Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's taken over 7 years for this blog to give any creedence to the rock group by the name of the Sex Pistols, and for that I apologise. Now, before I get started let me pull you aside for a second, look you in the eye and ask you this question: if you claim to be an enthusiast of raw rock & roll, garage rock, punk rock, underground rock and any combination thereof - and that puts you firmly in the demographic of readership I'm assuming this blog enjoys - then how could you not be a fan of the band as they existed in the years 1975 - 1978?? That was a question, nay, a state of mind, which I possessed for many years, one born from obvious ignorance. That is, ignorance of the fact that there are indeed many such fans who don't like the band one bit.
The first I ever encountered - true story, so bear w/ me here - was in the year 2000 when I was working at a certain record store in the city. My fellow co-worker, whose company I enjoyed and whose taste in music I mostly shared (though he was far more enthusiastic about gormless indie-rock than I), once put on Public Image's Second Edition and the conversation soon turned to Mr. Lydon's former band. I mounted the podium and proceeded to lecture all present on the genius of the Sex Pistols, how four young layabouts changed the face of music and popular culture w/ their incendiary lyrics and captivating, confrontational live shows, how the band was the living embodiment of this thing called rock & roll music and everything it could hope to be, and how their one living full-length recording, Never Mind The Bollocks, was undoubtedly one of the finest there ever was, a collection of tunes which still has the power to give a man goosebumps and a skip in his step. He just looked at me, face screwed up, and said, Are you shitting me? The Sex Pistols sucked. I was stunned. I took it as a given that any and every fan of post-1975 underground rock music was a fan of the band. I asked myself the question once again: how could you not be?
The Stooges are and were a band who enjoy such a reputation (I'm still yet to meet anyone whose opinions on music I hold in any esteem to tell me they don't at least "like" the band as it was from the years 1967 - 1974), but the last 10 years has informed me that for many people, the jury is still out on the Sex Pistols' worth.
The reasons are manyfold, but usually the negative responses I encounter are based on the band's apparent status as "posers" and a belief that the music they created never amounted to much more than pedestrian three-chord rock & roll w/ a leaden tempo and an annoying singer. In turn, they can't believe that I would be a willing cheerleader for such oafish clowns. Possibly the worst argument I've ever heard, and one which continues to haunt the band among people of low intelligence throughout the world, is that The Clash were the better band. A) That is fucking laughably wrong - The Clash were a band of bandwagon-jumping fashion plates much loved by various loathesome music critics (and occasionally non-loathesome ones: Lester Bangs foolishly fell under their spell early on and wound up eating his words fairly quick), New Wavers, indie-rockers and Billy Bragg fans, and the only reason why I won't entitle them as the most useless attempt at a rock & roll band in history is because that title's taken by The Pixies and because I can at least rate a couple of their songs ("Tommy Gun", "Safe European Home" and "Rock The Casbah") as tracks I happen to "like"; and B) The Sex Pistols would've existed as they were regardless of whether The Clash formed or not, not vice versa.
So anyway, last night I found myself at a friend's place pathetically discussing this topic as if the world should care, and we were both in agreement that the Sex Pistols were all that. And that's for one very good reason: the music. The band as it truly was only ever made one real album, and it rates higher than the complete discographies of nearly every band you could roll off your tongue. Like I said: it lived up to its promise of being everything rock & roll purports to be - a certain indefinable, visceral energy put to tape, an invention of four seemingly disparate personalities - all packaged into one single LP, and soon therafter the band imploded. Sure, you don't need to tell me how worthless some of the members' post-'Pistols work is, it's been well documented. You couldn't expect Steve Jones, Paul Cook nor Glen Matlock to come up w/ anyone dazzling in their post-'Pistols careers - it doesn't appear to be in their make-up; Lydon's brief fling w/ greatness in the post-'Pistols universe I'd attribute both to his musical savvy (need I say that he was much more musically erudite than his 'Pistols 'padres?) and the fact that he was hanging around w/ some particularly talented musicians during the early PiL years: Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, Martin Atkins. And I guess that's a very longwinded way of saying that the band was truly a group effort (hence the songwriting credits, w/ each member given equal share), and a group effort, when successful, is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but also a different beast altogether. Less than a year after being booted from the band, Glen Matlock was playing limp power-pop w/ Midge Ure (!) and the Rich Kids. Friends of mine say they have their moments. I've heard those moments. They're not moments.
But anyway, all of this is only making this post talk in circles for eternity about a point you either get or you don't: the God-like genius of the Sex Pistols. From the opening moment of ...Bollocks, the sound of boots goosestepping at the beginning of "Holidays In The Sun", right on through to its conclusion w/ "EMI", there's nary a dud note hit. There is no dud note hit. I could possibly live without "Submission" - it always struck me as a bit of a tuneless dirge - though nothing else here is disposable. Steve Jones' guitar sound is overdubbed to within an inch of its life - some complain it's been overcooked - though his phrasing and expressiveness is impeccible. The album's producer, Chris Thomas, a man who'd worked with all manner of studio eggheads, from Pink Floyd to the Beatles to Roxy Music, says he still considers Jones' guitar work on ...Bollocks to be the most purely expressive playing he's ever worked w/ on record. Perhaps that counts for nothing, but again, it's all about the music. Even St. Joe Carducci once uttered the line (I'll paraphrase): the Sex Pistols are still worth discussing for one simple reason, perhaps the only reason: they made some great rock & roll. Anyone prone to giving Malcom McLaren a whole load of credit for the band's existence, let alone their music, A) doesn't know their music history; and B) is ignorant of the fact that McLaren never possessed a musical bone in his body.
I've spoken about the music; there is also the spectacle. What a beautiful spectacle they were. You won't hear of such a band again. Nothing much in the realm of popular or unpopular music offends the general public to such an extent anymore, and popular culture has become so splintered, especially pop music, that there is no overbearing arc of culture breathing down on youth as there once was for anyone to take notice like they once did. I'd love to see a contemporary rock band offend an entire nation w/ their antics in the 21st century, but something tells me that not enough people would be paying attention for that to happen.
So, John Lydon gets fat, old and stupid and continues to make terrible music; Glen Matlock has resigned his role in life as an ex-'Pistol who'll show up at record conventions for a meet 'n' greet for a fee; Steve Jones is a successful radio DJ in LA; and Paul Cook, last I heard, had a band going w/ one of the guys from Def Leppard. Sid's still dead, too. None of that can take away the fact that the album in question, 1977's Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, re-wired my brain like no other as a 13-year-old. You're going to have to get used to that fact. I may mention it again in the future.


Pig State Recon said...

I agree: out of all the albums made by first-gen. UK punk bands, 'Never Mind The Bollocks' is the only one that really has the gtr/bass/drum rhythmic drive and power to carry it all the way through to the end. Other UK bands maybe had some better songs, or more innovative styles/sounds, or even more arresting presence - but nobody, but nobody, rocked like THE PISTOLS did on this baby. Still awesome to this day. And it's the sound I always imagined Ginn wanted to channel on BLACK FLAG's Nervous Breakdown EP.

Anonymous said...

I could live without New York

Jimmy said...

I first heard it on a tape my cousin brought back from Bali. I'm guessing 1979-80? I'd heard the name in the press I'm sure, but upon hearing the actual sound, whoah... to say it near knocked my head clean off wouldn't be an understatement. Aside from the swearwords & the utter malevolence that tape actually radiated, the thing I remember most was the sound of Jones' fingers sliding up & down the strings. You know the sound I'm talking about right? It didn't quite sound 'correct' in a musical sense, but it made so much sense in the context of the music. I think that moment was my rock'n'roll year zero.

Dave said...

Michael, you are correct: it's the rhythmic drive of the Pistols that makes them so remarkable. Few other Brit punk bands actually had a sense of rhythm, though I'd say that the Damned's first LP gives 'em a run for their money. The 'Pistols really weren't musically innovative at all, but I think that misses the point. It was their perfection of the well-worn form, one they put a new sense of energy and urgency into, which counted. For the record, I love "New York", every goddamns second of it. And Jimmy, I know what you mean. Bollocks was the first LP I heard which actually seemed CONSISTENT and w/ a purpose. Prior to that I listened to Top 40 pop, and the LPs by such artists were all 2 or 3 hits and a whole pile of dreadful, totally boring filler. It seemed to open up new possibilities. Yada yada yada blah blah blah. You know what I mean.

Inverted^Crux said...

It rewired my Brain as well, it was the gate way drug

Chris said...

I love it. The Pixies really do suck the big one.