The First Time I Heard the Sex Pistols
“No future for me/No future for you,” roared the Sex Pistols on their 1977 U.K. smash “God Save the Queen,” and the legendary British punk band seemed to fulfill their own prophecy in January 1978, when their disastrous first U.S. tour ended in an acrimonious breakup.
But the Sex Pistols have enjoyed a far lengthier run than anyone could have predicted 45 years ago. Their lone studio album, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, finally went platinum in the U.S. in 1992. The band enjoyed several massively successful reunion tours from 1996 to 2008, and the Pistols’ enduring legacy has been recounted, analyzed, and celebrated in numerous books and films, including Alex Cox’s 1986 biopic Sid and Nancy and Julien Temple’s 2000 documentary The Filth and the Fury.
Pistol, a six-part miniseries premiering May 31 on FX on Hulu, is the latest screen version of the Sex Pistols saga. Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Yesterday), and co-written by series creator Craig Pearce with Frank Cottrell-Boy, Pistol is based on guitarist Steve Jones’ gritty 2017 memoir Lonely Boy: Tales of a Sex Pistol. As is typical with anything Sex Pistols–related, Pistol has come with its share of controversy; frontman John Lydon, known as Johnny Rotten during his initial tenure with the band, called the series the “most disrespectful shit I’ve ever had to endure,” and filed a lawsuit (ultimately unsuccessful) against his surviving former bandmates Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Glen Matlock in an attempt to keep the band’s music from being used in the series.
But the true measure of the Sex Pistols’ impressive reach can be seen in the several generations of musicians — and not just of the punk persuasion — who have been influenced and inspired by their music and attitude. Rolling Stone asked six such artists to recall the first time they ever heard the Sex Pistols, and to reflect on how the band continues to impact them to this day.
Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day)
Never Mind the Bollocks was one of the first punk records I ever heard. I had to have been about 16, and a friend of mine — her name was Anna — she [loaned] me the album. The first thing that popped into my mind when I heard “Holidays in the Sun” is how those guitars sounded so gigantic and real; and hearing Lydon’s vocals, how he was just sort of this anti-singer [laughs]. For me, it just had a huge impact. Everything about it, from the lyrics to the guitar sounds to the songs, I thought was just perfect.
When Green Day first started playing, we were called Sweet Children. It was me and Mike [Dirnt] and rotating drummers, and we covered “Holidays in the Sun.” Hardcore was everywhere, and everything was about playing as fast as humanly possible. And to me, it was like, “There’s no groove in that!” But the Pistols, they had a groove! Paul Cook is such a great drummer, and the way he and Steve Jones just completely locked in and played off each other, it’s sort of like they were brothers. I just watched the Winterland Ballroom show on YouTube, and even when Jonesy’s tuning went out or he broke a string, him and Cook were still just locked in. For me as a musician, it was very noticeable. And Sid sounded fucking great! The people who say that he wasn’t actually playing, that’s absolute fucking bullshit.
The Sex Pistols’ music wasn’t fast, but it was more impactful with the message that was coming across. You read those fuckin’ lyrics, man, and to this day they’re still just badass. And it still matters. It’s still the sort of that band that teenage kids in high school will crank because they’re looking for trouble [laughs]. It still pisses people off, and it’s by design — I mean, John’s voice still gets under my skin!
One thing I learned from the Sex Pistols is to never let a manager dictate your future. But some things are just built not to last. Winterland was the last Sex Pistols show, at least of the Seventies, and I always say punk came to die in San Francisco, and the kids had to sort of pick up the pieces after that. The Sex Pistols killed punk before it had the opportunity to go mainstream back then. What they had proved is that punk rock was not meant for the masses. If you’re picking up the guitar to play punk rock music, it’s not for fame. You do this because it’s something that matters to you and it’s something that’s underground, and that was my early experience of being in a punk band with Green Day. And obviously with Green Day it was a different trajectory altogether, but I gotta say I didn’t predict that for us [laughs].
So when you get all of these pockets of kids all over the globe that are making music that has that Sex Pistols influence, who want to create their own underground form of anarchy, it gives you faith that music is not just there to be manufactured and corporate and consumerist. It’s there because people are investing into their lives and reflecting the way that they feel about the world and the way they feel about themselves. And that’s been the long legacy that the Sex Pistols left behind.
Peter Hook (Joy Divison, New Order)
June the 4th, 1976: I was 20 years old and I went to see the Sex Pistols play for 50 pence in the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. I’d been reading the music press as a diversion from my boring job. I was a heavy metal fan — Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin — though I’d started to get into Bowie, Cockney Rebel, things like that, a little bit more alternative. And then this whole punk phenomenon started to build, and I was just drawn to it; for a working-class kid stuck in a dead-end job and bored shitless, it seemed to offer at least a diversion, if not a way out. I spotted the advert in the Manchester Evening News for the Sex Pistols, and I suggested to Barney [Bernard Sumner], who was my best mate at the time, that we go down and check them out and see if it ended in a fight [laughs]. It was as simple as that.
The thing was, we were not expecting anything different than we’d normally seen at any other gig — Black Sabbath, or whatever. I mean, the support band were a heavy metal group that played a 23-minute version of “Nantucket Sleighride” by Mountain! But then the Sex Pistols came on, and they were rude, they were obnoxious, they were detached; they didn’t seem to care about anything. Johnny Rotten spent the whole time telling us all to fuck off. They sounded awful, awful — which I now realize was more down to the sound guy or the equipment than the Sex Pistols — and I thought, “Fuckin’ ‘ell, I could do this!” You know, I was rude, confused, and obnoxious enough to go, “Wow, they’re just like me!” [Laughs.]
As soon as we walked out, I said to Barney, “We need to form a group!” He had a guitar, and he said to me, “Oh, you’ll have to get a bass.” I went, “Right! Got it!” And I went to the shop the next day, not even knowing what a bass guitar was. The guy showed me one and I said, “But me mate’s has got six strings!” And he said, “That’s ‘cause your mate’s is a guitar, you dickhead, and this is a bass!” It was all about the adventure. It was all about the finding something to do with your life when you were confused and you didn’t know what the future held. I mean, at 20, the future is pretty daunting, isn’t it?
Of course, once I became a musician, my life was completely fucked! [Laughs] I mean, talk about having disadvantages and advantages — at least when I was working, before I saw the Sex Pistols, I finished at five and had weekends to meself! And ever since that fucking show, it’s been 24 hours music with all its trials and tribulations. Music, for me, became a vocation; the Sex Pistols opened that door in a darkened room, and I saw the way out. I didn’t really understand it; if someone had just said to me the day before, “You are gonna be running off to join the circus tomorrow,” I’d have gone “Fuck off!” But it has proved to be the most entertaining circus and disappointing circus that I’ve ever been to in my life. [Laughs] Every time I bump into Glen Matlock — which I do actually quite a lot, because we play together in a group called BEF with the boys from Heaven 17 — I always say to him, “Glen, this is all your fault!” And he always says the same thing to me: “Fuck off!” I can’t thank them enough, but I hate them for it!
Darryl Jenifer (Bad Brains)
My friend Sid McCray, who recently passed, me and him kind of was the start of Bad Brains. This was before rap, so I was mainly listening to go-go or P-Funk or Motown back then. But that stuff always seemed like the stuff I was supposed to like, and me being a flexing young musician dude, I always wanted to do shit I ain’t supposed to do! So me and Sid, we also used to listen to ELO and fusion and shit; we liked to listen to different stuff, weird stuff.
So one day around 1978, Sid knocked on the door. I looked through the peephole, and my man had all these like safety pins and shit on him! [laughs] This was in Southeast D.C., the ‘hood, and I’m like, “Damn!” I opened the door, and my man had four records with him — he had the Sex Pistols, he had the Dead Boys, the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia, and a compilation called No New York. He told me he’d discovered all this stuff through a documentary on PBS Channel 13.
Out of all those records, I thought that the Sex Pistols sounded the most manufactured, and seemed the least hard to me, especially compared to the No New York noise stuff. I’m not trying to dis nobody or nothing, but the Sex Pistols was easier for me to digest, visually and sonically, and I couldn’t really put my finger on a real personality to it. It almost seemed like the Village People or something: You got the lead singer, who’s putting extra emphasis on being prickly, and then you got the bass player who was the sort of the figurehead of the whole punk nihilistic thing. And then the drummer and the guitar player seemed to me, like, session players of punk. [Laughs] It was well-produced, and I enjoyed the songs, but it wasn’t like, “Wow, the Sex Pistols!” I was more into the angst and noise of the other punk groups, and I’m still a bigger fan of PiL by far than the Sex Pistols. I’m not a big fan of who Johnny Rotten became — it’s like he can’t break character with the whole “I’m an asshole” sort of thing — but as a punk-rock lead singer, he was the man with that.
The Sex Pistols, they were the ones that opened up the door, commercially. They weren’t the hardest thing, but I appreciate them and I get what they were doing, and I’d like to thank them for breaking through and coming all the way to the ‘hood. Sid and I used to dress like them — we were into that nihilistic bondage vibe, though we thought of it more as dressing like “London scene,” and not specifically like the Sex Pistols or Sid Vicious. We even had a song called “Redbone in the City” that was inspired by “God Save the Queen” — but while Johnny was singing about how they were pissed off at the Queen and their government, we were singing about a light-skinned Black girl and about love. So it’s like a double-edged thing here: the good of the Sex Pistols being influential and the timing of what they did, and then the negative of how they seemed a little manufactured, and how the singer needs to quit with all the crap. But this is art and music, and this is my opinion.
Julia Cumming (Sunflower Bean)
I was 10 years old, and my closest cousin — she was probably 12 — was with my mom and me for the summer. Both my parents are really big music nerds; my mom had the Never Mind the Bollocks CD in her car, and for whatever reason we just got totally obsessed with it. It was just kind of this “girls’ summer” where me and my mom and my cousin were constantly listening to the CD and bringing it places and putting it in other people’s CD players [laughs].
It really blew my mind. It was just the perfect thing to hit a kid who liked rock and liked pop, and the perfect vehicle for my early ideas of rebellion. I knew in that moment that it was kind of shaping my life. I already wanted to be in a band, and I was like, “This is it! This is forever! This is really life-changing!” And my cousin was like, “Yeah!” And then when I saw her like six months later, I was like, “Do you remember when we listened to the Sex Pistols all summer?” And she was like, “Who?” [Laughs] But it stuck with me.
It just shows you that there’s no “right” way to hear a great record, because a great record will always be great and powerful. And I think the Sex Pistols, and that album in particular, are really a great example of how once music comes out, it no longer belongs to the artist — it belongs to the culture and it belongs to history.
You read Please Kill Me, you read about punk history, and there are so many different feelings about the Sex Pistols, but I don’t think it matters that they didn’t live up to some sort of super-punk ethos that no one else will ever be punk enough to live up to, either. When you look at the whole scope of music history, what really matters is what brings kids and people to music — especially to punk music and alternative music and different music — and gives them something to believe in, almost in a spiritual kind of way. And then there’s the cultural importance of using pop music and rock music to tell stories and change the world. And Never Mind the Bollocks is the perfect vehicle for that. It’s a perfect album.
“Pretty Vacant” is a great song that’s burned in my mind forever — the memory of me and my mom and my cousin just screaming it out together and me wondering what it all meant. But I’d say my favorite Sex Pistols song is “Bodies,” which was the one I wasn’t allowed to listen to at the time; that was the one we had to skip [laughs]. It’s really interesting to have a song about abortion on the album, especially one that’s so graphic and kind of about both sides of it, and have it so early in the record. And as an adult, whenever I re-listen to the album, it’s fresher to me, kind of like a bonus track. It’s like I got a little held back for me so I could get it later.
I would’ve been maybe like six or seven years old when I first heard the Sex Pistols in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, and it was “Anarchy in the U.K.” Obviously, being six or seven years old, I wasn’t like a music nerd or anything. But hearing that for the first time, versus the very polished, clean pop music that I was used to hearing on the radio at the time, it definitely cut through. It felt rough, and janky in like a good way; it kind of felt like I could do this, and that was empowering in a sense. It kind of felt like me and my friends from school could get in a garage and make this.
Obviously, I didn’t know how to articulate this at that age, but it was almost soulful in a sense, because it was raw, very raw. And then, lyrically speaking, it was also some of the first protest music that I ever heard. I grew into making a lot of protest music of all styles and genres, so when I got the chance to do a cover of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” I felt like I’d only need to change the lyrics ever so slightly to make this a protest song for a current age, in my context, living in Australia; a lot of the attitude in the original lyrics still held up.
When I was learning about the Sex Pistols and the genre of punk as a whole, it reminded me a bit of jazz, in the way that Black people in early 1900s America — going through what they were going through, and being separated from music that was more “accepted” by the public — were able to make this art form that was so free and visceral and raw, with its own community, its own rules and its own standards. When I learned about the context of punk and the Sex Pistols, and how unhinged it was from any traditions or boundaries, I think it resonated with me a little more.
Whenever I find a new genre that influences me musically, it becomes added to a stash of, like, a thousand other genres I like [laughs]. But attitude-wise, what the Sex Pistols had can’t really be replicated by a whole lot of other things. I would say the Sex Pistols — and punk music in general — along with jazz, those are really the only things had such a potent influence on me, attitude-wise, in regards to the lack of boundaries in music and in art. I think that’s really where their footprint lies, in regards to my musical DNA.
I feel like the Sex Pistols have always been somewhat of a through-line in all my musical phases growing up, all my musical listening eras — but they led me through a lot of rock, not necessarily just punk. Rage Against the Machine became one of my biggest listens for a while, and most recently, Amyl and the Sniffers have been a band that I’ve been [spinning] on repeat. I think the Sex Pistols planted a seed that just never went away.
Jason Williamson (Sleaford Mods)
As a kid, six or seven years old, I remember hearing the tail end of news reports about the Sex Pistols. There was this kind of anxiety, this kind of repulsion and horror about them; I remember they were perceived as being quite dark, quite horrific, something we hadn’t really seen before. But I didn’t really become acquainted with them until later, maybe 1979-80; that’s when I met my stepbrothers, one of whom was a massive Sex Pistols fan, and that’s when I became fully exposed to the idea of them, to the individual songs, and to the different periods of their brief career. I just kind of threw myself headlong into the history of that.
The political thing didn’t interest me as a kid, and some of Lydon’s politics even then were questionable. But the more general political things of boredom and alienation, and just hating other people for the pure fact that they’re fucking tossers — that really appealed to me.
The motivations between singer and band were quite different in the Sex Pistols, weren’t they? Lydon wanted to experiment, and you could tell that that kind of jarred with the pub-rock sort of rock & roll that Jones and the rest of them wanted to do. Perhaps that’s what made it so special, you know? I think Lydon was in his element. He was the real maverick; there weren’t a lot of people at that time in England that were pushing stuff the way he was.
I pull quite a bit from John Lydon, I think, but without making it sound shit; I’ve been quite respectful to it, I think. My voice just naturally goes like that if I talk in a rant. When I started Sleaford [Mods], I originally just wanted to rap — but when I started trying to rap in my accent, it came out punky, you know what I mean? So it was kind of a little bit of an accident, to be honest, but I played on it as soon as I realized what was going on.
Whenever I hear that introduction to “Pretty Vacant,” it just reminds me of the Seventies; it pretty much summed up the country, even without John Lydon singing. That kind of pub-rock-esque swing that Steve Jones and Paul Cook and Glen Matlock had together, I still don’t think it’s been bettered. It’s just such a powerful sound, and for me it kind of conjures up this “pint of ale, cigarette in the social club” kind of feeling that England was back then. “Pretty Vacant” is my favorite Sex Pistols song, without a doubt. Even the video to it is just so fucking good; I know Sid Vicious was in the band by then, but the aesthetic was at its peak in that video. And the song is just brilliant, and the two things combined, it’s just unbeatable. To this day I still think the mixture of the songs and how the band were, how they moved, Vivienne Westwood’s fashion, and Malcolm McLaren’s influence with that as well — it was unstoppable and remains so, I think.