Sex Pistols Break Down 'Never Mind the Bollocks' Track by Track

As the British punk landmark turns 40, Johnny Rotten and Glen Matlock look back

Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten and Glen Matlock break down every track on 'Never Mind the Bollocks,' as the album turns 40. Credit: Ray Stevenson/REX/Shutterstock

"Bollocks was such a solid piece of work, yet when we were recording it, it felt anything but," says Johnny Rotten, looking back on the watershed 1977 LP Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. By his account, the group was working with a producer who was "deaf in one ear and tone deaf in the other," and he and his bandmates had to cram a lot into their time in the studio.

"Next door, Queen was recording one of their albums [News of the World] and Brian May asked me if I would do some backing vocals on their album," Rotten says. "I don't remember which song, it's not the 'Galileo' one. But I went in and it was amazing to hear the way that Freddie [Mercury] recorded every line separately – sometimes just a word – and then they'd edit them. Bloody hell, I got one take and that's it; I'd get two if I made a mistake. I eventually realized that the music will overcome, regardless of the alleged rules and regulations that were always being thrown at us."

Ultimately, the Sex Pistols created the defining clarion call for punk mayhem. The record was a little less than 40 minutes of seething rock & roll frustration aimed at anyone within gobbing distance, and their home country, in particular. And around the time Never Mind the Bollocks came out on October 28th, 1977, the band caused chaos as much as it inspired anarchy. Its singles were blacked out on the British charts, a record store manager was arrested and charged with obscenity for displaying the album cover, and the band – banned all over England – had to tour undercover as S.P.O.T.S. (that's "Sex Pistols on Tour Secretly"). In short, the LP was a success. It made it to Number One in the U.K. and was certified double platinum there, and in the U.S., where Rolling Stone called the group "the most incendiary rock & roll band since the Rolling Stones and the Who," it ultimately became one of the only first-wave punk records to be certified platinum.

Forty years later, the album still smacks of vitriol. While other bands on both sides of the Atlantic helped set the bar for punk fury, the combo of Rotten's cutting vocals, guitarist Steve Jones' stomping riffs and drummer Paul Cook's crashing cymbals – not to mention bass appearances by original four-stringer Glen Matlock, who left the group in 1977, and his replacement, Sid Vicious – amplified the menace of songs like "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen" into national threats. Bollocks was a cultural force and subsequently made it into the Top 50 of Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The album's legacy will soon be the focus of a comprehensive 40th-anniversary box set. The collection includes the original album, a disc of rarities, another containing live recordings from Europe, a 48-page book and a DVD featuring several live performances on the S.P.O.T.S. tour, as well as the band's infamous riverboat party on the Thames during the Queen's jubilee celebrations. ("I was drunk at the time; I had no idea what day it was," Rotten says of that gig now.) The collection previously came out in a limited edition in 2012 but quickly went out of print. Since none of the band members are considering re-forming or making another album, the box set could be the final, definitive statement on the Sex Pistols.

These days, Rotten goes by his given name of John Lydon and is dedicated to his post-Pistols art-rock group Public Image Ltd., Jones hosts the radio show Jonesy's Jukebox, Cook is releasing a new record with the Professionals called What in the World, and Matlock is touring as a solo artist and has recorded a new album with the Stray Cats' Slim Jim Phantom with the working title of Cloud Cuckoo Land that will come out early in 2018. (The ever-volatile Sid Vicious died of a drug overdose in 1978). To mark the album's anniversary, Rotten and Matlock spoke with Rolling Stone to break down every track of one of the most venomous albums in rock history.

"Holidays in the Sun"

Johnny Rotten: We decided to have a holiday as band en masse and we grouped ourselves in the Channel Islands and they immediately rejected us. As Sex Pistols, we found ourselves banned just about everywhere. They wouldn't let us stay at any hotel. We marched up and down the beaches looking for somewhere to stay and the whole thing became really pathetic. We bumped into the local gang and the top boy accommodated us for one evening and then we left.

Steve and Paul went home, and me and Sid decided to go to Berlin, because it was the maddest place to go. Me and Sid were thinking, "Bloody hell, if we can't get into somewhere as soft as the Channel Islands, let's go find out what the Berlin Wall is about." And that whole experience was thrilling for me, and that's where "Holidays in the Sun" came from. It was great fun. It was us, from our side, looking over the wall and [the Germans] are pointing guns at us. We couldn't get into East Berlin. They just took one look at us and went, "No."

Matlock: "Holidays" is a good song they wrote after I left. There was a song by the Jam called "In the City" [that it sounded like] and I know that Sid went down to the Speakeasy Club, which was the rock-star after hours club, and wound up Paul Weller, who is a mate of mine, about them having a song that's very similar to the Jam song – and Paul bottled him. I'm on Paul's side.

"Bodies"

Rotten: Pauline, in the song, was a very, very crazy disturbed person. You would probably call her a stalker these days, but in the early days we never had the term for it. She was just one of them annoying girls that wouldn't take no for an answer. She was just turning up all the time and had an unpleasant attitude; she was clingy.

The song is about abortion, and yes, it is a woman's right [to choose] absolutely because she has to bear the child and all the issues thereinafter. Is it wise to bring an unwanted child into the world? No, I don't think it is, but again that is just my opinion, because I always would leave it to the woman. Always. In that song I raise both sides of the agenda and actually put myself in there, too. If it wasn't for the grace of God, my mother could have had an abortion and I wouldn't be here.

The "fuck this and fuck that" line wasn't improvised; I wrote that down. That was just my anger at the end of it. That was my frustration of what on earth is the right answer, and it was my honest gut reaction: "Fuck this, fuck that/Fuck it all and fuck the fucking brat/I don't want a baby that looks like that/I don't want a baby that looks like that." And then I'm crying as the baby, "Mommy, I'm not an animal/Daddy, I'm not an abortion." It's the duality of life, like, what's the right decision? It's very serious because it's about the termination of a fellow human being, which I don't take lightly.

"No Feelings"

Matlock: Musically, it was mainly Steve's original idea. He was trying to be a bit New York Dolls–y, I suppose. The original bass line I played on it during the "No feelings" bit was my hats-off to Trevor Bolder from [David Bowie's] Spiders From Mars in "Hang Onto Yourself."

Rotten: I wrote "No Feelings" because my Dad was sponsoring a lot of orphans at the time, and one of the girls just became too attached to me. I had to tell her, "Look, I have no feelings. Just because my dad is letting you stay at his house for the weekend doesn't mean you can marry me." But there's this sad truth of orphans, which I have always donated money to, and that's that they grow up with a prison-like mentality. They're not attached to anybody or anything, so they're very desperate and very clingy to anything that they can translate very quickly into love, and it's false love. It's really desperation. I'm so wounded for them in that respect. In the song it may seem like I have no empathy, but it's the exact opposite. It's irony.

"Liar"

Rotten: Many, many people inspired "Liar," starting with the manager [Malcolm McLaren]. We were just hapless young idiots really and we were really unprepared for the world of greed and adulthood that we were thrown into so quickly. Everyone had their piece of poisonous influence to whisper in your ear, and that could cause great division. So I just came around to the point where instead of allowing division, I would unleash my derision. But the song isn't totally about Malcolm. I think we always knew that about him, and in an odd way, it was one of his most adorable features. Do you know when you really know someone, you kind of accept those kinds of things because you take everything with a pinch of salt? It's the [people outside of the band] I am really aiming at: those who are trying to maneuver into us.

Matlock: That was more of a free-for-all kind of a song. We all came up with parts. I remember John was stuck for a bit with the lyrics and I said, "Why don't you use the word 'suspension'?" He said, "What do you mean, 'suspension'?" I said, "It's like something when you're at school, like, 'You're in suspension,' but it also means you're sort of just dangling there." And he went, "Ah, I don't want to do that," and the next thing is, he's got it in the song.

"God Save the Queen"

Matlock: I came up with the riff and main set of chord changes for this when we were starting to do the first proper recordings of "Anarchy." We'd given our sound engineer, Dave Goodman, the go at being the producer, but it didn't work out and we went on strike and we rang up Chris Thomas. There was a piano in the studio; I can't play the piano, but I've fiddled around and I can play "Blueberry Hill" if you want to hear that. But I came up with this riff on it. I worked it out on the guitar and I said, "I've got a song." And John had a set of lyrics.

Rotten: I'd written this down as one solid piece. We did quite a bit with [producer] Chris Spedding before doing the album, and he taught me aspects of song structure and how to not ignore the music and just to stop ranting. Music was new to me. Even though I had bought records ever since I can remember, it's quite different to be in the studio trying to keep in time with the tune and fit the words in.

To me, the lyrics themselves were a fun thing. It was expressing my point of view on the Monarchy in general and on anybody that begs your obligation with no thought. That's unacceptable to me. You have to earn the right to call on my friendship and my loyalty. And you have to have value-proven points in order for me to support you. That's how it is.

Matlock: And that song was originally called "No Future." And when it came out, after I left the band, it occurred to somebody, maybe Malcolm that although the words were never changed, it was the Queen's silver jubilee and the first line is "God save the Queen," so why don't we call it that. But on early set lists it was called "No Future."

Rotten: I think that the song was misunderstood as a personal attack [on the Monarchy]. It wasn't. It's absolutely anti the institution of monarchy, but not them as people. Oh, my God, they get my heartfelt sympathy; I feel they have been born into a birdcage. There is no way out because there is nothing to compare it to, other than the entrapment of rule and regulation.

When I sing, "They made you a moron," it's because being blind to obligation is moronic, isn't it? And when I sang, "No future," I meant that there was no future if [the Monarchy] were to accept that kind of thing. They are slowly but surely shape-shifting into a very nice middle-class family with 3.4 children. I love the pageantry. I associate that with football. I like that flag waving and all of it, 'cause it's colorful and it's exciting to want to feel that you belong to something. Even though you might not like the institution itself, it's still intriguingly British. And that's a wonderful thing and no one can take that away from me. I'm an Irishman who is intrinsically British.

"Problems"

Rotten: When I say, "The problem is you," it's really everyone, including myself. I think everyone is unhappy with yourself when you're a teenager. That's par for the course, and we're all part of the brave front that, "Yeah, I'm well on top and confident," but none of us are. That's what being a teenager is, isn't it? It's learning that you're now waltzing into the world of decision-making and you better well be prepared for it. And you try and fight that off as much as you can. It's chaos.

Problems were all the way through us as a band. I don't know if we ever bothered to sit down and work out why we were a group. We not only appeared to the public as not liking each other, I think we genuinely didn't. It was the longest year and a half I've ever lived. I think all of us feel that way. When we talk, it all feels like a solid decade was crunched into such a tiny space of time. It was mentally draining and exhausting.

I know what kept me in the band, though: I had utter, complete respect for them as players. I knew we were all learning, but I really liked what everyone was learning. I was absolutely thrilled to be near Mr. Jones' guitar. The stability of Paul's drumming will always impress me. Poor old Sid couldn't play. Lemmy once said it best, "Sid, you're tone deaf." Sid had all the poses down but not much else, but so what? Sometimes that is what we needed and that's what we got. It's my fault for bringing him in; it introduced a whole new bunch of problems. And well, we got a song out of it.

"Seventeen"

Matlock: This was an idea that we had been working on before John was in the band. It was originally Steve's lyric, and then John adapted that.

Rotten: Steve's song called "Lonely Boy," it's kind of really basic, and I just grabbed hold of it and turned it into teenage angst. I titled it "Seventeen," because that's the age when everything hurts the most. You're not quite an adult, you don't want to be viewed as a young whippersnapper, and you're not fully prepared for adulthood either. And all due reference to Alice Cooper's "Eighteen," [when I titled this "Seventeen"], I thought, "Well, Americans start late." When I sang, "You're only 29," I was probably singing to myself. My mom and my dad always used to say, "Oh, you were born an old man, and since you joined that band, you seem to be becoming a child." "How old do you think I was when I was born?" "45," said my dad. So it's a fair estimate that between 17, 18 and 45 would be 29.

The rest of the lyrics were representing everybody around me, since these are not lonely-boy problems; this is what everybody faces, but nobody faces up to. A good book is when an author tells you the truth and you can tell because they are embarrassing themselves doing it. But facing up to that truth is so important to the readers because it helps them break out of their shells. So when I sang, "I don't work, I just speed," that was a sad, lovely, adorable part of my life. It's sad because I didn't have enough booze and speed [laughs]. I mean I had to give all that up really when I joined the band because you can't afford to do that. You have to concentrate on the one thing now that's the big issue.

As far as the "lazy sod" part, the band really was a full-on 24/7 kind of situation. And then of course came the trying-to-tour and the banning. Every time a gig is canceled, it's a major rejection because you go through all the fears and phobias of not wanting to let people down. And then some other people let you down by canceling it; that's a stress.

"Anarchy in the U.K."

Matlock: Around the summertime, we were rehearsing and once again I said, "Does anybody got any ideas?" And I had a go at Steve, 'cause I felt I was pushing the band along a bit, but that time he had something, which wasn't much. And he said, "Why don't you come up with something?" And I had half an idea for a big overture, and I just started playing that descending chord progression and everybody picked up on it and said, "Where's it go next?" And I sort of geared it as we went along. John, it happened, had a bag of lyrics – just sheets of paper in a plastic bag – and he pulled something out and he said, "I've been waiting for you to come up with something because I've got this idea." Everybody had been talking about this guy, Jamie Reid, who did our artwork, and he was a bit of an agitprop kind of guy about anarchy. And John had written these lyrics.

Rotten: I have always thought that anarchy is mind games for the middle class. It's a luxury. It can only be afforded in a democratic society, therefore kind of slightly fucking redundant. It also offers no answers and I hope in my songwriting I'm offering some kind of answer to a thing, rather than spitefully wanting to wreck everything for no reason at all, other than it doesn't suit you. I've always got to bear in mind I'm part of a community called the human race and an even tighter community called culture. Why would we want to destroy these things willy-nilly?

I didn't realize how many professional anarchists were out there – and still are. Oh, my God, Marilyn Manson declared himself as an anarchist, this is how absurd it can get. A boy in makeup in a corset don't cut it for me; Alice Cooper did, but that's it. One of them is enough in my life.

Matlock: We'd already recorded it in 1976, and that's how my playing ended upon the album. I remember talking with Duff McKagan, who watched a gig once and came up and said, "Glen, I didn't realize you play all that type of Motown stuff." And on "Anarchy," I'm trying to emulate James Jamerson.

Rotten: The phrase "I am an antichrist/I am an anarchist" really upset Glen Matlock a lot, and I couldn't understand why he picked that. He was, I don't know if "harsh critic" would be the words, but he was always looking for the softer touch. That's what leads to the fractional-ism between Glen and me.

Matlock: It's not true that I didn't like the lyrics. The only line that always made me wince was, "I am an antichrist/I am an anarchist" – they don't rhyme, and it always gets me. Songs that don't rhyme properly gets me somehow. It had nothing to do with the sentiment. But if you then want to go onto a whole sociopolitical argument about whether it is a good thing to have real anarchy in the U.K. and whether that's ever going to happen is another matter. But I was quite proud to be onstage singing that song.

Rotten: On the original demo, at the start of the song, I sang "Words of wisdom" before "right now" and I removed it because there is no point of overdoing it. I always thought if I over-aggrandized it, it wouldn't mean much. When we were rehearsing we always tried to remove what was superfluous; we took out all the extra guitar flurries – Steve willingly did that most sensibly – and Paul would cut a song down to its simple roots. So with the lyrics, it's always for an audience to decide. You can't be dictating, like, "Hello, this is genius, here it comes." [Laughs]. You'll start off at 10.

I prefer the preciseness of opening the song with, "Right now." When we recorded the official version, getting that "Rrright now" was really hard to do. It took me time. They would be telling me to count the beats, and I didn't know what the fuck they meant – what are beats? Paul would always be very helpful with me, but at the same time it was infuriating because I wouldn't know the terminology.

"Sub-Mission"

Matlock: We used to rehearse at a venue called the Roundhouse. They had rehearsal rooms downstairs, and they was recording a classical concert that was going out live, and we was making too much noise. And they came down and asked us to turn down, but we paid our money so we wasn't going to. So I'm sure somewhere in Zimbabwe or Rhodesia, you heard the early versions of the Sex Pistols going out underneath Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. So we started rehearsing that and, one day, Steve and Paul couldn't be asked to turn up. So me and John waited and waited, and they didn't turn up, so we went to the pub over the road and he said to me, "You seen Malcolm?" And I said, "Yeah, he said, 'Why don't you write a song called 'Submission'?" And John said, "What? All about bondage and domination and all that old shite?" And I said, "Yeah, I guess so." And one of us, I don't remember which one of us, said "How about 'Submarine Mission'?"

Rotten: Writing this song was one of the best times I have ever had with Glen. We really just wanted to get drunk and sneer at each other, but we got through that early phase and just wrote quite well. What Malcolm was asking for was some kind of submission from the pair of us, so I turned it into a submarine mission.

Matlock: So John said, "I'm on a submarine mission for you, baby." And I came up with, "I could see the way you were going." Then he went, "I picked you up on my TV screen." And I said, "I can feel your undercurrent flowing." We just sat there over a pint trading lines and I went home that night and I worked out some chords to go over it and when we met up with the guys the next time, there was the song. It was fun.

Rotten: "Sub-Mission" is the closest thing to a love song we did and that's written by two people that didn't like each other [laughs]. It's too easy to write a nasty piece of animosity against each other. Both of us are capable of that, but why bother you know? Let's take it to higher grounds, find something that we both like: a genuine love of human beings.

"Pretty Vacant"

Rotten: That's another thing done that night with Glen. Glen had this idea of the band being like, as he put it, "Soho poofs," I suppose very much like Oscar Wilde, which is where I thought he was coming from. We're not talking like overtly gay overtures here or anything like that; it's really just the style of dressing. And that's never how I have seen myself. I couldn't imagine Mr. Rotten in frills and lace. And so "Pretty Vacant," the concept, turned into really just kind of a football chant. And it was adopted on the terraces by quite a few firms – firms being gangs of hooligans.

Matlock: Malcolm McLaren had been going back and forth to the States to be involved in the rag trade and buy old Fifties clothes because he had a Teddy Boy shop, and I knew he ran into Sylvain Sylvain from the New York Dolls and went backstage. Malcolm came back with fliers for the shows and he brought back set lists, but none of these bands had made records at that stage. One said "Blank Generation," and that got me thinking about how there was nothing going on in London, and there was a real air of despondency and desperation, so I came out with the idea of "Pretty Vacant."

I had the set of chord changes and the lyric but I was short of a riff. I knew it needed a melodic thing, and I heard something on a record by a band called Abba and it inspired the riff I needed, and I said, "Guys, I've got it." I mentioned the Abba influence in an interview once and the bass player from Abba somehow got my address and started sending me Christmas cards for about 10 years.

John sang the lyrics, but we played so loud in the rehearsal that I didn't know for months that he changed the lyrics in the second verse – "No cheap comments, because we know what we feel." We couldn't bloody hear him. That song was our statement somehow.

Rotten: There is an irony in that song because we weren't very pretty, and we were far from vacant. Again I need to repeat myself to explain these songs correctly. I never considered myself pretty or vacant. Maybe I should, would have had an easier life. I'd be dead wrong, but it would have been really easy. No, you can't get sucked up into the system, can't allow that. And I sang it "Pretty Va-cunt" as a sneaky one on my behalf.

"New York"

Rotten: That's a reference to the New York Dolls. I don't think of it as vicious; it's absolutely bang on from Babylon. "I'm looking for a kiss." They're mates of mine, and nobody has ever raised a complaint and why would they? It's not a personal attack. You have to understand at the time in England, glam rock was old hat by this point. We were overrun with Sweet, T. Rex – David Bowie got out of it rather well – but there were many, many bands like that in tight pants and lipstick. It was enough all right, already.

The bands in New York all seemed to be a little bit older and to have a little bit more of mommy's money in it, to me, rather than having to squeak by [with] all manner of ferrety streetwise methods. They were a little spoiled, and maybe I was little jealous of the luxury zone that they could all propagate amongst each other and prop each other up. And using ties like Rimbaud poetry to connect, I thought it was all very fake.

I mean, I read that [Rimbaud] stuff when I first went to New York and thought, "This isn't good enough." It just isn't. It doesn't have that tough edge of life's experiences in it. And there it is and that was the difference really between the English scene and the American punk scene. The American scene was a bit hoity-toity, a bit privileged and a bit snooty about its art. "Fuck art, let's dance" would be more my methodology.

Matlock: Musically, "New York" was originally my idea. I know you had a program in America called Secret Agent [with the opening theme "Secret Agent Man"] but in England [where it was called Danger Man] it had a different theme tune. And I was trying to write a rock version of something like that. So my original set of chord changes was like that on the bass but then John came out with the taking-the-mickey-out-of-the–New York Dolls lyric and it just came together. It's not one of my favorite songs, to be honest.

Rotten: The word "faggots" in the song is not about the New York Dolls because they most certainly were not. It's out to an audience that just wants to misinterpret everything. And you have to bear in mind that faggots in England, at the time, I remember this – I had seen an advert for it in London – it was a Northern dish: faggots and gravy. And they were trying to introduce it to Southern England with this hideous advert. I can't remember the company, but it was a product that would never wash well with a Londoner. It might not come off that way in the song, but that is exactly where I took the references from and I do that a lot. Whatever the scenario around me is, I will absorb. When in Rome.

"EMI (Unlimited Edition)"

Rotten: EMI wanted to sign us to show what a grand, varied label they were, but they really were not. This song was fun to write. It was actually mostly done in the studio because the groove was there, and it was relentless. It was a lovely hypnotic trance-like state to get into. They just wanted to be famous and for us to make a lot of money for them and that was it. And that was a real bit of disappointment with this lot coming out of the hippie generation, shall we say, and they were so commercially wrapped up inside profit that it led to their ultimate decline. That's why we'd have T-shirts like, "Never trust a hippie." It was well aimed [laughs].