Sex Pistols Spark Punk Rock’s Musical Insurrection Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Standing a complacent record industry on its ear, the Sex Pistols generated a new wave of excitement in popular music. In the wake of the band’s early success, a whole movement of punk rock bands sprang to life.

Summary of Event

In 1975, Malcolm McLaren, an anarchist veteran of the Paris riots of 1968 who had worked as the manager of the protopunk band the New York Dolls, was the owner of a trendy London boutique called Sex. Sex (clothing store) With England in its worst economic straits since World War II and a rising tide of unemployed youth angry over the hypocrisies of British society, McLaren began to imagine forming a rock group that could capture that rage and turn it against a music industry that had long since harnessed the liberating potential of rock music and turned it into an engine for corporate profit. Punk rock Music;punk rock Sex Pistols [kw]Sex Pistols Spark Punk Rock’s Musical Insurrection (Nov., 1975-Jan., 1978) [kw]Punk Rock’s Musical Insurrection, Sex Pistols Spark (Nov., 1975-Jan., 1978) Punk rock Music;punk rock Sex Pistols [g]Europe;Nov., 1975-Jan., 1978: Sex Pistols Spark Punk Rock’s Musical Insurrection[02090] [g]United Kingdom;Nov., 1975-Jan., 1978: Sex Pistols Spark Punk Rock’s Musical Insurrection[02090] [g]England;Nov., 1975-Jan., 1978: Sex Pistols Spark Punk Rock’s Musical Insurrection[02090] [c]Music;Nov., 1975-Jan., 1978: Sex Pistols Spark Punk Rock’s Musical Insurrection[02090] Rotten, Johnny McLaren, Malcolm Vicious, Sid Cook, Paul Jones, Steve Matlock, Glen

Glen Matlock, a part-time employee of Sex who played bass with guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook, told McLaren that the three were looking for a singer. McLaren approached John Lydon, a surly youth who often hung around the jukebox at Sex, and asked him if he wanted the job. Lydon—whose lack of personal hygiene allegedly led Jones to dub him Johnny Rotten—had no singing experience, but that hardly mattered. As Cook later explained, “We weren’t really interested in that ’cos we were still learning to play at the time.” McLaren dubbed his new act the Sex Pistols.

The Sex Pistols performed their first gig at a suburban art-school dance in November of 1975, only to have their amplifiers unplugged. Word of mouth quickly spread about this crude, bilious, but powerfully energetic band that purveyed a musical sensibility that was soon labeled “punk rock.” By the fall of 1976, the British Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI) record label outbid rival Polydor and signed the group to a lucrative contract. The Sex Pistols’ first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” was released in December. The song’s snarling, even vicious vocal—“I am an Antichrist!”—and the group’s repeated cursing on a nationally broadcast television program led EMI to terminate its contract with the band.

In March of 1977, Matlock left the Sex Pistols and was replaced by Sid Vicious. A&M Records was the next label to take on the band, only to terminate its contract the following week. The Sex Pistols then signed with Virgin Records, Virgin Records which released the group’s second single, “God Save the Queen,” just in time for the monarch’s Silver Jubilee. “God Save the queen/ the facist regime/ made you a moron,” snarled Rotten on this song, repeating the phrase “There’s no future” like an incantation. The song was banned from the nation’s official pop chart; it became England’s best-selling record of the summer anyway.

In July, the band virtually fled Great Britain to tour Europe. Its first album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Sex Pistols) seized the top of the British charts despite a ban on airplay. That fall, the album was released in the United States by Warner Bros. Records to wide critical acclaim. Broad media attention and an appearance on Saturday Night Live Saturday Night Live (television program) in December of 1977 stirred anticipation on the American music scene, as did plans for a nationwide tour in 1978.

Despite this anticipation, the Sex Pistols never attained the level of success in the United States that they had reached in Great Britain. Radio stations were cool to the band’s music, and while shows at relatively small venues were well attended, this cult following was never transformed into a national one. Meanwhile, Rotten grew progressively more disgusted with the hype surrounding the band—and with McLaren. On January 14, 1978, he announced the group was finished after a concert in San Francisco.

Rotten himself went on to form a new band, Public Image Ltd., while Jones and Cook formed the Professionals. Vicious went solo. In October of 1978, he was charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Vicious claimed she had committed suicide by drug overdose; before he could be tried, Vicious too died of a heroin overdose. The following year, Virgin released a Sex Pistols movie, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, Great Rock and Roll Swindle, The (film) with an accompanying sound track. In 1986, Australian filmmaker Alex Cox directed Sid and Nancy, Sid and Nancy (film) an account of Vicious’s life.

British punk rock band the Sex Pistols in 1977. From left to right: Paul Cook, Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, and Steve Jones.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In the wake of the Sex Pistols’ early success, a whole movement of punk rock bands sprang to life. The most prominent of these was the Clash, formed by guitarist Joe Strummer after seeing the Sex Pistols. The Clash would enjoy a longer life (and more American chart success) than the Sex Pistols. Other important punk bands included Generation X, the Buzzcocks, and the Damned. In the United States, a somewhat less caustic punk sensibility was expressed by a group of bands in New York that included the Ramones (whose 1978 tour of England had helped inspire the British punk scene) and Television.

The original musical spark embodied by the Sex Pistols had dissipated by the early 1980’s, but the punk movement inspired a whole new generation of performers who went by the label “New Wave.” These acts often lacked the acidic edge of punk rock, but many still injected an often angry passion into their work that revitalized popular music. Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, and the Cars were among the most prominent New Wave musicians. More recently, the musical roots of the highly successful Irish rock band U2 U2 (musical group)[U two (musical group)] can be traced to punk rock antecedents. Traces of the form can also be detected in some heavy metal and thrash bands.

Significance

To many outside observers in England and the United States, the whole punk rock phenomenon was at best a cynical variation on music industry hype. At worst, it was a mindlessly destructive cultural movement that brought out the ugliest elements in youth culture. There is some truth to both charges; Malcolm McLaren very consciously manipulated industry machinery at great profit to himself and his clients, and the Sex Pistols could descend to truly revolting depths, as the title to their song “Belsen Was a Gas,” a mock tribute to the Nazi gas chambers, suggested.

For its partisans, however, punk rock was a profoundly liberating social and political movement that exposed the latent hypocrisies and overt failures of Western society in an age of diminishing expectations. From this standpoint, punk was a deeply felt intellectual construct with genuinely democratic impulses.

In order to understand, if not endorse, such a position, one must consider the cultural and economic climate of England in the late 1970’s. By that point in the postwar era, Great Britain’s enervated Labour Party had not yet surrendered to the coming Thatcherite government of the 1980’s but was clearly in its death throes. Unemployment was at an all-time high (though only about half as high as it would be a decade later). Government and the private sector were paralyzed by strikes. Alienated British youth, among them far-right-leaning skinheads, espoused racial and ethnic hatred and commited acts of violence.

Rock music, which had traditionally provided a vehicle for expressing cultural rebellion, now seemed desiccated and irrelevant. Progressive rock bands such as Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer performed pseudoclassical music that labored under its own grandiosity. Even former rock heroes such as Rod Stewart, whose early work captured a pub rock feel that later performers would try to emulate, had sold out for the glitz and superficiality of Hollywood. For the disciples of the emerging aesthetic of punk, the coarse sound of the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls provided useful musical antecedents.

This was the context for the formation of the Sex Pistols and the band’s heirs. In such a climate, not being able to play an instrument competently was an artistic statement, a willful refusal to buy into a thoroughly corrupted system of musical values. By seeking to efface what had become an enormous gap between performers and audiences, bands such as the Sex Pistols offered listeners the closest thing many had ever heard to a true musical democracy founded on mutual cultural and political disfranchisement.

Indeed, a passionate embrace of nihilism seemed genuinely cathartic. For many members of the generation that came of age after the 1960’s, the hopeful promises of unending prosperity and an unquestioned belief in capitalism had become shopworn lies. So when Johnny Rotten sang, “There’s no future for you,” as he did over and over again on “God Save the Queen,” he was expressing what many of his fans considered a fundamental truth that for too long had been suppressed.

Nevertheless, a musical philosophy built on ignorance and frustration, however potent, is inherently limited. Some punk bands, most notably the Clash, Clash (musical group) recognized this and emerged as an alternative voice within the movement. Whereas the Sex Pistols were the voice of pure, undistilled venom, the Clash sought to focus youth anger into a coherent program of political protest that borrowed heavily from Third World ideology and musical styles. This combination was most successfully realized on London Calling London Calling (Clash) (1980), widely cited along with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols as among the greatest rock records of all time. It is even more evident on the Clash’s sprawling three-album set Sandinista! Sandinista! (Clash) (1981). The astounding commercial success of Combat Rock Combat Rock (Clash) (1982), with its hit single “Rock the Casbah,” seemed to expose the contradiction between radical protest and mass acceptance, however, and the group soon devolved into factional infighting and broke up.

The United States never proved as receptive to punk rock as Great Britain did, perhaps because social and economic conditions were not as severe; yet an American punk scene did form around the clubs of downtown New York. One of the best-known bands from this scene was the Ramones, whose less overtly political songs (typified by “I Wanna Be Sedated”) found enthusiastic audiences. By the early 1980’s, a few of these performers, among them the Talking Heads and Blondie, would become major stars.

In the strictest sense, punk rock was a failed insurrection. The record industry did not implode, nor did more conventional big-name acts (such as Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band) change their ways. By the mid-1980’s, punk itself was dissipated and diluted beyond recognition. Politically, the electoral success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan amounted to an emphatic rejection of all that punk rock represented.

To many listeners and critics, however, punk has had a lasting, and salutary, effect on popular music. In the 1950’s, Elvis Presley blazed a path across a bland, conformist culture and awakened a nation to the power of rock music. In the 1960’s, the Beatles revived what had become a co-opted musical form and demonstrated its artistic possibilities. In a very different way, the Sex Pistols specifically and punk rock generally raised powerful challenges to the musical status quo in the 1970’s and pointed toward a valuable cultural alternative for many performers (such as the rap artists of the 1980’s) who followed. Punk rock Music;punk rock Sex Pistols

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bangs, Lester. “The Clash.” In Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. An amusing and incisive appreciation of the Clash and punk rock written from a decisively American perspective. Bangs, who died in 1982, had one of the most distinctive voices in rock criticism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. A sociological study of British youth culture that has special relevance for students of punk rock. Widely regarded as one of the finest studies of its kind.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lydon, John, with Keith and Kent Zimmerman. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. This memoir by John Lydon, best known as Johnny Rotten, offers valuable insight into the band and its short-lived history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Greil. “Anarchy in the U.K.” In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke. 3d ed. New York: Random House, 1992. Perhaps the best short analysis of punk rock available. Emphatically partisan, Marcus nevertheless helps explain the appeal of what to many seems an unintelligible form.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. In this tour de force of cultural criticism, Marcus uses the Sex Pistols as a point of departure for exploring a wide range of movements—including Dada, the Situationists, and others—and in so doing establishes the band as the latest manifestation of a long history of cultural subversion. Sprawling and mannered, but intriguing throughout.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matlock, Glen, with Pete Silverton. I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1991. The first Sex Pistols bassist gives his account of the rise of the band and his departure from it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monk, Noel E., and Jimmy Guterman. Twelve Days on the Road: The Sex Pistols in America. New York: William Morrow, 1990. A firsthand account of the band’s ill-fated American tour in January of 1978 and of the Sex Pistols’ impact on the musical scene of the time—and after.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. Rev. ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Savage, one of Great Britain’s most respected popular music critics, has written what will probably become the definitive account of the band, from its origins to its heirs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Temple, Julien, ed. The Filth and the Fury. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. The Sex Pistols, in their own words. A companion book to the documentary film that shares the title.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Ken. “All Shook Up: The Punk Rock Explosion” and “The Postpunk Implosion.” In Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1986. These two chapters amount to a good narrative history of the rise and fall of punk, placing the music into the larger context of rock at the time.

Punk’s Antifashion Style First Appears

Madonna Revolutionizes Popular Fashion

Categories: History Content