Top 5 Songs – Sex Pistols

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).

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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 help from Bill Price and pro 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.

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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 (very good) Sex Pistols drama, based on Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol the 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 is on track to cause quite a storm if the court proceedings and inter-band all-time-low relationship 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 PistolsTop 5 Songs

5. EMI

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.

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34 Responses to Top 5 Songs – Sex Pistols

  1. thepopman says:

    Holidays In The Sun was John Peel’s favourite single by the band, and I can see where he was coming from.
    As the 4 singles take the top 4 places – perhaps rightly so – a top 5 of the rest might be interesting. Those B-sides were pretty special you know.

  2. thepopman says:

    1977 – Punk rock was beginning to take hold in the country, albeit a little late where I lived in the provinces. I’d read a little about it all in the papers, without actually hearing any of it, although my influences were in place – I was already a fan of the New York Dolls, Bowie, Iggy, etc. My sister was off into town one day, and on a whim I asked her to get me a copy of the new Sex Pistols single God Save The Queen, without ever actually having heard it. Wow! Fucking wow!! Changed my life…

  3. hotfox63 says:

    Interesting also the cover for the single “Holidays In the Sun”. That was a tasteless low blow, close to a knockout. Even if you get disqualified later, your opponent won’t get up that quickly, he never forgets something like that.

  4. Yes to GSTQ and PV but I would prefer No Feelings and DidYou No Wrong to your other suggestions. I like the idea of Anarchy more than the reality – needs abetter tune (and I speak as someone who bought the single the day it came out)

  5. The quality of your writing never ceases to amaze me Pierce.

  6. Badfinger (Max) says:

    I can’t argue with your list at all. You bring up a good point on something. Some hold it against a song if it’s worn out…well it’s not the song’s fault…I’m glad you judged it with ears instead of a reflex.
    Being worn out doesn’t make Stairway to Heaven, Hey Jude, or others bad songs. Sorry I went off topic there a bit!
    Great 5 though.

  7. “Pretty vacant” is my favorite one. But your top 5 is perfect, no Problems for me. 😉
    And your article is really good.

  8. I knew very little about the Sex Pistols before reading your post, which is very interesting. I knew that they had Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious and they were like England’s answer to the Ramones, but I didn’t know any of their songs, except for God Save The Queen and Pretty Vacant. I like your writing and the way you explain things.

  9. Aphoristical says:

    As much as I like to bring up obscurities on this kind of thing, it’s pretty to go past God Save the Queen and Anarchy in the UK for the top two slots (in whichever order).

  10. Good stuff as usual Press. Just listened to this album a while ago. All the cuts make for a great listen. Im on a Replacements jag and the ghost of the Pistols is in their music.

  11. moulty58 says:

    Pretty vacant always sounds too much like a song written to order, it’s just too neat for me , you can tell it’s all the work of Matlock . Holidays is great but it completely rips of the riff from the Jam’s‘In the city’ . The LP had some great tracks though ‘liar’ ‘EMI’ etc etc which could have made equally great singles . Great post

    • Yes the Jam’s In the City came first didn’t it. Can’t fault the entire album, even been enjoying a lot of Jonesy’s stuff ie: Professional, late-Pistols, solo stuff etc. Thanks for reading and commenting moulty, appreciate it.

  12. Mark says:

    Um, signed by four labels and dropped by three?

    That’s one more than I remember….

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