It’s been well over 40 years since the Sex Pistols’ furious rock and rollercoaster ride and poke in the eye of the establishment changed the world, and no one has come close to equalling their cultural impact or influence on the rock music landscape. The Press counts down the quintessential punk rocker’s Top 5 Songs (and one secret honourable mention).
There’s been a lot written about the ground breaking punk rock group, and there’s a lot of reasons to love them, including: rescuing rock; saying ‘fuck’ on telly; sarcastic attacks on pretentious affectations at the very foundation of British society; a spectacular 1978 crash-and-burn USA flameout, and the cherry-on-top declining their induction into the stuffy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and subsequent middle-finger refusal to attend by announcing: “Next to the Sex Pistols the rock and roll and that hall of fame is a piss stain…we’re not coming.”
No matter how conceived, marketed, groomed and clothed they were, the importance of the Pistols cannot be overstated. So much more than a New York Dolls spin-off, or a shameless Svengali manager (Malcolm McLaren) hype machine. Amid the filth and the fury, these four young Londoners where thrown together and into the deep end, but like Frankenstein’s monster, the band escaped it’s creator and wreaked havoc across the land, sparking a musical revolution, before being hounded to destruction by the villages with flaming torches.
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, was a hurricane of obnoxiousness, personifying the punk genre. His lyrics were searingly relevant and had a snotty-nosed arrogance and a sneering venomous vocal delivery. The original group was made up of rock and roll tearaway Steve Jones, who’s guitar kicked in windows, bassist Glen Matlock, later replaced by Sid Vicious, and steady drummer Paul Cook. They recorded a dozen timeless guitar rock songs in Virgin’s glittering Wessex studio, with the help of Roxy Music’s producer Chris Thomas, in a style veering towards bands they admired including the glam of Bowie and Roxy, and straightforward rock and roll of The Faces and Mott the Hoople.
The result is still one of the finest and most inspiring rock albums of all time. NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS HERE’S THE SEX PISTOLS (1977) ★★★★★, was bottled lightening and a revelation, conveying a surging, relentless energy that was the essence and spirit of punk rock, combined with layers of nerve-frazzling guitar pyrotechnics and incensed, snarling lyrics reflecting the despair and disillusionment of society in the 1970s that gripped a sizeable portion of England’s younger generation. It was also the band’s only proper album.
The Pistols’ rise to prominence and notoriety was meteoric, but echoes of its brief, sordid, and tragic saga remain in the rock annuls to this present day. Danny Boyle’s (potentially dreadful) Sex Pistols drama, based on Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol, the very good 2017 Steve Jones memoir, supposedly highlights the band’s status as riotous pranksters and antagonists of the British institution, is due to air immanently and on track to cause quite a storm if the inter-band court proceedings is anything to go by.
The Sex Pistols were a distillation of all the best of what had gone before in teenage rebellion. They were loud, noisy and perfectly articulated the frustration, rage, and dissatisfaction of the British working class with the establishment. They also didn’t care what anyone thought. They came from nowhere to generate a legend and then imploded before they could turn into what they despised. What more could you really ask of any band?
Sex Pistols – Top 5 Songs
The last track on Never Mind the Bollocks is a sarcastic commentary on a major record label cashing in on the punk phenomenon. EMI had signed the Pistols to a two year contract in late-1976 but dumped the band due to political pressures and lurid tabloid press only months later. Finally Virgin Records signed them, and released their classic debut album. The Pistols were signed by four labels and dumped by three in their brief existence. Now that’s punk.
4. Holidays in the Sun
The opening track on Bollocks was the band’s fourth and essentially last single (with Rotten on vocals), and was inspired by a ‘holiday’ to Berlin and the Berlin Wall in March 1977, due to being banned in Britain. Despite being a huge hit at the time, peaking at number 8 on the UK charts, it still seems like an underrated gem.
3. Pretty Vacant
If the Monkees had been a punk band, they’d have sounded like this. The Pistols’ third single, released in July 1977 and peaking at number 6, is an anthem of teenage apathy and heralds the timeless Steve Jones brilliant and catchy opening riff. The lyrics are savaging vapid personalities and Rotten phrases the word ‘vacant’ as “va-cunt” sneaking that past the potential censors.
1 and 2. Tie: Anarchy in the UK and God Save the Queen
As well worn as they are, these are a couple of the greatest rock singles ever. Pop music meets political dissent. Regarding the best, I find it hard to choose between the two lightening rods: Anarchy in the UK and God Save The Queen. They are both landmarks in rock history and both fine exponents of counter-culture zeitgeist. Underneath the shock tactics and theatrical negativity were masterful social critiques carefully designed for maximum impact with just great riffing rock. Steve Jones’ guitars are simply enormous. And what an impact they had. ‘Anarchy’ was the band’s first single and was one hell of a shock at the time when it hit the airwaves in late 1976. But ‘Queen’ is pure in your face rock and roll with its vicious delivery of the (still) highly controversial lyrics on adult apathy, governmental disregard and vapidity. The last sentence no future, no future for you is what a lot youngsters felt, and is still relevant today, even if there are no artists singing about it.
Honourable Mention – Silly Thing
I can’t let this article go by without mentioning the rock and roll treasure that is Silly Thing. Obviously lacking the irreverence and bile of Lydon, it’s co-written by Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and while far from obscure, Silly Thing is perhaps more underrated than anything else, but still a post-Rotten Pistols classic. Recorded in March 1978, it was included in the 1979 soundtrack album The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and this version is sung by Cooky and has a tuneful ‘unpunk’ descending chord progression.
Another version with Steve Jones taking the lead vocal was recorded in early-79 in the same studio as Never Mind the Bollocks, and engineered by one of the same producers, Bill Price. It was released as a single in March 1979, and is even better than the Swindle cut. It has a charming Johnny Thunders-esque simplicity about it, and is one hell of an ear worm and firm all-time rock favourite.