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My first musical love was punk. The first CD I bought, all the way back in 2002, was Green Day’s Nimrod. The fast, distorted power chords and expletive-laden lyrics captivated me. It was a revelation that led to my first steps into the world of music. That first CD would lead me down a rabbit hole of learning about other punk bands and the history of the genre. Naturally, I stumbled upon the Sex Pistols.
They weren’t the first punk band. That distinction can go to the Stooges, Los Saicos, Death, or any number of bands that could be considered “proto-punk”. There’re even questions about the authenticity of the Sex Pistols’ antics. Were they really punk, or just a way for their manager, Malcolm McLaren, to sell the punk aesthetic?
Above all else, the Sex Pistols were a sledgehammer that demolished the walls of the established music industry. They exposed musicians to the idea that a musical genre could be something greater. It could embody fashion, political views, philosophical ideas, and much more. They brought to the masses the idea that music could build idols and tear them down just as easily.
In this history of the Sex Pistols, I’ll take a look at the most important events in the band’s short-but-legendary career and the chaos they left in their wake.
- The Sex Pistols were a punk band from London, England, that formed in 1975.
- The band was originally together for less than 3 years and they only released one studio album, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.
- The Sex Pistols are often featured on lists of the most influential bands of all time for their contributions to music and fashion.
From The Strand to the Sex Pistols
The history of the Sex Pistols begins in 1972 with a band called The Strand. Steve Jones, a vocalist at that time, and Paul Cook, a drummer, formed the band along with the guitarist Wally Nightingale. They often hung out at a clothing store owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood called Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. The shop had become a favorite spot of King’s Road’s blossoming punk scene.
In 1974, a part-time worker at the shop named Glen Matlock was recruited to play bass for The Strand. By this time, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood had renamed their shop to SEX and focused on providing anti-fashion S&M products to their customers.
A short time later, McLaren moved to New York City and worked for the New York Dolls. This brief stint in the New York punk scene inspired him to return to London and take a more active role in the direction of The Strand.
Wally Nightingale was kicked out of The Strand shortly after McLaren’s return. Steve Jones switched to guitar and the band was renamed QT Jones and the Sex Pistols. The search for a new frontman was on.
Johnny Rotten Takes the Stage
After numerous failed attempts to recruit a lead singer, McLaren eventually took notice of a SEX regular named John Lydon, who was dressed in a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words “I Hate” scrawled on it. He was brought in for an audition, which consisted of mouthing the lyrics to “I’m Eighteen” by Alice Cooper. That performance alone convinced the band to let him join and Steve Jones started calling him Johnny Rotten on account of his less-than-stellar dental hygiene.
Sex Pistols became the official name of the band and they began writing original music with Rotten as the lyricist and Matlock as the melody writer. The band started to perform live, too, dressed in clothing provided by McLaren and Westwood through SEX. London’s punk movement was gaining steam, and the Sex Pistols were leading the charge.
Their live shows started becoming more and more violent, leading to the band being banned at the Marquee Club and the Nashville, two ventures popular in London’s punk scene. The anarchy that raged at the Sex Pistols’ performances would soon be channeled into one of the most iconic songs in rock history.
Anarchy in the U.K.
From Steve Jones’ opening salvo of descending chords, to Johnny Rotten’s fantastic sneering vocals, this song is the perfect statement…[It’s] a lifestyle choice, a manifesto that heralds a new era.
– John Robb, music journalist and cofounder of The Membranes in his book Punk Rock: An Oral History
In October 1976, the Sex Pistols were signed by EMI, a major record label in the U.K. before its dissolution in 2012. Their first release under their new deal was the single “Anarchy in the U.K.” The song’s opening two lines (“I am an Antichrist / I am an anarchist”), spat into the microphone by Rotten, were gasoline poured on an already burning London punk scene.
Early punk tunes had yet to break away from traditional rock lyrics about love and heartbreak. “Anarchy in the U.K.” marked punk’s turn toward political commentary. Between it and the Sex Pistols’ new imagery for the single – a hole-filled Union Jack with cut-up magazine lettering – the band was quickly gaining a reputation as heroes in the punk scene and villains in the mainstream press.
The mainstream press’ disgust toward the Sex Pistols came to a head after a now-infamous segment on the Today TV program, hosted by Bill Grundy. In the interview with Grundy, both Rotten and Jones uttered expletives that at that time were forbidden on early evening programming.
Predictably, the response the following day was complete outrage. A string of British daily tabloids ran negative headlines about the band, which accomplished one thing: spreading the band’s name all over the U.K.
While the interview destroyed Bill Grundy’s career and resulted in the cancellation of many of the band’s shows, it cemented the Sex Pistols as punk royalty among their fans. However, they were dropped from EMI and forced to find a new label to release their music.
The New Bassist
As the Sex Pistols went back into the studio to record new music, Glen Matlock’s relationship with the other band members, especially Johnny Rotten, began to sour. He would leave the band a short time later with McLaren confirming the split in February 1977. He was quickly replaced with a bass player who looked like the Sex Pistols, acted like the Sex Pistols, and never missed a single show of the Sex Pistols’: Sid Vicious.
Sid Vicious was notorious in the London punk scene. He was single-handedly responsible for getting all punk bands banned from the 100 Club, a famous club in London, after a glass bottle he threw at a show cut a young girl’s eye. He brought the attitude and look that the Sex Pistols were looking for, but he didn’t bring the ability to play bass.
Vicious’ lack of musical skill didn’t go unnoticed by his bandmates. Rotten referred to the first practices with Vicious as “hellish,” though he admitted that the bass player “tried really hard and rehearsed a lot.” The bassist’s difficulty in playing the instrument competently could have stemmed from his heroin addiction which was further fueled by his newfound fame, and possibly his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.
Vicious played his first show with the Sex Pistols at Notre Dame Hall in London. The band was about to hit its highest point yet, but Vicious’ mental health and battle with addiction continued to spiral downward at breakneck speeds.
God Save the Queen
The Sex Pistols were signed by A&M Records in March 1977. In celebration, they trashed the record label’s offices. The honeymoon was short-lived – their time with A&M Records lasted only a week.
The band went on to sign with Virgin Records about two months later. The first order of business was to release the Sex Pistols’ latest single, “God Save the Queen.” The song was a scathing rebuke of Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family, which predictably sparked outrage across Britain.
Lyrics like “God save the queen/She ain’t no human being” and an album cover featuring the queen’s face covered by the song and band names led to the song being banned by the BBC and independent radio stations across the country. It debuted at #2 on the UK record chart, though there is speculation that the figures were manipulated to keep “God Save the Queen” from reaching the top spot.
The Sex Pistols’ confrontational form of politics resulted in actual confrontations in the streets. Johnny Rotten was assaulted twice in one week and drummer Paul Cook was attacked, too. Despite this, the band soldiered on, sneering attitude intact.
Never Mind the Bollocks
Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, and Paul cook returned to the studio after signing with Virgin Records. Rotten maintains that Glen Matlock, the original bass player, helped to record most of the songs on the album after his departure, a claim that Matlock denies due to most of the songs already being recorded before he left the band.
Jones ended up providing the bass on two tracks on their soon-to-be-released album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The band didn’t want Sid Vicious near the studio due to his lack of musical skill; in the one track he is reported to have played on, “Bodies,” his bass part is turned down so low you can’t even hear it.
The Sex Pistols’ first and only studio album was released on October 28, 1977. It was a hit and reached #1 on the U.K. charts, eventually going platinum despite being banned by some British retailers. Rolling Stone praised it and the Sex Pistols themselves:
This band still takes rock & roll personally, as a matter of honor and necessity, and they play with an energy and conviction that is positively transcendent in its madness and fever.
– From Paul Nelson’s review of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols appearing in Rolling Stone
The album featured 4 of the band’s singles – “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “God Save the Queen,” “Pretty Vacant,” and “Holidays in the Sun,” along with 8 other songs. To support the album, the band planned a multinational tour that started in the Netherlands. By the end of this tour, the Sex Pistols would be no more.
The Break-Up to Today
The Sex Pistols’ tour for Never Mind the Bollock landed in the U.S. in January 1978. Strangely enough, the majority of the tour dates were scheduled in America’s Deep South – a deeply religious part of the country and the most likely place the Sex Pistols’ would face backlash. McLaren, still the band’s manager, admitted to booking in the region to ensure there would be hostility, which would lead to more attention from the press.
The band, and its members, began to fall apart. Vicious was addicted to heroin by this point and found himself involved in numerous fights and disgusting incidents during the U.S. tour, mostly provoked by him in one way or another.
Rotten became fed up with Vicious’ antics and was drifting apart from Jones and Cook. Feeling as if the band and Malcolm McLaren were turning against him, Rotten declared at the final show of the tour, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night.” The Sex Pistols were done.
Two more songs would be attributed to the Sex Pistols after the breakup, though they didn’t include the full band: an original titled “No One is Innocent” sung by Ronnie Biggs and a cover of “My Way,” a song popularized by Frank Sinatra. Vicious provided vocals for “My Way,” but only in exchange for McLaren agreeing to not be his manager. He would die in February 1979 of a heroin overdose.
Another album, this time the soundtrack for a film project that McLaren started but didn’t finish called The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, was released in 1979. The film was eventually completed by Julien Temple, who documented many of the band’s most important moments.
As for the four original members of the Sex Pistols, they would reunite in 1996, 2002, 2003, 2007, and 2008 for various live shows and tours. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols was re-released by Universal Music Group, the band’s latest label, in 2012.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that the Sex Pistols had on punk rock and fashion. They would inspire other bands that popped up in the London punk scene, like The Clash. Their influence can even be felt in bands that arrived years after, like Green Day and Rancid. Punk rock entered the mainstream in large part due to the Sex Pistols.
There’s debate as to whether the Sex Pistols were genuine or merely a creation of their manager, Malcolm McLaren. The parade of re-releases and coasting on their previous successes raise even more questions.
The members and punk rock, in general, are also targeted for their perceived lack of musical talent. This is an idea that Green Day’s frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, strongly disagrees with:
Steve Jones is one of the best guitarists of all time, as far as I’m concerned – he taught me how a Gibson should sound. Paul Cook is an amazing drummer with a distinct sound, right up there with Keith Moon or Charlie Watts. There are bands out there still trying to sound like the Sex Pistols and can’t, because they were great players.
– Billie Joe Armstrong, writing for Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Artists list
I have to agree with Billie Joe. Outside of the vocals and instruments, I think the Sex Pistols’ true legacy is the band’s populist approach to music. They demonstrated that rock didn’t need high production values or long, drawn-out guitar solos to be considered good music.
The upcoming FX series Pistol is set to expose a new generation to the Sex Pistol’s legacy, though John Lydon has railed against the series and has no involvement with it. Pistol premieres on May 31, 2022.
Members of the Sex Pistols
Johnny Rotten (John Lydon)
Born John Joseph Lydon, Johnny Rotten comes from an Irish background. His parents were Irish and he grew up in a predominately Irish and Jamaican working-class neighborhood and mainly views himself as a Londoner.
After his time with the Sex Pistols, he went on to start the band Public Image Ltd, or PiL. Their biggest hit came in 1983 with the single “This Is Not a Love Song.” Lydon was most recently a contestant on the TV show The Masked Singer.
Jones is most known for his work as the guitarist of the Sex Pistols, but as mentioned earlier, he had to pull double duty on bass during the recording of two songs on Never Mind the Bollocks. After the Sex Pistols, he went on to form The Professionals with Paul Cook.
He also formed a supergroup in 1996 with members of Guns N’ Roses and Duran Duran. He mostly played two Gibson Les Paul Custom guitars while with the Sex Pistols, the most famous one being the white 1974 Gibson decorated with pin-up girls. Jones now lives in Southern California.
Along with Jones, Paul Cook was a founding member of The Strand, the band that would go on to become the Sex Pistols. His drumming style can be attributed to his early Motown, ska, and glam rock influences like T. Rex and Slade.
After the breakup of the Sex Pistols, Cook joined Jones in forming The Professionals. He lives in Hammersmith with his wife and daughter, Hollie Cook, who is an established solo musician of her own.
Glen Matlock played bass for the Sex Pistols up until February 1977, at which point he was replaced by Sid Vicious. After he left the Sex Pistols, he played in a band called Rich Kids.
Funnily enough, he also started a band with Sid Vicious called Vicious White Kids.
Most of his post-Sex Pistols career production has come from his band Glen Matlock & The Philistines. They’ve released 4 studio albums as a group and one greatest hits album.
Sid Vicious (John Ritchie/John Beverley)
Sid Vicious was the most tragic member of the Sex Pistols. Born John Simon Ritchie, he was kicked out of his home when he was 16 by his mother, who also had issues with heroin and opiate addiction. By that time, he had changed his name to John Beverley. He would be given the nickname “Sid Vicious” after being bit by Johnny Rotten’s hamster, Sid.
Before joining the Sex Pistols, Vicious was with two bands: the Flowers of Romance and Siouxsie and the Banshees. While the Flowers of Romance never released any recordings, Siouxsie and the Banshees performed live once with Vicious as the drummer.
Before his death in 1979, Vicious was arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. However, he gave contradictory statements to the police, admitting to the murder, saying he didn’t mean to do it, and that he didn’t remember anything. He was bailed out of jail by Virgin Records. He would end up back in jail after assaulting Todd Smith, Patti Smith‘s brother.
He was again released on bail on February 1, 1979. He would die of an overdose that night. The question of who killed Nancy Spungen was never really solved.
Despite a life filled with addiction and violence, it’s important to think about the person and musician that Sid Vicious could have been. Steven Severin, a member of Siouxsie and the Banshees, said it best:
Actually, before he got deeply into drugs, he was one of the funniest guys. He had a brilliant sense of humor, goofy, sweet, and very cute.
– Steven Severin, Siouxsie and the Banshees, speaking about Sid Vicious
Answer: The original four members of the Sex Pistols (Johnny Rotten/John Lydon, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, and Paul Cook) are still alive. Sid Vicious died in 1979.
Answer: Yes, they are. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 but didn’t show up for the ceremony. In their opinion, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a “piss stain” and declared, “We’re not your monkeys.”
Answer: Johnny Rotten wrote the lyrics while Glen Matlock wrote the music. Matlock proved to be the major creative force in the band, as the Sex Pistols only manage to release two songs after his departure.
While punk may have developed as a genre without them, I don’t think it would have blown up in quite the same way without the Sex Pistols. Their fingerprints cover punk rock to this day, though the music has evolved quite a bit from the band’s time in the spotlight. For music listeners just getting into punk, I can’t recommend a better starting point than the Sex Pistols.