Kill Your Idols: Revisiting the Sex Pistols

Most of the time when people talk about the Sex Pistols, they’re not talking about the band’s music. They’re talking about the heroin, the onstage antics, the interruption of the Queen’s Jubilee celebration. And there’s good reason for that. The band’s music was, in a lot of ways, secondary to their public image. They became famous not so much for pioneering a new form of raw, stripped-down rock and roll, but for swearing on the Bill Grundy show and trashing the A&M Records offices.
The band only found the time to record one record, Nevermind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, in the two and a half years they were together, and really, the Sex Pistols’ music was almost an afterthought to their nihilistic, destructive antics. It was part of the gimmick: aggressive, fast, snotty and offensive. Even the title was considered extremely offensive in the UK. But despite producing the record as just another part of their anarchistic image, they managed to create one of the most memorable records of all time. In a way, the Sex Pistols succeeded at making a great record in spite of themselves.
It’s difficult to understand just how revolutionary Nevermind the Bollocks was in the early years of punk. Of course, it wasn’t the first punk record. The Ramones, The Clash, The Damned, and The Vibrators had all put out some worthwile full length records of their own by October 1977, but backed by early singles such as “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen,” Nevermind the Bollocks was one of the most anticpated — and dreaded — releases of the era.Despite numerous protests from interest groups that saw the band as little more than degenerates, the album reached number one on the UK charts. Think about that. It’s unheard of for a punk band to reach those levels on the Billboard charts.
But there’s a reason it charted higher than any other punk record of the time (or possibly ever). It’s an astounding album. It’s full of anger, hatred, and rage in all the best ways. “God Save the Queen” still sounds like a Molotoc cocktail thrown through the windows of the music industry. Even thirty four years later, the record retains the filth, fury, and viceral immediacy that cemented it in the canon of rock and roll history.
I’m consistently impressed with the musicianship on the record, as well. “Holiday in the Sun,” “Bodies,” and “Anarchy in the UK” all contain some of the most immediately memorable guitar lines I’ve ever heard. “Bodies” in particular, is a perfect example of what makes the band great. It’s harsh, offensive, and full of fury, but it’s immediately recorgnizable. It manages to be catchy and furious at the same time. Even when Johnny Rotten is stringing along an intensely vulgar series of curses, you can still sing along with every word. At it’s heart, Nevermind the Bollocks is the fastest, most vulgar pop record of all time. And it’s a damned good one.
Honestly though, when I started to prepare this column, it had been a while since I listened to the record, and I was ready to write the Sex Pistols off. I’ve never been as into them as I have The Ramones and The Clash, partly because while I think all the insanity surrounding the band is interesting, it  all feels like a gimmick to me. I had thought to myself that if they’d never drunkenly cursed out a BBC radio host, they never would have been as popular as they became. But now, after relistening to the record, I’m not so sure about that.
Like I said earlier, the record is destructive, anarchic, and insane, but it’s more than that.  It’s confrontational, challenging, honest, catchy, and, most of all, it’s well written. It’s exactly what punk music should aspire to be. So, gimmick or not, it’s an amazing album.
Classic or catastrophe: a classic in spite of itself.