Sex Pistols ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ – a re-evaluation…

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Second in a series of re evaluation of classic albums, part one beingThe Stranglers ‘Black and White’

In the end the only punk album in its truest definition was Never Mind The Bollocks. This was punk with all its contradictions from showbiz to schizoid, from manipulative management to the greatest fiercest rock n Roll record ever, fiery fury, claustrophobic compressed controversy and thrilling noise. It was like nothing else. This had nothing to do with the Ramones or the American bands. This was pure undistilled English punk rock that also somehow managed to be a great pop record but brimful of self loathing, anger and acidic poetry. A work of eternal genius that we are still unraveling to this day. 

‘We’re vacant, pretty vah-cunt and we don’t care…’

screech the phlegm filled vocals as the song ends on a skree of feedback and attitude. For three minutes we have been on an exhilarating ride of huge guitars, powerful drums and maximum rock n roll that is as thrilling and dangerous as it can get… and this is the Sex Pistols at their most pop with ‘Pretty Vacant’.

The rest of their one and only proper album, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ staggers from one extreme to another but somehow remains within the boundaries of rock. It’s so full of attitude that it has affected generations of musicians from Guns n Roses to the Manic Preachers from the Stone Roses to Oasis to Primal Scream to Creation Records boss Alan McGee to black metal to any rock band who want to a bit further…

Somehow, though, the Sex Pistols story is always about the clothes, the politics, the artwork, the controversy and the management- the music has been removed from the narrative. Another listen to their one and only album, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ is enough to make you realise that this one of the great rock n roll records and the band’s music is not only stunningly original but a perfectly produced maelstrom of restless resentment and barely unsurpassed excitement.

The end of their number one (but removed to number two by the chart cowards) ‘God Save The Queen’ is a perfect example of this. It’s about as thrilling as rock n roll gets. The loose abandon of guitars piling on their wall of sound insanity is unsurpassed as Steve Jones makes the greatest rock guitar sound in the history of rock n roll.

Paul Cook’s drums are powerful, off kilter and ever inventive- the pair of them perfectly understand how to create adrenalized excitement in the confines of a rock song and are, perhaps, the unsung heroes of the punk rock generation. The Sex Pistols story has become one of pop culture guerrillas and Situationist thinking tearing apart of the fabric of society, this side- the intellectual, trouble making story of the Sex Shop and also Rotten’s stunning anti hero stance is documented endlessly but without Cook and Jones all this would have meant little. The actual sound that the pair of them makes is a stunning understanding of the power and fury of what the band was about and if all the Situationist stuff was of little interest to them they somehow matched its intent with their sonic assault. The pair of them are virtually all you need here, bass man Glen Matlock had been a great player but he doesn’t make it to the album (or does he? lots of varying accounts on who played bass…) and his replacement Sid Vicious may have been an iconic, action man clothes horse but was no bass player.

The story of punk has been changed over the years.

These days the big spreads on punk history are built around the Clash and whilst we love the Clash, the story has to be put right, because, surely it was the Sex Pistols that were the key band from punk. The Pistols started it, they were the catalyst for the generation and changed us all and opened the door to a million possibilities.

A lot has been said about the Pistols being a great concept and that the music didn’t matter and whilst the concept is a work of genius from the clothes to the attitude to the controversy- kick starting a generation, it’s the music that, for me, really stands the test of time.

This is a controversial opinion. Many dismiss the music. There is an attitude, mainly from the late Malcolm Maclaren, that the band couldn’t play and this was a good thing. His claim was the he could take any four people and make them have the same impact.

He was lucky he had the Pistols.

Listening to ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ now is as a terrifyingly, brilliant experience as it was all those years ago. Far from being an added soundtrack to loads of controversy this is a breakthrough rock n roll record on every level. Steve Jones guitar is a sonic masterpiece. This is how a rock guitar should sound- fat and brutal and deliciously heavy. I remember listening to the album decades ago in an altered state and Jones guitar sounded like fire from hell.

It still sounds like that now in an unaltered state.

The songs are also unusual, apart from ‘Pretty Vacant’, there is very little straight verse/ chorus action going on. There are riffs piling up and unusual quirky guitar licks mixed in with the Stooges and Dolls riffola. One of the great myths about punk was how it was really easy to play, that might have been true with the Ramones whose songs were not too difficult to figure out, but the Pistols churning maelstrom was complex in its brilliance and took some thinking out to recreate. They never go for the obvious and somehow the band, between Glen Matlock’s song writing nous and the engine room’s sheer inventiveness that belies their yobbish image, twist and turn rock n roll inside out.

One of the key questions is whether the Sex Pistols were a punk band at all because they were like no-one else. They certainly had their own sound. For a start they did not speed up after the famous Ramones gig in London at the Roundhouse on July 4th 1976, maybe that was because they were playing in Sheffield the same night with the Clash who were making their own debut, supporting them. The Pistols were certainly there the following night for the Ramones first headline UK show at Dingwalls when they were famously involved in the Stranglers versus Clash kick off in the car park. Whilst every other band cranked up the velocity after the Ramones experience the Pistols stayed the same speed which worked in their favour giving their sound an oozing, feral power.

Johnny Rotten’s vocals are perfection; they are the twist that takes the Pistols even further away from standard rock drill. Rotten’s screeching hysterics and intense pop eyed poetry are delivered with an invention and confidence that is way beyond his years. Never before had anyone ever sounded like this. This was a whole new way of singing, it sounded all at once contemptuous, sarcastic, bitterly sardonic, funny and belchingly music hall whilst always managing to sound vulnerable and full of teenage angst and insecurity. Rotten had invented a new vocabulary and a new way of singing that became a whole style on its own.

The stare that launched a 1000 t-shirts

The album takes no prisoners and from the opening jackboot stomp of ‘Holidays In The Sun’ it sets its stall. The song is the Sex Pistols last proper single and a brilliant example of churning paranoia built into a cascading riff and a classic sing-along hook. The Pistols brought a range of feelings and emotions to the rock n roll song not known before. The closest had been the Stooges but this was going somewhere else and a place so claustrophobically British. You can feel the frustration, the tension and the paranoia as Rotten sings of the Berlin wall surrounding him. Scary stuff for a top ten single.

The next track, ‘Bodies’ is the Pistols at their most demented, dark and dangerous. The riff churns with an evil intent before hanging in the air before the twisting and turning song comes crashing in. You can feel an evil darkness that most black metal bands crave, this is the Pistols somewhere else, the band stripped away of all the artifice, of the attitude, the tabloids, the clothes, the concept- this is rock n roll as deadly as it gets and beyond all the bullshit. By the way Pauline from the song’s subject matter actually really existed.

When the album came out a lot was made of the fact that all the band’s singles were on it, this was considered ripping off ‘da kids’ but actually makes for a perfect album. ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ is a thrilling statement of filthy intent that is a picture postcard of a very different Blighty than the one sold to us and without the classic four Pistols singles it just would not hang together. ‘Anarchy In The UK’ still stands the test of time as being one of the greatest debut singles ever released. That long descending intro sounds like the tidal wave to a new age and all these years later it still sounds like the spilt between one era of rock n roll and the next- the first generation gap in pop culture. The song is a monolithic clarion call of primal oozing power and Rotten’s vocal is at its snarling best as he screams the manifesto that so many in the UK picked up on later that year.

For me the album’s greatest moment is ‘God Saves The Queen’, which as Marco from Adam And The Ants once pointed out to me and I agreed with is the greatest pop single ever made. With this kind of intensity Rotten could be singing a shopping list and it wouldn’t kill the song. The fact that he sticks a V sign to the establishment in a daring and precise manner and the single was released in Jubilee week gave it a dangerous whiff of insurrection and was the closest a mere pop song had ever been to bringing down the government. The song itself is concise and deadly- that opening riff- the Eddie Cochran shuffle cranked to the max is one of the great openings n rock n roll. Its pure adrenaline rush before the classic Pistols chug takes over in the verses allows Rotten to spit his bile. The sing-along ‘No Future’ chorus belies the songs original title and is one of the great Pistols sing-along mob handed choruses that pepper their songs and are a nod to the entire terrace culture that was part of where the band’s DNA came from. The single greatest moment in the song is the middle section where the riff takes off for some serial madness. It’s another example of the way the band could build and build a song endlessly adding excitement with one riff after another.

‘Submission’ is where the format is broken down – in some ways it’s a hint at what’s to come, a precursor to Public Image and a peak beyond the original Pistols and maybe a hint to some sort of idea of where they could have gone had they had held everything together. The song, which was a last minute addition to the album causing confusion on the sleeve artwork, still operates on the classic chug but there is something wonky and weird about the feel, a flirtation with the avante garde locked in within a rock n roll song. The ad libbed backing screams from Johnny or Sid are yet another departure from the normal rock n roll form and an effective counterpoint to the song’s chugging and effective groove.

The recently removed Glen Matlock was a great song writer, he had an ear for a great tune and even lyrically he had the smarts, his ‘Pretty Vacant’ is a funny and sardonic take on Richard Hell’s ‘Blank Generation’ and swiftly became the closest the band had to a standard rock n roll anthem with its descending chorus being a roller coaster of manic perfection.

Glem Matlock

‘Bollocks’ though was not just about the singles and the famous stand out cuts, there was also ‘Liar’- a sneering hysterical rant, ‘Seventeen’ redrawing of the pop generational boundaries, ‘Problems’ vicious put downs, ‘No Feelings’ amphetamined, glazed eye youthful arrogance, ‘New York’ with its witty and sarcastic assault on the Big apple hipster cool and ‘EMI’ where Rotten stuck it to the most establishment of labels that had unceremoniously dropped the band after the Bill Grundy show furore.

Musically the lesser know tracks are the equal of the hits. The multi tracked wall of sound guitars sound as exciting as rock n roll gets- this is Phil Spector taken to an illogical and molten conclusion. The Sex Pistols may have come to destroy rock n roll or maybe the media gave them that role but the so called sexy young assassins ended up reinventing it and the sheer sonic tidal wave of sound they created became the template for a huge proportion of metal and punk since then.

The album is, perhaps, Steve Jones musical masterpiece. He may not have written the bulk of the songs but he employs every guitar trick in the book building up the wall of sound and they all pay off. Whether it’s the trademark chug that he utilises in the verses, the ringing hanging chords, the Johnny Thunders licks, the plectrum scraping down the guitar, the wall of sound rush, those weird twanging lead licks, the squelches of feedback – it’s all there, tracked carefully with producer Chris Thomas as they spent the summer of 1977 creating a masterpiece. The guitars are key in their building of an ebb and flow of the song as they move towards the histrionic climaxes.

The Sex Pistols may have invented punk but they didn’t sound like punk cliché- they were slower with their own groove. They refused to speed up when everyone else did and they maintained a mid speed chug which only added to the powerful ooze of their sound. Paul Cook is so vital to this- one of the great rock n roll timekeepers, his drums have that rarest of things, their own signature, you can instantly recognise his playing on any record that he plays on, that rolling style that is super tight. Paul Cook is one of the key rock drummers; he has a power but also a precision and a real sense of groove and intelligence that define these songs.

There is always talk of the Pistols being poseurs or, laughably, not really being punk. Another listen tor this album swiftly negates this idle chat. There is more than enough bile in Rotten’s killer vocals to drown out the rest of the punk scene. He really is a fantastic vocalist- over enunciating words, squeezing every ounce of passion from every syllable with that stunningly original high pitch whine which he patented. Funny and psychotic at the same time, Rotten is a total one off, an original in a field of copycats and annoyingly he knows this.

Everywhere you turn Rotten’s lyrics are pure vitriolic genius. Funny and terrifying and way beyond the simplistic words of so many of his contemporaries. Bringing in far more than ‘I hate this and I hate that’ clichés that to the table- there are all sorts of exorcisms going on here in words that rewrote the rule book.

The Pistols proper may have only been around for one album but they certainly made their statement and shifted culture dramatically. Sonically ‘Bollocks’ became the template for a myriad of rock bands and attitude wise it changed perceptions of what rock n roll could be about. The band were already trapped into a nihilistic fast forward since the Bill Grundy incident that even they could not keep up with and even on release it was felt that the band had burned out. Twelve months on from their explosive entry the Sex Pistols were already on culture’s garbage heap but as a last stand ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ was like nothing else and as it flew to number one the Sex Pistols were three months from imploding their job done and a generation already changed beyond recognition and one of the classic all time rock n roll albums that played by non of the rules of the form as their definitive statement.

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56 comments on “Sex Pistols ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ – a re-evaluation…”

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  1. It’s got LOADS of swearing in it, the guitars are LOUD as FUCK an the Queen pure gets it an aw. Quality. 10/10

  2. A truly great record, nearly every song a classic. Bodies was the best song IMHO, yes obvious with all the cursing but the intro to it, still puts a chill up my spine, damn terrifying, and ‘…her name was Pauline she lived in a tree’….hilarious, yes and true. also Lydon had a fantastic way with a simple, direct lyric. ‘Religion’ by PiL is also pure poetry.

    Was at a festival a few years back and no-one under 25 wanted to see them, kids saying ‘thats the guy who did the butter ad’….a shame because they were tight and brillant.

    its a shame ‘never mind the bollocks’ has accumulated such cultural baggage over the years, but the artwork is still fantastic, a riot of day-glo.

    Remember the Pistols were discussed in parliment at the time, the establishment were genuinely worried. A work of great 20th century art !

  3. Can’t believe that Bill Price (the engineer) didn’t get a mention – he was responsible for a lot of the sound production on NMTB.

  4. The hackneyed ‘they can’t play’ has been a real bugbear of mine for the past 30+ years, it really annoys me how little credit the Pistol’s receive as musicians, especially Cook and Jones. Probably not helped by McLaren propagating the myth (“find yourself four kids… make sure they can’t play”) All these years later the opening to ‘Pretty Vacant’ still sends tingles down my spine and it warrants a place in any rock fans all-time greats. Whilst I love ‘Pretty Vacant’, for me ‘EMI’ is the definitive Pistols track and ends the album in exactly the same manner ‘Holidays in the Sun’ opened it. ‘Bodies’, ‘No Feelings’, ‘Seventeen’ were all great tracks that still stand the test of time, sounding better than much of todays manufactured muck. Scrub that, better than anything coming out today.

  5. Funny that this crops up now; I found my old tape of Never Mind the Bollocks (given to me at school by Brian Cannon) the other day and played it. Memories of it getting played on the bus on a Tandy tape player when I was 13/14. Liar and Problems still sound amazing. Bodies is really out there and shocking at the time (no hype needed). It launched a thousand bands, which is the real story. It was quite dark in some ways but also had such a life force. Unique. Life changing.

  6. Steve Jones is the soul of the Pistols and the album for me….His simple bass playing defined the sound as well as his guitar…Listen to the pre-NMTB recordings and see how Matlock’s pseudo-muso Motown bass lines took all the power out of the songs – Jones’s thuggish heart is all over the record – love it!….

  7. yeah, good read john, i was just listening to the early b sides, sattalite, did you no wrong, and your link came up. cheers, ps how do you spell satalite?

  8. Nothing really I can add to what’s been said except to say that NMTB is the greatest album ever released & I’ve had that opinion now for about 34 years. Whenever I play it, which is often, I close my eyes & still feel the same excitement I felt all those years ago. Thrilling.

  9. An excellent read – and I couldn’t agree more. Although I always thought Glen Matlock was brought back into the band to play bass on the album, as a session musician. Isn’t that the case?

  10. *\’Anarchy In The UK\’s long descending intro sounds like the tidal wave to a new age and all these years later it still sounds like the spilt between one era of rock n roll and the next.*
    Never mind the bollocks, this is one of the best articles about the Sex Pistols EVER!

  11. I had Problems in my head a few days ago actually.
    This LP is in a LOT of peoples’ DNA let’s leave it at that!

  12. Great article to the best album ever! the album still sounds fresh and full of energy all these years later the Pistols were great musicians and that gets overlooked far too often as people just hone in on the controversy. From the opening Holidays to the closing EMI every song hits the heights both musically and lyrically and is presented well by Chris Thomas,Bill Price with great artwork from Jamie Reid. I mean how many albums have subject material as diverse as abortion, the Queen, the Berlin wall, submarine missions, dishing one of the leading New York Punk groups and giving a verbal kicking to your previous but one record company. Fantastic!

  13. Got to laugh at your review a bit – they influenced The Stone Roses did they? Well i can’t hear it …
    Matlock was and is still a tit, i’ve met him three or four times – i don’t know who he thinks he is …
    The band only recorded one admittedly brilliant album – but he’d been sacked pre-recording – one guy was right the engineer/producer guy made the difference sonically, Johhny’s lyrics and attitude were killer and a classic White City wide boy Jonesy had learnt his Thunders lessons well.
    Sid was a useless idiotic moron – but was the only one that looked like a star.
    It was a ground breaking/world changing album.
    God Save the Queen!

  14. Great article, but Lydon’s vocals were not original, they imitated the style of Klaus Dinger from Neu! on the first 3 Neu! records and the La Dusseldorf record, all of which predate the Pistols.

  15. Love the comparison with the Bay City Rollers, made me laugh which is about the only emotion the pistols ever inspire in me. Can anyone take them seriously? The Boyzone of the late 70’s. I love the punk era but the pistols never did it for me too manufactured.

    • I guess sometimes their smartness and creativity go over the top of peoples heads… good… less DH’s listening to the pistols. Suits me. :)

  16. When NMTB came out the first time I was 13 and listening to all my dad’s fifties 45s. Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry. I despised the early 1970s sacharin pop and the pomp of bands like Yes.

    This record changed my life forever.

    I suspect it changed lots of other lives too!

  17. Classic album: like John says, underrated despite it’s infamy and far wierder than people give credit for. Personally I think people would give it a lot more credit if it were sequenced differently: No Feelings and Liar have always struck me as the weakest tracks on the album and they’re sequenced back to back and pretty early: If it went Holidays, into Bodies then straight into GSTQueen, I reckon it would be more rated!

  18. bought this when i was 18 more than a decade ago. Bored me then and still cant sit through it. It’s not just the perceived ‘importance’. Riffs are boring. Production is stodge. Lyrics good but lydon was better realised with pil. More punk stuff came before, and a lot more after…minor threat, black flag, hardcore scene generally…gbh, exploited etc on the uk side. Pistols/nmtb don’t follow through on their promise of aggression the way that the more underground bands did. A very over-rated band and album….nobody listens to this shit.

  19. good article, and totally true. “Bollocks” is a fantastic album and when it came out i couldn’t understand why so many people put it down. i loved every song by the Pistols (yes, back then they got a lot of airpla yhere in Austria!) they were instantly recognizable. the album totally changed my attitude towards music.

  20. Vicious didn’t actually play bass on the album. Matlock did.

  21. It’s a truly great record – one of the best rock n roll albums ever made. It’s now part of British culture too. Malcolm McLaren was in many ways was one of the worst managers in popular music history since he was more into promoting himself than anybody else. His constant interference probably lead to the Pistols imploding way too early – it’s a well established fact that promoters desperately wanted to book them but McLaren kept it a secret. The whole narrative he created had nothing to the which is partly why people regard them as style over substance. The music speaks for itself however; any amount of danger Malcolm tried to contrive in their image was more than matched by the tracks on Never Mind The Bollocks. He needed them more they needed him.

  22. facebook_andrewexcess

    The soundtrack of my teenage life, and the doctrine of my adult life since. There are many fine albums out there, but none changed so many people’s thoughts and beliefs as NMTB. There will be nothing like it ever again. God bless the Sex Pistols.

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  27. Very interesting details you have noted , thanks for posting .

  28. Nice one Mr Robb. A proper re-evaluation of one of, if not the, greatest Rock albums of all time. Mclaren was very successful in convincing lots of people it was all his idea and even if he did want to manufacture a band – did he write the songs or the riffs? Of Course not. I know lots of people don’t like Rotten, acccusing him of being a gobshite etc but so were Strummer and Weller, it was part of their own self-belief and determination that enabled them to succeed. Somebody mentions the Exploited as a better hardcore band – for me they and lots of others were a working class embarrassament, as they played into the hands of what the upper classes thought of us – by betraying thick, yobbo, squaddie like behaviour (Fuck A Mod – gosh, how clever). My two favourite albums of all time are equally ‘Bollocks’ as it was life changing and ‘Here Comes The Warm Jets’ by Brian Eno, which is another total one-off and truly inspired original.
    At the time of the Pistols I had many arguments with friends about what I considered to be the mistake of having Sid in the band, as having someone who really couldn’t play could only be a bad thing – there are many live recordings that prove this. I guess the other thing that was damaging at the time was the sad parody that followed with The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, especially in getting involved in arch scumbag Ronnie Biggs.

  29. ‘Never Mind the Bollocks and ‘No More Heroes’ were the two greatest Punk albums of 1977 (IMO)

  30. I never thought of “Never Mind the Bollocks” as a quintessential Punk LP as I do not think the Sex Pistols were the ultimate Punk band ! when I think about it, The Damned and “Damned Damned Damned” comes to mind !!!

  31. The purest Rock & Roll record ever made and kills anything the Clash ever came close too. NMTB nails its credentials firmly to the wall from the outset. This album grabs the listener by the throat from the start, takes them on a roller coaster ride throughout, with all of its twists and turns and then unceremoniously spits them back out at the end with the message – Think about that then. The listener sat back thinking WTF happened there then.

    Simply the greatest Rock and Roll album ever issued.

  32. Lydon’s vocals and style didn’t come from nowhere – he loved Krautrock, especially Neu! and its spin off La Dusseldorf. These were new records at the time and like nothing in US/UK rock music. You should hear Neu! 75 and you can hear where Lydon got the vocals from, and La Dusseldorf’s first album had whole terrace chant thing morphing into an avante garde rock songs underpinning the whole album. Lydon was in sense like David Bowie, an English guy who found the best foreign rock sounds of the day and borrowed his styling’s from them. These sounds are of course all over PIL much more so than the oft referenced dub sounds.

  33. Without doubt the greatest album ever made! For sheer attitude, brutal in your face honesty and utter uniqueness, nothing but nothing comes close! Remember hearing it for the first time at 16 and by the end of the album, the hairs on the back of my neck were literally standing on end. Just to feel that connection was a life changer in itself and have never experienced anything quite like it since. Simply blew me away!

  34. The density of the record was done by compressing the fuck out of it. I heard from a top producer that it went through the mastering process several times before they (band & producer) got the sound they wanted.

  35. The album had had “Belsen was a gas” (the next single that never was), it would have been an album second to none.

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