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They Meant It, Man: Never Mind The Bollocks, 40 Years On
David Bennun , November 6th, 2017 07:48

The Sex Pistols didn’t need to make an album to be the most vital band of their time, says David Bennun. But they did, and it’s still scorching

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There is only one punk rock album. This is it.

I don’t intend that as a challenge to come at me, bro. Nor an airy dismissal of the numerous brilliant records made before and after it that we customarily classify as punk rock as “fake” or irrelevant. It’s that custom, that classification, I want to take issue with. We think of punk as a genre, and as a movement. There was a movement, and there was – still is – a genre. But thinking of punk in those ways makes us misunderstand what it was – or rather, what was unique about it. More than a movement, more than a genre, punk was a moment. And in that moment there was one band and one band only that mattered: The Sex Pistols.

The Sex Pistols didn’t come out of nowhere. Nothing – absolutely nothing – in pop music ever does. Even the most startling and radical acts have their sources; obscure ones, usually. Everything is borrowed, stolen, reassembled, refashioned, what have you – you can choose the word depending on how you want to characterise the practice. Continuity is pop’s lifeblood. The phrase “punk” had been used for years in the USA to describe garage, or garage-y, groups, and thereafter the scene that grew up in New York. Contemporaneous fans of The Stooges or The Ramones might sneer at the idea of The Sex Pistols being novel or ground-breaking in their form or their attitude, but that was never the point. The Sex Pistols mattered more than anything else not because of what they were or the music they made but because of what happened around them, and of what happened because of them. With the exception of Elvis Presley, no act – no, not The Beatles, not the Stones, not Kraftwerk, not your suggestion here – acted so purely and swiftly as a lightning rod. The same would be true even if they’d never made their album.

Indeed, by the time Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols (henceforth NMTB) was released, at the end of October 1977, it wasn’t even the first British punk album – The Damned had achieved that coup, and were three weeks away from releasing their second LP.

Hang on, though. Isn’t that three punk albums, already? Yes. To avoid confusion on this issue of semantics, we need to distinguish somehow between punk, the genre/movement, and punk, the moment, the lightning blast. I’m going to refer to the former as p-nk, which gives it the apt air of boasting about its susceptibility to censorship, and to the latter as punk, being the pure and uncut thing it was.

That pure and uncut thing was the galvanising effect of the existence of the Pistols – something the band in one sense achieved entirely unintentionally, as nobody, least of all Malcolm McLaren, could have foreseen it. In another sense, it was no accident at all, because the existence of the Pistols was itself such an act of bloody-minded provocation, and required either such imagination, or such will, or both, on the part of the significant actors, that its consequences (as with any band that is a success in some way or another) might be likened to a lottery win following the purchase of a ticket.

Every band inspired by the Pistols’ existence either to form or to adapt did one of two things. Either they copied the Pistols – which meant that while they might be p-nk, they could not possibly be anything other than pseudo-punk, much as any artwork which directly imitated Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 flashpoint by positing a found object as art could never be anything other than, as it were, a pale Fountain. This kind of lightning can strike only once. Many of the first wave and most of the second wave of British p-nk bands were of this order. The better of them, however, did the second thing: jolted by the discovery that a thing such as the Pistols could happen at all, they took it as a cue to do what the Pistols themselves had done – to find a new way of being entirely themselves. Many of these acts we refer to as post punk; my point here is that it would give due credit even to such groups whose chronology places them in p-nk itself to describe them as post punk. Buzzcocks are a prime example. Spiral Scratch post-dates The Sex Pistols’ first single, ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’, by a mere three months. Yet already Buzzcocks had an identity so much their own that they had evidently, intuitively and perhaps unwittingly grasped what in hindsight I’d claim to be the key tenet of punk as distinct from p-nk: not that you should Do It Yourself (valuable as that idea was, there were plenty who did it with traditional assistance, the Pistols included); but that you neither can, nor should try to, step in the same river twice. Punk was a paradox that meant anything after the Pistols which could be generically defined thus, wasn't. All the great p-nk bands were punk chiefly in the sense they wouldn't do what anybody else did.

Which brings us to what the Pistols themselves did, in leaving something behind for us to know them by. As mentioned, they would have been every bit as important had they never made their only studio album; but this fact might not be so easily demonstrable. By the time NMTB came out, the lightning strike had been and gone; the woods and the grass, the buildings and the sky, had caught fire; in places, the fire was already burning out. This is the one part of the dreary, ossified narratives that have encrusted themselves around p-nk that is surely true: they really did change things that drastically and abruptly. Yet much survived with, at worst, exterior scorching. To cite one prominent example, Pink Floyd, the band Johnny Rotten had (strategically and falsely) professed to hate, were not sent hurtling into oblivion by contemptuous pop kids who now had ears only for p-nk filth. They had a massive hit single two years later with a song whose lyric sounded like something from an especially inane and derivative second-wave p-nk group.

NMTB was the belated thunder after the lightning strike, and by Christ, it must have sounded great then and it still sounds great now. Despite it being essentially a record after the fact of what had occurred, rather than the sound of it occurring, even 40 years of force-fed orthodoxy can't diminish its genuine capacity to thrill. It still feels like jamming a fork into a power socket. 32 years out from the liberation of the death camps, ‘Holidays In The Sun’, with its military stamping, its guitars that arrive like an unprovoked and sustained assault, its pummelling drums and its seething allusions that link the horrors of present and past (“I wanna go to new Belsen... I wanna go over the Berlin Wall”) can only have been appalling. It’s appalling now. Indeed, so much of what follows is appalling. ‘Bodies’, that blistering denunciation of a woman who had the temerity to control her own: “She was a no one who killed her baby... she was an animal/She was a bloody disgrace... Body screaming fucking bloody mess/Not an animal/It’s an abortion”. Lydon, I should note here, later fiercely denied the song is anti-abortion, declaring himself pro-choice, and attributing parts of the gruesome lyric to one of the many hideous incidents of his childhood, flushing his mother’s miscarriage down the toilet. But in 1977, when Lydon was Johnny Rotten, the listener had no such context – and today, when this listener does – what Lydon since said about it and how it comes across seem far removed from one another.

But this is a punk rock album – it is the only punk rock album – and to look for coherence or consistency is not only to miss the point but to stride away in the opposite direction from it. It’s not an essay. It’s a howl. It’s a provocation. If it unsettles you utterly, viscerally, that’s its job. And Jesus, does it do its job well. McLaren, apparently, thought the Spunk bootleg of demos that beat it to the punch better represented the band, and I suppose he would have known. But again, that’s not the point. NMTB is, to my ears, a sharp and shrewd piece of professional recording – Chris Thomas, one of its two producers, had four years previously been responsible for mixing Dark Side Of The Moon (ah, there, Johnny!) – and it manifests this in feeling like a stream of bile jetting out of the depths of rock music’s guts. The demos may have better represented the band, but NMTB perfectly represents itself.

There can be no band of The Sex Pistols’ significance with so small a body of definitive work. They did have four top-ten singles in the two years that followed Lydon’s departure in early 1978, but this was the result of pure cash-in momentum, a headless goose still laying golden novelty eggs. The hits that matter, the ones on which their reputation justly rests, are those on this album: the opening track, and the triumvirate of songs by which the band will always be recognised – in order of appearance, ‘God Save The Queen’, ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and ‘Pretty Vacant’. Any album that contained these tracks would be a classic even if they were strung together only by 25 minutes of random humming and traffic noises. But such is their familiarity – which, I’d add, in no way dulls their ferocious impact – that it is the other eight tracks which provide NMTB’s real intrigue. If ‘No Feelings’, ‘Liar’ and ‘Problems’ sound like templates for half the p-nk songs you’ve ever heard, that’s because they probably were. They’re the most universal lyrics on the album, the ones most plainly about teenage alienation – the mixture of posturing scorn and loathing both for oneself and everything else that soon became the most easily parodied aspect of the genre and the movement. Yet even though one cannot now hear them without this knowledge, they are so much better than that. Nobody who mimicked Lydon possessed any notable fraction of his boiling intelligence – if they had, they wouldn’t have mimicked him – nor his capacity to be at once pitiful and pitiless. He was one of the greatest frontmen, and vocalists, pop music has ever known, and in these songs you hear a large part of the reason why. He had a genius for articulating inarticulacy. This is the sound of one id screaming.

Which is not to suggest Lydon did not know what he was doing – that he was simply some kind of savant of youthful fury. There was art to this, and craft, absolutely there was, just as there was to Steve Jones’s slashing chords and rudimentary bass (producer Thomas showed his mettle by recognising just how well the latter suited the work at hand, and making a virtue out of a stopgap), and to Paul Cook’s full-frontal battering of his drumkit. Punk, and indeed p-nk, grew out of and depended upon small-p primitivism, but primitivism without purpose is just as dull as technique without imagination. ‘Seventeen’ may sound like punk’s founding statement and p-nk’s rulebook for joiners-in (“We like noise . . . We don’t care about long hair . . . I don’t wear flares . . . I'm a lazy sod, I'm lazy sod”) but listen again to that opening verse:



You're only 29
Got a lot to learn
But when your mummy dies
She will not return


That’s no casual, twisted-lip goading. It’s the brutal wisdom of a youth who has seen and known things no child should. It’s as raw and honest a thing as the album contains – and in this, quite at odds with NMTB’s more obviously contrived tracks. If ‘Submission’ puts two fingers up at anything, it’s McLaren and his plan to use the Pistols to sell clothes from his and Vivienne Westwood’s shop, SEX. Instead of turning out the S&M jingle the manager wanted, Lydon and company delivered a weird, burbling, aquatically-themed number about “a submarine mission” to “your watery love”, which today sounds more like a Spinal Tap spoof of clumsy rock & roll sexual metaphors than anything else – and probably would have then, if it hadn’t predated the Tap themselves. The final two songs are the sort of thing most bands would take years to get around to: complaints about the music business. ‘New York’ is an unmistakable diss track aimed principally at McLaren’s previous charges, The New York Dolls – and a rankly homophobic one at that (“Ya poor little faggot . . . Kiss this, gay boy”).

Given that the Pistols would never have existed but for the Dolls, and that Lydon liked hanging out in gay clubs because he would be accepted and not hassled, this is all a bit rich; but again, if you demand ethical and logical consistency from a snarling wind-up merchant barely out of his teens and in the business of selling hate, maybe punk rock is not the music for you. But if you want to hear an act laying into their old record company – and as a rule, few subjects could be less appealing – you’ll never hear it done with more stinging precision, nor with greater justification, than on ‘EMI’.

There will never be, can never be, another punk, although more p-nk will keep on coming regardless. There is only one punk rock album because there only needed to be one punk rock album. Or rather, there needed only to be one punk rock band, and fortunately, they managed to record an album. It churns and rages unpacified down the years, from then to now, from there to here. It finds us at a juncture every bit as grim and alarming as its own, maybe even more so. There is no future in England’s dreaming, all right. Punk cannot repeat itself, but, God help us, the rest of history certainly can.

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Reimer
Nov 6, 2017 8:10pm

And the hype goes on: the pop business Lydon and co claimed to be coming to bury had only been around twenty or so years (the Woodstock/Prog cohort only ten at most) but this safety-pinned brand of identitarian-puberty-Bolshevism has been boosted consistently for forty years plus.

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Antonyobbo
Nov 6, 2017 8:20pm

We could certainly do with Pistols 2.0. A bit like Matt Le Tissier, they’d not even get played now, nor made for that matter.

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Graham measor
Nov 6, 2017 10:33pm

My first album that I bought, changed my life. Changed my everything. It was like a tap on the shoulder, when I turned, it was like a punch of Mike Tysoe!

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Johnny Nothing
Nov 6, 2017 11:20pm

John, serious question, how do you think it would have played out had Grundy (or a similar tv spectacle) not happened?

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jlb
Nov 7, 2017 1:42am

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

@Johnny Nothing:

That's a really good question. I don't profess to have the answer, but I recently watched that interview again, and I was struck by how patently contrived the whole thing felt. In their self-consciously fuzzy sweaters and silly antics, they could have been- and arguably were- a boy band along the likes of One Direction.

That said, NMTB is an extraordinary, important album.

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Reimer
Nov 7, 2017 4:36am

In reply to jlb:

The Grundy interview looks now like an out-take from a late-night variant on 'Grange Hill' set in a detention class for "special needs" urchins. Ludicrous, like the legend. 'Please, Sir' with a sociologist on hand.

Thanks for the well-written piece BTW, which makes me want to listen properly to the entire album.

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Nov 7, 2017 6:45am

its more 'Rawk' than Punk. It has tracks with x20 overdubbed Les Pauls on it for christs sake!

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Gero
Nov 7, 2017 8:54am

Can't remember the last time I listene to the album but I still love 'Holidays in the Sun'. Power , guts and a great uncompromising lyric, their finest hour .

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Yowitch
Nov 7, 2017 2:42pm

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

Do you not think something like Grundy was bound to happen, taking into account the band's nature? It It wasn't Grundy it would have been someone else.

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Johnny Nothing
Nov 8, 2017 12:00am

In reply to Yowitch :

Go back and read my post.

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Pneumo
Nov 8, 2017 5:26pm

Scintillating journalism. Thank you.

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Tim
Nov 9, 2017 6:40pm

A very well-informed perspective. I kinda go back and forth between NMTB and the first Ramones record, but this makes a good case for the Pistols.

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