The Sex Pistols formed in London, England in 1975. The Band originally consisted of Johnny Rotten (vocals), Steve Jones (Guitar), Glen Matlock (bass) and Paul Cook (drums). However Glen Matlock was replaced with Sid Vicious.
The Sex Pistols evolved from The Strand, a band formed in 1972 with Jones on vocals, Cook on drums and Wally Nightingale on guitar. By 1973 the band members were spending time at Don Letts's Acme Attractions and the more upmarket Let It Rock, a 1950s-themed clothes shop in the Kings Road, Chelsea, area of London. Let It Rock was owned by former New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren and his partner Vivienne Westwood; the shop specialised in "anti-fashion", selling the drapes, slashed T-shirts, brothel creepers and fetish gear later popularised by the punk movement. McLaren took over management of the band around this time. Renamed The Swankers, they began rehearsing at the Crunchy Frog, a studio near the London Docklands. In 1974, they played their first gig at Tom Salter's Café in London.
Glen Matlock was recruited as bass player in early 1975. Around this time Jones and Nightingale began to argue over the band's musical direction, and Nightingale departed soon afterwards. In August 1975, John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) was spotted by Jones at the now renamed and restyled SEX boutique. According to Jones, "He came in with green hair. I thought he had a really interesting face. I liked his look. He had his 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt on. John had something special, but when he spoke he was a real asshole—but smart." Though he had never considered singing before, after miming along to Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" on the shop juke box, Rotten was asked to join as vocalist. Rotten and his circle of friends were by now dressing in the torn-shirt, S&M-inspired clothing promoted by Vivienne Westwood. The band's core group of followers—including Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin and Billy Idol, who would go on to form bands of their own—came to be known as the Bromley Contingent, after the neighbourhood several were from. Their radical fashion ignited a trend that was adopted by the new fans the band attracted.
One of McLaren's first acts as manager was to rename the band. Among the options considered were Le Bomb, Subterraneans, Beyond and Teenage Novel. The band's first gig as the Sex Pistols was arranged by Matlock, who was studying at Saint Martins College. The band played at the school on 6 November 1975. The plugs were pulled before they finished their set. This gig was followed by other performances at colleges and art schools around London.
In early 1976, the Sex Pistols began to play larger venues such as the 100 Club and the Nashville. On 4 June 1976, at the invitation of Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley (who would soon form the Buzzcocks), the band played their first gig in Manchester. Their performance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall inspired a punk rock boom in the city. Two newly formed London punk rock acts, The Clash and The Damned, made their live debuts opening for the Sex Pistols on 4 July and 6 July, respectively. On 3 September 1976, the Pistols played their first concert outside Britain, at the opening of the Club De Chalet Du Lac in Paris. Their first major tour of Britain soon followed, lasting from mid-September to early October.
Following a showcase gig at London's first punk festival, held in October 1976 at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, the Sex Pistols signed to the major label EMI. The band's first single, "Anarchy in the U.K.", released on 26 November 1976, served as a statement of intent—full of wit, anger and visceral energy. Despite a common perception that punk bands couldn't play their instruments, contemporary music press reviews and live recordings reveal the Pistols to have been a tight, competent and ferocious live band.
Their behaviour, as much as their music, brought them national attention. On 1 December 1976 the band and members of the Bromley Contingent created a storm of publicity by swearing during an early evening live broadcast of Thames Television's Today programme. Appearing as last-minute replacements for fellow EMI artists Queen, band and entourage took full advantage of the green room facilities, and consumed significant amounts of alcohol. During the interview, Rotten used the word "shit", and host Bill Grundy, who was apparently drunk at the time, flirted openly with Siouxsie Sioux: "We'll meet afterwards, shall we?" This prompted the following exchange between the host and Steve Jones:
Jones: You dirty sod. You dirty old man. Grundy: Well keep going chief, keep going. Go on. You've got another five seconds. Say something outrageous. Jones: You dirty bastard. Grundy: Go on, again. Jones: You dirty fucker. Grundy: What a clever boy. Jones: What a fucking rotter.
Although the programme was broadcast only in the London region, the ensuing furore occupied the tabloid newspapers for days. The Daily Mirror famously ran the headline "The Filth and the Fury", while the Daily Express led with "Punk? Call it Filthy Lucre"—phrases Lydon adopted for Pistols projects many years later. Thames Television suspended Grundy, and though he was later reinstated, the interview effectively ended his career.
The episode created mass publicity for the band and brought punk into the mainstream. The Pistols set out on the Anarchy Tour of the UK, though many of the concerts were either crowded by hostile press or cancelled by organisers or local authorities. In a television interview, London councillor Bernard Brook Partridge declared, "Some of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death ... I would like to see someone dig a huge hole and bury the lot of them in it."
Following the end of the tour in December 1976, EMI arranged a series of concerts for January 1977 at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. But before boarding the plane at London Heathrow Airport, the band reportedly spat on each other and verbally abused airport staff. "One witness claimed the Sex Pistols were doing something so disgusting that she could not repeat it for publication ... it became generally believed Jones had been vomiting on old ladies in the preflight lounge," reported Rolling Stone. EMI released the band from their contract two days later. "I don't understand it," Rotten remarked at the time. "All we're trying to do is destroy everything."
The Paradiso gigs would be their last with Matlock, who parted company with the band in February, 1977. According to popular legend, he was sacked because he "liked The Beatles", but Steve Jones later claimed the reason was that Matlock didn't "fit in" with the others, stating, obliquely, that Matlock was "always washing his feet". Matlock now claims to have quit voluntarily, mainly because of an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Rotten. Matlock immediately formed his own band, Rich Kids, with Midge Ure, Rusty Egan and Steve New.
Matlock was replaced by Rotten's friend and self-appointed "ultimate Sex Pistols fan" Sid Vicious (Simon John Ritchie), previously drummer of Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Flowers of Romance. McLaren approved Vicious as a member on account of his look and "punk attitude", despite his limited musical abilities. McLaren later stated that, much earlier in the band's career, Vivienne Westood had told him he should "get the guy called John who came to the store a couple of times" to be the singer. When Johnny Rotten was recruited for the band, Westwood said McLaren had got it wrong: "he had got the wrong John." It was Simon John Ritchie—the future Vicious—she had been recommending.
According to McLaren, "When Sid joined he couldn't play guitar but his craziness fit into the structure of the band. He was the knight in shining armour with a giant fist." Lydon later recalled, "The first rehearsals with Sid were hellish. Everyone agreed he had the look. Sid tried real hard ... but boy, he couldn't play bass." Marco Pirroni, who had performed with Vicious in Siouxsie & the Banshees, has said, "After that, it was nothing to do with music anymore. It would just be for the sensationalism and scandal of it all. Then it became the Malcolm McLaren story..." Vicious's amplifier was often turned down, or off, during live performances, and most of the bass parts on the band's later recordings were played by either Jones or Matlock.
Membership in the Sex Pistols had a progressively destructive effect on Vicious. As Rotten observed, "Up to that time, Sid was absolutely childlike. Everything was fun and giggly. Suddenly he was a big pop star. Pop star status meant press, a good chance to be spotted in all the right places, adoration. That's what it all meant to Sid." Vicious responded by actively cultivating a notorious persona. Early in 1977, he met Nancy Spungen, a drug addict and occasional prostitute from New York with a history of severe emotional problems. Spungen is commonly thought to be responsible for introducing Vicious to heroin, and the emotional co-dependency between the couple alienated Vicious from the other members of the band. Rotten said, "We did everything to get rid of Nancy. She was killing him. I was absolutely convinced this girl was on a slow suicide mission. Only she didn't want to go alone. She wanted to take Sid with her. She was so utterly fucked up and evil." Sid Vicious debuted with the band at the Screen on the Green in London on 3 April 1977.
God Save the QueenEdit
On 10 March 1977, at a press ceremony held outside Buckingham Palace, the Sex Pistols signed to A&M Records. They returned to the A&M offices for what would become an unruly party. Sid Vicious trashed the managing director's office and vomited on his desk. Under pressure from its own employees, artists and distributors, A&M broke contract with the Pistols six days later. In May the band signed their third and final record deal with Virgin Records.
The Pistols' second single, "God Save the Queen", was released on 27 May 1977. Though widely perceived as a personal attack on Queen Elizabeth II, Rotten later stated that the song was not aimed at her specifically, but was instead intended to critique the deference given to royalty in general. However, the perceived disrespect to the monarchy caused widespread public outcry. The record was banned from airplay by the BBC, whose Radio 1 dominated music broadcasting. Rotten later remarked, "We had declared war on the entire country—without meaning to!"
During the week of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, the single reached number one in the NME chart, but only number two in the official UK chart. Many suspected that the data had been massaged, believing that the record had actually qualified for the top spot, but that the charts had been rigged to prevent a spectacle. At least one radio station announced the song at number one, but refused to play it, as they had been advised it might incite disruptions of the national celebration.
The Pistols marked the Jubilee, and the success of their record, by chartering a private boat, intending to perform live while sailing down the River Thames, passing Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. The event ended in chaos, however, when the boat was raided by police, despite a license to perform having been granted. McLaren, the band and many of their entourage were taken into custody when the vessel docked.
Violent attacks on punk fans were on the rise; on 18 June Rotten himself was assaulted by a knife-wielding gang outside Islington's Pegasus pub, causing tendon damage to his arm. A tour of Scandinavia, planned to start at the end of the month, was consequently delayed until mid-July. At the end of August came SPOTS—Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly, a surreptitious UK tour with the band playing under pseudonyms to avoid cancellation.
Never Mind the BollocksEdit
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols was recorded between March and June 1977, in Wessex Studios, Highbury, London, and produced by Chris Thomas, who had worked with Roxy Music. Due to Vicious's lack of musical ability, the bass parts on Never Mind the Bollocks were performed by Steve Jones. According to Jones, "Sid wanted to come down and play on the album, and we tried as hard as possible not to let him anywhere near the studio. Luckily he had hepatitis at the time." Although Vicious did record on one occasion, his contribution was later over-dubbed. Jones recalls, "We just let him do it, innit. When he left I dubbed another part on, leaving Sid's down low. I think it might be barely audible on the track."
Never Mind the Bollocks was released on 28 October 1977, to mixed reviews. Rolling Stone praised the album, comparing its sound to "two subway trains crashing together under 4 feet of mud, victims screaming", and applauded the band for playing "with an energy and conviction that is positively transcendent in its madness and fever". Some critics, however, were disappointed that the album contained versions of all four previously released singles, and considered the release to be effectively a "Greatest Hits" album. The album has come to be recognized as one of the most influential rock recordings since the genre's beginnings. A 2005 Allmusic critique describes it as "one of the greatest, most inspiring rock records of all time".
The album title caused difficulties for the band. Boots, W.H. Smith and Woolworth's refused to stock the album, a Conservative MP condemned it as "a symptom of the way society is declining" and the Independent Television Companies Association refused to carry its TV advertising campaign. In Nottingham a record outlet was threatened with prosecution for displaying "indecent printed matter". The case was overturned when defending QC John Mortimer produced expert witnesses who were able to demonstrate that the word bollocks was an Old English term for a priest. Although the word in popular slang means testicles, in the context of the Pistols' album title it is primarily intended to signify "nonsense". Steve Jones had suggested the title—he claimed unwittingly—inspired by two friends who owned a hot dog stand. According to his account, they would routinely interrupt him mid-sentence, exclaiming "Oh, never mind the bollocks".
The Sex Pistols' final UK performance took place at Ivanhoe's in Huddersfield, on Christmas Day 1977. The band played a matinee and evening show as part of a benefit for the families of striking firemen. The location of the gigs was not announced until shortly before the venue opened, a tactic the band was then employing regularly to avoid the sort of attention that had led to earlier cancellations.
US tour and the end of the bandEdit
In January 1978 the Sex Pistols embarked on a US tour, consisting mainly of dates in America's Deep South. Originally scheduled for December 1977, it was delayed due to American authorities' reluctance to issue visas to band members with criminal records. Though highly anticipated by fans and media, the tour was plagued by in-fighting, poor planning and physically belligerent audiences. McLaren has admitted that he purposely booked redneck bars to provoke hostile situations. Over the course of the two weeks, Vicious, by now heavily addicted to heroin, began to live up to his stage name. According to Rotten, "He finally had an audience of people who would behave with shock and horror. Sid was easily led by the nose."
Early in the tour, Vicious wandered off from his Holiday Inn in Memphis, Tennessee, looking for drugs. He was found in a hospital, having carved the words "Gimme a fix" in his chest with a razor. During a concert in San Antonio, Texas, Vicious called the crowd "a bunch of faggots", before striking an audience member across the head with his bass guitar. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he received simulated oral sex on stage, later declaring "that’s the kind of girl I like". Suffering from heroin withdrawal during a show in Dallas, Texas, he spat blood at a woman who had climbed onstage and punched him in the face. He was admitted to hospital later that night to treat various injuries. Offstage he is said to have kicked a female photographer, attacked a security guard, and eventually challenged one of his own bodyguards to a fight—beaten up, he is reported to have exclaimed, "I like you. Now we can be friends."
Rotten, meanwhile, suffering from flu and coughing up blood, felt increasingly isolated from Cook and Jones, and disgusted by Vicious. On 14 January 1978, during the tour's final date at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, a disillusioned Rotten introduced the band's encore saying, "You'll get one number and one number only 'cause I'm a lazy bastard." That one number was a Stooges cover, "No Fun". In the closing lines, sneering at the audience, Rotten declared, "This is no fun, at all." After the performance Rotten addressed the audience directly—"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Good night"—before throwing down his microphone and walking offstage. He later observed, "I hated the whole scenario. It was a farce. I felt cheated. Sid was completely out of his brains—just a waste of space. Malcolm wouldn't speak to me. But then he would turn around and tell Paul and Steve that the tension was all my fault because I wouldn't agree to anything. It was all very bitter and confusing."
On 17 January 1978, Rotten announced his departure from the Sex Pistols. Vicious departed for New York, while McLaren, Cook and Jones took off for a working vacation in Rio de Janeiro. Rotten found himself without money or a means of getting home. He later described the situation: "The Sex Pistols left me, stranded in Los Angeles with no ticket, no hotel room, and a message to Warner Bros saying that if anyone phones up claiming to be Johnny Rotten, then they were lying. That's how I finished with Malcolm—but not with the rest of the band; I'll always like them." He eventually telephoned the head of Virgin Records, Richard Branson, who agreed to pay for his flight back to London, via Jamaica. In Jamaica, Branson met with members of the band Devo, and tried to install Rotten as their lead singer. Devo declined the offer.
The Sex Pistols continued, briefly, with Cook, Jones and Vicious. Attempts were made at finding a new frontman, but the band ended up with all three members taking lead vocal turns alongside guest vocalists. The group did not perform live in the post-Rotten period, but the majority of the recordings from this time were later released.
The original four surviving members of the Sex Pistols reformed in 1996 for the six-month Filthy Lucre Tour, which included dates in Europe, North and South America, Australia and Japan, as well as appearances at the Phoenix Festival. In 2002—the year of the Queen's Golden Jubilee—they played the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in London. In 2003 they toured North America for three weeks as part of their Piss Off Tour.
In November 2006, the Sex Pistols were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honour that the band members turned down, with an "obscene gesture" and a suggestion that the Hall of Fame "kiss this". According to Jones, "Once you want to be put into a museum, Rock & Roll's over; it's not voted by fans, it's voted by people who induct you, or others; people who are already in it."
They reunited for five gigs at the Brixton Academy and one each in both Manchester and Glasgow in November 2007. They announced a series of festival appearances in Europe in 2008, titled the Combine Harvester Tour.