Never mind four-letter words... here's the Sex Pistols: when television met punk rock

Jonathan Brown
Friday 01 December 2006 01:00 GMT

It only happened, ironically enough, because Queen cancelled at the last minute, leaving the producers at Thames Television's evening magazine show Today casting about for a suitable replacement.

The band they found was the polar opposite of Freddie Mercury and the boys. Queen's big hair, tottering platforms and penchant for multi-layered operatic vocal tracks had made them the darlings of the atrophying post-glam rock scene of 1970s Britain. The Sex Pistols, about to embark on their first national tour, titled Anarchy in the UK, were by contrast a snarling reaction to everything Queen stood for.

It is exactly 30 years since Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook unleashed their infamous verbal tirade of four-letter words on tea-time television.

Although tame by 21st century standards, the short exchange destroyed the career of the Today host Bill Grundy, elevated the Sex Pistols to notoriety and heralded the arrival of punk rock.

The Daily Mirror's decision to splash the story on its front page under the headline "The Filth and the Fury", created a rallying cry for a generation. The phrase was emblazoned across thousands of T-shirts and bedroom walls. It was later used by the director Julien Temple as the title of his acclaimed Sex Pistols rockumentary.

A new, two-part documentary, England's Still Dreaming, to be shown on BBC Radio 2 tomorrow, points to the interview as the moment when punk came of age. Interviews with some of the most famous names from the era, including John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Malcolm McClaren and Bob Geldof and Tony James reveal the profound impact it had on those who watched it or took part.

The show got off to a bad start when Grundy, who had made his name when he introduced the Beatles to television while a presenter at Granada in 1962, weaved unsteadily into the studio, clearly the worse for wear after a long, liquid lunch. "Bill Grundy was a dreadful drunk - I have learnt a lot from him... he was a bumhole," recalls Rotten.

Julien Temple remembered a "buzz" when word got out that Queen were not appearing.

"The Pistols had this chance to go on TV and it was just fantastic to be watching it because it just got better and better. It was what they always were, they were a black comedy, a music hall act and the fact that the guy was so drunk was brilliant," he said. But trouble flared when Grundy flirted with Siouxsie Sioux, then a member of the band's fan group known as the Bromley Contingent, which had accompanied them onto the set.

Guitarist Steve Jones rounded on the presenter, describing him as a "dirty old man" - a phrase made popular at the time by the sitcom Steptoe and Son. Rotten then pretended to apologise for muttering the word "shit". Grundy then turned on the group, urging them: "Go on, you've only got another five seconds, say something outrageous."

Jones, a self-proclaimed career criminal before joining the band, was unfazed by Grundy's attempts to ridicule him. He hit back calling the host a "dirty fucker" and "fucking rotter".

The resulting publicity was pure gold dust for the band and their ambitious manager Malcolm McClaren, coming five days before their first tour date

It had been barely a decade since the critic Kenneth Tynan uttered the word of "fuck" on television prompted four parliamentary censure motions and a storm of protest. Peregrine Worsthorne's use of the same word on the BBC's Nationwide programme in 1973 was greeted with little more enthusiasm by the establishment.

After the Sex Pistols' appearance, Grundy was suspended for two weeks and Today was dropped two months later. Grundy continued presenting in the North-west until the 1980s and died of a heart attack in 1993, aged 69.

England's Still Dreaming, Radio 2, tomorrow, 8pm

A cultural storm

Steve Diggle Buzzcocks

"It was almost like an atom splitting. The next thing you know some truck driver had kicked his TV in because he was so repulsed. That made it all exciting. That just made legends."

Bob Geldof The Boomtown Rats

"John was a very smart guy. The catalyst was this very drunk TV presenter. He had been briefed that they were outrageous and how to be outrageous was to say a naughty word on telly."

Pete Waterman Magnet Records

"It was the most wonderful coup. You couldn't have bought it. Malcolm McClaren must have thought all his days had come at once. Everyone thought this was Clockwork Orange coming true."

Julien Temple Film Director

"They were a black comedy act, a music hall act and the fact the guy was so drunk was brilliant. It was the era of liquid lunches and Bill Grundy was the numero-uno piss artist. He was just led to the slaughter."

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