The Story Of The Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind The Bollocks”

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The Sex Pistols‘ classic debut album ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…Here’s The Sex Pistols‘ was released on this day in 1977. Here we take a look at the story of one of the greatest and most influential records of all time.

It was August 1975 when Malcolm McLaren, on the lookout for a frontman for a band he had begun to manage a year earlier, spotted a young man sauntering past his shop in South-west London wearing a t-shirt that declared ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’. He was invited to rehearse with his band, and it was later that evening that John Lydon, then nineteen, first met Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, members of a band who had been known as The Strand, but had recently changed their name to QT Jones and the Sex Pistols. Lydon’s rehearsal was allegedly met with fits of laughter by the rest of the band, but impressed by his attitude and natural showmanship, McLaren persuaded the group to continue with Lydon, thus bringing to an end their long search for a frontman.

It was clear from the beginning that Lydon had plenty to say for himself, and he was soon writing lyrics to accompany the new tunes being written by bass player Glen Matlock, and with a small selection of original material, and with their name shortened to The Sex Pistols, the band played their first gig at St. Martins College, where Matlock was a student. Despite being a penniless new band, the members enjoyed the use of expensive instruments and amps at their gigs, thanks to Steve Jones’ wandering hands, who even allegedly stole equipment from under the noses of David Bowie‘s crew during his ‘Farewell Ziggy’ concert at the Hammersmith Odeon.

The band began sessions for their debut album in October 1976, however it was the sessions with producer Chris Thomas, between March and June 1977 and later sessions at Wessex Studios in August ’77, that make up the bulk of the resulting record. By the time of the final sessions in August, the group had already been involved in most of the infamous media storms which would define them as a band. They had first come to the wider public’s attention when they appeared on Bill Grundy’s ‘Today’ programme in December 1976. Their antics on the programme caused outrage in the media which stoked up public outrage, and the ‘Anarchy’ tour which the band were on at the time became the subject of protests outside gigs, and the band were even banned from performing in some towns. Less than two months after their appearence on Bill Grundy, they were dropped by EMI in late January 1977.

Also before the main sessions with Chris Thomas, in February 1977, Glen Matlock left the band after playing a gig in Holland. Many differing reasons are given for his departure, with both Matlock and Lydon now blaming Malcom McLaren for causing arguments between the pair, while McLaren himself insists Matlock was simply ‘too nice’ for the band. Steve Jones usually outlines the clash of personalities between Matlock and the rest of the band by mocking him for washing his feet in hotel rooms. Whatever the reasons, the band was never the same after Matlock’s departure, and the decision to sack him in favour of Sid Vicious, a friend of Johnny Lydon and regular on the London punk scene, marks the beginning of the end for the band. While Matlock’s slightly calmer personality clashed with the rest of the group, there is no doubting his creative input helped to marshall the band into a viable musical entity. After joining the band in 1974 on the insistence of Malcolm McLaren, he helped to improve Steve Jones’ guitar playing and gave the band a focus on the music that they sorely needed. His replacement epitomised the punk scene, but was unable to play a note on the bass, and it symbolised the shift in focus permanently to full on chaos which would be impossible to sustain.

After Matlock’s departure, the album was essentially recorded as a 3-piece, with the band doing their best to keep Sid Vicious away from the studio. According to Steve Jones: “Sid wanted to come down and play on the album, and we tried as hard as possible not to let him anywhere near the studio. Luckily he had hepatitis at the time.” It is said that after his sacking, Glen Matlock was asked to help out the recording of the album as a session musician, although it is disputed as to how much Matlock actually played on the album. Some, including Johnny Lydon claim he played many parts, while others insist almost all the bass parts on the record were played by Steve Jones and Matlock never actually showed up for the principal recordings of ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’. In the end, Sid Vicious only played on one track, ‘Bodies’, although Steve Jones is skeptical as to how prominent his bass is on the track. “He played his farty old bass part and we just let him do it,” he said. “When he left I dubbed another part on, leaving Sid’s down low. I think it might be barely audible on the track.”

In the studio, producer Chris Thomas had marshaled the members expertly, and in doing so produced an album that displayed tight musicianship and bared little resemblance to their chaotic live shows, and yet, despite this altered approach, Thomas managed to lose none of the raw passion of the band in the studio. The album contained the singles which had preceded it’s release, and had helped make the band heroes and villains in equal measure. Debut single ‘Anarchy In The UK‘, which had been released in November 1976, was included in it’s original form, as were ‘God Save The Queen‘, released in May 1977 to public outrage at the time of the Queen’s jubilee and ‘Pretty Vacant‘.

As well as the legendary singles, the album contained tracks which dealt with some of the controversial topics of the time, and which demonstrated Johnny Lydon’s sharp political and social commentary. ‘Bodies‘ tells the story of illegal abortion, while ‘E.M.I’ is a scathing attack on the record company which had dropped them earlier in the year. Opener ‘Holidays In The Sun’, one of the few tracks on the album not credited to Glen Matlock, was the final single released from the album and deals with the Berlin Wall and communism. “Being in London at the time made us feel like we were trapped in a prison camp environment,” John Lydon has said on the inspiration behind the song. “There was hatred and constant threat of violence. The best thing we could do was to go set up in a prison camp somewhere else. Berlin and its decadence was a good idea. The song came about from that. I loved Berlin. I loved the wall and the insanity of the place. The communists looked in on the circus atmosphere of West Berlin, which never went to sleep, and that would be their impression of the West.”

After a short-lived stay on A&M records after being dropped by EMI, the album was eventually released through Virgin. In keeping with the controversy that had followed the band around prior to the album’s release, the record itself was quickly made the subject of a legal challenge. The album’s ‘obscene’ title was challenged under the Town Police Clauses Act, which has since been replaced by the Indecent Displays Act, and the case was brought to Nottingham Magistrates’ Court on 24th November 1977. However John Mortimer successfully argued that ‘bollocks’ was in fact an Old English term, and the chairman of the hearing concluded: “Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty of each of the four charges.”

Despite the success of the album, which had hit the top spot in the UK, the band’s gradual spiral out of control which had begun after Sid Vicious joined continued and by the time they embarked on a tour of the US in January 1978, the group was close to splitting. The tour was constantly interrupted by Sid Vicious’ ever increasing drug problems, and with John Lydon close to breaking point due to issues with his band mates and the bizarre scheduling of the tour, he left the stage after one song of the final date, famously declaring to the crowd “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” Within a couple of days, Lydon had left the Sex Pistols and despite Paul Cook and Steve Jones recording some new material after his departure, effectively The Sex Pistols had finished, just three months after the release of ‘Never Mind The Bollocks‘.

They were active as a band for just 26 months, but in that time The Sex Pistols had delivered an album and legacy which is still felt today and has seen them become considered as the most influential British band since The Beatles. By the time of the release of ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’, The Sex Pistols had already changed the face of British music, and the album which followed most of their achievements became the culmination of the Sex Pistols’ short career, rather than the beginning of it.

(Dave Smith)

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