The Sex Pistols were the harbingers of a postwar apocalypse thirty years in the making. Teenage angst disguised as a proletarian revolution, their music was invigoratingly indecent–just listen to the way Johnny Rotten pronounces “vacant.” Paul Cook and Steve Jones entangled the verve of the drums with the authority of the guitar, manufacturing a sound like a union strike. Glen Matlock engineered the necessary bass tablature; his successor, Sid Vicious, tendered a confusing, sporadically irrelevant alternative. Frankly, he was too high on his own delusions of punk rock to notice that most of the time, his bass was unplugged. But it was Johnny Rotten, and his banshee shriek, that propelled their songs to anthems. His razor-sharp voice shredded fakery and complacency. The Pistols’ lone studio album, Never mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, is emblematic of their combustible existence. The tracks, intended as melodic land mines, are impostors: obsessively overdubbed and a middle finger to the live experience. Afflicted with the paradox inherent in punk rock, the Sex Pistols surrendered their weapons to the music industry and its savage desire to present them NOT as punk rockers, but rock stars.
“They are England’s next generation and we will be proud of them. It’s a class war; they want to destroy society.” – Malcolm McLaren, in one of his more theatrical statements
If the American punk rock movement was a firecracker, then its British counterpart was a bomb, carefully crafted and ultimately detonated by the fifth Sex Pistol, Malcolm McLaren. A collector of personalities, McLaren plucked miscreants from his clothing shop, SEX, and christened them “The Six Pistols.” This band of “young, sexy assassins” was first and foremost a walking billboard for the shop; to him, the music was simply a means of achieving his own ends, anchored on the silver screen. His role as manager cast him somewhere between a f’d up father figure and a puppet master. Rotten’s ferocious denial of this fused with his wicked resentment forces the Sex Pistols’ saga to culminate in a courtroom. Twice. McLaren lived vicariously through the band, feeding off of their unprecedented fame like a managerial parasite. From the first time they said “f***” on TV, McLaren’s strategy would be stardom through scandal. By the end of 1977, the band was the monster to McLaren’s Frankenstein: he infected them with infamy such that they could hardly book a gig.
“There’s a Johnny Rotten in each of us, and he doesn’t need to be liberated–he needs to be crucified!“ – evangelists outside a 1978 performance at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom
After a failed tour of the Bible Belt–Rotten’s declaration that he was an anti-Christ did not resonate–and a pub crawl out to LA, the Sex Pistols were dead. Their kamikaze mission against the music industry was over. By the time Sid Vicious may or may not have stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, to death, Malcolm McLaren worked exclusively with the band’s cartoon counterparts. John Lydon was in the midst of a legal blitzkrieg with the swindler himself, gunning down the rights to his own alter ego. And so the saga of the Sex Pistols culminates in a courtroom. Twice. The Pistols descended upon England like a flock of blue collar banshees; their music mutilated the air of consensus. As abruptly as one of their songs, and with the same cultivated belligerence, they became national scapegoats–after all, Parliament did denounce them as threats to the British way of life–before plummeting into oblivion. The initial force with which they seized the Union Jack, and even the Queen, was annihilated by the definition of punk rock itself. By the media. By the government. By outsiders to this movement of outsiders, too stupid to decipher the clever fusion of utter chaos with social commentary. Punk relinquishes its power once anything is expected of it; it sacrifices the shock of its charming vulgarity.
- “Anarchy in the UK”
- “God Save the Queen”
- “Pretty Vacant”
- “Holidays in the Sun”