When tea time viewers of the London Today programme in December 1976 witnessed TV presenter Bill Grundy eliciting a foul-mouthed broadside from a gaggle of scrawny, uncouth delinquents dressed in rags and tatters, the effect was seismic. Outraged headlines the following morning granted the culprits an instant notoriety that would endure throughout their brief but explosive career. The Sex Pistols had arrived.
Rock bands with real cultural significance are extremely rare, but the Sex Pistols were the genuine article. All aspects of youth culture, from music and manners to fashion and graphic design, were irrevocably altered in their wake. What's all the more remarkable is that, in the pre-promo video era, fewer people saw their original incarnation than might watch Travis play one medium-sized stadium today. The UK music scene, reflecting the national mood of the time, was stagnant and hidebound, crying out for a dose of something new, and the Sex Pistols duly obliged, re-establishing the moral panic that had once made pop so exciting to kids and alarming to their parents.
Managed by Malcolm McLaren, owner of London boutique SEX (and briefly manager of The New York Dolls ), the Pistols were formed in 1975 by shop assistant Glen Matlock and itinerant shoplifters Paul Cook and Steve Jones. Originally calling themselves The Swankers, they were soon renamed the Sex Pistols. A fan of the French Situationist art terrorists of 1968, McLaren wanted to insert a similarly provocative, anarchic presence into the cosy pipe-and-slippers world of rock music, which was then dominated by the hippy leftovers of British prog rock and American country-rock. To achieve the desired high-profile reaction, he knew he needed somebody quite extraordinary to front the band. The search was concluded when McLaren's assistant (and future Clash manager) Bernie Rhodes spotted a green-haired Johnny Rotten (né Lydon) wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt emblazoned with the legend "I Hate", and invited him along to audition for the band.  

In the Roebuck pub near Malcolm's Kings Road shop, Lydon belted out a deliberately ridiculous version of Alice Cooper's "Eighteen", and an impressed McLaren invited him along to a rehearsal the following week at a Rotherhithe pub called The Crunchy Frog. The other band members, however, had taken an instant dislike to Lydon and, when he arrived to find they hadn't bothered turning up, he called McLaren and told him to "Fuck off!" It was hardly the most auspicious of beginnings, but somehow the band gelled into Malcolm's dream of the most stroppy, subversive and downright obnoxious rock band of all time. Rotten soon confirmed Malcolm's faith in him, bringing to the group an idiosyncratic sense of style and a quick-witted, vituperative personality that would make the Pistols a phenomenon rather than just a band.Already equipped with top-range musical equipment courtesy of Cook and Jones's light fingers, the Pistols began playing London art colleges,
and by early 1976 their rough rock sound and abrasive attitude was attracting a small but fervent following of exhibitionist misfits, the seeds of a scene in the making.

Centre stage at all times was Rotten. With few role models, he presented a persona of nihilistic, amphetamine-fuelled contempt that proved utterly compelling, with a vocal style best described as a ferocious sneer not conventional star qualities, but ones destined to make himthedefinitive icon of punk rock. The on-stage anger transferred itself to the audience, and before long Sex Pistols gigs became marked by a pervasive undertow of violence some caused by the band, some by those they'd succeeded in provoking. They were soon banned from London clubs such as Dingwalls and The Rock Garden, circumventing the ban by putting on their own gigs at unorthodox venues like Islington's Screen on the Green cinema, and even doing an inmates-only show for prisoners at Chelmsford Prison. After headlining the 100 Club Punk Festival in September 1976, the band were signed to EMI a month later for a £40,000 advance. After the Grundy incident that December, their infamy was assured as, too, was the inevitable backlash that followed. The Anarchy Tour on which they were supported by The Clash, The Damned and the Heartbreakers was all but wrecked by widespread cancellations, as their debut single "Anarchy In The UK" survived radio and retail blacklisting to reach #38 in the UK charts by the year's end.

Brunel, December 1977

Effectively banned from playing anywhere by January 1977, they were dropped by EMI, who, sick of the relentless negative publicity, preferred to write off the advance rather than risk further turmoil. Glen Matlock was kicked out of the group for the capital crime of "liking the Beatles", with Rotten's pal, Sid Vicious, drafted in as his replacement. Essentially talentless but visually arresting, Vicious soon linked up with American groupie Nancy Spungen and, through her, the heroin that would ultimately ruin the band and doom them both. In March, they were signed by A&M for £75,000, the signing ceremony taking place outside Buckingham Palace. Ten days later, A&M "did an EMI" and pulled out of the deal following complaints from workers at the label's offices. The Pistols kept the cheque, of course, but were left with no outlet for their next single; ironically, salvation arrived in the unlikely form of archetypal hippy capitalist and punk hate figure Richard Branson, whose Virgin Records took the band on when no one else would touch them, ensuring the epochal "God Save The Queen" was released in time for the Queen's Jubilee celebrations.

It was a fantastic, explosive record, which pungently articulated the growing opposition to the patriotic fervour gripping the nation at the time. Despite zero airplay, it topped the charts, although Rod Stewart "officially" resided at #1 that week, with some shops refusing even to list it in their in-store charts. On the day of the Queen's official June celebration, the band played a gig on a Thames riverboat, until curtailed by police and carted off to spend the rest of the night in jail. Clearly, they'd exceeded McLaren's wildest expectations in getting up plenty of noses, but there was a price to pay for their provocations, with open season being declared on punks in general, and the Pistols in particular.

Rotten and Cook were seriously assaulted in street attacks, as life got very hot indeed. They toured Sweden, released "Pretty Vacant" and "Holidays In The Sun" and toured the UK clandestinely before releasing the Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols LP in November 1977. It contained all of the singles and few surprises, but an increasingly product-hungry public ensured it rocketed to #1. The title, and Jamie Reid's lurid blackmail-lettered sleeve, provoked shop bans and chain-store boycotts, along with the unsuccessful prosecution for obscenity of a Nottingham retailer who had dared to put it on display. It still stands as the classic punk album, and it was also the last output of the bandproper, as opposed to the later product released under the Sex Pistols "brand name". While McLaren fretted over a film project portraying the band's history, Vicious succumbed to heroin and Rotten became progressively alienated from everybody. It didn't augur well for the ensuing US tour. Playing across the Deep South to redneck audiences who'd only come for the freak show didn't exactly help matters, particularly when Vicious started mutilating his bare chest on stage, and clubbing irate punters with his (otherwise redundant) bass.

Concluding a show at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom with the taunt, "Ha ha! Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?", an exasperated Rotten walked out. And that, to all intents and purposes, was that. McLaren, however, didn't see things quite that way. With a film part-completed, he was in no mood to conclude matters just yet, and so set about salvaging whatever he could from the band's reputation, which would be utterly demolished as a result. Cook and Jones flew to Brazil to record the ghastly "Belsen Was A Gas" with train-robber exile Ronnie Biggs; Vicious recorded a couple of Eddie Cochran covers and Frank Sinatra's theme song "My Way", as McLaren tried to reposition him as the band's star. But, though bad publicity had served the band well in earlier days, there was little to be gained from the kind of headlines triggered by Sid's implication in the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, stabbed to death while both were bingeing on heroin in New York's Chelsea Hotel. A few months later, on 2nd February 1979, Vicious himself died of a heroin overdose while out on bail.

The film The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle eventually surfaced in October 1979. Having no discernible plot, very little Rotten (who'd blocked as many of his appearances as possible), and Matlock callously erased from the band's story, it was a wilful distortion of history, and hardly the testament that such a seminal group deserved. By now Rotten had reverted to Lydon and was making considerable waves with the more experimental Public Image Limited whose album Metal Box (1979) remains an avant garde classic. In 1986, the surviving Pistols successfully sued McLaren for millions of pounds in back royalties. Ten years later, the four original members unashamedly reformed for "the filthy lucre" offered for a European tour, finally proving that, contrary to widespread belief, they really could make a fine racket. But it wasn't punk any more, it was merely nostalgia...

 

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