Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols

Not Rated

When the father-house burns — Young men find blisters on their hearts.
-Old Ukrainian Proverb

If it's not clear to you now, it's going to be: the rock wars of the Seventies have begun, and the Sex Pistols, the most incendiary rock & roll band since the Rolling Stones and the Who, have just dropped the Big One on both the sociopolitical aridity of their native England and most of the music from which they and we were artistically and philosophically formed. While a majority of young Americans are probably going to misunderstand much of the no-survivors, not-even-us stance of the punk-rock New Wave anarchy in the U.K. (compared to which, the music of the Ramones sounds like it was invented by Walt Disney), none of us can ignore the movement's savage attack on such stars as the neoaristocratic and undeniably wealthy Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Elton John, et al., whose current music the Pistols view as a perfect example of jet-set corruption and an utter betrayal of the communal faith. It's obviously kill-the-father time in Great Britain, and, if this is nothing new (after all, Jimmy Porter, England's original Angry Young Man, spewed forth not unlike Johnny Rotten as far back as 1956 in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger), it certainly cuts much deeper now because conditions are unquestionably worse. And when one's main enemy is an oppressive mood of collective hopelessness, no one learns faster from experience than the would-be murderer of society, I suppose.

In a commercial sense, however, the Sex Pistols will probably destroy no one but themselves, but theirs is a holy or unholy war that isn't really going to be won or lost by statistics, slick guitar playing or smooth studio work. This band still takes rock & roll personally, as a matter of honor and necessity, and they play with an energy and conviction that is positively transcendent in its madness and fever. Their music isn't pretty — indeed, it often sounds like two subway trains crashing together under forty feet of mud, victims screaming — but it has an Ahab-versus-Moby Dick power that can shake you like no other music today can. It isn't particularly accessible either, but, hard to believe and maybe not true, record sales apparently don't mean much to the Pistols. (They never do when you don't have any.)

It seems to me that instead of exploiting the commercial potential of revolution, the Sex Pistols have chosen to explore its cultural possibilities. As Greil Marcus pointed out, they "have absorbed from reggae and the Rastas the idea of a culture that will make demands on those in power which no government could ever satisfy; a culture that will be exclusive, almost separatist, yet also messianic, apocalyptic and stoic, and that will ignore or smash any contradiction inherent in such a complexity of stances. — 'Anarchy in the U.K.' is, among other things, a white kid's 'War ina Babylon.'"

But before we make the Sex Pistols and their cohorts into fish-and-chips Zapatas, and long before sainthood has set in on Johnny Rotten, we should remember that this band has more on its mind than being a rock & roll centerpiece for enlightened liberal discussion. First of all, they're musicians, not philosophers, so they're probably more interested in making the best possible mythopoeic loud noise than they are in any logical, inverted political scripture. They're also haters, not lovers, a fact that may worry many Americans since the idea of revolution in this country is usually tinged with workers-unite sentimentality and the pie in the sky of some upcoming utopia. Johnny Rotten is no Martin Luther King or Pete Seeger — he's more like Bunuel or Celine. He looks at it all and sees right through it, himself included. While he's ranting at England ("a fascist regime") and the Queen ("She ain't no human being"), he doesn't exactly spare his own contingent: "We're so pretty, oh so pretty — we're vacant — and we don't care."

Musically, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols is just about the most exciting rock & roll record of the Seventies. It's all speed, not nuance — drums like the My Lai massacre, bass throbbing like a diseased heart fifty beats past bursting point, guitars wielded by Jack the Ripper-and the songs all hit like amphetamines or the plague, depending on your point of view. Rotten's jabbing, gabbing vocals won't leave you alone. They either race like crazed, badly wounded soldiers through fields of fire so thick you can't tell the blood from the barrage, or they just stand there in front of you, like amputees in a veterans' hospital, asking where you keep the fresh piles of arms and legs.

Johnny Rotten may be confused, but he's got a right to be. He's flipped the love-hate coin so often that now it's flipping him. Overpowered by his own psychic dynamite, he stands in front of the mirror, "in love with myself, my beautiful self," and the result is "No Feelings." You say, "Holidays in the Sun," and he says, "I wanna go to the new Belsen." On "Bodies," he doesn't know whether he's against an abortion ("screaming bloody fucking mess") or whether he is one. Rotten seems to stroll right through the ego and into the id, and then kick the hell out of it. Talk to him about relationships and you get nowhere: "See my face, not a trace, no reality."

That said, no one should be frightened away from this album. "Anarchy in the U.K." and especially "God Save the Queen" are near-perfect rock & roll songs, classics in the way the Who's "My Generation" and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" are. And, contrary to popular opinion, the Pistols do have a sense of humor. They're forever throwing out musical quotes, many of them outlandish (the beginning of "Pretty Vacant" echoes the Who's "Baba O'Riley," the chorus on "EMI" is a direct steal from Jonathan Richman's "Road Runner," and "New York" completely trashes the Dolls' "Looking for a Kiss"), from groups they obviously at least half admire. If Graham Parker can come away from a Sex Pistols concert saying it was just like seeing the Stones in their glorious early days, just how many contradictions are we talking about?

Those who view the Sex Pistols only in eve-of-destruction terms should remember that any theory of destruction as highfalutin as Rotten's also contains the seeds of freedom and even optimism. Anyone who cares enough to hate this much is probably not a nihilist, but — irony of ironies — a moralist and a romantic as well. I believe it when Johnny Rotten screams, "We mean it, man," in conjunction with destruction, but, in a way, his land's-end, "no future" political position is the most desperately poetic of all. We want to destroy everything, he says, and then see what's left. My guess is that he believes something will be.

From The Archives Issue 669: November 11, 1993