The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

When I was younger, it seemed like a lot of the bands I listened to cited the Sex Pistols as an inspiration. Now, I listen to bands influenced by the bands who were inspired by the Sex Pistols. Central to rock history is the Sex Pistols concert in Manchester in June of 1976, at which a reputed 40 person audience included future members of Joy Division, the Smiths, the Fall, Buzzcocks, and Magazine, as well as Tony Wilson and Martin Hannet of Factory Records. Incidentally, the Manchester Free Trade Hall is also where an angry fan shouted “Judas” at Dylan in 1966 – lots of rock history in that building. Also, Howard DeVoto (Buzzcocks and Magazine) and Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks) helped organize the ’76 Sex Pistols show. Notably, the Pistols had opened for Joe Strummer’s the 101ers a few months earlier.

I am fascinated by the nasty, brutish, and short history of the Sex Pistols, so feel free to skip all this shit. The London band formed in 1975 with Steve Jones and Paul Cook, who had been playing together as the Strand. They hung out at the retro clothing store run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (then the manager of the New York Dolls). Jones invited McLaren to manage the Strand. Around the same time, they recruited Glen Matlock on bass, and the Westwood/McLaren shop was rechristened SEX and reimagined as a fetish-wear outpost, which would be relevant to the Pistols’ look in particular and punk fashion in general. After jettisoning a band member and reconfiguring the remainder, all involved started looking for a vocalist. They were attracted to John Lydon, the story goes, because he had written “I Hate” on his Pink Floyd t-shirt. Lydon became Johnny Rotten and the band took the name the Sex Pistols, influenced to one degree or another by McLaren, who also started supplying them with clothing from the store. The band built up a fan base (including Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol) and achieved notoriety with their behavior on and off stage, some of it engineered by McLaren and Westwood.

They were signed by EMI in late 1976 and dropped about three months later, managing to release “Anarchy in the U.K.” Matlock was out of the band by early 1977, replaced by John Ritchie (to become Sid Vicious), selected because he had the right look and behavioral credentials but who, despite having drummed for Siouxsie and the Banshees, was a neophyte on the bass. In March 1977, the band signed to A&M. Less than a week later, they were dropped, due to a series of incidents over that six-day span. By May, they were on Virgin, who released “God Save the Queen” later that month. It was banned by the BBC and independent radio. Stores refused to stock it. Within a week and a half of its release, the single sold 150,000 copies. Chaos followed the band but they were able to release Never Mind the Bollocks in late 1977 (with Jones and Matlock handling bass duties). 

McLaren booked a U.S. tour in 1978, predominantly in the Deep South, with the intent of causing controversy. The tour was a disaster. Rotten announced the band’s demise in mid-January; the other three made a few more recordings (including two Eddie Cochran covers) and then Vicious left as well. Within a few months, Lydon formed Public Image Ltd. Lawsuits followed. Vicious was dead by early 1979. The remainder is a history of traded barbs, reunions, competing recollections, and several attempts to cash in (including an authorized, official perfume). 

What I Think of This Album

I can’t decide whether it’s fair or not to judge this album solely on its merits. I am not sure it’s even possible. I doubt it was ever a realistic goal. So much notoriety surrounded the band before the album’s release, and even more has happened since, that Bollocks will always be more than just a collection of twelve songs. Moreover, all the sincerity, legitimacy, and meaning of those events (and of the songs and of the band) are in question.

I will say that listening to the album and blocking out all other considerations, it’s a bit mystifying what all the fuss was about. Yes, I realize this is with the benefit of hindsight, but still. This is pretty tuneful stuff, and as antisocial as Rotten’s sneer may be, at least it is on key; notably, even when they are singing about anarchy, the band sticks to the traditional conventions of rock music. And let’s not forget, the album was produced by Chris Thomas “or” Bill Price, two veterans of British rock who between them had done work for the decidedly not punk Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Procol Harem. So. Overall, nothing about this is remotely scary or dangerous. Sure, references to Bergen-Belsen and abortion, and suggesting the Queen of England was a fascist, may have been scandalous, but the reaction of the British establishment was absurd. 

No matter what, this is a great album and it has one of the best side one/song ones ever in “Holidays In the Sun.” Opening with the sound of jackboots marching and a descending riff that sounds a lot like the one from the Jam’s “In the City,” Rotten unleashes a manic diatribe against the Cold War, expertly using inflection to convey disgust, confusion, and ultimately fear, with a nearly-spoken word breakdown at the end that is as close to genius as he might ever have gotten.

“Holidays” has two obvious peers on the album. One is “God Save the Queen,” which makes up with venom for what it lacks in melody. Musically underdeveloped, the focus is on Rotten’s scabrous analysis of the state of England, and his demand for accountability or at least acknowledgement:  “Oh, when there’s no future / How can there be sin? / We’re the flowers in the dustbin / We’re the poison in your human machine / We’re the future / Your future.” The nihilistic chanting of “no future” at the end serves as a chilling indictment of every powerful person in England who led the country into social and economic misery. “And there’s no future / And England’s dreaming” is as concisely devastating a line as anyone has written.

The other standout is “Anarchy In the U.K., notable for many things, not the least of which is the rhyming of “anti-Christ” with “anarchist.” And the demonic laugh after the threatening “Right / Now” of the intro. An electrifying call to arms that pulses with ire and passion, “Anarchy” probably launched thousands of leftist punk bands across the globe. Again, Rotten *is* the show here, his acidic sneer cutting across the distorted guitars. The final held out whine of “destroyyyyyyyyyy” is spine-tingling.

Those three songs would’ve been enough to elevate Never Mind to classic status, but the album contains additional pleasures. “No Feelings” is a thrilling declaration of nihilistic narcissism (and even cites Dion’s “Runaround Sue”). Sister song “Problem” is similarly harsh, eschewing empathy and challenging the audience to take control of their lives, culminating with the deeply unsettling, robotic, and repeated intonation of “problem” by Rotten over the outro.

The band’s record label woes are aired in the very tuneful “EMI,” Rotten playing the impish provocateur, mocking the label for trying to capitalize on the punk movement only to get cold feet when faced with the band’s actual punk behavior. The quick “A&M” to close the song is hilarious. I personally think that the backing vocals of “EMI” are nearly identical to the backing vocals on the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” (i.e. “radio on”) from 1976.

“Pretty Vacant” is a somewhat simplistic attack against complacency, supposedly inspired by Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation,” and still pretty fun. The same spirit infuses the angry “Liar,” which Rotten sells masterfully. “Seventeen” is nearly filler, apparently a statement about the band itself. Supposedly, Malcolm McLaren ordered the Pistols to write a song about outré sex, so the band cheekily came up with “Sub-Mission,” complete with the line “I’m on a submarine mission for you, babe.” 

Two tracks are problematic. “New York” is a hateful, wrongheaded attack on New York bands of the time (possibly just the New York Dolls – the references to “pills” and “sealed with a kiss” certainly sound like direct nods to that band) complete with homophobic slur. Johnny Thunders responded a year later with “London Boys.” And of course, there is “Bodies,” a disturbing anti-abortion screed that manages to both misrepresent what abortion is and dehumanize and sideline women. Rotten has claimed to be agnostic about abortion while also maintaining that the song addresses all aspects of the issue and that he was capturing the pain of abortion, but that claim is almost as laughable as the song is offensive. Rather, he is blatantly judgmental and Rotten is zero percent qualified to be pretending to know what any woman is going through in making the decision to terminate a pregnancy. 

The original U.K. album is the same as the U.S. version except for a minor sequencing change (and different colored artwork). There is apparently an 11 song version of the album which had been released in limited numbers two to four weeks prior to the release of the more common 12 song version, omitting “Submission.” Those two versions also have different track sequences. Ten of the dozen songs were written with Matlock; two are credited to Cook, Jones, Rotten, and Vicious. 

Among the many questions, myths, and deceptions surrounding the band and its music are the reasons for the departure of Matlock; Rotten’s sincerity; McLaren’s manipulations; and the inclusion and treatment of Vicious. Matlock either quit or was fired, either for liking the Beatles, washing his feet, not having the right look, his discomfort with the lyrics to “God Save the Queen,” or due to a personality conflict with Rotten (stoked by McLaren). 

In the decades after the release of the album, Rotten has:  a) admitted that he is neither an anarchist nor an anti-royalist; b) vocalized support for the British Army; c) spoken out against gay marriage; d) openly admired Nigel Farage; e) advocated for Brexit (after first speaking out against it); f) supported Donald Trump; and g) expressed anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments. 

McLaren’s machinations seemed to revolve around his intertwined goals of creating controversy and personal enrichment. From encouraging the musically indefensible hiring of Vicious to allegedly being unscrupulous with the band’s finances, there is no debate that McLaren cared nothing about the band as an artistic force and used them as a vehicle for his selfish motives. And, most involved parties agree that Vicious was offered up as the cartoonish embodiment of everything the public feared (and was also fascinated by) about punk, without any regard for his well-being.

The Best Thing About This Album

Rotten’s brash, comical, and bilious performance is without peer.

Release Date

October, 1977 (U.K.); November, 1977 (U.S.)

The Cover Art

As with the rest of the album, this art is so familiar now and so far removed from its original context that it is difficult to appraise in a clear-eyed fashion. The British version with the yellow and pink is infinitely better than the pink and green of the U.S. version. I was too lazy to look for images of both. The ransom letter art and the different fonts look great. A winner all around.

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