God save the Sex Pistols

God save the Sex Pistols

The Sex Pistols, 1978 –Photo: Bruno Ehrs

June 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. My memory of it runs as far as being obsessed with Marvel comics and struggling to stay afloat at prep school. I looked like a goody-goody but was always in trouble. I regularly ended up in detention, which hinted at inner turmoil belied by my altar-boy hair and rosy cheeks. So, when I discovered The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, the album spoke to me deeply. It was angry, silly, and to me as a ten-year-old felt as transgressive as drawing cocks on toilet walls or flicking V-signs everywhere. It was my language of rebellion. I became a little Sex Pistol.

That summer, the actual Sex Pistols also courted trouble, upending the UK’s music scene and offending tabloid-readers. They’d already been thrown off two record labels for bad behaviour and found a precarious home at Richard Branson’s Virgin. Their alternative national anthem, God Save the Queen, was released in May and careened to number one. But the BBC refused to play it and the track was excised from the charts, so the top spot went to Rod Stewart. 1977 should have been the Sex Pistols’ year, with Never Mind the Bollocks out in October, but by then controversy had eclipsed the music.

Their story begins in 1972, a grim period of power cuts, strikes and unemployment. “No future” wasn’t just a slogan, it was how young working-class people felt. Steve Jones and Paul Cook were teenage friends in west London. Jones’ Dad left when he was two, replaced by a stepfather who sexually abused him. His memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol (2017) reveals the vulnerability behind his smooth-geezer persona. As John Lydon says of Jones: “I could see there was a tragedy in him. Just like in me.”

This mix of deprivation and dysfunction led Jones to start thieving, which was how the band got so well equipped from the off. Jones would break into Hammersmith Odeon and steal the gear offstage, notably David Bowie’s microphone from his Ziggy Stardust shows. And allegedly some of Keith Richard’s amps.

Cook and Jones couldn’t play at first, but Cook would later be crowned “the Charlie Watts of punk”, an immaculate timekeeper and powerful player, while Jones channelled Pete Townshend’s aggression together with the shape-throwing of Johnny Thunders from the New York Dolls. The duo formed a band with pal Wally Nightingale and hung out at Let it Rock, a vintage clothes shop owned by Vivienne Westwood and her partner Malcolm McLaren, who would famously go on to manage the Pistols. It’s also where they found bassist Glen Matlock, a talented musician and Paul McCartney fan, who was working there. He was probably “a bit too tune-y for the Pistols”, recalls Brian James of The Damned, but he was “a songsmith. He’s the guy that wrote all those riffs.”

The band had the looks, they were learning their musical chops, and McLaren and Westwood provided the outfits. But Nightingale’s face didn’t fit, and he was booted out. Enter John Lydon, a shy boy with a pallid complexion, terrible teeth (hence “Rotten”) and a killer stare. His ever-present rancour might have dated back to childhood meningitis that put him in a four-month coma, wiping his memory and leaving him deeply suspicious of authority. This combination of shyness, rage and eccentric humour would mould his “Johnny Rotten” character, constructed from elements of music hall, ooh-I-say panto dames and grotesques like Shakespeare’s Richard III and Charles Laughton’s portrayal of Quasimodo.

Musically, the Sex Pistols were inspired by ’60s mod, especially The Who and the Small Faces. But there’s a lot of 1950s in there too, Jones’ dive-bombing guitar reminiscent of Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran. Lydon loved a wide range of music, while Matlock’s penchant for ABBA birthed the main riff of Pretty Vacant, which he admits to pinching from S.O.S. But his pop sensibilities caused ructions within the band and led to his dismissal, even though Matlock says it was because “I’d had enough by then”. In came Sid Vicious, Sex Pistols’ superfan.

Vicious couldn’t play a note, which didn’t matter to McLaren. He looked amazing, all razor-sharp cheekbones and lean physique. But he was easily led, and the band’s downfall seemed always on the cards. In a 1978 interview, Vicious said presciently, “We’ll probably be dead in two years.” He died in 1979, not long after Lydon quit the band. With Lydon gone and Vicious no more, the barely-begun story was over.

The Sex Pistols only lasted 26 months, but their influence is as great as ever, with the Jubilee-timed release of Pistol, a TV series made by Danny Boyle charting the band’s rise and fall. The Disney+ show arrives with its own courtroom drama, as Lydon tried to stop the production using the band’s music. He claims he was never asked to be involved in the project, while Jones and Cook maintain he was made aware from the outset. It seems unlikely the band will reunite again, leaving fans disappointed they never made a second album. But for me The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was a perfect conclusion. Stupid, raucous, V-flicking and glorious,
God save the Sex Pistols.

Will Stubbs is a screenwriter and TV commercials writer. Music is his first love

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Arts & Culture, June 2022, Music

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