The Sex Pistols will forever divide opinion.
Many consider them both credible and talented musicians, responsible for social change and a benchmark for the Pop Punk genre. Whilst others fail to acknowledge the band’s capabilities, unaware of their significance, as a result painting them as a bunch of obnoxious and troublesome scallywags.
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the two opposing viewpoints.
By delving deeper into the Sex Pistol’s history and works, it soon becomes apparent they might not be as appreciated as they perhaps deserve.
They Changed British Culture
Present-day music lovers may struggle to imagine the immense impact The Sex Pistols had on a nation.
To many, the band was a catalyst for a cultural revolution amongst the British lower classes.
Seventies Blighty was a prisoner to both the influx of Disco and the remains of hippie culture, leaving the forgotten youth without a voice or identity.
Yet as the Pistols established themselves, grafting and gigging their way across the country, disengaged youngsters quickly found a new obsession.
Within months they’d begun to destroy the world of flared trousers and glitter balls, spawning a generation of ripped t-shirt-wearing and Doc Martens boot-clad disciples.
However, change wasn’t simply a result of the band’s look but also their attitude. On stage and in the media they sparked chaos, their acts of lunacy and lewd outbursts proved a refreshing release for their frustrated fan base.
They Could Actually Play
Despite the manic perceptions people often associated with the Sex Pistols, at the heart of their music lies a precision and control, rarely discussed in mainstream pop culture.
Drummer Paul Cook was an incredibly accomplished musician in his own right. Raised in a stable family environment and able to practice regularly in his bedroom, he was forever a reliable performer and a stabilizing force.
Guitarist Steve Jones is an intriguing case. Although originally the band’s lead singer, he was often crippled with anxiety in the role. So reportedly locking himself away in their London rehearsal space, with no sleep and fueled by narcotics, Jones effectively taught himself to play the guitar in days.
He was an extremely tight rhythm guitarist, praised for both timing and polished performance, his work on the band’s debut album Never Mind The Bollocks is a fine example of his accuracy.
Bassist Glen Matlock had the most eclectic music tastes of the group. He never hid his admiration for The Beatles and other intricate styles of music. Famously, Matlock would continuously pester his bandmates to use sophisticated ‘Fab Four’ notes in their songwriting, much to the annoyance of Jones who preferred the simplicity of power chords.
Despite its raw and sometimes haphazard sound, Never Mind The Bollocks is an expertly crafted record and lasting effigy to punk music.
Their Lead Vocalist Could Sing
John Lydon (or ‘Johnny Rotten’ as he became commonly known) was arguably The Sex Pistol sound.
Whilst the epic contributions made by Cook, Jones, and Matlock should never be scoffed at, the band’s initial explosion and then evolution is largely down to their lead singer’s vocal skill.
Popular opinion was that he couldn’t sing at all.
The frontman’s voice wasn’t pitch-perfect by any means. He wasn’t classically trained and paid little attention to octaves or melody for that matter.
However, Lydon’s ‘half-spoken’ styling, diction, and phrasing were superb. He pronounced his words with a purposeful attack, cockney slur, and a British rasp. His unmistakable delivery was a distinct blend of bite and controlled rage.
They Had Clever Songs
A hugely overlooked quirk of The Sex Pistols’ discography is how ‘un-punk like’ a large slice of their songs actually were.
Fighting the natural urge to pen aggressive and high-tempo numbers, the band soon realized that if they wanted their message to be heard then a slower groove would be required.
Drummer Paul Cook allegedly walked into rehearsal to hear Lydon and Jones frantically cobbling together at an early rendition of “Anarchy In The UK.” Jones was crashing through high-speed riffs and Lydon loudly rambling his lyrics at a ridiculous pace.
Cook immediately took to his drums and demonstrated a more mellow beat. A rhythm firmly rooted in Reggae. Suddenly Jones’ power chords shone and Lydon’s snarling social outrage soared.
The intelligence of Sex Pistols lyrics is sometimes misunderstood. Heavily influenced by Lydon’s tales of the underclass, his scrawlings are intense, venomous, and packed with clever social commentary. Examples include…
“When there’s no future, how can there be sin?” from “God Save The Queen,” and “I don’t believe illusions. Too much is real,” heard in the second verse of “Pretty Vacant.”
Despite still learning as he wrote, Guitarist Steve Jones forged a collection of memorable riffs and Lydon’s creative deliveries immediately lodged themselves in the listener’s psyche.
Their Behavior Overshadowed The Music
The mind of your average music fan often jumps to The Sex Pistols’ public image and rebellious attitude ahead of their musical merits. Historical media coverage generally leaves a lasting and damning impression.
One well-documented example of their debauchery arose from an infamous appearance on Granada TV’s Today Programme back in December 1976.
With the band and its groupies arriving at the studio under the influence of alcohol and narcotics, the moment that host Bill Grundy asked his opening question, he was met with a barrage of general silliness and harsh profanity. Their controversial antics prompted record label EMI to quickly drop them only a few days later.
Fast forward to early 1977 and manager Malcolm McLaren had orchestrated the sacking of Bassist Glen Matlock, citing his “love of the Beatles” as the issue. Although in reality, he failed to fit the anarchistic brand image young McLaren intended to build.
Reportedly Lydon persuaded their manager to recruit his best friend John Simon Ritchie, better known as Sid Vicious, to replace the departed Matlock. But their new recruit’s drug-fueled manic persona only seemed to further the band’s distasteful image.
Another public stunt came in March 1977. Prior to the release of their controversial debut single “God Save The Queen,” the Pistols arrived at the gates of Buckingham Palace and perched over a hastily erected table to sign their new contract with A&M.
Over time the Sex Pistols repetitive troublemaking prompted British Media to label them as reckless and dangerous. A badge of honor that overshadowed their music and soon proved a hard perception to shift.
Photo: Public domain image of The Sex Pistols