One Saturday night in 1978, I couldn’t decide whether I was going to see the Sex Pistols at Winterland or Bo Diddley in a tiny club in Burlingame, California. After much deliberation, I chose Bo, and he put on a show I’ll never forget. But I often wonder what it would have been like to see the last gasp of the short-lived Sex Pistols, self-destructing at their final show.
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols was released on Virgin Records in 1977, at the height of the disco craze. To give some historical perspective, that was the year Saturday Night Fever was released, Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president and Star Wars hit theaters. Though the Bee Gees, who epitomized disco’s sound and style, have grown on me over the years, I totally rejected the disco era. On the other hand, I loved the Pistols. Johnny Rotten screaming “Pretty Vacant” over an alpha-driven power trio was a majestic light shining through a polyester cloud.
The songwriting on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols shouldn’t be overlooked. Its merit was undermined by the group’s notoriety, as well as by the band members, who never presented their work as anything of artistic worth. The songs are credited to the entire band — Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Glen Matlock and drummer Paul Cook (two songs trade Matlock for his replacement, Sid Vicious). I wonder which of them was responsible for the pop sensibility of tracks like “EMI,” “God Save the Queen,” “No Feelings,” “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Pretty Vacant.” Those tunes have great hooks, interesting chord changes and lyrics as rhythmic as anything Chuck Berry wrote.
My understanding is the guitar and drums were recorded first and the bass added afterward, not by Matlock but by Jones. This makes perfect sense to me, because the rhythm section sounds superglued, while the band hypnotically bulldozes through the changes with a monolithic focus. Jones was absolutely rock solid, and his sound on Never Mind the Bollocks is ferocious, thick and powerful. This, in part, was achieved by overdubbing multiple rhythm tracks, but the performance retains the intimacy of one guitar, one voice. There are also fascinating overdubs — feedback manipulated via the toggle switch, unison cinematic militaristic background vocals and occasional unearthly guitar sounds — so subtle that they border on subliminal and psychedelic.
I check back with this record every few years, and it always sounds timeless, vital and devoid of deceitful vanity. It jars my artistic palette and puts things in perspective when I get caught up with technical overthinking, or believing music must offer hope and solution. Some say the human brain is part human, part monkey and part crocodile. If so, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is entertainment for all three.