Rock Albums that Changed the World: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols

In 1455, when Johannes Gutenberg started rolling off the first production run from the printing press that he invented, his intention was, as these things usually go — to make a buck — not to initiate a literacy movement among the common man that would spur the European Renaissance and a new economic phenomenon, the middle class, and eventually, a political system that it would demand — democracy. But hey, these things snowball. 

Likewise, in 1888 when the first Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog was published, the idea wasn’t to revolutionize American economics, society, and culture (specifically music), but giving rural Americans easy access to inexpensive guitars through mail-order did in fact convert a huge number of players of the simple banjo into masters of the much more expressive and capable guitar. So came the birth of the Delta bluesman and from the blues came a wealth of American music — country, jazz, and eventually rock and roll.

And in 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, was it his intention to eventually democratize music education to the point that anyone with a musical ear, an instrument, and the means to afford to put a needle to a groove could become a self-educated musician, creating an explosion of development in popular music across a wealth of genres? Probably not.

No one knows the eventual effects of a new innovation. That is the nature of discovery. Under favorable conditions, small ripples can propagate into crashing waves, both positive and negative, and that is true for economic events as well. 

The end of World War II produced a post-war boom that put a little money in the pockets of young people for the first time, essentially creating a new economic and social class, necessitating a new term, “teenager” and spawning a whole new culture around youth. If you look, you can see the growth and decline of the U.S. and U.K. economies tracking closely with the explosion of rock culture from its inception in the mid-50s through the 60s, ending with the deep recession of the mid-70s. The spectre of rising inflation through the 1960s had grown to a full-fledged economic disaster by the middle of the next decade, bringing massive unemployment and a wave of economic pessimism, especially in Britain where, with a whopping inflation rate of 24.2% in 1975, the conditions were ripe, not for a promising era of burgeoning creativity and opportunity, but for a steep decline in hope for the future among young people. Not coincidentally, the breathless, steep musical development of rock also plateaued right then along with the failing economies of the West. It was time for something new. Punk rock arrived, not as an alternative, but as an imperative.

The origins of punk are loudly disputed (depends who you talk to) but, at the risk of oversimplifying, the shorthand version is that American garage rock of the early mid-60s spawned proto-punks Iggy and the Stooges and audacious counter-revolutionaries The Velvet Underground in the late mid-60s, then soon after, the theatrical, iconoclastic New York Dolls a few years later. But what’s important to note is that these seminal proto-punk bands were emerging while the timeline of mainstream rock was still in the richest part of its developmental arc. Once that original burst of creative development crested in the mid-70s, rock as a concept, a movement, and an ethos was in for a big fall. 

Enter the U.K.’s outrageous and vile Sex Pistols.

Photo by Evgeniy Grozev from Pexels

Punk in England did not trace back through rock history as neatly as it did in the States. British proto-punks took the form of early Mod groups like The Who, a band that, in the beginning played tightly constructed loud pop songs, and whose shows often ended with the group literally self-destructing on stage. The Rolling Stones cultivated an image as the punk-edged antithesis of The Beatles while musically, all roads of 70s English punk inevitably lead back to the mid-60s catalog of The Kinks. We can even look to Keith Emerson in The Nice, his first band, who made a name for himself by driving knives into his organ keyboard to hold sustained notes and who took to madly rocking and spinning his smallish Hammond L100 organ while he played it, a practice he took to the stage with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, from 1970 onward. Ironic that one of the superstar, excessively ponderous progressive rock bands that brought on the massive backlash would actually figure into punk’s U.K. lineage, but check out the footage of Emerson thrashing his equipment with ELP and see if this isn’t punk AF:

Keith Emerson destroys his Hammond organ

In the early part of the 1970s, David Bowie famously championed Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, later producing both of their albums, but first channeling some of their punk energy into his own music (see “Queen Bitch” and “Hang Onto Yourself,” for example). The proto-glam group Roxy Music was certainly messing around with expectations and doing some deconstructing of rock norms, especially in the early part of their career when Brian Eno was doing his atonal synth knob-twiddling as part of the band. But even though the punk explosion heard round the world emanated from London in 1977, punk rock’s lineage was largely a product of America. The first full-fledged punk movement indeed began in the mid-70s in New York City, centering around the legendary club, CBGB.

Ramones Live at CBGB, 1977

Travel down to the Bowery today and you’ll find a shrine to American consumerism — Whole Foods, Target, Best Buy, Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic, all in a row — but back in the late 60s and early 70s, lower Manhattan was the epicenter of the counterculture. On the brink of bankruptcy and with president Gerald Ford vowing he’d veto any bail-out that crossed his desk, New York City in the mid-70s was a cauldron of resentment, poverty, urban squalor, and general discontent and the low-rent East Village became a proving ground for a gritty new offshoot of DIY rock and roll the rock press dubbed as “punk rock.”

In late 1973, Hilly Kristal started booking bands and changed the name of his club at 315 Bowery from “Hilly’s” to “CBGB and OMFUG” which stands for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and other music for uplifting Gormandizers” (gormandizer being a variation on gourmand, but Hilly was referring to voracious eaters of all forms of music, not food). That was prescient because soon, CBGB was home to punk and new wave, two terms not yet coined at the time, to bands like The Ramones, Television, Patti Smith Group, Blondie, and The Talking Heads (along with scores of other important bands). These artists would subsequently cut groundbreaking rock albums that would become vital influences to bands and artists the world over, even the Rolling Stones showed a punk influence on their 1978 amped-up comeback Some Girls, yet as Village Voice rock journalist Robert Cristgau commented in a recent documentary, Mick Jagger wasn’t rocking out at CBGB, he was just digging the albums — punk’s influence on the Stones through Jagger was “aesthetic, not cultural.” But on the Bowery, at the heart of the matter, sweating it out in the moment at CBGB was a cultural experience. Punk was not just a new genre of music. Punk with its rejection of sweet melodies and complex harmonies in favor of pure energy and authenticity of feeling, with its dismissal of the phony upwardly mobile American Dream, instead embracing a trashy, DIY aesthetic and a glorification of the social underbelly, was more than a cultural trend. Punk at that peak moment was not just new music. It was an embodiment and a reaction to a decaying economic, social, and political structure in America’s largest city and a rejection, deconstruction, and potential inoculation to a false ethos that had come to dominate rock music and every other fraudulent, profit-driven expression in the mainstream of youth culture.

Punk at that peak moment was not just new music. It was an embodiment and a reaction to a decaying economic, social, and political structure in America’s largest city

Meanwhile in England, May 1976, frontman Joe Strummer was being enticed by Sex Pistols’ manager Bernard Rhodes to join up with guitarist Mick Jones and his bandmates — and The Clash was formed, a group that would develop into a musical and socio-political juggernaut known by their devoted fans as “the only band that matters.” 

That 1976 summer would provide a few other seminal moments in the London music scene that would light the fuse for a full-blown UK punk explosion. First, was a famed July 4th appearance by The Ramones at The Roundhouse in London, a concert that would inspire many of the future trailblazers of the UK scene, and almost immediately a whole raft of punk bands sprung up, most of them reflecting the amphetamine energy of The Ramones through the lens of the disaffected youth of an economically hopeless mid-70s London, The Clash among them. The first British punk single released was a doozie, The Damned’s explosive, “New Rose.”

Another event that summer, the hottest on record, that gave shape to the UK punk scene was the Notting Hill Carnival police riots. Every August, London’s West Indian community put on a well-attended Carribean-style street carnival with parades, sound systems, dancing, and food stands, all celebrating the Carribean culture of Britain’s black population. The last day of the 1976 carnival saw a massive presence of 1,600 police descend and conduct a sweep of arbitrary arrests and general abuse and by 5pm a riot had broken out, spreading over a widening area and lasting well into the night. Based on flimsy accounts of minor crimes by black youths, the deploying of such a huge police response was rightly viewed as an opportunity for the racist police force (almost all-white), to knock heads, round up young blacks and basically terrorize the community. In the end, over 300 police were injured, 35 police vehicles were damaged, and several shops looted. The riot was not just a response to the day’s events, but was a collective reply to years of police brutality and repression visited upon young blacks, the poorest, most disaffected portion of London’s classist social system, and this charged, violent political reality provided an activist backdrop to the nascent UK punk movement, which has always been much more political in nature than its US counterpart. Overt political messages of class found their way into the songs of The Clash and other bands and the underclass white punks’ affinity with black youth in London soon found expression musically too through the infusion of reggae into their music.

After just one sloppy gig that summer backing the scene-stealing Sex Pistols, The Clash retreated to Rehearsal Rehearsals, a grimy London space owned by manager Bernard Rhodes, where they sealed themselves off and committed to writing and practicing the songs that would go on to make them a force and to forge an identity — passionate, committed, intelligent, and connected — one that would earn them the loyalty of fans and the attention of major labels. By January 1977, only a few months after they had emerged, they had a contract with CBS records, a highly criticized move within the punk movement but one that Strummer reconciled by saying that it gave him room to think about something other than the rumbling in his stomach.

Listening to that first album, The Clash, it sounds like ground zero of the British punk explosion. Fast, aggressive, political, specific, earnest, and howling with anger, so pinpointed to its time and place, the album sounds almost ephemeral. “Career Opportunities” details the futility of searching for work in a time of devastating unemployment, “White Riot” about class economics resold to the people by the British power structure as phony racial tension, and “Remote Control,” a song protesting the bureaucratic brakes applied to the power and desire of youth. Unreleased in America until 1979, The Clash set 1977 UK ablaze with the spirit and sound of punk rock, reaching #14 on the charts (not bad for a punk album) creating a template for punk rock followed by bands all over. In retrospect, the album has been heralded as one of the greatest rock albums ever made and the decision of CBS to hold back its release in the US, one of the industry’s biggest stumbles.

1977 was the year of punk with groundbreaking debut records released in the UK first by The Damned, then The Buzzcocks, The Clash, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Wire, and in the US by bands like Television and The Talking Heads. But when The Sex Pistols released their first and only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols in October 1977, the punk snake ate its entire tail and body in one bite.

Formed in 1975 in soon-to-be manager Malcolm McClaren’s London clothing store SEX, frequent customers Paul Cook (drums) and Steve Jones (guitar) were introduced by McClaren to his shop assistant Glen Matlock (bass) and later, another patron wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt with “I hate” scribbled above was spotted by McClaren’s friend Bernard Rhodes. John Lydon would change his name to Johnny Rotten and join the band on snarling vocals and The Sex Pistols would begin its reign as England’s most reviled and inspiring band of all time, perfectly encapsulating the disdain of the working class for the establishment that was failing them so miserably by the mid-70s.

When The Sex Pistols released their first and only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols in October 1977, the punk snake ate its entire tail and body in one bite

Where the mission of The Clash was to inspire revolution through protest, it seemed that the mission of the Sex Pistols was to offend as many of their countrymen as possible. Revolution vs. revulsion and, while The Clash created a more lasting musical legacy and a string of brilliant and near-brilliant but always adventurous albums, The Sex Pistols broke through in the moment in the public imagination, in the U.K. music press and soon after, across the pond in America where they landed on the cover of Rolling Stone. The legacy of The Sex Pistols was not musical. It was socio-political, creating a wave in fashion, in attitude, and in the relationship of the youth to its leaders. And the mission of punk as a movement in England, ignited by The Pistols — to cleanse rock and roll of its charlatans and false idols, and to rewrite its ethos — was deep and lasting, and ultimately effective.

Dropping the needle on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols can be a bit disorienting for the modern punk aficionado. Instead of the expected thrashing speedy garage band sound, the songs here are meticulously played mid-tempo rock and the production is utterly huge. Produced by legendary engineer Bill Price and top producer Chris Thomas, the music here is professional as hell, in fact, guitarist Jones and drummer Cook took great care and dedication with the tracks, Steve Jones layering multiple overdubs to get the massive rumble of guitars that gives the album such an anthemic feel. But the dominant element is the continuous sneer of Johnny Rotten — ripping at the fabric of British life in every song, embodying the working class dissatisfaction of daily life in a broken society and failing economy built for the benefit of the aristocracy.

In “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen,” the two singles off the album (both banned by the BBC), the lyrics are overtly political, but the message is in Johnny Rotten’s piercing tone — devoid of melody, dripping with scorn, mirroring the decay of British society, it’s rotten to the core. The vocal of “Pretty Vacant” reeks of sarcasm and “Problems” is pure contempt, but rather than recoil from all of this negativity and outright nihilism, the UK fans identified with the anger and frustration and rewarded the band with a massive hit album (48 weeks on the UK charts, peaking at #1) and a mania surrounding their live shows not seen since The Beatles.

But the Sex Pistols were a back room fabrication, even less authentic than The Monkees. Their nihilism was contrived. The punk attitude was staged, planned, and brilliantly marketed, hypocrisy on a grand scale, and the hypocrisy is the point. Where The Clash earned the heartfelt loyalty of their fanbase through the pursuit of substance and meaning, The Sex Pistols rejected and deconstructed everything, even nihilism — which was the true punk expression. It’s what makes the Sex Pistols the most important punk band in history, the great catalyst that connected with their generation and inspired a movement. 

The Sex Pistols were a back room fabrication, even less authentic than The Monkees. Their nihilism was contrived.

Britain by the mid-70s was an economic wasteland and rock was crassly reaching peak commercialism. Soaring inflation in a stagnant economy created a disgruntled generation of working poor while simultaneously, rock concerts had become big business, and rock stars were increasingly seen as jet-setting, champagne-sipping aristocratic social climbers. The music itself had taken on the superficial gloss that comes with a refined technological mastery and a dearth of ideas. It’s easy to see now that rock, at least in England, was on a collision course with the youth culture that spawned it. Punk arrived as a great cleansing — the raw vitriol spoke to the moment and the pure energy was cathartic, but what the Sex Pistols provided was something more, a giant piss-take on the lurching beheamoth construct of rock itself, reducing the whole endeavor to a cynical laugh at commerce, and a de-pantsing of posturing, preening rock stars and the moneyed powers that financed them. The last song on the album, “EMI” was a hilarious biting of the hand of their own record label. In fact, the entire project of the Sex Pistols was a mockery of the premise of youth culture and its basis in commerce. It was a punch that squarely landed as evidenced by the huge and lasting response, and the repercussions are still felt to this day.

And as for the “peace and love” rock ethos carved out by The Beatles and later codified at Woodstock? Joe Strummer put it best when, in the aftermath, in the smoking ruins of the punk explosion he declared in his 1979 song, “London Calling” that “phony Beatlemania” had bitten the dust. Punk was a dagger to the throat of the decaying status quo of the commerce-driven culture, the Sex Pistols gleefully weilded that dagger and few albums in rock have had a greater effect on the timeline of music and the world at large than Never Mind the Bollocks.

Looking back, the roots of punk spread far. Jazz artist Ornette Coleman and Thelonius Monk before him made deconstructing norms and expectations to find something new to put their hearts into their stock and trade (the same might be said of all free jazz and bebop before it as well). Bob Dylan threw down the gauntlet with his first electric album, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, deconstructing rock’s existing commercial ethos in favor of enlightenment and forced his peers to choose their path (“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more” — what is that if not a punk song?). Also from 1965, The Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is the sort of anthem to youthful angst that points directly to the punk movement of the next decade. Frank Zappa, Parliament/Funkadelic, Syd Barrett, Alice Cooper, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart, and artists across the whole map of genres have gone against the grain, challenging the status quo, offering new dialectics, all of them planting seeds that would sprout within the punk and post-punk “alternative” movements.

Punk in all of its forms has always given voice to the alienated. It is a wrench tossed into the works of a mechanized consumer society. Punk has given us music to thrash to and iconoclastic poetry to feed our rebellious spirit. Whether simmering under the surface of polite society or exploding in our faces, the punk ethos is eternal, and during that foul season in the U.K. of economic downturn and social upheaval the album that broke open the earth was Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols

Links:

How Sears changed the sound of American music:
http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/The-312/May-2012/How-Sears-Changed-the-Sound-of-American-Music-Twice/

U.K. Inflation Rates:
http://inflation.iamkate.com/

1976 Notting Hill Police Riots:
https://libcom.org/history/1976-the-notting-hill-carnival-riots