Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The SEX PISTOLS: Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols


(#192: 12 November 1977, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Holidays In The Sun/Bodies/No Feelings/Liar/God Save The Queen/Problems/Seventeen/Anarchy In The U.K./Sub-Mission/Pretty Vacant/New York/EMI Unlimited Edition

(or: Notes on Ghosts of Punctum in Towers)

All I see are towers, closing in on me. The same towers that peered down on me, oppressed me, back when I was still in the present tense. No wonder they called this place the End of the World. Beyond here, you still feel it; not antique shops but a wilderness, every man for himself. It is as if everything finishes here. And I had to finish everything somewhere. It wasn’t fashionable, this place, not even forty years ago when I came upon it and took over the shop, because that was the sort of thing you could do in London forty years ago. No dosh? No matter…just look like you mean something, the keys are yours, do what you want with it; make the floor slope, put in a jukebox full of all those singles I got from the back of Shepherd’s Bush Market, punch some holes in the ceiling; ooh, all that flaky old asbestos floating out. I didn’t know that this, of all things and people, was going to kill me; like I say, in London forty years ago you didn’t even think of things like that. All you thought about was the long trudge from Sloane Square, people pounding down the road, wondering where the hell it’s all supposed to be happening, past the tourist bits, past the bridge turnoffs, down to somewhere that was never fashionable except when I was here – oh, the shop’s still here, looking as small and glum as ever, with its big clock going backwards, pretending it can turn back time, when there was a decent market on Beaufort Street instead of oligarchs installing underground cinemas (and I don’t mean that in the Kenneth Anger sense), when everyone and everything mattered…here, at the first major bend in the road.

Record Mirror, mid-eighties, and it was one of their female writers – might have been Sunie, was more probably Eleanor Levy – and I can’t remember whom or what she was fulminating about but the payoff line was something like “the Sex Pistols are as relevant to the youth of today as Eddie Cochran.” A brave thing to say in the era of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, if they’d happened yet…but it wasn’t even a decade since what was supposed to have happened, happened.

It was a shop for him. Never a way of life for us. He just wanted us in to promote his bloody shop. Be nosy and outrageous because that’s what his shop was supposed to be like. He had the T-shirts drawn up before he’d recruited us. Most of us, anyway. I never got on with the rest of them. Boring rockers. They wanted to be the Faces. Nothing more, nothing less. He reckoned the power of the band would lie in the tension between us. Great when you’re touring and trying to record all the time, in each other’s fucking pocket 24 out of 7, except when we gave him what we wanted we couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t tour, couldn’t record, couldn’t write new songs, didn’t want to be in this poxy group anyway. It wasn’t what I wanted. I knew that when I signed up, though. I fucking outlived the cunt anyway. Most of us did. That’ll teach him.

The Caldecot Centre, King’s College Hospital, sometime in the late nineties; we are doing a Christmas staff quiz, and my manager has asked me to come up with a few music-related questions. It’s too long ago, and too much has happened in the interim, for me to remember exactly what those questions were, but I do remember that one of them involved the Sex Pistols and that the word “significant” was somewhere in the question. It was asked, and not answered; and somebody rolled their eyes and said in major disbelief, “The Sex Pistols are significant?” That was when it struck me; their overall impact on Britain had been as a transient late seventies novelty act, a sort of thuggish Bizarro world Barron Knights.

It’s always been about style. About how someone looks. I do not express this as a universal truism, although I know of no other; it is because, as a fashion designer, I cannot think in any other way except that of style. Is it on trend? How long before it slides off trend? Change is constant, as some hippy drummer once said to me. Keep changing the fashions. Why? Because it’s fashion; that’s the definition of the word, something that comes in and thereafter goes out again. As with clothes, so with people. We’re all transient, anyway. See how long I didn’t last.

November 2008, and in the comments section of the website Popular’s piece on “God Save the Queen,” there comes a comment from somebody calling themselves “Warhol didley dye day” who as far as I know has not posted before or since. It is a fairly sluggish comments section where I and others are busy thrashing out what this record ever meant, or might still mean, and it arrives like the bluest of bolts:

“What the f””s this? Nostalgic waffle clap trap? Honestly who gives a stuff The whole idea about punk was making modern music available to the people on the street. WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW – SOD ALL THAT’S WHAT!! Music changed for a while until the money fascists took over. Stop talking dross and change it again if you’ve got the balls!”

“And now I’ve got a reasonable economy.” JOKE! Those bastards left me stranded in the States with no money; I had to wire Branson to get me the fuck out of there. He thought he could carry on with them as a novelty act. Sid singing, Ronnie fucking Biggs singing; who else, Patrick bleeding Mower? I was falling apart, confused and lonely, and did anybody give a fuck? NO. There’s “history” for you.

I wonder whether it was him, but really, blanking out the f*** word? Admittedly, the comments that followed made me realise why the Sex Pistols had to happen in the first place. As though, for some, they were about more than just “money fascism.” A jolly little interlude between the “serious” business of assessing Rod Stewart and Kenny Rogers. I think John Lydon, were he ever to be aware of Then Play Long, would probably hate it at first glance, since it would almost certainly appear to him to consist of nothing but “nostalgic waffle clap trap,” even though I wasn’t alive for the first eight years of it. If I thought this blog was only “nostalgic waffle clap trap” I’d close it down straightaway, but (a) hopefully, as a fellow Aquarian, Mr Lydon could see past first glance and understand exactly what I’m trying to do with this blog and (b) by my own admission, if things had happened the way they were supposed to happen, a blog like Then Play Long would never have been necessary.

It was a great idea, to ask Syd, over there at the other end of the same road, to produce them. I wish he had been here…but “Syd’s not in.” I momentarily thought, however, that he might be. He’d get it.

London, the Olympics, about two-and-a-half weeks ago, and the closing ceremony which played like a cattle truck soundtracked by a Best Eighties Album In The World…Ever! compilation the organiser bought in the British Heart Foundation shop earlier that day; in the diametrically opposed opening, Boyle gave us a snatch of “God Save The Queen” prior to the Queen playing at being a Sex Pistol, but numerous artists were asked to appear in the closing show, saw what they were expected to do or not do, and demurred. The major fuss was over Bowie, and to a lesser extent the Stones, and to zero extent the Sex Pistols. True, neither Pistols nor Stones do anything for free, but they were hardly mentioned; another moderately intriguing meteor lodged in that great crater that landed in British pop between 1975 and 1985. And anyway, hadn’t the Pistols, with Matlock, closed their own circle in Finsbury Park back in 1996? Why would they have needed to do it anyway, when only two-fifths of the Spice Girls acted as though they were bothered?

Has anybody ever been bothered about the Sex Pistols?

Quite a lot of people, and things, were driven or inspired to do and change the world by the Sex Pistols, but “bothered”? I ask this because now they are a fabric in the history they tried so hard not to be a part of; they are looked back upon with dispassionate fondness. They are respected, insofar as they could ever be “respected,” but hardly ever played and still less referred to other than another momentarily entertaining string in the chain of Weren’t The Seventies WACKY? Or, worse, consigned, or confined, to their place in Rock History, a fabric which they had done their best to rent beyond repair – a strand rather than an irruption.

“Do The Irruption” – it wasn’t what Bryan Ferry sang, but it was what he and the song implied.

Because once upon a time before there was no future there were Bowie and Ferry and
I don’t believe I overrate “style.” You have it, you’re born with it, you can’t learn it or inherit it. Fashion is all about personas, and how elusively or cleverly we can slip from one persona to another and still make history look like a perfectly logical catwalk.

Did Lydon ever have a “persona”? Or was that what he was like all of the time. There he is, one morning on Danny Baker’s BBC Radio London show, effing and cursing, and a bored and impatient Baker urges Lydon to stop it: “I know you, John. You’re not like this.”

The blasted “persona,” which, like “fame,” the person ends up having to chew up and half-smile at, because they are lumbered with it, long after everyone has forgotten what they were supposed to be famous for.

Once upon a time when he was a boy John Lydon was

The way he roars “YOU’RE A LIIIIIAAAAAAARRRRRR!!!” on “Liar” like Dylan in the Manchester of ’66. “Judas?” “Some people in England get a little jealous,” as Jerry Lee Lewis had noted eight years earlier.

“Liar,” a song which, when you don’t think about it, sounds a lot like “Do The Strand.” Both Lydon and Ferry extend their vowels through the carapace of the song, as though chewing on a particularly tasteful and elegant mint after a buffalo wing beef-out.

The guitar sounds a little like Queen.

God SAVES.

But the Pistols never, I believe, wanted to be part of Rock History, the aroma of “heritage” which is really just a polite way of cutting off one’s necktie.

Yes, Then Play Long shouldn’t exist because the Sex Pistols’ mission back then was to destroy EVERYTHING. Especially “history.” With “England” coming a close second.

Or, this should have been the last entry here – nothing was to follow, except a faintly grim silence.

The album charts, only a few months younger than John Lydon himself, and at twenty-one neither finds that they are particularly happy or satisfied. These cloistered, closed-off, air-sealed TV compilations – they are literally airless (I think the sound production on these records is deliberately aimed at excluding oxygen; one certainly finds it difficult to breathe, listening through some of them) and a product of well-this-will-do Britain. A Britain that never escaped from 1945.

Like Montreal’s Hughie Green, quietly ranting on Opportunity Knocks at the beginning of 1977, “Stand Up And Be Counted” (“Take up a fighting stance/This year of 1977/May be our final chance”). Oh, a change happened in 1977, all right – but not the change Green was expecting or wanting. That is, if anything really did change.

Among the orchestra that day on Opportunity Knocks were two members of the Marxist improvising trio Iskra 1903.

But history – encroaching, limiting

The trouble is: “we” are all supposed to be in such thrall to the Pistols, and punk rock, that we are in many subtle ways not allowed to go beyond them. The dwindling music press, now reduced, with considerable help from the internet, to a series of ticksheets – this week’s Bloc Party is very reasonable, sir, but I’m afraid the new Vaccines is a bit off; rock as Wheelers of St James’s – cannot help but cling leechingly to the notion that thirty-five years ago they all still mattered and were read in their hundreds of thousands, and people acted on what they read, because where the hell in seventies Glasgow were you even supposed to hear this stuff, never mind see it?

Oh, I remember 1977 Lanarkshire all right. The Diamond Jubilee? Just as bad and hypocritical and patronising when it was Silver. But then, what wasn’t? At school, our Rector read out a notice one morning to say that punk dressings, etc., were not allowed at any time. The school, based as it was on an ethos of deliberate snobbery, acted laughingly, as though only the dopeheads in the B and C streams could be remotely interested in punk. Not like we blessed A streamers, who were clearly being tutored for the “best” jobs.

Something from school I’ve never forgotten; passing by an open door one mid-morning, and it was a History B class; one boy was joking and larking about and the furious teacher suddenly hissed: “LOOK! I know you have no future, but at least try and PRETEND.”

That told me all I needed to know about “school”; a Victorian chimera designed not to educate or enlighten children, but to prepare them for the working environment, to produce efficient and obedient workers, by prioritising punctuality and unquestioning respect of authority. And it is true that wherever most of us have gone since, that has remained; the notion that anyone articulating the remotest atom of independent thought or expression is de facto the naughty boy at the back of the class who has to be knocked into shape.

You know those “dopeheads in the B and C stream”; the ones who didn’t have “your” “advantages” but somehow still ended up earning ten times more than you, living in a better house, with children, and maybe now grandchildren, and so forth. Mainly because they had to try harder, or catch up in later life.

Whereas most of the A streamers ended up exactly where they were intended; now they are doctors, lawyers, dentists, CEOs, engineers, and cetera. I said “most,” not “all.” I don’t recall a single one of them having anything nice or interesting to say about punk and especially about the Sex Pistols.

There was Listen Records, in Renfield Street and another in Byres Road in Hillhead whose frontage you could see in the distance, coming down Gilmorehill. The same company owned two Bloggs’ stores, one across the road from Listen in Renfield Street and another at the corner of St Vincent Street. There you could find all the punk, new wave and indie stuff you wanted, and much more that you didn’t know you wanted.

But no punks in Glasgow, unless you count Jim Kerr.

Frothing, foaming Glasgow Evening Times headlines and cross editorials about glue sniffing and the Ramones. But hardly any gigs – the Lord Provost saw to that. The Clash came to the Apollo round about October ’77 and that perhaps proved why these things couldn’t happen.

There was Gloria’s Record Bar, deep in the south side, where people like Edwyn Collins and Bobby Gillespie apparently congregated, but I never went there; it was quite a distance if you’re travelling from Uddingston.

Yes I know, nostalgic waffle clap trap. But hardly less nostalgic or clap trappy than the Good Music Historians who swear by Grievous Angel and The Soft Bulletin and Almost Blue but never listen to the Sex Pistols, except when “Anarchy” gets played on Radio 2, yet proclaim them as an indispensable thread in their fucking Tapestry.

I mean, really (pace Patrick Cargill), which “rock expert” or “record collector” ever puts on the thirty-eight minutes and twenty-eight seconds of Never Mind The Bollocks and listens to it all the way through? Not just sticking it on and programming the singles, but going from “Holiday” to “EMI” and giving all twelve songs their equal and undivided attention? I’d say it was probably zero. And yet there is this gulf, between the history we have received and life as it has actually been lived, which says that the Pistols were significant but does its best to pretend they never existed?

Because it should have been the end of everything.
Because it told “England” a few unpleasant truths about its real nature.
Because the rip it attempted in rock’s fabric should have been an “R.I.P.”
Because they were finished even by the act of putting out an album.
And having all the singles on it.

The trouble is, though, when you shout “NO FUTURE!” in a crowded room, some people are liable to defy that decree, or alternatively be so compelled and moved by it as to wish to fashion something in its shadow. So the final failure of “God Save The Queen” is that its “NO FUTURE!” proved to be everybody’s future. That there existed a future.

Just because the John Lydon of 1977 didn’t have a future? And, if not, who decided that he wouldn’t?

How shit was it to be John Lydon in 1977?

The thing with me was, I loved music, and listening to music, and buying records. What we learned, we learned from the act of buying records and listening to them. Any records, any style of music, it didn’t matter. If it looked or sounded interesting, I’d get it and would listen to it with utmost respect. I wouldn’t necessarily like the record, but I would treat it with respect. Nobody treats records with respect any more; if you’re young, you won’t even know there were once such things as records. But they were crucial to me – Faust, Kevin Coyne, Matching Mole, I. Roy, Big Youth, Graham Central Station, Des O’Connor. Anything that worked. Now imagine it’s 1977, and I can’t even step out my front door without some arsehole wanting to break my jaw. The tabloids stir the hate up because it sells papers. But I always dreamed of singing in a rock group, and now I can’t sing, my group can’t play anywhere, I can’t go out to Harlequin or Rough Trade…it’s like being in prison. So enjoy being pioneers, kids; you won’t get the opportunity to be anything or anybody else.

And yet, the histories tumble forward as they churn backwards; I’ve read England’s Dreaming and Lipstick Traces and Lydon’s own memoir, and a lot else, and remember too much of the music press of the period, and have tried to forget all of them, because only then do I feel I can come to a proper understanding of the Sex Pistols; distinct from theory or attitude or intentions…how good were they, really, and how good are they still?

What the fuck would Malcolm have done without us? Some improvising hippy troupe like Gong, probably. Or Our Kid.

The history in the space where there was never meant to be any history, and indeed I am working from the 1996 2CD edition of Bollocks which I bought first hand in a proper record shop and whose second CD (or, strictly speaking, first CD) includes all twenty-one of the demos they did for Dave Goodman and Chris Spedding in 1976; their first and best legitimate issue. From them, I fear not much can be gleaned; the music is as punchy and insolent, if less distinctly recorded, as anything on Nuggets and you can tell from these anguished scraps of songs-to-be where the band are going.

As though this were Cruft’s dog show, with its pedigrees.

A story, possibly half-true; in the summer of 1977 Carla Bley is in London, rehearsing her band for some British gigs. It is an Anglo-American band, where heavyweight players like Roswell Rudd, Andrew Cyrille and Michael Mantler are joined by some Canterbury-related folk; Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Gary Windo (Windo, then working as an auto mechanic to supplement his income from music, makes such an impression on Bley that she invites him to join her band full-time and takes him back to the States). They are running through some tunes when they hear this huge din from the rehearsal room next door. Bley goes to investigate and finds it is the Sex Pistols practising. She is so knocked out by Lydon that she almost wants him to join her band full-time as well; as things develop, they will end up working on the same records in the eighties, as members of the Golden Palominos.

Don’t tell me that Lydon didn’t get Escalator.

The album is a mess, sequentially and emotionally, but it was never meant to be The Sex Pistols Collection, mummified in methylated spirits. The singles are not in chronological order (what IS this record collector waffle clap trap?)

so starting with “Holidays” is a bit like an Elvis Greatest collection beginning with “Suspicious Minds,” but it’s not an ordered, mortified, immobile sequence of stuff.

Love? We do not speak of such things. Nor do the Pistols. I’d sack them if they did. Speaking about the look of love – now, that’s different.

Actually I like the idea of Bollocks beginning with the group collapsing into pieces, atomising. Slade jackboots usher us into the song, then a ire-filled lightning bolt of downward-scraping guitar with car-crash drums to make sure we stay there.

(and yes, there are still otherwise sentient people who complain about the grammar of “HERE’S THE SEX PISTOLS” and who doubtless also complained about the spellings of Slade song titles.)

I’ve spoken of Low; does anyone yet realise that the Lydon of “Holidays” is in the same place? But he is more closely, and therefore more fatally, involved; Bowie is observing memories and his own absence of persona from a studio window before the fresh air hits him like a punch and he says, “Forget it! Forget the bloody lot, get back to life, get back to HEROES!,” proudly striding underneath the shooting jets JUST FOR ONE DAY. Whereas Lydon is trying to GET to the other side, to escape into what he already realises is another prison (“AND THEY’RE LOOKING AT ME!”). The backing vocals chant “Rea-SON! Rea-SON!” in such a way that they almost sound like “Sieg HEIL!” and as the song goes into its collapsed centre, Lydon knows full well that he and the Sex Pistols have failed; surrounded by actual terrorism and destruction, he realises that they are what deep down they have always been – Just Another Rock Group. With that knowledge in his mind, his vocal, and the song, fall apart and he babbles for the rest of it, losing his mind, his faith, his reason; “I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS BIT AT ALL! PLEASE DON’T BE WAITING FOR ME!” Jones’ guitar less than gently weeps, and then cuts off like a hacksaw. At the same time the Clash were effecting a similar, but polar opposite, transformation effect on “Complete Control” (in the same month, too); what starts off as an everyday rant about record companies and tours becomes, largely through Strummer’s absolute/absolutist commitment and Lee Perry’s echoes (see the song’s unlikely doppelganger “Big Muff” by John Martyn; “Don’t like the music much but absolutely agree with the politics”).

“Small Hours” by John Martyn, from 1977, recorded in the middle of nowhere in the earliest of mornings, out in the open; blissful, aimless, nocturnal, profound. Some blank spaces are filled with daubs of beauty; others with the horror of their own blankness.

And Richard Hell (pace Rod McKuen and the Comets) never meant “Blank Generation” to mean “blank” but a blank space which you filled in however you wanted. Not that Hell has always remembered this.

a declaration of solidarity on the part of a movement which at that point was at the point of breaking into pieces. It is noble; “Holidays” is beaten.

“My SELF! My beautiful SELF! No feelings for anybody ELSE!”
England, this is your future.
The song “No Feelings” musically is highly reminiscent of Status Quo.

“God Save The Queen.”
A blank space at number one in Woolworth’s, Boots and WH Smith’s.
Same with the album, banned by all of these but 150,000 advance orders were always going to be enough to get it in here.

It should be remembered that Bollocks did not get particularly good reviews in the music press of November 1977. Burchill in the NME thought it was crap compared with the Spunk bootleg, which was listed above the album in her review. Jon Savage in Sounds seemed a little disappointed by the inclusion of the hits and a general air of over-production, and constructed the review as an imaginary dialogue between critic and punter. I can’t remember what was said about it in Melody Maker, nor who said it (I read MM for Richard Williams and Steve Lake’s jazz reviews).

But I also remember Williams in MM being rather let down by “Anarchy” when it came out as a single; he thought it too slow and ponderous a record next to the unambiguous sugar rush of the Damned’s “New Rose” (“Nick Lowe understands. Chris Thomas doesn’t,” he concluded). And for a long time I thought he was right; I loved his comparison of Rat Scabies’ drum style – all cymbals, frequently overriding any explicit sense of rhythm – with that of Sunny Murray (“and the guy out of the Stooges”) and quickly grew weary of “Anarchy”’s posthumous status as Classic Rock Anthem, which at the time went largely unplayed on British radio in favour of musical giants like John Christie and Liverpool Express. Both Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh correctly label it as an irruption, the first decisive break with rock’s rhythmic roots in black music (though whither “Anarchy” without “Slavery Days” or “War In A Babylon”?), and while I do not believe it succeeded in destroying everything – because, at the time, nobody could hear it – I have to say that it sounds less slow than it did thirty-six years ago, that Jones’ guitar chorales are masterful (hear the way he breaks out like a faulty electric razor in the final chorus), and that “your future dream is a shopping scheme” is exactly the way things turned out.

“God Save The Queen,” though

Herb Alpert at A&M. God bless him. He okayed the Pistols being fired from the label but signed Ornette Coleman. Dancing In Your Head - now there was the real 1977 revolution I wanted from the boys.

and Marc Bolan, about whose death nobody got into a frenzy like they did with Elvis, although he had all the punk bands on his Granada kids’ teatime show – to a cartoon audience, I ask you – but it shocked me a hell of a lot more (coming home from school on Friday afternoon to find the Evening Times with its headline POP STAR BOLAN DIES IN CAR CRASH, 29 lying on the carpet); he would have loved and understood this – “Summer is heaven in seventy-seven!”

“We love our Queen”
“Don’t be told what you want.”
“It’s the future – YOUR future.”
“We mean it MAAAAAAN!”

And, from “Problems”:
“The problem is YOU!”

We are going to have to think – that is, you, the reader, and me, the writer – long and hard about those “we”s and “our”s and “you”s and “your”s. Were they the same as the “we” of Orson Welles, the “we” who knew the Martians were drawing their plans against us, but also that there was a remote farm in Lincolnshire where every July Mrs Buckley grew peas? That is, who is Lydon talking to, or speaking for? Is it us? The enemy? Britain? The world? Or the “we” who know this stuff too well already, and need to be slapped?

From “EMI”:
“Too many people said: what, us?”

There is an old Schweppes commercial where someone comes on screen and slaps a guy hard in the face. The guy replies: “Thanks! I needed that!”

Were the Pistols what 1977 rock needed?

“God Save The Queen”: it’s not the Queen who is being attacked – Fluff Freeman at the time remarked, “You know, pop pickers, I think they secretly love their Queen, don’t you?” – but The Queen™ , the idea of Jubilee as branded industry: “They made YOU a moron!” “She ain’t no human being” because England has turned her into someone almost ahuman.

“The sky split apart in malice,
Stars rattled like pans on a shelf,
Crow shat on Buckingham Palace;
God pissed Himself.”
(Philip Larkin, unpublished Silver Jubilee quatrain, possibly after Ted Hughes)

Nothing in 1977 was quite as nihilist or punk rock as Larkin’s Aubade, which appeared in The Times that Christmas. Here is the careful notetaking of a man exhausted with life, done in by day and night, probably drained by the passing of his mother earlier that year (McLaren’s own grandmother also died in 1977); in the remaining, slowly suicidal eight years of his life he produced no further extended work of note.

BS Johnson would have hated punk rock but agreed with its politics.

In “Queen” the Pistols, triumphantly (musically)

Oh yes, Sid.

The blank space and yet also the least dispensable one.

He couldn’t really play bass (what you hear on the album are the Matlock originals, and Jones more or less did the bass on the newer tracks) and he didn’t really have a future.

But you can’t imagine the Pistols without him.

Always him. Never me. And he was my best mate, and I saw him get destroyed by this stupid rock and roll business. And fucking Malcolm. You know, that’s the thing with me and Malcolm. I loved the bastard. Absolutely loved him. But he didn’t love me enough, maybe not at all. I don’t know that he loved Sid any more, but he wanted Sid to be the new star and it wouldn’t work, I told them it wouldn’t work. This pathetic leather, drugs and cock schlock. Die a stupid junkie death like Johnny Thunders and David Ruffin and all those other twats. Nancy. I told Nancy to go fuck herself, so she fucked Sid. Ha ha. Actually I just said I wasn’t interested, and I meant it. She rolled over to Sid, and he was.

But Steve Jones and Paul Cook neither. Bollocks is as much Jones’ album, and maybe more his album, than Lydon’s

why are you not calling him Rotten? Because everyone else does these days, and I remember that awful last Peter Sellers film, The Fiendish Plot Of Fu Manchu or whatever it was, and whenever he’s not indulging in masturbatory fantasies about Helen Mirren, his characters have Goon-ish names. One was called “Charles Rotten”; I’ve no idea whether this was a deliberate nod to the Pistols, since by 1980 Sellers had expressed not the slightest whiff of knowledge or interest in punk; he was married to Lynne Frederick and determined to become an old man in severe need of a lie-in.

Come to think of it, there is an awful lot of Peter Sellers in Lydon’s vocal style (see Sellers’ 1957 version of “Any Old Iron”; I do not exaggerate) and an awful lot more Kenneth Williams

Funny how it always comes back to Ken, doesn’t it? By 1977 he was not getting work, or the sort of work that would normally have come his way was going to John Inman or Larry Grayson. Was Williams ever a great actor? I have no documentary evidence to prove this. Old souls speak with some awe of his Dauphin in the 1954 stage production of Saint Joan or in Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed the following year, but neither was filmed, and it only takes a second of watching An Audience With Kenneth Williams to know that acting did not dwell within him; it was the eyes, dead to all save himself, betraying a heart not in the trivia into which he knew he had painted his own inescapable corner. So when Peter Cook – who did some preparatory work on the screenplay for The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle and managed to outweird both Lydon and Vicious when he invited them round for tea in Hampstead – and Dudley Moore offered Williams a part in their adaptation of Hound Of The Baskervilles, he jumped at it. Not that it is a great film, because it is anything but, and yet it kept Williams occupied, away from the morbid thought of growing old next door to his mother. If anything, his life ended up in even more of a straitjacket; the late entries in his Diaries are tough going, revealing a man wracked by (in part psychosomatic) pain, fed up with life, getting no work other than the occasional voiceover or quiz show, accelerating his end.

Russell Davies did an efficient editing job on Williams’ diaries, carefully tiptoeing around the things about his life which didn’t quite add up – why the attachment to his mother? Why the reluctance to visit, or even emigrate to, the USA? Why is he so circumspect in his diary entries concerning the strange death of his father?

The Kenneth Williams Diaries, with all its despair over premature suicides or worse – his Orton/Halliwell moment in the mid-sixties, the one time when all his paradoxes came together and made both sense and purposes – and lengthy descriptions of life-changing self-denial, is all the more compelling a read when you consider you are reading the writing of a man who may, theoretically, have killed someone other than himself.

Like poor stupid stoned Sid.

because his endless guitar overdubs create an unbreachable wall which is in harmony with the record’s emotional and socio-aesthetic discordance. In his solo on “Queen” he suggests triumph, hope, and, yes…a future.

“Problems” is easy; some three years later, Chrissie Hynde, who was certainly in on all of this, would write “Private Life” and it is about the same thing (“Eat your heart out on a plastic tray”). The trouble is that Lydon’s “you” seems to extend beyond his hapless, self-pitying subject, and perhaps to some of the people buying or listening to this record. He ends by belching “PRO-BLEM” repeatedly and diatonically, like a robot, long after the music has ended, long after any tempo or heartbeat has disappeared.

“I’m A Lazy Sod,” as everyone called “Seventeen”; slack-jawed slackerism with Jones’ Kraftwerkian guitar bleeps segueing easily into “Anarchy.”

“Sub-Mission” takes the “All Day And All Of The Night” riff and hurls it into limbo, with a backdrop of ghostly howls, dog yelps, etc. Lydon’s “Watery love” is met by a brutal CRUNCH from Jones’ guitar. The climax is rather like a football crowd singing Stockhausen (Donnerstag und Licht, perhaps?).

“Pretty Vacant.”

“This time the boys keep it clean.”

“A-pretty va-CUNT-ah!”

“Don’t ask us what we’re doing ‘cos we’re not aware!” – Christian Wolff in action.

A very Number 6 song, isn’t it, “Pretty Vacant”? “There’s no point in asking/You’ll get no reply.”

It was where The Public finally got to hear what these Sex Pistols were all about, and it was the greatest fuck-you song in rock since “My Generation” and maybe since “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” We’re here, it’s the end of Empire, who know of our background who only our background know?

When you hit the pavement at such speed and with such force and determination, that in itself does not guarantee that there will be a beach underneath it to soften your fall. Ask Guy Debord.

Hey, hey, we’re the Pistols, people say we Pistol around.
And the first song we learned to play was “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone.”

The song is about “them” but they rub their “them” in the listener’s face to know they mean what they mean.

And what they mean is THEY DON’T CARE because YOU, by definition, ARE SO SQUARE.

So quickly did punk become square that it’s not even a joke. No, the Pistols were not some stepping stone for whatever crappy loudmouth bunch of indie fuckwits are being hyped up on Xfm this week as The Next (blanks). Their notion of a stepping stone was that you stepped off it and found yourself hurtling down a cliff face, or slipping off the edge of the planet. The point of “Pretty Vacant” was its vacancy, its supremely confident blankness; its message: YOU CAN’T GO BACK NOW.

So many people didn’t, so many more people did anyway. Major new releases that Bollocks prevented from getting to number one included albums by Rod Stewart, Queen, ELO and Genesis. But they all come back to this tale, whereas the Pistols do not. Because they were not meant to come back, or comeback (except for their own reasons).

In the winter charts of 1977 there was a TV-advertised Stones compilation, on Arcade Records of all labels, entitled Get Stoned. Muddy Waters, high on his comeback with Hard Again, was infinitely hipper.

But, you know, there were other songs to write, and if truth be told they weren’t as good. “New York” for instance; is it a go at Nancy? Who cares if it is or isn’t? I remember Ned Sherrin being complimentary about it in the TV Times, and, well, if Ned Sherrin’s on your case that puts you in a place beyond…I don’t quite know what, actually, but he compared it with Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Manhattan” and not unreasonably (bad cop, good cop, same town). But the OTHER “f” word reeks of desperation, as do the assorted “KISS KISS!,” “You’re just a pile of shit,” animals/bullshit metaphors and even “Sealed With A Kiss” references. The final result sounds like…Guns N’ Roses, for better or worse. “NEVER! NEVER! NEVER!” howls Lydon like some ostracised Shirley Bassey outtake. It ends with a jibe at their old record company, which is fine if you like artists making jibes at their old record company while society is burning, but unlike “Complete Control,” “EMI” doesn’t transcend its context, although it’s still a rousing, flag-waving finale; there, everything the Pistols would have detested.

Poor boys. They just ran out of ideas. I told themIdeas? You ran out on us, you bastardwhere would you boys have been otherwise? The Bayfucking fashion wanker, Max Miller would have PEED on youthe lightTHE WAYThen you went and goneWHY?GIVE IT TO ME, BABIES!!

Look, if you want a Sex Pistols album the way McLaren wanted it, go listen to The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, twenty-four track CD available for a fiver at all good record shops and quite a few bad ones as well. In fact I probably listen to it more for pleasure than Bollocks but there it is; it was all Malcy’s idea, his Peter Ustinov sixties caper wizard wheeze to con the music business, the musicians and the listeners (and the T-shirt wearers) and the Pistols performances, whenever Lydon is involved, are excoriating.

And if you want a Sex Pistols album the way Lydon wanted it, go listen to Metal Box by Public Image Ltd, which delivered everything the Pistols had once promised to those still listening, including a lament for Lydon’s mother (“Death Disco” or “Swanlake” as it’s credited and mixed on the album) which is every bit as powerful as Larkin’s Aubade. Only Escalator and Rock Bottom are better albums (and isn’t it nice that all three were, in seventies Britain, available on Virgin?).

Because then the times and the context slowly disappeared. There was a new PiL album earlier this year which many missed, and which contains some of the most powerful music the group has made since 1981, but who’s left to pay any attention to anything or anybody other than cheeky Cockernee chappie John Lydon and his butter adverts and jungle capers?

Anybody, any body, any bodies.

“Bodies” is the quintessential Pistols performance (to coin another critical cliché of eternal enmity) because it goes further than any other album track, before or since, to be included in this tale; the politeness of fifties Britain (in 1977 Britain, trust me, if you weren’t in London, it was still the fifties) ripped apart. A story of an abortion told from three perspectives – mother, father, embryo – the talkback is straight out of Marie Lloyd and George Robey (“She don’t want a baby that looks like that!”/”I don’t want a baby that looks like that!”) but the rage is something quite new and unparalleled; the music suggests PJ Harvey a generation ahead of schedule; the “screaming bloody fucking mad” represents the no longer suppressed thoughts of the neighbours avoiding Abigail’s party, where the sound of the new can be heard emanating through the wall while the old world (in the form of Laurence) dies. “I’M NOT AN ANIMAL!” over and over. The ghastly scream of “MUMMY!” which echoes like Armageddon rifles throughout the song’s climax, and thereafter into a lifetime. More than anything there is the realisation that, when faced with the irreducible shitness of life, the only rational response a human being can offer is “FUCK THIS AND FUCK THAT FUCK IT ALL AND FUCK THE BRAT” – Speight or Beckett, you decide. “FUCKING BLOODY MESS” shrieks the aborted foetus.

So don’t talk to me about 2CD reissues (catalogue number: SPUNK 1, but if you have to have this record, then this is how to have it) because what we are dealing with here goes beyond anything that an album, “classic” or otherwise, can hope to encompass. I am not saying that Never Mind The Bollocks demolished everything that came before it on Then Play Long - because it didn’t – but its existence forces us to look at everything that came before it and will come after it in a different way. Because here is the poison within the machine, here is the dustbin holding the flowers (and who is to say what, or who, will flow?); this is Oates going out for some time and deciding to go surfing in Panama. It still sounds like the world’s end.

I’ve no further business here. The future is for others to play with now. Not that they have any idea what is coming because I certainly don’t. But these streets; I could walk round them blindfold and still know exactly where I was. The Conservative Club still here, on the bend; that should tell you how little has really changed. Its look is essentially unaltered. But those towers, they still lean down on me, like the most claustrophobic of citadels.

I am not an empty celebrity for celebrity’s sake. I still have things to say. Is anybody listening? Pardon? Finsbury Park is full of Asian tailor shops now; self-sufficient industry, and all the better for it. Yes, there is nowhere on this record where I sing of things I love, or even like; it is all hatred because in 1977 there was no other channel for it. Malcolm did what he thought he had to do; so did they all, the silly cunts. Treating us like a line of clothing, altering or discontinuing us as he felt fit…he did that, but then he could only think in terms of fashion, persona, style. You know; admire Ziggy Stardust because of Bowie changing his persona and style – it’s overrated. People can’t see that on a record; all they hear is 1972 ITV Schools Rock Opera. Well, that’s MY Controversial Comment for Today.

I see you, Music, I see you.
It’s just that I can’t hear you the same way.


Bill Grundy. Doesn’t he know that Tony Wilson?

6 comments:

MikeMCSG said...

Re the RM comment, it wouldn't have been Sunie - she'd gone by the end of 82. Could have been Levy but sounds more like Betty Page.
David Cavanagh in Q was certain that Sid is on "Bodies" and suggested that his absence from most of the LP was partly due to hepatitis.

Unknown said...

You, sir, are a marvel. I thank you.

plague said...

Overwhelming piece that will take a couple of readings to get the full measure of. Thanks.

The Oil said...

A brilliant piece of writing.
How the Sex Pistols were and are perceived is an interesting one. For the 6 year old me, the name Johnny Rotten referred to a cartoon character that was name checked in the playground, but only one of my mates knew who he was thanks to his 13 year old brother. The Sex Pistols notable only for their name. “Mum, what does Sex Pistol mean??” You can imagine.
A couple of years later I found a single with a cover of "Something Else" on it. As Eddie Cochran was revered in our house it went down a storm, but the B-side, “Friggin’ In The Riggin’” just reinforced the cartoon image.
I forgot about them then, until a few years later when The Tube showed the now often repeated clip of “Pretty Vacant”. These were not The Sex Pistols that I was familiar with. After the clip, Muriel Gray looked into the camera and with a tone of triumph and scorn spat “Ha! Puts Billy Joel into perspective, eh?!”
Yes it did Muriel. And thanks for highlighting Steve Jones' part, instinctive, sharp guitar lines that married perfectly with Lydon.

George said...

For me, the joy of reading “Then Play Long” is in rediscovering the past in a way that makes the familiar seem radically different e.g. I had no idea that Cliff’s 40 Golden Big Ones – or whatever – was immediately followed by Never Mind The Bollocks. Seems to me that there’s a colossal significance in that juxtaposition. And Peter Sellers and Kenneth Williams. Yes – it all makes sense.

And as for that wonderful “A-pretty va-CUNT-ah!” – I think Mark E. Smith carved an entire career out of that line!

David Belbin said...

A great read. Took me back. I was editing my university students' union fortnightly paper music section and my obsessions were John Martyn and Kevin Coyne, both mentioned here, both of whom I interviewed (in '76, I held the phone while the editor of the fanzine I was writing for, Liquorice, interviewed the less interesting two of the Pistols). However one could hardly escape the significance of The Pistols, especially since the head of my uni English dept appeared in court to defend their use of the old Anglo-saxon word 'bollocks' in the full window display at the late lamented Selectadisc on Market Street. So, like Sounds, I ran two reviews: me on 'Bollocks' and my always cooler than me friend Michael Bracewell (then going as 'Myke') on the Spunk bootleg. As I recall, 'Bodies' was the track that I picked on, and I suspect I'd be rather embarrassed to reread my teenage pontificating now...