One album wonders: The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols

The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)

Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols

In the early 1980s, when I was in elementary school, I remember asking my father what mental illness was. This was the era of deinstitutionalization, when most of the nation’s mental institutions were emptied onto the streets which were at the same time flooded with AIDS and crack. Not surprisingly, most popular entertainment was decidedly escapist in nature.

Hey Hey were the Sex Pistols
Hey hey we’re the Pistols!

I probably asked my father because I assumed he was an authority on the subject, him being a psychiatrist at the VA and also himself clearly not right in the head. To answer my question he briefly told me about the Sex Pistols, specifically their seemingly innocuous use of safety pins in fashion. I didn’t come away from our conversation with even a better understanding of mental illness but I imagined that the Sex Pistols must be a very frightening bunch indeed to exemplify insanity in that insane era where our society’s inevitable and impending doom was guaranteed — probably because of satanic cults, child abductionHalloween poisoningssubliminal messages, Dungeons & Dragons, or Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

By junior high I had a notion of what punk was because there were punks in my school. They certainly seemed less frightening than the jocks and preps but I didn’t associate with any of them. I was listening to a lot of Dead Kennedys, Dead Milkmen, and Eazy-E — all three of whom owed a debt to the cartoonishly outrageous spirit of 1976 and bands like the Sex Pistols but I still had no way of hearing them since they were too old for the college station I mostly listened to (KCOU) and — not being Top 40, Classic Rock, Country or Classical — never played on any other station.

In those pre-internet days, there were many bands whose names but not music were familiar to me. From the school bus I’d spy graffiti advertising The Jam and The Cure on the wall of an alley. Classmates wore T-shirts and scrawled onto desks, blue jeans, and Trapper Keeper folders names like Echo & the Bunnymen, Iron Maiden, Joy DivisionMetallica, The Psychedelic Furs, The Smiths, Suicidal Tendencies, and Velvet Underground. Kids wore Sex Pistols T-shirts too — often decorated with reprinted headlines with quotes including “The filth and the fury!,” “Sid Vicious Dead,” “Call if filthy lucre.” Others looked like ransom notes. That I didn’t know what “lucre” or “bollocks” just added to the air of mystery around the punk legends of yore.

In high school a German girl let me dub her dub of the album Happy? by John Lydon‘s post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Limited. It’s probably not many PiL fans’ favorite album by them but for me it was akin to that experienced by Marcel Proust when he first dipped a madeleine into his tea. When 9 came out, I bought the audio cassette. Buying music was expensive but rather than wait for another PiL album, my thoughts returned to the Sex Pistols. I had a rule against buying albums by bands which I’d never even heard, I had obligations with the mail order BMG Music Service, to choose more albums from what turned out to be a surprisingly limited catalogue. I’d heard Megadeth‘s cover of “Anarchy in the UK” and so allowed myself to make an exception and ordered the Sex Pistols’ only full-length.

When the disc arrived, I no doubt struggled with its ridiculous security stickers before dropping the laser onto the aluminum groove and my tiny apartment filled with the strains of “Holidays in the Sun,” which struck me as surprisingly slow, competent, conventional, catchy, funny, smart and about as threatening as a beach party film. If my understanding of the lyrics were correct, “Bodies” was apparently a safe sex/pro life anthem. “No Feelings” sounded like the work of fans of New York Dolls, a suspicion which was seemingly confirmed by “New York.” I was even more surprised by “Liar” and “Submission,” the former which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Eddie Cochran record, and the latter which sounded like early Doors or The Seeds. The Sex Pistols, I had read, were the Khmer Rouge of rock and 1976 was year zero — so how was it that the entire album sounded like the work of a 1960s Florida garage band who’d somehow incorporated bits of T. Rex into their sound?

None of this is a complaint, mind you. I loved every minute of that record, as conventional, wholesome, and not-mentally ill as it is. At the time I was deeply immersed in the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Baudelaire and I was expecting decadent villains, not Dickensian heros. When I was done listening to it, I filed it away on my record shelf, between Saint Etienne and Sandy Shaw — which to me makes total sense. Not long afterward I was approached by a stranger who asked me what music I listened to. I told him, “bands whose names start with ‘S’s.”

The story of the Sex Pistols after their dissolution is well known but I’ll summarize anyway. Glen Matlock was kicked out of the band and quite naturally resurfaced with a power-pop group, The Rich Kids, (which also included Midge Ure of class Scottish glitter rock boy band, Slik). Matlock’s replacement, Sid Vicious, died in 1979. Paul Cook and Steve Jones joined The Professionals and the latter later launched the excellent radio program Jonesy’s Jukebox in 2004. John Lydon, of course, enjoyed a long brilliant, and much more prolific career with Public Image Limited — whose best album is actually either Flowers of Romance or Metal Box. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is still in print, often released and re-released with tweaked colors for some reason.

*****

Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities; however, job offers must pay more than slave wages and involve neither listicles nor television personalities. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, theArchitecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, and 1650 Gallery. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. Brightwell has been featured as subject in theLos Angeles TimesHuffington Post, and Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker onKCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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