The Sex Pistols were an English punk rock band formed in London in 1975. Though the band didn't last very long (1975-78), and produced only four singles and one studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, they are one of the most influential acts in the history of popular music, credited with initiating the punk movement in the United Kingdom, and inspired many later punk and alternative rock musicians. The first incarnation of the Sex Pistols included singer Johnny Rotten, lead guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bass player Glen Matlock.
The band was put together by Malcolm McLaren. The lead singer Johnny Rotten (real name John Lydon) was discovered after McLaren saw him wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt he had altered to read "I Hate Pink Floyd," the irony being that Rotten actually didn't hate Pink Floyd; it was just to be nonconformist. (Additionally, McLaren once got pissed at Lydon because in an interview, he named some of his musical influences as Can, Van der Graaf Generator, and Captain Beefheart, going against the punk image he was trying to cultivate.) Lydon couldn't sing, didn't look particularly like a pop star, but he was a genuine teenager from working-class origins who was pretty fed up with a lot of things and now finally had a soapbox to voice his opinions. Fellow band members were brought together, and the Sex Pistols were born.
Famously, the band performed to a crowd of approximately 42 people at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in Manchester England in June of 1976. As recounted in the film 24-Hour Party People, each person in the crowd either later formed a band (future members of The Smiths, Joy Divisionnote , the Fall, The Buzzcocks, Magazine, and Simply Red) or had a pivotal role in shaping that city's music scene (Factory Records founder Tony Wilson and NME journalist Paul Morley). This show alone was proof to the band's aforementioned reaching influence on punk, Post-Punk, New Wave and eventually alternative and indie rock music.
The turning point from band to spectacle is usually considered to be the firing of Glen Matlock (their Beatles-liking, actually capable bassist who co-wrote most of their early songs) and the hiring of Sid Vicious. Notably, Vicious played bass on only one song from their album Never Mind the Bollocks ("Bodies"), with bass duties handled by Jones and (on "Anarchy in the U.K.") Matlock. In fact, he didn't even know how to play his instrument, at least at first. But the band's appeal in general had nothing to do with musicianship, but more with their image, attitude and the way they liberated a lot of youngsters to be themselves. They outraged countless people with their lyrics (which often took the form of brutally honest stabs at the conformity of rock and pop, as well as Anti-Love Song material), swearing and shocking attacks on the British government.
"God Save the Queen" was a savage criticism of the British Royal Family and became the alternative anthem during the 25th anniversary of Elizabeth II's crowning. Although the song peaked at No. 2 in the UK chartsnote , many radio stations refused to play it, even denying its chart position. An entire nation was polarized over the success of this "filthy, degenerate band." One time when Rotten went home after a recording session, he was attacked in the street by a bunch of people out of retaliation for the song. Upon arrival at hospital after this incident, police were called to arrest him. The national outrage about the Sex Pistols became so gigantic that many concert halls cancelled their gigs and they had to perform as a surprise act in various cities.
Many future punk rockers got their start as Sex Pistols fans, such as Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol. Most of these musicians were part of the media-named, (in)famous "Bromley Contingent," a group of artistically minded youths who hung out in gay clubs and shared a love of Roxy Music and The Velvet Underground, and were, in fact, largely not from Bromley. Malcolm McLaren clothed them in Vivienne Westwood bondage apparel and helped them get from one Pistols show to the next - even France! - to cause controversy. Sid Vicious was initially part of this group; he would be the Banshees' drummer for their first-ever show, as well as try to form his own band, The Flowers of Romance, before becoming a Pistol.
No discussion of the Sex Pistols would be complete without mentioning Malcolm McLaren, their manager, and Nancy Spungen, Vicious' girlfriend. McLaren had a habit of taking the Pistols' ideas for his own, and spreading the myth that the whole group was his Structuralist art project. Spungen was stabbed to death in 1978. Vicious was imprisoned for Spungen's death (whether it was him or not is another untold story) and died of a drug overdose in 1979 after his release on bail.
In January 1978, Rotten left the band sometime after Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert gave up trying to film a Hard Day's Night-esque Pistols film called Who Killed Bambi?, and directly after a famously disastrous US tour which ended with him being stranded in the United States by McLaren. He reverted back to his birth name of John Lydon and formed art rock band Public Image Ltd. (or simply PiL) as a means to explore his love of genres such as dub, Progressive Rock and noise music, which he had to keep on the low-down during his Pistols days because these were the kinds of "pretentious" genres that the Pistols were allegedly supposed to be killing off. Over the course of the next decade and eight albums, PiL became an influential pioneer in the genres of Post-Punk and Alternative Rock.
After Lydon left, the Pistols attempted to continue on. One single was released in June 1978, with infamous train robber Ronnie Biggs taking over for Lydon on vocals (as a publicity stunt). After that single and the soundtrack to the then unreleased film The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (eventually released in 1980), the band was essentially over by the time of Nancy Spungen's death in October 1978.
After the Pistols split, Cook became a session musician and Jones made a few solo albums before becoming a radio personality in Los Angeles. McLaren also moved on to other projects, first managing Adam and the Ants and then Bow Wow Wow. He also became a musical trendsetter in his own right with his solo album Duck Rock and the classic single "Buffalo Gals", both of which are fondly remembered and helped introduce Hip-Hop to the United Kingdom.
The band's original Lydon/Jones/Matlock/Cook line-up reunited for a tour in 1996. They reunited once more for a series of dates in 2002 and 2003. In 2007, they reunited once more for a few more shows (and to re-record "Anarchy in the UK" for Guitar Hero III). They were put on hiatus in 2008 so Lydon could restart PiL, and the Pistols have abandoned the latest of several attempts to record their second album. Matlock has also become the bassist of the Faces. Malcolm McLaren died in early 2010, and by that time Lydon and McLaren had at least patched up enough things for Lydon to recall him fondly in interviews leading up to McLaren's funeral. In 2022, FX released a Biopic miniseries on the band’s story titled Pistols, focused on the perspective of guitarist Steve Jones.
Principal Members (Founding members in bold):
- Paul Cook — drums, percussion, backing and lead vocals (1975-1978, 1996, 2002-2003, 2007-2008)
- Steve Jones — guitar, bass, backing and lead vocals (1975-1978, 1996, 2002-2003, 2007-2008)
- Johnny Rotten — lead vocals (1975-1978, 1996, 2002-2003, 2007-2008)
- Glen Matlock — bass, vocals (1975-1977, 1996, 2002-2003, 2007-2008)
- Sid Vicious — bass, backing and lead vocals (1977-1978, died 1979)
Studio and Live Discography:
- 1977 — Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols
- 1979 — The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle
- 1985 — Anarchy in the U.K: Live at the 76 Club
- 1996 — Filthy Lucre Live
- 2001 — Live at Winterland 1978
- 2004 — Raw and Live
- 2008 — Live & Filthy
Never mind the bollocks, here's the Trope Examples:
- Accentuate the Negative: The band didn't sugarcoat how fed up they were with the state of their society.
- Actually Pretty Funny: How Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour reacted to Johnny Rotten's "I hate Pink Floyd" T-shirt. Gilmour was flattered that Rotten picked a "target of substance," and joked that he would have gotten much more mileage with an "I hate Yes" T-shirt instead.
- Anarchy Is Chaos: Interestingly not actually in play in their music, given that their first single was "Anarchy in the UK". Apparently, the Pistols saw themselves as a fairly apolitical band, whose main task was to tweak the noses of a hidebound Britain as opposed to spearheading any sort of revolution, anarchist or otherwise. Johnny said it best years later:Anarchy is mind-games for the middle class. It’s a wonderful philosophy if you've got the spare time to indulge in it. It's more like French abstract art than reality, because ultimately you would destroy everything. What's the point of that if you've got nothing to replace it with? Anarchy is a problem. It's not a solution. But it's worthy of some thought.
- B-Side: They released four singles during their career as an active band, with extremely varied B-sides.
- "Anarchy in the UK", their debut single, was backed with "I Wanna Be Me", a throwaway early song from a demo session some months earlier whose inclusion on the single is probably the most notable thing about it.
- "God Save the Queen", taken from the sessions that produced Never Mind the Bollocks, was backed with "Did You No Wrong," another song from the sessions that didn't end up on the album. The song originated as "Scarface" from when Steve, Paul and Glen were performing with Wally Nightingale as the Swankers. Since the group was essentially a pub-rock group before John Lydon became the singer, it's instrumentally a pretty straightforward rock 'n' roll song with Lydon's punk vocal and rewritten lyrics laid on top.
- "Pretty Vacant" had a cover of The Stooges' "No Fun" on the B-side. This was taken from the sessions where they first attempted to record the "Anarchy in the UK" single, which also happened to include a string of covers recorded live in the studio, the rest of which would surface on various bootlegs and film soundtracks in later years. It's an incredibly strong and spontaneous performance, especially considering that the band had just learned the song. It's also the longest single song they ever recorded: the full version comes in just under seven minutes, but the B-side edit cuts out the last 30 seconds or so of the chaotic AC/DC-esque ending.
- "Holidays in the Sun" features another cut from the Bollocks sessions that was left off the album, a recording of "Satellite", an older song about playing unpleasant gigs in small towns around London in the band's early days, trying to build a following. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it's a fine song and a damned energetic performance that really benefits from the bigger-budget production and fuller sound available to the band at the time of recording.
- The Band Minus the Face: The rest of the band released a few more songs after Johnny Rotten left.
- Became Their Own Antithesis: Subverted somewhat with Johnny Rotten. While he doesn't view his time in the Sex Pistols as Creator Backlash, he was an artsy kid big into groups like Can, Van der Graaf Generator and Captain Beefheart who was discovered wearing a shirt that said "I Hate Pink Floyd". Johnny didn't hate Pink Floyd, he simply wanted to be The Gadfly. His eclectic musical tastes which threatened to make him persona non grata in the Punk scene became more pronounced when he formed Public Image Ltd..
- Becoming the Mask: Sid Vicious. When the band started, he was described as like a schoolgirl. Things went downhill from there.
- Biopic: Two. Sid & Nancy in 1986 and Pistols in 2022.
- Childhood Friends: Steve and Paul and John and Sid were friends at their respective schools.
- Cluster F-Bomb:
- In the song "Bodies".Fuck this and fuck that, fuck it all and fuck the fucking brat!
- And of course, the notorious Bill Grundy interview.
- In the song "Bodies".
- Country Matters: Rotten puts very deliberate and gleeful emphasis on the last syllable of "Pretty Vacant."
- Cover Version: "Stepping Stone" by The Monkees, "Silver Machine" by Hawkwind, "No Fun" by The Stooges, and "Substitute" by The Who used to be live mainstays. Notably, "No Fun" was the last song they played at their famous last gig in the USA - the one which ended with Johnny Rotten throwing away his microphone and yelling "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?".
- The Cover Changes the Meaning: "Whatcha Gonna Do About It" by The Small Faces. Originally a Silly Love Song, but Johnny decided to change the lyrics to be about hate instad.
- Defeat Means Friendship: Sid once challenged his own bodyguard to a fight. After getting beaten up, Sid said, "I like you. Now we can be friends".
- The Diss Track:
- "New York" against the New York Dolls.
- "God Save the Queen" against the British Monarchy.
- Their above-detailed Writer Revolt over "Submission".
- "EMI" against record company EMI (plus its last line "Goodbye A&M!", which was reference to another record company, A&M Records; the Pistols had briefly recorded for each label). It literally ends with a fart noise.
- Dreadful Musician: Vicious. Supposedly, he once told Lemmy "I can't play bass". Lemmy's reply? "I know". Jones admitted that the band tried "as hard as they could" to keep Vicious away from the studio while they were recording Never Mind the Bollocks. Luckily for them, he had caught a severe case of hepatitis. Jones also admitted that they let him play one small bass part on "Bodies", but it was buried in the mix and he overdubbed his own. Paul Cook and Keith Levene have both disputed this and said that Sid Vicious did become a fairly competent bassist. He was dreadful at it because he never played bass prior to being hired by the Sex Pistols (he was a drummer, singer, and saxophonist before that point). Coincidentally, most of the "Sid Vicious can't play" examples cite events that happened immediately after he was hired. Vicious is also said to have shown honest desire to improve his bass playing, at least before Nancy came into the picture. He apparently once stayed up a whole night on speed with a bass guitar and The Ramones' debut album, practising along to the record until morning, by which time his playing had been greatly improved. Also worth mentioning that the manager stated he would have hired Sid Vicious to be the singer if it was an option, a logical choice given that Sid seemed to be able to hit notes far more accurately than Lydon when one compares their vocal performances.
- Epic Rocking: Surprisingly, they have an example: their cover of The Stooges' "No Fun". It's still way more primitive than most examples, though.
- Everyone Went to School Together: John and Sid first met in 1973 when they were both students at Hackney Technical College, while Steve and Paul met at the Christopher Wren School, now Phoenix High School, London in White City Estate, Shepherds Bush.
- Evil Laugh: The very first thing uttered by Rotten on their very first single, "Anarchy in the UK".
- Exact Words:
- When it was ruled they could not perform their song "God Save the Queen" on UK soil or on air, they got a boat and performed on the river Thames.
- Related to the same song, on November 4, 2016, in response to a call from an MP that The BBC should close each day's broadcasting with "God Save the Queen" (the traditional one), BBC 2's Newsnight invoked this trope, with a touch of Be Careful What You Wish For.
- Free-Handed Performer: Johnny Rotten is known for his animated stage presence which had him focusing on singing only.
- Fun with Acronyms: The gigs when the band had to play under pseudonyms were collectively known as SPOTS (Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly).
- Horny Sailors: "Friggin' in the Riggin'", a raunchier adaptation of the traditional drinking song "Good Ship Venus", is about a crew of these.
- Groin Attack: "The second mate was Andy/By Christ, he had a dandy/Til we crushed his cock/with a jagged rock/For cummin’ in the brandy]]"
- Location Song:
- Non-Appearing Title:
- Nowhere on the album is "Never Mind the Bollocks" uttered. Not even once.
- Technically, also "Anarchy in the U.K."... there's one mention of "Anarchy for the U.K." and that's it.
- Obligatory Bondage Song: Parodied with "Submission". The song is a result of Executive Meddling and the band's snarky Take That! to it. McLaren's clothing store, "Sex" (from whence the name "Sex Pistols"), sold along with its other punk clothes, a fair amount of bondage gear, and he demanded the Pistols write a song called "Submission," assuming it could be used as free advertising for the shop to move product. Johnny was particularly incensed by this request, and did write a song called "Submission", but wrote it about a submarine mission, a SUB MISSION. There's plenty of winking double entendres in the song to submission, but they're intentionally ridiculous exclusively to annoy McLaren and are immediately followed by absurd single entendres about undersea exploration.
- One-Steve Limit: When Malcolm McClaren was looking for the band's vocalist, Vivienne Westwood suggested a young man named John who frequented their shop. She was aghast when Johnny Rotten was picked, because she meant John Simon Ritchie aka Sid Vicious.
- Painful Rhyme: "I am an antichrist! I am an anarch-eye-st!" Made on purpose of course, as the way he sang was the equivalent of sneering.
- Protest Song: All of the songs, although on the other hand the group also states: "We don't care!"
- The Quincy Punk: Their looks, especially Rotten and Vicious, were an influence on the stereotype, though they were perceived as genuinely threatening to wider society at the time.
- Real Life Writes the Plot:
- "God Save the Queen" was written when Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 25th Jubilee, though the band has explicitly denied that they wrote it in response to the Jubilee, instead having written it as a "working-man's song" in frustration with a royal family that they viewed as out of touch. It was their bad luck that the single just happened to be released during the Jubilee, when pro-royal and general patriotic sentiment among the class they were trying to reach was at a high point.Paul Cook: It wasn't written specifically for the Queen's Jubilee. We weren't aware of it at the time. It wasn't a contrived effort to go out and shock everyone.
- "Bodies" was inspired by Johnny Rotten's encounter with a crazed fan (not an exaggeration: she was institutionalised) from Birmingham named Pauline, who described to him in detail the abortions she'd had.
- "God Save the Queen" was written when Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 25th Jubilee, though the band has explicitly denied that they wrote it in response to the Jubilee, instead having written it as a "working-man's song" in frustration with a royal family that they viewed as out of touch. It was their bad luck that the single just happened to be released during the Jubilee, when pro-royal and general patriotic sentiment among the class they were trying to reach was at a high point.
- Red Scare: Subverted by the line "I was waiting for the Communist call" in "Holidays in the Sun."
- Refuge in Audacity: Most of their work and stage persona is based on this. Few performers would have the chutzpah to perform "The Good Ship Venus", uncensored, in public, never mind record it for an album, yet they did just that.
- Rockumentary: The Filth and the Fury.
- Sarcastic Title: "God Save the Queen".
- Self-Deprecation: The reason that their Nineties reunion tour was called "The Filthy Lucre Tour."
- Self-Titled Album: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols is a partial example of this.
- Sincerest Form of Flattery: Apparenty, the bass player for ABBA note took this view with Glen Matlock borrowing ABBA's opening riff for "SOS" for "Pretty Vacant", as in a Rolling Stone interview for the 40th anniversary of Never Mind the Bollocks, Matlock mentioned how once the provenance of the opening bass riff became known, he received Christmas cards from the bassist for about 10 years!
- Stage Names: Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten.
- Step Up to the Microphone: Some songs on the compilation album The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle feature Johnny Rotten note , but several feature other vocalists, either band members, or guests. Steve Jones sang on songs like "Lonely Boy" and "Friggin' in the Riggin'", Paul Cook did lead vocals on "Silly Thing" (an alternate version by Jones also exists), Sid Vicious sang "My Way", "Something Else" and "C'mon Everybody", Malcolm McLaren sang "You Need Hands", Ronald Biggs sang "No One Is Innocent" and "Belsen Vos a Gassa" and Edward Tudor-Pole sang on the title track, "Who Killed Bambi?" and "Rock Around the Clock.
- The Svengali: McLaren claimed to be this to the band, although how much influence he actually had is up for debate.
- Glen Matlock admitted that he left the band because of arguments with Johnny, and the band has since agreed that McLaren played a part in exacerbating it.
- McLaren's behaviour is the reason why Never Mind the Bollocks carried an unusual production credit "Produced by Bill Price or Chris Thomas" (since amended on subsequent issues of the album on CD to the slightly more reasonable "Produced by Chris Thomas, engineered by Bill Price"). To let Bill Price explain:Bill Price: The simple facts of the matter were that Chris [Thomas] was hired by Malcolm to do a series of singles for the Sex Pistols. I was hired by Malcolm to do a series of album tracks with the Sex Pistols. Life got slightly complicated, because I did a few album tracks that Chris remade as singles. Also, Chris started a couple of tracks, which got abandoned as singles, which I remade to be used as album tracks. On quite a large number of songs, when we'd finished the album, we had two versions of the song. I couldn't quite understand why Malcolm kept chopping and changing between different versions of different songs. It slowly dawned on Chris and myself that Malcolm was trying to slip between two stools and not pay Chris or me. So we said, "I'll tell you what, Malcolm. Whatever's on the Sex Pistols' album, it was either done by me or Chris, and you can pay us and we'll divvy it out amongst our little selves." Which is what we did. But it did force that very strange credit, simply because the sleeve was printed long before it was finally decided which version of each individual song was on the record. If we'd known, it would have said "produced by Bill Price" or "produced by Chris Thomas". That's how you ended up with that credit, "produced by Bill Price or Chris Thomas".
- Take That!:
- The entire group was an anarchic reaction against everything rock 'n' roll stood for, with their entire public image and songs were designed to shock the establishment.
- See the page quote: The band's refusal to attend their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — complete with a scathing "The Reason You Suck" Speech - also qualifies.
- Any hope of a collaboration with American punkette Patti Smith was scuppered by Johnny Rotten's sneering at what he saw as pretentious tripe: "Horses, horses, fucking horses!" As this was the title of her first LP, Smith was not flattered or amused.
- Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: With the exception of Steve and Paul, the band have almost always been at odds with each other. In fact, John pushed for Sid’s arrival so he’d have an ally.
- Three Chords and the Truth: As one of the earlier Punk Rock bands, they're obviously one of the Trope Codifiers — second only to The Ramones.
- Word Salad Lyrics: Their songs had a tendency to slip into this. "Holidays in the Sun" is one example. On one hand the lyrics follow a clear story if you will, but it's never clear — not even to Rotten himself — what he is actually doing there next to the Berlin Wall. It is lampshaded towards the end.Gotta go over the Berlin Wall
I don't understand it...
I gotta go over the wall
I don't understand this bit at all
[...] It's no real reason to be waiting
The Berlin Wall
- World War III: Mentioned in "Holidays in the Sun".I didn't ask for sunshine and I got World War III