene that was beginning to emerge in Lower Manhattan—in particular by the radical visual style and attitude of Richard Hell, then with Television—McLaren began taking a greater interest in the Strand.
The group had been rehearsing regularly, overseen by McLaren's friend Bernard Rhodes, and had performed publicly for the first time. Soon after McLaren's return, Nightingale was kicked out of the band and Jones, uncomfortable as frontman, took over guitar duties. According to journalist and former McLaren employee Phil Strongman, around this time the band adopted the name QT Jones and the Sex Pistols (or QT Jones & His Sex Pistols, as one Rhodes-designed T-shirt put it). ]McLaren had been talking with the New York Dolls' Sylvain Sylvain about coming over to England to front the group.
When those plans fell through, McLaren, Rhodes and the band began looking locally for a new member to assume the lead vocal duties. As described by Matlock, "Everyone had long hair then, even the milkman, so what we used to do was if someone had short hair we would stop them in the street and ask them if they fancied themselves as a singer." Among those they approached was Midge Ure, who was involved with his own band, Slik. Kevin Rowland—who would co-found Dexys Midnight Runners three years later—auditioned, but apart from Matlock, no one was impressed. With the search going nowhere, McLaren made several calls to Richard Hell, who turned down the invitation.
John Lydon joins the band
In August 1975, Rhodes spotted nineteen-year-old Kings Road habitué John Lydon wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words I Hate handwritten above the band's name and holes scratched through the eyes. Reports vary at this point: the same day, or soon after, either Rhodes or McLaren asked Lydon to come to a nearby pub in the evening to meet Jones and Cook. According to Jones, "He came in with green hair. I thought he had a really interesting face. I liked his look. He had his 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt on, and it was held together with safety pins. John had something special, but when he started talking he was a real arsehole—but smart." When the pub closed, the group moved on to SEX, where Lydon, who had given little thought to singing, was convinced to improvise along to Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" on the shop jukebox. Though the performance drove the band members to laughter, McLaren convinced them to start rehearsing with Lydon. Lydon later described the social context in which the band came together:
Early Seventies Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down with trash on the streets, and total unemployment—just about everybody was on strike. 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. Out of that came pretentious moi and the Sex Pistols and then a whole bunch of copycat wankers after us.
New Musical Express journalist Nick Kent jammed occasionally with the band, but left upon Lydon's recruitment. "When I came along, I took one look at him and said, 'No. That has to go,'" Lydon later explained. "He's never written a good word about me ever since." In September, McLaren again helped hire private rehearsal space for the group, which had been practising in pubs. Cook, who had a full-time job he was loath to give up, was making noises about quitting. According to Matlock's later description, Cook "created a smokescreen" by claiming Jones was not skilled enough to be the band's sole guitarist. An advertisement was placed in Melody Maker for a "Whizz Kid Guitarist. Not older than 20. Not worse looking than Johnny Thunders" (referring to a leading member of the New York punk scene). Most of the guitar players who auditioned were incompetent, but in McLaren's view, the process created a new sense of solidarity among the four band members. Steve New was considered the only talented guitarist who tried out and the band invited him to join. Jones was improving rapidly, and the band's developing sound had no room for the technical lead work at which New was adept. He departed after a month.
Lydon had been renamed "Johnny Rotten" by Jones, apparently because of his bad dental hygiene. The band also settled on a name. After considering options such as Le Bomb, Subterraneans, the Damned, Beyond, Teenage Novel, Kid Gladlove, and Crème de la Crème, they decided on Sex Pistols—a shortened form of the name they had apparently been working under informally.
McLaren said the name derived "from the idea of a pistol, a pin-up, a young thing, a better-looking assassin". Not given to modesty, false or otherwise, he added: "[I] launched the idea in the form of a band of kids who could be perceived as being bad." The group began writing original material: Rotten was the lyricist and Matlock the primary melody writer (though their first collaboration, "Pretty Vacant", had a complete lyric by Matlock, which Rotten tweaked a bit); official credit was shared equally among the four.
Their first gig was arranged by Matlock, who was studying at Saint Martins College. The band played at the school on 6 November 1975, in support of a pub rockgroup called Bazooka Joe, arranging to use their amps and drums. The Sex Pistols performed several cover songs, including the Who's "Substitute", the Small Faces' "Whatcha Gonna Do About It", "(Don't you Give Me) No Lip" by Dave Berry, and "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone", made famous by the Monkees; according to observers, they were unexceptional musically aside from being extremely loud. Before the Pistols could play the few original songs they had written to date, Bazooka Joe pulled the plugs as they saw their gear being trashed. A brief physical altercation between members of the two bands took place on stage.
Building a following
The Saint Martins gig was followed by other performances at colleges and art schools around London. One of these on 9 December 1975 was at Ravensbourne College, Chislehurst, near Bromley in Southeast London, where they supported the Newcastle-based rock band Fogg. The band played for free as according to McLaren they were 'turning professional' the following year, although as McLaren's letter confirming the booking stated: 'free beer for the band would be appreciated'. Despite the band's punk posturing, their PA equipment (including EV Eliminator bass bins) was so much better than that of the established touring band Fogg that their equipment was used for the gig. The result of them staying later was a bar bill of over £50 during the headliner's performance. Simon Barker, a friend of Steve Severin saw the gig and enthused about the band. This resulted in them seeing the band at the Marquee on 12 February 1976. The Sex Pistols' core group of followers—includingSiouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin, Soo Catwoman and Billy Idol—came to be known as the Bromley Contingent, after the large suburban town several were from. Their cutting-edge fashion, much of it supplied by SEX, ignited a trend that was adopted by the new fans the band attracted. McLaren and Westwood saw the incipient London punk movement as a vehicle for more than just couture. They were both captivated by the May 1968 radical uprising in Paris, particularly by the ideology and agitations of the Situationists, as well as theanarchist thought of Buenaventura Durruti and others.
These interests were shared with Jamie Reid, an old friend of McLaren's who began producing publicity material for the Sex Pistols in spring 1976. (The cut-up lettering employed to create the classic Sex Pistols logo and many subsequent designs for the band was actually introduced by McLaren's friend Helen Wellington-Lloyd.) "We used to talk to John [Lydon] a lot about the Situationists," Reid later said. "The Sex Pistols seemed the perfect vehicle to communicate ideas directly to people who weren't getting the message from left-wing politics." McLaren was also arranging for the band's first photo sessions. As described by music historianJon Savage, "With his green hair, hunched stance and ragged look, [Lydon] looked like a cross between Uriah Heep and Richard Hell."
The first Sex Pistols gig to attract broader attention was as a supporting act for Eddie and the Hot Rods, a leading pub rock group, at the Marquee on 12 February 1976. Rotten "was now really pushing the barriers of performance, walking off stage, sitting with the audience, throwing Jordan across the dance floor and chucking chairs around, before smashing some of Eddie and the Hot Rods' gear." The band's first review appeared in the NME, accompanied by a brief interview in which Steve Jones declared, "Actually we're not into music. We're into chaos." Among those who read the article were two students at the Bolton Institute of Technology, Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, who headed down to London in search of the Sex Pistols. After chatting with McLaren at SEX, they saw the band at a couple of late February gigs. The two friends immediately began organising their own Pistols-style group, Buzzcocks. As Devoto later put it, "My life changed the moment that I saw the Sex Pistols."
The Pistols were soon playing other important venues, debuting at Oxford Street's 100 Club on 30 March. On 3 April, they played for the first time at the Nashville, supporting The 101ers. The pub rock group's lead singer, Joe Strummer, saw the Pistols for the first time that night—and recognised punk rock as the future. A return gig at the Nashville on 23 April demonstrated the band's growing musical competence, but by all accounts lacked a spark. Westwood provided that by instigating a fight with another audience member; McLaren and Rotten were soon involved in the melee. Cook later said, "That fight at the Nashville: that's when all the publicity got hold of it and the violence started creeping in.... I think everybody was ready to go and we were the catalyst." The Pistols were soon banned from both the Nashville and the Marquee.
On 23 April, as well, the debut album by the leading punk rock band in the New York scene, the Ramones, was released. Though it is regarded as seminal to the growth of punk rock in England and elsewhere, Lydon has repeatedly rejected any suggestion that it influenced the Sex Pistols: "[the Ramones] were all long-haired and of no interest to me. I didn't like their image, what they stood for, or anything about them"; "They were hilarious but you can only go so far with 'duh-dur-dur-duh'. I've heard it. Next. Move on." On 11 May, the Pistols began a four-week-long Tuesday night residency at the 100 Club. They devoted the rest of the month to touring small cities and towns in the north of England and recording demos in London with producer and recording artist Chris Spedding. The following month they played their first gig in Manchester, arranged by Devoto and Shelley. The Sex Pistols' performance of 4 June at the Lesser Free Trade Hall set off a punk rock boom in the city. On 4 and 6 July, respectively, two newly formed London punk rock acts, the Clash—with Strummer as lead vocalist—and the Damned, made their live debuts opening for the Sex Pistols. On their off night in between, the Pistols (despite Lydon's later professed disdain) showed up for a Ramones gig at Dingwalls, like virtually everyone else at the heart of the London punk scene. During a return Manchester engagement, 20 July, the Pistols premiered a new song, "Anarchy in the U.K.", reflecting elements of the radical ideologies to which Rotten was being exposed.
According to Jon Savage, "there seems little doubt that Lydon was fed material by Vivienne Westwood and Jamie Reid, which he then converted into his own lyric.""Anarchy in the U.K." was among the seven originals recorded in another demo session that month, this one overseen by the band's sound engineer, Dave Goodman. McLaren organised a major event for 29 August at the Screen on the Green in London's Islington district: Buzzcocks and the Clash opened for the Sex Pistols in punk's "first metropolitan test of strength". Three days later, the band were in Manchester to tape what would be their first television appearance, for Tony Wilson's So It Goes. Scheduled to perform just one song, "Anarchy in the U.K.", the band ran straight through another two numbers as pandemonium broke out in the control room.
The Sex Pistols played their first concert outside Britain on 3 September, at the opening of the Chalet du Lac disco in Paris. The Bromley Contingent accompanied them, with Siouxsie Sioux's swastika armband causing a stir. The following day, the So It Goes performance aired; the audience heard "Anarchy in the U.K." introduced with a shout of "Get off your arse!" On 13 September, the Pistols began a tour of Britain. A week later, back in London, they headlined the opening night of the 100 Club Punk Special. Organised by McLaren (for whom the word "festival" had too much of a hippie connotation), the event was "considered the moment that was the catalyst for the years to come." Belying the common perception that punk bands couldn't play their instruments, contemporary music press reviews, later critical assessments of concert recordings, and testimonials by fellow musicians indicate that the Pistols had developed into a tight, ferocious live band. As Rotten tested out wild vocalisation styles, the instrumentalists experimented "with overload, feedback and distortion...pushing their equipment to the limit".
EMI and the Grundy incident On 8 October 1976, the major record label EMI signed the Sex Pistols to a two-year contract. In short order, the band was in the studio recording a full-dress session with Dave Goodman. As later described by Matlock, "The idea was to get the spirit of the live performance. We were pressurised to make it faster and faster." The riotous results were rejected. Chris Thomas, who had produced Roxy Music and mixed Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, was brought in to produce. The band's first single, "Anarchy in the U.K.", was released on 26 November 1976. John Robb—a music journalist—described the record's impact: "From Steve Jones' opening salvo of descending chords, to Johnny Rotten's fantastic sneering vocals, this song is the perfect statement...a stunningly powerful piece of punk politics...a lifestyle choice, a manifesto that heralds a new era". Colin Newman, who had just cofounded the band Wire, heard it as "the clarion call of a generation."
"Anarchy in the U.K." was not the first British punk single, pipped by the Damned's "New Rose". "We Vibrate" had also appeared from the Vibrators, a pub rock band formed early in 1976 that had become associated with punk—though, according to Jon Savage "with their long hair and mildly risque name, the Vibrators were passers-by as far as punk taste-makers were concerned." Unlike those songs, whose lyrical content was comfortably within rock 'n' roll traditions, "Anarchy in the U.K." linked punk to a newly politicised attitude—the Pistols' stance was aggrieved, euphoric and nihilistic, all at the same time. Rotten's howls of "I am an anti-christ" and "Destroy!" re-purposed rock as an ideological weapon. The single's packaging and visual promotion also broke new ground. Reid and McLaren came up with the notion of selling the record in a completely wordless, featureless black sleeve. The primary image associated with the single was Reid's "anarchy flag" poster: a Union Flag ripped up and partly safety-pinned back together, with the song and band names clipped along the edges of a gaping hole in the middle. This and other images created by Reid for the Sex Pistols quickly became punk icons.
The Sex Pistols' behaviour, as much as their music, brought them national attention. On 1 December 1976, the band and members of the Bromley Contingent created a storm of publicity by swearing during an early evening live broadcast of Thames Television's Today programme. Appearing as last-minute replacements for fellow EMI artists Queen, the band and their entourage were offered drinks as they waited to go on air. During the interview, Rotten said the band had "fucking spent" its label advance and twice used the word "shit". Host Bill Grundy, who claimed to be as drunk as his interviewees, engaged in repartee with Siouxsie Sioux, who declared that she had "always wanted to meet" him. Grundy responded, "Did you really? We'll meet afterwards, shall we?" This prompted the following exchange between Jones and the host:
Jones: You dirty sod. You dirty old man.
Grundy: Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on. You've got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.
Jones: You dirty bastard.
Grundy: Go on, again.
Jones: You dirty fucker.
Grundy: What a clever boy.
Although the programme was broadcast only in the London region, the ensuing furore occupied the tabloid newspapers for days. The Daily Mirror famously ran the headline "The Filth and the Fury!"; other papers such as the Daily Express ("Fury at Filthy TV Chat") and the Daily Telegraph ("4-Letter Words Rock TV") followed suit. Thames Television suspended Grundy, and though he was later reinstated, the interview effectively ended his career.
The episode made the band household names throughout the country and brought punk into mainstream awareness. The Pistols set out on the Anarchy Tour of the UK, supported by the Clash and Johnny Thunders' band the Heartbreakers, over from New York. The Damned were briefly part of the tour, before McLaren kicked them off. Media coverage was intense, and many of the concerts were cancelled by organisers or local authorities; of approximately twenty scheduled gigs, only about seven actually took place. Following a campaign waged in the south Wales press, a crowd including carol singers and a Pentecostal preacher protested against the group outside a show in Caerphilly. Packers at the EMI plant refused to handle the band's single.
Bernard Brook-Partridge, a Conservative member of the Greater London Council and chairman of the Arts committee from 1977, declared, "Most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death. The worst of the punk rock groups I suppose currently are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating. They are the antithesis of humankind. I would like to see somebody dig a very, very large, exceedingly deep hole and drop the whole bloody lot down it."
Following the end of the tour in late December, three concerts were arranged in the Netherlands for January 1977. The band, hungover, boarded a plane at London Heathrow Airport early on 4 January; a few hours later, the Evening News was reporting that the band had "vomited and spat their way" to the flight. Despite categorical denials by the EMI representative who accompanied the group, the label, which was under political pressure, released the band from their contract. As McLaren fielded offers from other labels, the band went into the studio for a round of recordings with Goodman, their last with either him or Matlock.
According to Pistols tour manager Noel Monk and journalist Jimmy Guterman, Lydon was much more than "the band's mouthpiece. He's its raging brain. McLaren or his friend Jamie Reid might drop a word like 'anarchy' or 'vacant' that Rotten seizes upon and turns into a manifesto, but McLaren is not the Svengali to Rotten he'd like to be perceived as. McLaren thought he was working with a tabula rasa, but he soon found out that Rotten has ideas of his own". On the other hand, there is little disagreement about McLaren's marketing talent and his crucial role in making the band a subcultural phenomenon soon after its debut. Temple adds that "he catalyzed so many people's heads. He had so many just extraordinary ideas". Though, as Jon Savage emphasises, "In fact, it was Steve Jones who first had the idea of putting the group, or any group, together with McLaren. He chose McLaren, not vice versa."
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