Sex Pistols playlist: 10 broadsides that shook the world

Forty years ago this Sunday Johnny Rotten stepped off a San Francisco stage and the Sex Pistols were no more (filthy lucre-inspired reunions notwithstanding). Graeme Ross recalls the heady days of punk’s scabrous standard bearers, and puts together a playlist that takes no prisoners

Graeme Ross
Wednesday 10 January 2018 18:44
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Pistol-packing: (from left) Johnny Rotten, Paul Cook and Steve Jones. Bassist Glen Matlock played on their only official album before being replaced by Sid Vicious
Pistol-packing: (from left) Johnny Rotten, Paul Cook and Steve Jones. Bassist Glen Matlock played on their only official album before being replaced by Sid Vicious

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” a weary and disillusioned Johnny Rotten wondered aloud at the conclusion of the last night of the Sex Pistols’ only US tour at the San Francisco Winterland Ballroom on 14 January 1978. The tour had been a frantic, chaotic affair in keeping with the band’s tumultuous career. A few days later, Rotten announced that the Sex Pistols had broken up, although the band, Steve Jones on guitar, drummer Paul Cook, and the doomed, novice bass player Sid Vicious limped on without him under the aegis of manager Malcolm McLaren whose brainchild the Sex Pistols had been. But it wasn’t the Sex Pistols.

How could it be without one of the greatest front men in rock and roll? With Rotten, the Sex Pistols had been together just two and a half years and had crammed more controversy, adulation, fear and revulsion into their career than any other band in history. It had been the ultimate adrenaline rush, but John Lydon as Johnny Rotten had tired of the circus surrounding the band, the infighting, and the constant strife with manager McLaren.

Hard to believe that when the Sex Pistols played their first gig in November 1975 at London’s St Martin’s School of Art, Harold Wilson was Prime Minister and the Vietnam war had ended only six months previously. In the music scene, disco was in its infancy and hard rock and prog-rock’s bloated self-indulgence ruled. But a seismic change was brewing, one that would change the music industry forever, and the Pistols – with Rotten as spokesman – quickly became figureheads for the so-called “blank generation” of disaffected and alienated youths who felt ignored or marginalised. All that was required was a Year Zero soundtrack and punk scabrously provided it. The Sex Pistols didn’t invent punk rock but their uncompromising, iconoclastic attitude and brilliantly effective nihilistic anthems placed them at the vanguard of a new form of music that challenged long-held conventions and positioned them as agents of social and cultural change.

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Constantly on the verge of breaking up, the Sex Pistols only made one official album and it is that record, the sociopolitical rage of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols on which their reputation rests. We could talk all day about the hype and the scandals, Sid Vicious and the filth and the fury, but in the end it has to be all about the music and the influence of this seminal band. All of this playlist bar one comes from the seminal Never Mind the Bollocks, so there is no Sid Vicious version of “My Way”, no anodyne Eddie Cochrane covers, just the Sex Pistols in their venomous rage-fuelled pomp.

10. Did You No Wrong

The B-side of “God Save The Queen” bristles with some spectacular guitar riffs from Steve Jones and boasts a typically venomous vocal from Rotten. Probably as close to a love song that the group ever managed.

9. Submission

Less frenetic than just about ever other track on Never Mind The Bollocks, with a Stooges-like vibe, original bass player Glen Matlock and Rotten wrote this in response to manager Malcolm McLaren’s request for an S&M song about submission. In a rare moment of uniformity from the famously mutually antagonistic duo, who couldn’t take McLaren’s request seriously, they composed a song in double quick time supposedly based on a submarine mission just to show McLaren they couldn’t be dictated to. That’s the official line anyway, but with its copious sexual metaphors, “Submission” sounds to me as if it’s about sex, just not in the way that McLaren envisaged.

8. No Feelings

John Lydon in full snotty, Johnny Rotten mode as an unrepentant, violent narcissist backed by Steve Jones jagged, ear-shredding riffs make for the perfect punk song – fast, loud, dangerous and full of attitude and teenage alienation.

7. Problems

Steve Jones presides over a wall of guitars and Paul Cook lays waste to his drum kit as Rotten vents his spleen on a populace in a state of suspended animation, who lie comatose in front of the television, held captive by their humdrum jobs. “You won’t find me working nine to five, it’s too much fun being alive”, trumpets Rotten and it’s hard to disagree.

6. EMI

The perfect middle-digit kiss-off to the Pistols’ record label, who dumped them for their outrageous behaviour and the perfect song to end Never Mind The Bollocks. “EMI” ranks alongside Graham Parker’s “Mercury Poisoning” as the most gleeful rant at a record company ever recorded and says more in three minutes than Van Morrison has managed on a myriad of songs on the same subject.

5. Holidays in the Sun

The last of the four classic Sex Pistols singles that almost brought a nation to its knees, boasting the definitive unhinged Rotten vocal, was inspired by a trip to view the Berlin Wall by the group and undoubtedly borrowed from the Jam’s “In the City”. The opening track from Never Mind The Bollocks encapsulated the album’s mission statement perfectly with the opening effect of marching jackboots and the unpalatable truth of the first line, “A cheap holiday in other people’s misery”, as pertinent now as it was four decades ago.

4. Pretty Vacant

The title refers to the so-called “blank generation” who had nothing going for them in the mean streets of 1970s Britain, but Glen Matlock’s pop sensibilities came to the fore with a riff inspired by ABBA’s “SOS” With its “We’re pretty, pretty vacant” refrain, “Pretty Vacant” is indeed SingalongaPistols and although Rotten had an interesting way of pronouncing “vacant” the Pistols managed an appearance on Top of the Pops as the record hit the number six spot in the charts and landed the NME single of the year award.

3. Bodies

A difficult song to listen to by any standards but the ultimate expression of Lydon’s humanity as he expresses his feelings on abortion (based on real-life experiences) in some of the most uncompromising, gut-wrenching lyrics imaginable. “Bodies”, in Lydon’s own words is neither pro- nor anti-abortion as he challenges the listener to think about the consequences of their sexual behaviour, placing himself on all sides of the abortion debate while channelling all his confusion, rage and frustration into the expletive-ridden lyrics.

2. Anarchy in the UK

The Pistols fired their first howitzer across the establishment’s bow with their debut single released in November 1976, which sold 55,000 copies in just four weeks, reaching number 38 in the charts. However, amid growing discontent among EMI staff at the record label’s pressing and distribution depot surrounding the band’s shenanigans, and spooked by the furore following their infamous appearance on live television when Today host Bill Grundy goaded Steve Jones into some liberal use of the F-word, EMI withdrew the single and shortly afterwards, fired the band. No matter, the Pistols kept their £40,000 advance and moved on to the A&M label where their outrageous behaviour ensured their stay was brief but hugely profitable. They were fired after just six days but again kept their advance (£75,000), prompting a well-known financial journal with tongue firmly in cheek, to anoint the group “Young Businessmen of the Year”. Anyway, back to the primordial, nihilistic glories of “Anarchy in the UK”. It’s close to being the Sex Pistols’ greatest achievement, with Steve Jones’s sledgehammer riffs, Matlock and Cook’s wonderfully propulsive rhythm section, and the iconic statement of intent, a warning of impending but as yet unknown outrages to come as Rotten gleefully exclaims; “Rrright... now...” followed by a demonic, cackling “ha, ha, ha, ha, ha” as he launches into the famous couplet that doesn’t rhyme; “I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist.”

1. God Save the Queen

Laying claim to being an antichrist was one thing, but dissing that most cherished of British institutions – the monarchy and the Queen herself – was another thing all together. They say timing is everything and having proposed anarchy on the streets of Britain it made perfect sense for the Pistols to release their most provocative, incendiary record at the height of the Queen’s silver jubilee celebrations. If they hadn’t been before, the Sex Pistols now became public enemy number one, with Johnny Rotten everyone’s favourite bête noire. The guardians of Britain’s morals were outraged, the BBC immediately banned the record, ensuring its success. Encased in its iconic sleeve featuring Elizabeth II, “God Save the Queen” roared up the charts and was allegedly only kept off the number one slot by some sales figures manipulation by record industry bosses. Controversial lyrics aside, “God Save the Queen” is just a great rock and roll song that still thrills all these years on. They may have set out to destroy music and cherished British institutions, but with songs like this, the Sex Pistols became part of musical and cultural history.

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