Although posterity has colored The Clash the most innovative band to rise from the punk masses, it’s impossible to overstate the influence The Sex Pistols had in the late seventies. Hell, they even inspired Joe Strummer – then the lead singer for London outfit The 101ers – to change to a harder-sounding direction with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. Like most bands in Britain, The Clash carried The Pistols’ DNA in their material, and although they enjoyed a longer tenure than John Lydon’s first group, they almost certainly wouldn’t have summoned so much emotion if not for the Pistols.
The Sex Pistols were devastatingly young. That’s where they drew much of their energy from, but that shouldn’t detract from their musicianship. Indeed, the new set Sex Pistols 76 77 demonstrates the band’s abilities as a live act and showcases the power of the members who stood behind Lydon. Bassist Glen Matlock comes across best (and rightly so -he wrote most of the material). Drummer Paul Cook is also impressive, not least on the subversive cover of “Johnny B Goode,” taped at a Dave Goodman Wessex Studio session. And then there’s Steve Jones, spiraling through an instrumental version of “God Save The Queen,” every note centered, every riff directed towards its intended audience. As it happens, he ended up playing the majority of the bass on Nevermind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, after wowing producer Chris Thomas when he laid down a track. Matlock left the band during the recording of the debut (he would soon found the excellent Rich Kids with Midge Ure), and the group soon found a more permanent replacement in Sid Vicious. Sure, Vicious couldn’t really play bass, but he looked good and drove fans forward with his appearance. The set’s fourth disc Spunk(Bootleg) really revels in that sense of fury and passion.
Lydon (then sporting the tidier last name of “Rotten”) is enjoying the spotlight, and you can just hear his glee on the rough mix of “E.M.I”, relishing every syllable. What he brought to the sessions wasn’t just swagger, but soul; Oasis singer Liam Gallagher has admitted that he borrowed as much from Lydon as he did from John Lennon. Despite the title, he definitely is having fun on “No Fun”, a seven-minute monster cut in 1976. By the following year, he was enjoying himself a bit less, culminating with that barbed “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” quip at the Winterland Theater, San Francisco.
None of that negativity appears on Sex Pistols 76 77, however, and the boxset presents itself as a suitably nasty Christmas gift. Even more impressive than the music is the booklet, documenting the crises felt by people all over London. In one telling portrait, crowds of people swarm around Notting Hill Carnival, their eyes ready for action. Across from this photo stands a Queen, her interests are that of an archaic institution that has nothing to do with most people in Britain. And in one moment of tremendous irreverence, The Sex Pistols tore into the country with “Anarchy In The UK”, a drum-heavy rocker bolstered by ambition and cunning. No other band symbolized one year during the seventies quite like The Sex Pistols did. Naturally, memories – often tricked by feeling and perspective – have not shown them in a glorious light, forty-something years later. And that’s why Sex Pistols 76 77 is so essential, to reignite that flame that once inspired Joe Strummer to put down his instrument, and start his life all over again.
Photo: The Sex Pistols in 1977 (Wikimedia Commons)