LONDON—So this is how legends are born. Not with a song, or even a death, but with an expletive. The day before the Sex. Pistols, Britain’s premier exponents of punk, were interviewed on Thames Television’s Today program they were known principally to a scattering of hard-core fans and to readers of the British music press. The day after, the Sex Pistols had become Britain’s Number One “bad boys.”
The trouble began when the Pistols, who apparently had been well-fueled in the program’s “hospitality room,” were goaded by Today’s host, Bill Grundy, into living up to their street-hoodlum reputation. Johnny Rotten, the Pistols’ lead singer, obliged, calling Grundy “a dirty fucker” and a “fucking rotter.” The Thames switchboard was immediately jammed with outraged calls, and the media threw a front-page fit of moral indignation against the punk-rockers, running riot with stories of foul-mouthed thugs fresh off the welfare line, decked out in swastika armbands, green hair and skintight leathers, and bathed in the stench of violence and anarchy.
The furor over the Pistols brought to prominence a movement which has been gathering impetus among urban working-class kids over the past year.
Their disenchantment has been evident in declining record sales and in snubbed big-name concerts, but it took the Sex Pistols to give that disenchantment focus.
The group’s mentor (you could say inventor), Malcolm McLaren, is a 30-year-old former art student who claims to have lost interest in music in 1964, after the first flush of Beatlemania, but regained interest ten years later when the New York Dolls walked into his Kings Road shop, Let It Rock, where McLaren was busily peddling a revival of Fifties sartorial style. He was sufficiently struck by the Dolls’ looks, “humanity and musical ordinariness” to become the group’s manager/stylist, fueling their notoriety by integrating a hammer and sickle into their stage act. The escapade was short-lived and McLaren returned to London and his shop, renamed Sex and now dealing in leather and bondage clothing.
From the colorful assortment of dead-end kids who frequented the shop McLaren pruned the basic components of a band. He found his lead singer — and the focal point for the group — in Johnny Rotten, a 19-year-old who divided his time between Sex, the street and the welfare office. “I liked his taste in clothes,” McLaren recalls (at that time Rotten was sporting a suit which he’d ripped to pieces and put back together with safety pins). “He’d never sung before but I thought, ‘He looks a really disagreeable fucker — maybe he’s the right guy.’”
McLaren began rehearsing his protégés, encouraging them to drop their reliance on old Small Faces and Who tunes and write their own material, “about who and what they were,” songs like “I’m a Lazy Sod” and “I’m Pretty Vacant.” After two months McLaren began promoting the group wherever he could, avoiding the London pub circuit — gate-crashing art college balls and the “right” London parties instead. “I didn’t want them playing to 25-year-old beer drinkers who wouldn’t give them the time of day unless they were playing Chuck Berry songs,” says McLaren. “I wanted a fresh, untainted audience.”
A new aesthetic grew up at Pistols gigs: no drugs, but an overdose of booze. Hair: short and often dyed. Clothes: a bizarre cross-pollination of rubber and chopped, torn and remodeled jumble couture, whatever fit — or, better still, didn’t — with chains, safety pins and Nazi insignias for jewelry. Clothes to match the acid, often bad-tempered atmosphere of the gigs.
It gave them identity and just the right climate for new bands to develop in — the Damned, Clash, Subway Sect, Siouxie and the Banshees. By September, London was ready for its first Festival of Punk Rock, held at the 100 Club, one of the few places in the city willing to accommodate the Pistols and their followers. The festival was canceled on the second day when a girl in the audience lost an eye after being hit by flying glass.
McLaren sighs at the mention of violence. “It’s been overstated by the media. But what violence there is is genuine. The business has taken music away from these – kids and they are trying to seize it back. …”
“What’s happening now shouldn’t just seem like a strong reaction against the music scene,” says Johnny Rotten. “It bloody well is.”
Rotten’s complexion is the color of soiled tissue paper, his hair a vomit orange; a cluster of safety pins dangles from his ear and his arms are scarred with cigarette burns. Boredom infects him like a terminal disease. “The only reason we’re doing this is because everything else is just so sick. None of those big groups have written a song that means anything at all in ten years.”
“All the big bands have got rich and forgotten where they started,” says the Damned’s exotically named Rat Scabies. “They’ve forgotten what it’s like to get on a tube and have to bunk the fare. It’s all easy, keep-the-punters-’appy stuff. Do ‘My Generation’ because it was a big hit — once. They’ve not given anything back to the kids that made them.”
(Peter Townshend’s only comment on the punks was, “It’s all true.” Roger Daltrey was a good deal more vocal. “I don’t take the knocking too seriously,” he said. “It’s great the kids are kicking up … perhaps they’ll let the Who mellow down a bit now. I’m getting tired of being the spokesman for our generation and the next.”)
So far, the attitude of the record industry toward the new wave has been divided, with some critics hailing the movement as a . long-awaited shot of adrenalin into the withering arm of British rock, and others dismissing it as a nasty and hopefully short-lived fad. “The old are scared of us,” says Johnny Rotten. “They don’t want the change. It makes them irrelevant to what’s going on now, and they know it.”
Rotten’s first comment on walking into the offices of EMI, Britain’s largest and traditionally most conservative record label, was, “What a fuckin’ dump.” “If you don’t like it you can fuck off,” snapped back an EMI executive. The Pistols stayed — and signed a two-year contract worth £40,000, an unprecedented figure for a band that had been performing for less than a year. (Said EMI chief of A&R Nick Mobbs, who signed the Pistols, “The fact that many of us are now over 30 means we don’t have our finger on the pulse. We have to question the whole idea of rock music and what it means.”) Malcolm McLaren had approached EMI after turning down offers from three other labels and being turned down by a few more. “I thought the only way to get the band credibility was to sign with the one company every journalist was going to hate and the whole industry was going to be amazed by. It’s turned everything upside down — EMI spending £40,000 on a band who can’t even play the 100 Club. … But if we do get a hit record it’s going to blow the whole scene wide open. Labels are going to have to say, ‘Whether we like it or not we’ve got to get involved. …’”
True enough. CBS, one label that snubbed the Pistols, has had second thoughts. “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be as revolutionary as San Francisco in the Sixties,” says A&R manager Dan Loggins. “It’s gonna give the business the kick up the arse it needs. The question is what happens to the revolutionary stance if these bands do have success? The music business is notorious for co-opting revolutionaries into the establishment. Look what happened to Dylan. …”
And in America, Danny Fields, manager of the Ramones, commented that he “hasn’t seen any safety pins through the nose or cheeks or ears at the CBGB [punk club in New York] … when we do, we’ll know British punk has arrived.” Capitol Records has the right of first refusal in America on all records released by EMI but, according to Capitol’s promotion director Bruce Garfield, “No decision has been made on the Sex Pistols … our interest is in selling records, but we’re also very concerned by the controversy.”
The day after the Sex Pistols’ controversial television appearance, their first single for EMI, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” sold a reported 1,800 copies, despite being ignored by the BBC and a brief refusal by union labor at EMI’s factory to handle the record. The uproar also put the Pistols’ first national tour, with Clash, the Damned and America’s Heartbreakers supporting, on a par with an invasion by Ghengis Khan’s hordes. The first concert, December 3rd, at the University of East Anglia, was canceled by the school’s vice-chancellor, in defiance of student protests, on the grounds of “public safety.”
Meanwhile, Sir John Read, chairman of the board of EMI, answering shareholders’ questions at their annual meeting, cautioned that, “We have made no long-term decision regarding the Sex Pistols. The position is under review and we’re watching the situation … no further releases have been planned.”
Events took an even more bizarre turn on the second day of the tour when the Pistols were ordered to perform in the judge’s chambers before members of the Derby Borough Council Leisure Committee to decide whether the group’s act was fit for public consumption. The Pistols refused to comply with the order and the concert was canceled. “Obviously, we’re not going to submit to that sort of censorship,” said Malcolm McLaren. “If we did, it could set a horrifying precedent which other bands would have to follow.” So instead of performing, the Pistols traveled on to the next stop on the tour, Leeds. “As they left their hotel and boarded a coach,” a mass-circulation paper reported next day, “Johnny Rotten gave a two-fingered sign to waiting reporters and shouted, ‘You f—ing c—s …’”
“These kids,” laughs McLaren, “really don’t give a fuck who hates them. …”
This story originally appeared in RS 231 on Jan. 27, 1977.