Monday, July 25, 2011

The Sex Pistols

Raw [Music Club, 1997]
live boot (Burton Upon Trent, 9/24/76) as budget-priced history--crude, kinda slow, a few rare titles, four demos added ("Substitute," "No Fun") **

(from Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide)

The Sex Pistols must surely have one of the best rock and names of all times. It was so bad back in 1976 and 1977 that not only could the band's music not be played on the SABC but the announcers were probably not even allowed to say the name. Many years later we had a home grown neo-punk band called Fokofpolisiekar with a similarly unpalatable (for some) name. I daresay, though, that the overall sound, vision and impact of the Pistols were far more disturbing and genuinely powerful instrument for change than almost any band since.

After I'd read the Julie Burchill review in the NME of Never Mind The Bollocks, the 1977 début (and only studio) album of the Sex Pistols I started pestering the owner of Sygma Records in Stellenbosch for a copy of the record. Given the long time between the publication of any particular weekly issue of the NME in the UKT and the date on which such a copy arrived in South Africa, this would have been in 1978. Since 1976 the NME had been carrying news and stories about the punk, and by 1978, New Wave bands that had taken the UK music scene by storm yet very little of this music was being played on South African radio and very few of the albums made it to Stellenbosch.

The guy at Sygma Records professed not to know anything about the Sex Pistols; he certainly did not have the album in stock. My impression was that he thought I was taking the piss. What kind of band would be called "sex pistols"?


The first punk / New Wave album I ever bought was Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True, which I really only bought because it was cheap, being on sale at the bi-annual CNA record sale. At the same sale I bought Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps and Status Quo Live. Goes to show how deeply committed I was to all things punk rock.

Anyhow, roughly a year after its UK release Never Mind The Bollocks made it to Stellenbosch and Sygma Records to boot. The owner must have wised up eventually. By that time I'd heard "Pretty Vacant" on Radio 5, as part of a 15 minute Sunday night slot presenting a BBC worldwide magazine programme on contemporary pop music. "Pretty Vacant" sounded very much a New Wave, as I understood the term, power pop song and nothing like the revolutionary, dangerous, wiping-the-slate-clean of dinosaur rock acts I had expected of punk rock after reading NME on the subject.

I had Julie Burchill's somewhat enigmatic and obscurantist review of Never Mind the Bollocks as a pre-listening guide to the album, yet it did nor prepare me for the music on the album, partly because she did not make much of an effort to describe the music. Essentially she said that Steve Jones, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook were as professional and accomplished as any of their contemporaries and that the music did not sound like the piss-poor efforts of a bunch of amateurs. Burchill spent a little more time on the lyrics, of "Bodies" specifically, to make a point about the vileness to which Rotten was capable of sinking. The overall impression was that the Sex Pistols had made a perfectly adequate yet unremarkable record with some unacceptable lyrics.

I realised where Burchill was coming from when I listened to the record for the first time. The Sex Pistols had a load of loud, buzz saw guitars and thumping drums and the 4 tunes that had been released as singles in the UK were quite entertaining. They had tunes, hooks, choruses. The works. The guitar sound, though, immediately reminded me of Slade, one of the big British glam rock bands of the early Seventies, and the type of band punk was supposed to replace. It was comforting to know that punk, not to mention the music of the most antagonistic and in-yer-face of the punk bands, was not all that different from music I knew and liked anyway. I also felt kind of cheated that punk was not as radical as I had hoped for. It must have been my naïve teenage ignorance that persuaded me to believe that the palace revolution could have been anything more significant than simply replacing the old orthodoxy with the new orthodoxy.

Never Mind The Bollocks ain't a bad little record. Not an earth shaking one but it's okay. "Anarchy In The UK" is one of the great album openers of all time and it is just pure and simply a great song that belongs with the big Seventies rock anthems. The other singles, "God Save The Queen", "Pretty Vacant" and "Holidays in the Sun", are great pop songs too. Whatever it is that Johnny Rotten brought to the band, Glen Matlock's pop nous were what made the Pistols an enduring musical force to reckon with. I doubt that these songs, even if they were UK Hits, will ever feature on decent Seventies compilations but the Pistols belong with T Rex, Slade, Suzi Quatro and The Sweet.

The other songs seem more like the image of the Pistols as rude, crude and anti-establishment and are memorable mostly for Rotten's extreme vocal performances and the anti-social anger of the lyrics and the posturing.

The Pistols had one official album release and after the band's demise in 1978 many compilations followed with the single aim of extracting as much money as possible from the limited back catalogue, just to recoup the record company investment. The members went their separate ways. Sid Vicious died. Rotten started PIL and had a good run of albums into the late Eighties. Jones and Cook tried various projects of varying success and the same went for Glen Matlock. In 1996 the four original Pistols reunited for a 20th anniversary cashing in tour and, as far as I know, there have been a couple of those since then. The Sex Pistols brand is much stronger than any individual marks any of the gang of four might have had on their own.

There was a live album from the 1996 tour and then in 1997, as reported by Robert Christgau, there was the album Raw, which documented a September 1976 live performances by the young, well, raw, Pistols before they became really notorious. It was recorded before "God Save the Queen" or "Holidays in the Sun" and a handful of other songs that can be found on Never Mind The Bollocks.

In July 2011 I found the same album, now repackaged and called The Original Sex Pistols Live on the Hallmark label, at a flea market at the Gardens Centre. I had never, or at least not yet, replaced my vinyl version of the début album with a CD of it. Somehow it had never seemed necessary but now I am having second thoughts about it.

The good thing about the September 1976 gig is that it features Glen Matlock and is therefore quite an authentic document of the band at the time. The sound is low in fidelity though Steven Jones's guitar roars impressively and with a raw verve that is exciting enough to make one want to have been there and not only for the sake of the history of being able to boast attendance at one of the relatively few Pistols gigs from that era.

The set is not very extensive. There are most of the songs from the début album, minus the 2 singles mentioned above, "Bodies" and "New York" and plus a few cover versions like "Give Me No Lip Child", "Substitute" and "No Fun." The music is direct and to the point: very basic, relentless, no finesse. Rotten sings with gusto and says very little; at least there is not much recorded stage patter. At the end of songs some audience members applaud, some scream. Pretty much your average small venue rock audience. The deal is that the Pistols get in, get the job done and get out.

As the last flurry of pounding drums on "Problems", the final track, comes to an end amidst guitar feedback, Rotten shouts, "If you want more, you can ask."

Perhaps Johnny Rotten is mocking the traditional cry of the MC who wants to work the crowd into a frenzied request for an encore, whether the crowd is interested or not.


Someone takes the bait and replies, "We want more." At point the CD ends. We will never know whether the Pistols were show-bizz enough to please their audience with another song after they had just done their last song.

The Pistols debut was as lovingly polished as Nevermind some 15 years later and should have been a major hit and only one of a series of albums, much like the Clash or Damned, who were also part of the birth of punk, and who became as careerist as any of the dinosaurs they were supposed to have banished to the well-known dustbin of history. The Pistols shone brightly for a year or two and then imploded and left a legend. This is what needs to be printed. The Nineties return, however cynically embarked on, was a large scale cabaret act. The blues has no age and you can sing it from 16 to 76. Punk is not an old man's gig and there is something truly disturbing about the concept of a middle aged Pistols doing the rounds with their astutely adult take on the punk rage and outrage of their youth. If you cannot make money with your new stuff you might as well make money with your old stuff. Nostalgia is what it used to be.

All of a sudden I am of the opinion that the Pistols were as much part of my Seventies record collection as Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick or Aerosmith and if I can replace my LPs of those bands with CDs I should replace Never Mind The Bollocks with its CD version. I've just been holding out for the 2 CD remastered release with the extra disc of outtakes, demos and rare live recordings.

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