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The phenomenon of popularity of Sex Pistols

Published on August 26, 2009 by: in: Culture

The story of Sex Pistols and their influence on the cultural changes seems unbelievable. The first, simple question that comes to everyone’s mind is how this complete morons managed to make a cultural earthquake, such a revolution in thinking of thousands of people. In what way this cretins gave so much to think and encouraged others to see many things from different point of view. They were brutal, filthy and by behaving in such a manner they attacked efficiently a conservative style of thinking. Everyone can dislike them, everyone can even hate them, but if we are talking about creative rebellion during the second half of the twentieth century, we have to remember about them and include them into the discussion.

SexPistols

First of all, it has to be said what  Sex Pistols created ? They constructed, gave foundations, for a new subculture called punk or punk rock. A subculture is a set of people with distinct behavior and beliefs within a larger culture. In direct meaning, punk means rotten, worthless. In a prison slang, it is a term for a person who is sexually submissive. Punk rock initially used to be described as the primitive, guitar music, based on rock and roll of 1960s bands such as : The Seeds and Detroit bands : The Stooges and MC5. Nowadays punk rock  tends to mean the anti-establishment musical movement of the period of 1976-80, exemplified by the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, The Ramones and their descendants. Firstly the new trend in music was perceived by the mass media in the summer of 1977 by the “Times” and “Newsweek”. It has led to the creation of some punk rock clubs in the USA and Great Britain. People who started to find common identity with this stream of new subculture, formed their own style. It was a style of exuberant ugliness. Men and women alike wore short hair, that had been cut seemingly and dyed in unnatural colors. Flesh was pierced in sundry locations, at times with safety pins.

However many people claimed that the pure punk was created by Sex Pistols and they are the only  representative of this genre. According to the claims of this people, other bands were part of the phenomenon of the punk rock music but it is not the same as punk. The Sex Pistols were the only  band, that was able to make a real, nature revolt. Their rebellion seems to have no signs of fake and in this thesis  the phenomenon of theirs popularity is included.

The band was initially created in 1972 by Steve Jones and Paul Cook and was called The Strand. The excellent view on who this boys were is the fact that  Jones has stolen the first guitar for the band. At this point we can find the roots of their legend. They came from nowhere, they were nobodies and they managed to conquer the world. They were breaking all rules, it was easy, they did not have a guitar so they stole one. At this time Steve Jones regularly spent his weekends at the “Let It Rock” shop in the Kings Road, which was run by Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. Jones tried to influenced  MacLaren to become the manager of the band. Finally he organized them a rehearsal in Covet Garden Community Center. At first Jones and Cook played there with Glen Matlock as bass player. MacLaren found that the main need for the band was to find an original singer . McLaren became acquainted with a regular visitor to his shop, which was now known as “Sex”, the green-haired teenager, a lost soul, John Lydon. Lydon auditioned for the band by accompanying Alice Cooper on the shop’s jukebox. As a result of Jones’ continual comments about the state of Lydon’s teeth he became Johnny Rotten. McLaren borrowed a slogan off one of his T-shirts and dubbed the band “Sex Pistols”. Initially they worked mostly on 60’s covers with the likes of the Small Faces. They also started writing their own material. It is extremely important that all members of the band came from the very low social background. When they formed the band none of them had a good job or acquired good education. Steve Jones and John Lyndon did not work at all, Glen Matlock worked in MacLaren’s shop and Paul Cook had his job in the brewery. When Jones was asked about the reasons for creating the band he just said extremely straight “It was something to do(…) I think it was the New York Dolls who turned me on the idea. I saw them at a Faces concert and I had never seen anything like that. They where musically lousy, but very interesting, extremely crazy”. He said that he previously worked as a windowcleaner but it was a completely worthless engagement. Their career started in November 1975 when they played their first big concert as support to Bazooka Joe. Then they were invited to many punk rock festivals or rock concerts. On October 8th Sex Pistols signed to EMI, recording their debut single “Anarchy In The UK” shortly afterwards. If there had been not the one, scandalous interview in the TV, they would just stayed one of hundreds of rock bands in UK. On the of 1st December the band appeared on Thames TV’s “Today” program, as late replacements for another band, only arriving around five minutes before going on air. They were interviewed live by Bill Grundy, who proceeded to provoke the band and encourage them to “say something outrageous”. For Steve Jones in particular, this was an open invitation and he happily obliged with a number of vulgar worlds (to put it mildly) the early evening audience. The next day the front pages of the daily newspaper were covered with pictures of the band, prompting EMI to drop them. Anxious promoters cancelled all but three of the shows booked for December’s “Anarchy” national tour in February 1977. Sex Pistols became well known, not for their music or special philosophy, but just thanks to the scandal, primitive behavior in front of the cameras. They just showed that they did not care about any rules of good behavior and about the establishment. It was the first time in the television in England that somebody let himself to behave in such a manner. It was a shock. On one side English conservative society was not prepared for such words, but on the other many people, tired of being constrained by conservatives, believed that Sex Pistols can make something to crush those rules.

In February 1977 Glen Matlock left the group. In one of the interviews Steve Jones explained the reasons for Matlock’s departure : “Glen liked Beatles.(…) all the rest of us hate Beatles. And it showed that Glen loved them. He came with a lot of Beatles influed accords and tunes that I couldn´t play. Besides we didn´t get along with his that good either.” It was completely stupid justification. Jones just showed that he did not care what other people thought. Sex Pistols replaced Matlock’s vacancy by the persona of Sid Vicious. The funniest thing in this situation was, that Vicious had never played the bass before. Although for Jones it was not a trouble, for the question : “But he coudn´t play” he gave such an answer “No, but he´s learning”. It was he, allegedly, who threw a glass during the Damned’s set at the punk all-dayer at the 100 club, blinding a girl in one eye, he played in one of the proto-punk bands, Flowers Of Romance, as a drummer, he could not play bass but he had the image. Soon they managed to sign a new deal with A&M company. It lasted about a week, before the group’s behaviour, at the company HQ, after the signing ceremony, lost them another contract. Although they kept the advance cash (£75,000). This time, however, the single that was lost by A&M company, was their magnificent “God Save The Queen”. It was a track that guaranteed to cause outrage in a country being wound up into a jingoistic fervour for the Queen’s silver jubilee year. Virgin Records noticed it happily and took Sex Pistols when almost no other company was prepared to (signing them for a miserly £15,000 cash advance), and released “God Save The Queen” in time for ‘Stuff the Jubilee’ celebrations. The single, that hit in the most holy symbol of England, was something so controversial that almost anyone couldn’t pass it by steadily. For conservatives it was almost a crime. But for many people, Sex Pistols gave a signal that, the monarchy in the United Kingdom was something archaic. The very important aspect of this situation were the social roots of Sex Pistols. They criticized the monarchy, so they also attacked the system, where the poor people have no chance for development and money went for maintaining the royal family. Many people understood the Sex Pistols’ single in such way, but it is more possible that the band just wanted to express a hatred for a sophisticated, pompous way of Queen’s living and of course just made money on the scandal. To promote the record, Virgin and McLaren, dragged the reluctant Sex Pistols on to a river boat, the well-named Queen Elizabeth. The boat sailed up and down the Thames, past the Houses of Parliament, blaring out “Anarchy”, “God Save The Queen” and the rest of the Pistols’ limited set. Things on board got a little bit lively when the booze and the speed kicked in and the captain radioed for assistance. A police boat escorted them to the shore. A lot of fans and the Pistols management team were arrested and given a good kicking in the back of the van, on the way to the police station. Such events created their image and legend. This incident caused a wide objection against Sex Pistols, they were even brutally attacked. John Lyndon was hurt by knife in his leg and Paul Cook was beaten by teddy boys. It showed people that members of the band paid a huge price for their nonconformity and fighting with conservatism (no matter if it was the truth). In November 1977 Sex Pistols released their the best album : “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”. The offensive word “bollocks” in the title of the album caused a moral thunderstorm again. The authorities banned advertising it in the TV, markets chains refused to sell it. But few weeks later band’s lawyer won the case in the court and the title was opened to the public eye. It was a great album, and each of the tracks became instant hits at the punk clubs. Sex Pistols were on the very top of their career. They gained mass of fans, became famous and created a kind of new lifestyle. This lifestyle depended on the total rejection of all rules, that the society believed in and destroying all authorities. Unfortunately, from the other side, Sex Pistols turned up on the verge of catastrophe. Sid Vicious, in the meantime, was fast becoming a junkie. John Lyndon, who was taking more speed, than was probably good for him, started to distance himself from the rest of the group. Soon their USA company, Warner prepared them a tour in America, putting up $1,000,000 as a guarantee of their good behaviour on the USA soil. The tour started in Atlanta and ended in disaster. Sid, who was in a bad way with heroin, was beaten up by the Warner people hired to ensure the million dollars came back to the company at the end of the tour. San Antonio, Texas, was the venue for the next gig and the trouble started as soon as the boys came on stage. The audience pelted the Pistols with beer cans and food. Sid reacted by suggesting that : “You cowboys are all a bunch of fucking faggots” and felt obliged to defend his point of view by administering a tap on the head with his bass guitar to a member of the audience. What is more members of the team did not resist the tension between each other. Steve Jones had a huge argument with Paul Cook and refused to continue the common tour. John Lyndon had enough cooperation with everybody, especially with the manager Malcolm MacLaren. Soon after Sid Vicious went back to New York, got even more messed up on heroin, became involved in the death of his girlfriend Nancy and killed himself on 2nd February 1979. He was 21 when he died. That was the end of the short story of Sex Pistols.

Sex Pistols constructed something really extraordinary, they created almost ideal filthy, teenage rebellion. They were loud and noisy and they didn’t care what you thought. They came from nowhere to generate a legend and soon disappeared. Sex Pistols completely change the monolithic music industry and generate, the simple, but different from all that had been before, kind of music. There was no ‘do-it-yourself’ scene before the Sex Pistols and no destroying it after they gone. Sex Pistols were the mouthpiece of the simple philosophy that is included in three words : repulsion, despair and rebellion. They did not believe in any positive values like friendship, love or truth everything was just a cheat. They felt a total emptiness in the reality. It is greatly reflected in the text of their song “No feelings” :

“ I only ever leave you when you’ve got no money

I got no emotions for anybody else

You better understand I’m in love with myself

Myself, my beautiful self

(…)

I kick you in the head you’ve got nothing to say

Get outta the way ’cause I gotta get away

You never realize I take the piss out of you

You come out to see me and I beat you black and blue

Okay I send you away.”

To understand their phenomenon it have to be said, that their world, was the world of huge cities, slums, anonymous blocks of flats, something called “ASPHALT JUNGLE”. That was the place where the human being can not find its place to live. The society, for Sex Pistols and the whole punk subculture, with its institutions and values was just a prison, a web without escape. The only one constructive value in the whole punk philosophy was to be free in the simplest meaning of it, just like in the Sex Pistols’ song “I want to be me”. The very characteristic feature of the Sex Pistols ideas was that they did not have any illusions about themselves. They knew that they had been bad and ugly, but they are the only one who were not hypocritical and showed it. Sex Pistols did not believe in any changes that can improve the situation., so there was a statement : “no future”. Therefore they thought that they did not ought to engage in any political issues. Their vision of the world and the society caused a great fury and the eagerness to destroy. What is more, talking about Sex Pistols, it can not be omitted that they just loved to provoke. It can be said that they had the ability to shock in theirs blood. It is also very characteristic that the rebellion of punks, of Sex Pistols was directed also against the previous rebellion of the hippies. The hippies had their own ideology and some authorities, punks rejected everything. Sex Pistols and their descendants were not humanistic, they changed the statement “Love and Peace” on “War and Hate”. It is also very important that the panel of ideas created by Sex Pistols, were extraordinary, because they were built by people without education, who comes from very low background of society. Many people that dealt with John Lyndon or Sid Vicious the same identity, found in his activity a kind of inspiration. They understood them and just wanted to make a rebellion and became nonconformists like they were.

In the summary it should be said that the story of Sex Pistols proved that people to create something original, to provoke, to make a cultural mess, do not have to be prodigies. The members of Sex Pistols were ordinary but insolent boys, who made a legend and disappeared (I do not want to mention their come back in the 90s, because it was a total misunderstanding). They were almost the most rebellious band in the history, so that the history has to remember about them.

Bibliography :
1. http://www.thefilthandthefury.co.uk/home.html

2. http://www.punk.px.pl/Filozofia77.html

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  1. avatar
    Hailey
    Posted October 30, 2014 at 3:47 am

    I am doing a history fair project on the Sex Pistols. I was showing how the Sex Pistols tied into leadership and legacy, creating a new genre of music (punk rock).
    One thing required is to know when each article was last updated, was August 26, 2009 the most recent?

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About Błażej Lenkowski

Graduate of International Relations at The Faculty of International and Political Science Studies of the University of Lodz; president of Industrial Foundation the publisher of Liberte!; entrepreneur.

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