The Sex Pistols are an English punk rock band that formed in London in 1975. The band originally comprised vocalist Johnny Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock (replaced by Sid Vicious). Although their initial career lasted only three years and produced only four singles and one studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, the Sex Pistols have been described by the BBC as 'the definitive English punk rock band.'
The Pistols are widely credited with initiating the punk movement in the United Kingdom and creating the first generation gap within rock and roll. The Sex Pistols emerged as a response to the 'increasingly safe and bloated' progressive rock, disco and manufactured pop music of the mid-1970s. The band created controversies which captivated Britain, but often eclipsed their music. Their shows and tours repeatedly faced difficulties with organisers and authorities, and public appearances often ended in mayhem. Their 1977 single 'God Save the Queen' was regarded as an attack on the British monarchy and British nationalism.
At the end of a turbulent U.S. tour, Rotten left the band in January 1978. The remaining trio carried on with vocals by Jones, Edward Tudor-Pole and Ronnie Biggs before disbanding in early 1979. Vicious died of a drug overdose that February. In 1996, Rotten, Jones, Cook and Matlock reunited for the 'Filthy Lucre' tour; they staged further reunion tours in 2002, 2003 and 2007. On 24 February 2006, the Sex Pistols were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they refused to attend the ceremony, calling the museum 'a piss stain'.
The Sex Pistols evolved from The Strand, a band formed in 1972 with Jones on vocals, Cook on drums and Wally Nightingale on guitar. Early line-ups also included Jim Mackin (now a GP practising in Lincolnshire) on organ, as well as Stephen Hayes, and later Del Noones, on bass. By 1973 the band members were spending time at Don Letts's Acme Attractions and the more upmarket Let It Rock, a 1950s-themed clothes shop in the Kings Road, Chelsea, area of London. Let It Rock was owned by former New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren and his partner Vivienne Westwood; the shop specialised in 'anti-fashion', selling the drapes, slashed T-shirts, brothel creepers and fetish gear later popularised by the punk movement. As Rotten observed, 'Malcolm and Vivienne were really a pair of shysters: they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto.' The shop was to become a focal point of the punk rock scene, bringing together many of its primary members: Jordan, Soo Catwoman, Captain Sensible, John Ritchie (later Sid Vicious), Jah Wobble, Gene October, Mick Jones, Tony James and Marco Pirroni,all reacting against the fashion of long hair and flared jeans that prevailed in the early 1970s.
McLaren took over management of the band around this time. Renamed The Swankers, they began rehearsing at the Crunchy Frog, a studio near the London Docklands. In 1974, they played their first gig at Tom Salter's Café in London. Noones was ejected from the band shortly afterwards, due to his unreliability and unwillingness to rehearse.
Glen Matlock was recruited as bass player in early 1975. Around this time Jones and Nightingale began to argue over the band's musical direction, and Nightingale departed soon afterwards. In August 1975, John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) was spotted by Jones at the now renamed and restyled SEX boutique. According to Jones, 'He came in with green hair. I thought he had a really interesting face. I liked his look. He had his 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt on. John had something special, but when he spoke he was a real asshole—but smart.' Though he had never considered singing before, after miming along to Alice Cooper's 'I'm Eighteen' on the shop juke box, Rotten was asked to join as vocalist. Rotten and his circle of friends were by now dressing in the torn-shirt, S&M-inspired clothing promoted by Vivienne Westwood. The band's core group of followers—including Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin and Billy Idol, who would go on to form bands of their own—came to be known as the Bromley Contingent, after the neighborhood several were from. Their radical fashion ignited a trend that was adopted by the new fans the band attracted.
NME journalist Nick Kent used to jam occasionally with the band, but left upon Rotten's recruitment. According to Rotten, 'When I came along, I took one look at him and said, 'No. That has to go.' He's never written a good word about me since' Following Kent's departure, Cook began to feel that Jones might not be capable enough alone on guitar, and the band placed an advertisement in Melody Maker: 'Wanted—Whizz kid guitarist, Not older than 20, Not worse looking than Johnny Thunders' (referring to a leading member of the New York punk scene). Steve New answered the advert, and played with the band for a few weeks, before he too departed.
One of McLaren's first acts as manager was to rename the band. Among the options considered were Le Bomb, Subterraneans, Beyond and Teenage Novel. The band's first gig as the Sex Pistols was arranged by Matlock, who was studying at Saint Martins College. The band played at the school on 6 November 1975. The plugs were pulled before they finished their set. This gig was followed by other performances at colleges and art schools around London.
In early 1976, the Sex Pistols began to play larger venues such as the 100 Club and the Nashville. On 4 June 1976, at the invitation of Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley (who would soon form the Buzzcocks), the band played their first gig in Manchester. Their performance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall inspired a punk rock boom in the city. Two newly formed London punk rock acts, The Clash and The Damned, made their live debuts opening for the Sex Pistols on 4 July and 6 July, respectively. On 3 September 1976, the Pistols played their first concert outside Britain, at the opening of the Club De Chalet Du Lac in Paris. Their first major tour of Britain soon followed, lasting from mid-September to early October.
On 10 March 1977, at a press ceremony held outside Buckingham Palace, the Sex Pistols signed to A&M Records. They returned to the A&M offices for what would become an unruly party. Sid Vicious trashed the managing director's office and vomited on his desk. Under pressure from its own employees, artists and distributors, A&M broke contract with the Pistols six days later. In May the band signed their third and final record deal with Virgin Records.
The Pistols' second single, 'God Save the Queen', was released on 27 May 1977. Though widely perceived as a personal attack on Queen Elizabeth II, Rotten later stated that the song was not aimed at her specifically, but was instead intended to critique the deference given to royalty in general. However, the perceived disrespect to the monarchy caused widespread public outcry. The record was banned from airplay by the BBC, whose Radio 1 dominated music broadcasting. Rotten later remarked, 'We had declared war on the entire country—without meaning to!'.
During the week of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, the single reached number one in the NME chart, but only number two in the official UK chart. Many suspected that the data had been massaged, believing that the record had actually qualified for the top spot, but that the charts had been rigged to prevent a spectacle. At least one radio station announced the song at number one, but refused to play it, as they had been advised it might incite disruptions of the national celebration.
The Pistols marked the Jubilee, and the success of their record, by chartering a private boat, intending to perform live while sailing down the River Thames, passing Westminster and the Houses of Parlament. The event ended in chaos, however, when the boat was raided by police, despite a license to perform having been granted. McLaren, the band and many of their entourage were taken into custody when the vessel docked.
Violent attacks on punk fans were on the rise; on 18 June Rotten himself was assaulted by a knife-wielding gang outside Islington's Pegasus pub, causing tendon damage to his arm. A tour of Scandinavia, planned to start at the end of the month, was consequently delayed until mid-July. At the end of August came SPOTS—Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly, a surreptitious UK tour with the band playing under pseudonyms to avoid cancellation.
U.S. tour and the end of the band
In January 1978 the Sex Pistols embarked on a US tour, consisting mainly of dates in America's Deep South. Originally scheduled for December 1977, it was delayed due to American authorities' reluctance to issue visas to band members with criminal records. Though highly anticipated by fans and media, the tour was plagued by in-fighting, poor planning and physically belligerent audiences. McLaren has admitted that he purposely booked redneck bars to provoke hostile situations. Over the course of the two weeks, Vicious, by now heavily addicted to heroin, began to live up to his stage name. According to Rotten, 'He finally had an audience of people who would behave with shock and horror. Sid was easily led by the nose.'
Early in the tour, Vicious wandered off from his Holiday Inn in Memphis, Tennessee, looking for drugs. He was found in a hospital, having carved the words 'Gimme a fix' in his chest with a razor. During a concert in San Antonio, Texas, Vicious called the crowd 'a bunch of faggots', before striking an audience member across the head with his bass guitar. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he received simulated oral sex on stage, later declaring 'that’s the kind of girl I like'. Suffering from heroin withdrawal during a show in Dallas, Texas, he spat blood at a woman who had climbed onstage and punched him in the face. He was admitted to hospital later that night to treat various injuries. Offstage he is said to have kicked a female photographer, attacked a security guard, and eventually challenged one of his own bodyguards to a fight—beaten up, he is reported to have exclaimed, 'I like you. Now we can be friends.'
Rotten, meanwhile, suffering from flu and coughing up blood, felt increasingly isolated from Cook and Jones, and disgusted by Vicious. On 14 January 1978, during the tour's final date at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, a disillusioned Rotten introduced the band's encore saying, 'You'll get one number and one number only 'cause I'm a lazy bastard.' That one number was a Stooges cover, 'No Fun'. In the closing lines, sneering at the audience, Rotten declared, 'This is no fun, at all. After the performance Rotten addressed the audience directly—'Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Good night'—before throwing down his microphone and walking offstage. He later observed, 'I hated the whole scenario. It was a farce. I felt cheated. Sid was completely out of his brains—just a waste of space. Malcolm wouldn't speak to me. But then he would turn around and tell Paul and Steve that the tension was all my fault because I wouldn't agree to anything. It was all very bitter and confusing.
On 17 January 1978, Rotten announced his departure from the Sex Pistols. Vicious departed for New York, while McLaren, Cook and Jones took off for a working vacation in Rio de Janeiro. Rotten found himself without money or a means of getting home. He later described the situation: 'The Sex Pistols left me, stranded in Los Angeles with no ticket, no hotel room, and a message to Warner Bros saying that if anyone phones up claiming to be Johnny Rotten, then they were lying. That's how I finished with Malcolm—but not with the rest of the band; I'll always like them.' He eventually telephoned the head of Virgin Records, Richard Branson, who agreed to pay for his flight back to London, via Jamaica. In Jamaica, Branson met with members of the band Devo, and tried to install Rotten as their lead singer. Devo declined the offer.
The Sex Pistols continued, briefly, with Cook, Jones and Vicious. Attempts were made at finding a new frontman, but the band ended up with all three members taking lead vocal turns alongside guest vocalists. The group did not perform live in the post-Rotten period, but the majority of the recordings from this time were later released.
After leaving the Pistols, Johnny Rotten reverted to his birth name of Lydon, and formed Public Image Ltd with former Clash member Keith Levene and school friend Jah Wobble. The band went on to score a UK Top Ten hit with their debut single, 1978's 'Public Image'. The following year PIL recorded the post-punk classic Metal Box. In 1978 Lydon had initiated legal proceedings against McLaren and his management company, Glitterbest. Among the claims were non-payment of royalties, improper usage of the title 'Johnny Rotten', unfair contractual obligations, and damages for 'all the criminal activities that took place'.
Vicious relocated to New York, and with Nancy Spungen acting as his manager, began to perform as a solo artist. He recorded a live album, 1979's Sid Sings, backed by 'The Idols' featuring Arthur Kane and Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls. On 12 October 1978 Spungen was found dead in the Chelsea Hotel room she was sharing with Vicious, with stab wounds to her stomach and dressed only in her underwear. Police recovered drug paraphernalia from the scene and Vicious was arrested and charged with her murder. In an interview at the time, McLaren said, 'I can't believe he was involved in such a thing. Sid was set to marry Nancy in New York. He was very close to her and had quite a passionate affair with her.' Out again, he was charged with assault for smashing a beer mug in Patti Smith's brother, Todd Smith's, face and arrested December 9, 1978 and sent to Rikers Island jail for 55 days. On 2 February 1979, of a heroin overdose after a party held to celebrate his release on bail. He was only 21. Reflecting on the event, Lydon said, 'Poor Sid. The only way he could live up to what he wanted everyone to believe about him was to die. That was tragic, but more for Sid than anyone else. He really bought his public image. A fictionalised account of Vicious's relationship with Spungen is the focus of the 1986 film Sid and Nancy, directed by Alex Cox. Lydon has been publicly critical of the film, taking issue both with its portrayal of the main characters and the speculation that Vicious and Spungen had formed a suicide pact.
McLaren had wanted for some time to make a film featuring the Sex Pistols. In 1977 he hired Russ Meyer to direct a script, Who Killed Bambi?, he had written with Roger Ebert. After only a day-and-a-half's shooting production ceased when members of the crew, in protest over unpaid monies owed by McLaren, walked off the set. A second attempt was made in mid-1978, with Cook and Jones starring in the McLaren-scripted The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. Directed by Julien Temple, the movie is McLaren's fictionalised account of the Pistols' history; in it he claims to have controlled and manipulated the band from its inception. The soundtrack featured Jones, occasionally Cook or Vicious, and sometimes Edward Tudor-Pole, trading on their vocals and engaging in McLaren-concocted gimmicks, such as recording two songs on the album with notorious British criminal Ronnie Biggs.
Cook and Jones continued to work through guest appearances and as session musicians, and later formed The Professionals. In the mid-1980s, Jones joined then band Chequered Past and then released two solo albums, Mercy and Fire and Gasoline. After playing with the band Chiefs of Relief, Cook currently plays in Man-Raze. Matlock has been involved in various bands, including The Rich Kids (with Midge Ure) in 1978 and The Philistines since 2000, and has released several solo albums. McLaren went on to manage Adam & the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, and in the mid-1980s released a number of hit records as a solo artist.
After a bitter, drawn-out legal case, in January 1986 the four surviving members of the Sex Pistols as well as the estate of Sid Vicious were awarded control of the band's heritage, including publishing rights, master recordings, film footage and exclusive rights to the name 'Sex Pistols'. This access enabled the production of the 2000 Julien Temple documentary The Filth and the Fury, formulated as an attempt to tell the story from the band's point of view, in contrast to the McLaren-oriented Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. On 9 March 2006 the band sold the rights to their back catalogue to Universal Music Group. The sale was criticized as a 'sell out'.
John announces his intention to leave the band in September of 1969. Within a few months, after additional internal conflict, the break-up becomes official in April 1970 when McCartney publicly announces that he is leaving the band. The band legally dissolves on December 31st of that year.
The original four, surviving members of the Sex Pistols reformed in 1996 for the six-month Filthy Lucre Tour, which included dates in Europe, North and South America, Australia and Japan, as well as appearances at the Phoenix Festival. In 2002—the year of the Queen's Golden Jubilee—they played the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in London. In 2003 they toured North America for three weeks as part of their Piss Off Tour.
In November 2005, the Sex Pistols were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honour that the band members turned down, with an 'obscene gesture' and a suggestion that the Hall of Fame 'kiss this'. According to Jones, 'Once you want to be put into a museum, Rock & Roll's over; it's not voted by fans, it's voted by people who induct you, or others; people who are already in it.
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