The cover of Never Mind the Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols (1977) is pretty ugly and yet attention grabbing and that effect and result must have been intentional given the provocative stance of the Pistols' marketing campaign and Jamie Reid's graphic designs.
The music is not so ugly although there is still plenty of outrage to be had in the lyrics to some of the songs. The Pistols did not write love songs or pastoral ballads and definitely did not play semi-symphonic prog rock dealing with the high concepts of interstellar travel or the inherent insanity in all of us. Johnny Rotten enunciated his sometimes hateful lyrics and delighted swearing with a clear glee and joy in the exhilarating now of epater le bourgeosie.
I had never heard anybody swear on record before I listened to the Pistols' debut album and it was terribly exciting in repressed South Africa, but as far as I understand it was also outrageous in the UK where artists had far greater liberty to express themselves fully in whatever fashion they chose.
At first exposure the massed guitar wall-of-sound on the record did not seem revolutionary to me and I wondered what all the fuss had been about. This stuff did not sound so far removed from a similar guitar sound coming from, by then, outdated glam rockers Slade, a particular early-Seventies favourite of mine. At the time I listened to Never Mind the Bollocks for the first time, probably somewhere in late 1978 or maybe even 1979 (back in the day such music came to Stellenbosch fairly long after release), I had been reading the NME for a couple of years and was fully au fait with happenings on the UK punk front yet had not heard any of the seminal punk recordings. In fact, the first New Wave album I owned was My Aim Is True, by Elvis Costello, hardly the loud, raucous, three chord type of music I fondly associated with punk, in the light of the NME's coverage of all things punk. The Pistols' music sounded pretty orthodox to me; in fact, though the production values gave the sound a huge wallop, the basic Pistols riffs could have fitted in well on Cheap Trick's In Color album, also from1977.
The main differences between the Pistols and everyone else in the mainstream lay in Rotten's sneering ultra-English vocals and the lyrics that seemed to be only about all the subject matter and people Rotten hated and despised. Rage and disgust come to mind as description, though I would not have thought that the Pistols were that angry or even that disgusted with the world around them. On the other hand, the lyrics do sound like an alienated adolescent's blast of vituperation at a world he does not understand and that does not understand him. Basically Rotten slags off humanity and its machinations, though the targets were probably more directly involved in his life than mere generalisations. Pauline who lived in a tree and had an abortion was purportedly a real life Pistols fan. Rotten also does not like the late Seventies New York scene, buzzing around Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, that preceded the London punk scene and partly inspired it, and he is pretty vituperative about the Pistols' experience with the big record company EMI who signed them and dropped them, leaving them with money in their pocket.
The four singles collected on the album, although not sequenced chronologically, with "Anarchy in the UK" in the middle of the second side, prove that the band, with Glen Matlock's pop sensibility, could write memorable pop songs. "Seventeen" and "No Feelings" add more proof. I am not saying, if the Pistols sound reminded me of Slade, that they could have been a killer singles band, like The Jam, but they could have come close if allowed to prosper.
The story is well known: the Pistols were in their way as much a project band for Malcolm McLaren, as the Monkees were for whomever though them up, and the Pistols never outlived their usefulness or outstayed their welcome unlike the careerist punk contemporaries such as The Clash or The Damned.
Oh, except for the Nineties reunion, with Glen Matlock seeing as how Sid Vicious was not available to tour, which, as John Lydon was not ashamed to crow about, was strictly about the money the young Pistols never made. One could understand how Deep Purple or Uriah Heep, or any of their peers, could carry on as middle aged guys but the Pistols were not supposed to be about carrying on regardless. And yet, given that they needed to pay the bills and were professional musicians, they did reunite and did play "Anarchy In the UK" and "Holidays in the Sun" one more time. Well, many times. And probably more expertly than in 1977 yet with less piss and vinegar.
The Pistols have left us just his one studio album, and a lot of product marketed strictly for exploitation. Never Mind the Bollocks is not the best punk album ever but it is the best Sex Pistols album ever and a pretty good one anyway. The CD version of the album I now own, courtesy of Cash Crusaders, has no bonus materials; no unreleased live cuts or demos; no lyrics and no band pics. It is pretty much the original vinyl version but sounds amazing through earphones and strangely tinny otherwise, unless it is because I did not turn up the hi-fi to max volume.
The Pistols' debut was the first punk record I owned. I got into The Clash only with London Calling and never bought anything by The Damned, The Stranglers, The Jam when they were either punk or New Wave. For this reason and for the seriously good pop nous of the great songs, Never Mind the Bollocks will always be my favourite punk rock album.