By the time I was 12, in 1977, I had already built up a rather extensive 7” record collection. A combination of glam pop-esque hits by The Sweet, Slade, Mud, Gary Glitter & Suzi Quatro; and a variety of “hand-me-downs” from older brothers and sisters – yes, I still remember my brother John shouting from his bedroom window “Do you want a Middle of the Road single?” Of course I did. So he threw Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep at me as hard as he could, shouting “catch!”
At the time I thought he was being very generous, though now I realize he simply had reached an age where it was unacceptable to have certain uncool records in your collection.
A more serious phase of music, for me began in 1976 when I was awestruck with Janet Street-Porter’s interview with Johnny Rotten on The London weekend Show. Dressed in black, complete with a funeral directors’ top hat Rotten walked down the
, and by the time they had reached the other end, I realized he was the fucking coolest pop star I had ever seen.
In 1976/77 two songs stand the test of time better than any others. New Rose by The Damned & Pretty Vacant by The Sex Pistols. To this day neither sound dated.
Pretty Vacant starts with a battle cry, a call to arms. Like all classic rock songs, the louder it’s played, the better its sounds. The guitar riff grabs your attention, and like the aggressive atmosphere of a Saturday night donor kebab house at closing time or the lighting of a cannonball fuse, it signals that something is about to explode. Something big bubbles and boils and then bursts into life.
Johnny Rotten snarls with a voice full angst, apathy and youth – “there’s no point in asking, you’ll get no reply”. It is of course Rotten the voice, the image, the front man and spokesman that symbolizes what the Pistols were about. Without his angst and persona the band would not have had a focal point. Luckily the plans for replacing him with Jimmy Pursey fell through.
The single really portrays the feelings and mood of the day. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate how much society has changed since 1977. The constant strikes, National Front marches, unemployment, anti-Irish and anti-black feelings were at a peak; and for my generation the real threat of no future. The Sex Pistols and Pretty Vacant were spot on, right place, right time. The pure aggression flows from start to finish. Never Mind the Bollocks was and still is an amazing debut album, with a very polished rock production, care of Chris Thomas. My only criticism is the production is almost too polished, too clean, and too perfect for the gritty song it carries. But unlike many of their contemporaries, the tightness and the quality production shine through to make this a timeless classic. [For a live studio version of Never Mind the Bollocks, listen to The Sex Pistols – Spunk album – produced by one hit wonder, Chris Spedding of Motorbiking fame]
And as for the myth that this group couldn’t play, keep in time or remember a note. If only The Sex Pistols had split one year early than they eventually did. By replacing bass player and co-writer Glen Matlock with Sid Vicious the band not only lost its musical drive but they turned from exciting youth to tired cabaret act overnight. Pre-Sid Vicious, the Pistols were a very close knit band, especially in the studio. It must have been awesome to be at one of the infamous 1976 gigs at the 100 Club or The Screen on the Green, when the Clash supported the Pistols.
“We’re pretty, pretty va-cunt – and we don’t care”. How cool is that when you’re watching Top of the Pops with your whole family? Childish? Maybe. But now I am 40 years old, still listening to new music and nothing comes close in comparison to the power and aggression of Pretty Vacant
I agree with Simon Reynolds in Rip it up & Start Again – Post Punk 1978-1984, that with hindsight The Sex Pistols weren’t the first punk band, but more the last rock ‘n’ roll band. They actually paved the way for punk and post-punk. Acting as a conduit, without the Pistols the Clash, Joy Division, Magazine and of course Public Image Limited could not have happened.