sexpistolsnevermind40thanniv1_638Album Review

Sex Pistols    Never Mind The Bollocks,  40th Anniversary deluxe edition  (UMC)

CD/Vinyl/DL

Dead horses flogged and more cash from chaos? Joe Whyte reviews the latest NMTB for LTW.

I was, and remain, fascinated by all things Sex Pistol. There’s something about The Pistols, that even with this distance in time, retains a certain mystery and enigma. I guess that feeling goes all the way back to those long-gone days of 1977; as a 14-year old in thrall to punk rock in general and The Pistols in particular, the lack of information about them on radio, TV and even in the music press added a real frisson of secrecy and allure about this all-too-selective society and the inner circle that surrounded them.

Of course, the paranoia and fear had been ramped up in the Pistols camp by a series of attacks by Joe Public in the aftermath of the GSTQ scandal and they had basically circled the wagons in the months around the recording of “Bollocks” and they had practically given up on gigging by this point, McLaren having surmised that the mystery was all good publicity. It all seems rather quaint nowadays when I look back on it, but back then, the words “We mean it, maaaaaaan!!” actually felt like a call to arms and that this rock band (and really, that’s all they were when all is said and done) were leading a revolution in art, culture and politics. Back in 1977, if my friends and I had known about studio out-takes, demo versions and even the between song patter by the band that lay unreleased, we’d have bitten EMI’s hands off for a listen. That’s how fanatical I was, certainly. Anything about this band was instantly legendary and I guess that’s part of the continued attraction; there was so little officially released that any scrap was instantly seized upon. I bet that, like myself, everyone who bought “The Great R&R Swindle” double album spent hours listening to the few tracks that are actual Sex Pistols rehearsal takes (Roadrunner, No Lip, Stepping Stone) rather than The Black Arabs and the Sex Pistols Symphony and the like.

The Sex Pistols impact looms large even to this day. Rock band or not, the seismic reverberations of their short tenure continue through the decades and every time I see some kid with the attitude, the dyed hair, jeans with zips or a leather jacket it reminds me of just that. It was all about the attitude, really. It was about the old guard, the dinosaurs moving over and letting the youth-quake take place. It’s funny now that in some of the 40th anniversary of punk TV shows that have been on, some of these “dinosaurs” now claim alignment with punk and to have “been there”. The yarns about Rotten doing backing vocals on a Queen album (they apparently shared a studio), true or not, would have caused countrywide teen ructions if they’d been known at the time.

sex_pistols_standing
Anyway, I digress. None of you need me to review “Bollocks” again. If you’re not familiar with these twelve songs, there is no hope for you. Suffice to say, it’s one of the most important albums of all time and there’s a reason it’s always in “best of” lists year after year. This new box set is a “budget” version of an earlier Deluxe set and as such is three CDs and a DVD rather than the vinyl and paraphernalia of the earlier release. The interesting part  of the set for most Pistols obsessives is clearly gonna be the disc of rarities. The first few tracks are the single B-sides (although weirdly, “I Wanna Be Me” isn’t included and “No Fun” is the shortened single version) and the opener is the original “No Feeling”, from Dave Goodman’s demo sessions, which would have been the flip side of the long-lost A&M version of “GSTQ”. If you’ve never heard this cut, it’s got an almost “first take” feel to it with little in the way of the overdubs and Steve Jones’s guitar is swamped in that MXR Phase 90 pedal that he used live for much of the early gigs. It has a real joyous energy to it and it’s nice to hear the song unadorned with the massed guitars of the “Bollocks” version. Of course, this is also the version with Glen Matlock playing bass and his thumping fills and swooping playing adds much to the song that is lost in the “official version”. Matlock had a real “swing” about his bass playing that really made a difference. More on this later……

Part two of the rarities disc is the aforementioned Dave Goodman demos. These, of course, became the “Spunk” bootleg that was much-beloved by early Pistols fans and often quoted as being a better representation of the band than “Bollocks”. Once again, Glen is on bass and to be perfectly honest, the songs are much, much better for his contributions. It’s strange hearing songs that you are so familiar with in these embryonic and “different” versions. New York sounds odd at first without that dropping lead guitar descend in the intro from Jones; his guitar simply chugs away over those four bars while in your head you are compelled to hum “dah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-naaah nah!” prior to Rotten’s “An imitation from New Yorrrrrrk” line. Throughout this part of the collection, the strength, power and dynamism of Lydon/Rotten’s vocal is jaw-dropping. Where the hell did that come from? This is a guy who’s never sang before; his command of these songs is frightening. “Unlimited Edition” (which, of course, became “EMI”) is next; again, the walloping, jeez, almost funky bass of Matlock propels the song along at a driving pace. When we compare these with the NMTB versions which have Jones playing root notes on the bass, presumably with a plectrum, the difference is palpable. Jones is a guitarist first and foremost and plays bass like one; Matlock had that whole Ronnie Lane groove going on and by God, did the Pistols miss him when he went. There’s nowt wrong with the NMTB versions, my thoughts on the album are above, but imagine what that album, with Chris Thomas’s production and Matlock’s bass would have sounded like. Different, sure, but definitely with more musicality and muscle.

The other thing that’s worth pointing out about the Sex Pistols is the song structures and the pace. Literally none of these songs go “verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus” etc; the structure of the songs is as weird as fuck. Lots of them don’t have a chorus. See “Anarchy”, “GSTQ”, Holidays In the Sun”; odd, climbing changes, plenty of hooks but the parts of the songs almost stick together organically. “Anarchy” has two guitar solos and no chorus ferchrissakes! The other thing that almost every punk group afterwards didn’t get was that the Sex Pistols songs aren’t played at great speed. They have that aforementioned groove in among the seething vitriol. None of them are warp-speed; Jeez, “Submission” is almost sedate.

On that note, what a great song “Submission” is; that prowling riff, that throbbing bassline (sorry if this is turning into a Glen love-in, folks, but that’s how I’m feeling!) and Rotten’s gleefully deranged vocal. Not forgetting Paul Cook’s drumming- metronome tight, thrusting and those dynamic rolls and fills punching the listener in the solar plexus. The Goodman version here has some of the lyrics in different places and you can hear how Rotten evolved his words. It’s without the ad-libs of “on octopus rock” and “do the Sambo” but has lots of Rotten’s overdubbed “underwater” noises going on and the band sound like they’re having a fine old time. “Body” (“Bodies” demo version) from the later Chris Thomas sessions is similar; many of the lyrics are in places opposite to the version that we all know so well. It’s less fully realised, obviously being a song that they’d yet to play live, but again Matlock’s bass pushes it to new limits. He was usurped shortly afterwards with Sid on board for the album sessions proper. Given that he was in hospital with hepatitis, Jones plays almost all of the bass parts on the non-single cuts on NMTB.

On the subject of the Chris Thomas section of the set, these are perhaps the most interesting tracks herein. The rough mixes, the alternate vocal takes, the different lyrics; a treasure trove for the Pistols fan in your life.  Rotten’s rolling “rrrrrr’s ” in the songs are probably one of the most recognisable sounds in rock music and “Anarchy” apart, it was under-utilised in the official versions. It’s in full effect here as is his sobbing, piss-take outro on “Satellite”. There are lots of between song segments of the band chatting (and a few moments of real hostility, particularly in the tune-up stakes prior to one of the tracks) and Jones’s Beatle-spoof-“we hope we’ve done enough to pass the audition” is a funny moment.

The other real gem here is the long-lost studio demo of “Belsen Was A Gas”. Recorded in their Denmark Street HQ by road manager and confidante John “Boogie” Tiberi on a four track tape machine, it’s longer than the live version from The Winterland gig. Rotten’s vocal is swamped in reverb- possibly an attempt to disguise the lyrics- and Sid’s bass plods along like someone who’s just learned to play.

Cook and Jones slice through the song and the paranoia of the band is almost palpable. That was the big change that’s inherent in these recordings; the exuberance and mischief of the Goodman era is replaced by an instability and insular feel that reflects the times almost perfectly. This is a band with their backs against the wall and it shows.

The third disc in the set comprises two live shows from the Scandinavian tour of 1977. the first set, from Trondheim, is a perfunctory blast through the songs and is all top end trebly; not the best of recordings but typical of the time. The second gig, from Stockholm, is a different kettle of punk rock altogether. The band sound like their having a really good time and Rotten banters with the crowd. The songs sound pretty fast; perhaps the source tape is speeded up but the raucous atmosphere and riotous playing is captured perfectly. Sid still can’t play- he misses loads of cues and starts on the wrong note several times.Jones arses a few songs up, too- one can almost hear him substituting that chugging style to disguise Sid’s deficiencies and beef up the songs. It’s a great record of the power of the band, however.

There will never be another band like the Pistols; they defined a time and a place for a generation. Do you need this? If you’re a Pistols completist you’ll probably already have all of it. If not, the out-takes disc is unmissable. I just wish there was more in the vaults that we hadn’t heard.

 

Official Sex Pistols Website

 

Review by Joe Whyte DTK

 

10 COMMENTS

  1. The dead horse has definitely been flogged. NMTB is a masterpiece, but by the time it came out, the true ethic of ‘Punk’ had long died. Best album of the seventies, as VU’s debut was the best of the sixties, and JAMC’s debut was the best of the eighties. Nothing has touched such a raw nerve since.

  2. Im 52 now and i still blast the pistols at my house and in my truck, i suppose i’ll buy this set too, to add to my collection of other pistols albums. And continue to blast them til i’m well into my 80’s, i’ll never out grow them like i have with other bands of that era, i’ll be a fan til the day i die.

  3. One thing, Glen Matlock didn’t play bass on NMTB.
    Steve Jones did.
    Sid Viscous had already joined the band and due to lack of experience, Steve played all guitar parts on most of the album.

    • He plays on GSTQ, pretty vacant and Anarchy. I am talking about the NMTB Chris Thomas DEMOS (which are most definitely Glen) if you read it again!

      • “Charlatan! Dilettante!” hahahaha

        Er, excuse me Joe, but you are wrong. On many counts. Matlock quit the Sex Pistols (or was fired, depending on whom you believe) in February of ’77. The Pistols started recording with Chris Thomas in March of ’77 right around the signing with A&M. Matlock’s sole contribution to Never Mind the Bollocks -on bass, that is- can be found on Anarchy in the UK which was recorded in November of ’76 and released as a single on EMI the following month. Everything else, including Pretty Vacant, which was released as a single after God Save the Queen, featured Jones on bass, aside from the rumored bass track laid by Sid and buried low in the mix on Bodies.

        Further, you state that Matlock for some reason laid a bass track for the demo Body. That is also easily false considering the fact that Bodies is one of only two tracks to carry the writers credits of Cook, Jones, Rotten, Vicious, the other being Holidays in the Sun, and much has been made of the fact that after Matlock’s departure, the band were only able to manage two more tracks that even hinted at the group’s former greatness. I’m not in that camp personally, I think they are fine tracks. But that’s the jacket hung on this cuts, in any case. Perhaps a case can be made for Belsen also, but that song is usually attributed to Vicious solely. It’s almost as if no one wants to take any credit/ blame for it.

        Finally, and what’s truly most irritating about this error-ridden piece, is your absurd contention that Anarchy in the UK has no chorus. Seriously? Yeah, it’s true God Save the Queen is famously devoid of any such thing. But Anarchy? You know that lyric “And I wanna be Anarchy?” Does that ring a bell? Because that’s called a chorus.

        NOTE: LTW Editor; the full ‘comment’ has been edited as it became personally critical of the post author; we are happy to read other peoples opinion, gain insight into differing views etc to be corrected on occasion; we are not however going to accept personal abuse directed towards our contributors.

  4. God, all I said was “poseur.” That’s as innocuous as it gets and it’s a time-honored punk rock tradition! You make it sound like I used some kind of ethnic slur. Fact is, if you’re gonna write about Rock n Roll, you should get the facts straight. There isn’t much in this world which engenders such passion, and truly, would you have it any other way? I don’t think you would.

    In any case, my apologies. I don’t particularly expect you to print this as it would reveal how truly thin-skinned you all are, but this IS the Internet and my comments were far from extreme. especially considering how ham-handed the above piece is. I didn’t even mention the fact that the “funny moment” Joe refers to, Jones’ quoting of the beatles as “we hope we’ve done enough to pass the audition” was also wrong. Any 8th grader who’s picked up any number of Dave Goodman’s bastard Pistols releases knows it’s “On the behalf of the group I hope we passed the audition.” I mean, what’s he listening to, anyway? Not the same records as this kid. The difference? I’m not purporting to be a journalist.

    Anyway, I hope Joe recovers from this lesson. Maybe if the Internet is too harsh a place, a simple 8.5″x11″ photocopied fanzine is in order. Your friends can read it and your feelings might be spared. Geez.

    And I never capitalize “beatles.”

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