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Music Review: Classic Albums: Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols

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In 1980 the downtown Toronto Ontario bar called the Horseshoe Tavern held The Last Pogo. The former Country & Western Bar had for the last four years played home to Toronto's flourishing Punk Rock scene and they could see the writing on the wall that spelled the end of an era.

Already the first "boutiques" were opening in what had been their previously unfashionable downtown neighbourhood. When the sandblasting started and the gentrification began one knew it was only a matter of time before it would become a "scene".

Band names like The Battered Wives, Nazi Dog And The Vile Tones, Suburban Crime, and Throbbing Members were soon only a memory as the weekend punks from the suburbs made their way into the city core to buy their black leather jackets, studded collars, and combat boots. Enclaves of hold outs hung on, moving to where rents were cheaper and the neighbourhood less reputable but it was only holding off the inevitable: the first wave of Punk Rock in Toronto was over and done.

Punk had its origins in the streets of London England in the mid 1970s where unemployment among the working class youth was rampant and hopes for the future were minimal. Rock music had become moribund and bloated, losing track of the rebellious nature that had made it so vital in the late fifties early sixties.
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The times were ripe for something new, something that spoke to the anger and hopeless frustration. The times were ripe for Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols. For about three years they were like an asteroid entering earth's atmosphere; gradually burning out and breaking apart from the speed of their flight and the weight of the resistance against them.

The first line up for the Sex Pistols was Glen Matlock on bass, Paul Cook on drums, Steve Jones on guitar, and Johnny (Lydon) Rotten vocals, lyrics, and attitude. Eagle Rock Entertainment has reissued the DVD Classic Albums: Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols that tells the story of how the album came into existence. Bollocks was the only full-length studio album that the Pistols produced and, judging by what we hear on the DVD, it's a miracle that they even got one recorded.

Paul and Steve had been part of a band and they had brought Glen in on bass but it was Malcolm McLaren, the man who saw himself as their Svengali but was more Barnum and Bailey then anything else, who brought John Lydon into the band. It also becomes clear that while McLaren may not have fired Glen Matlock as the band's bassist, he seemed to have managed to sow discord between John and Glen that was sufficient to have Glen replaced by Sid Vicious. McLaren thought Vicious looked the part more than Glen, and so he was given the nod in spite of not being able to play his instrument.

This goes a long way in explaining why the only bass on Never Mind The Bollocks was provided by Matlock, even though he was no longer in the group when it was finally released. As far as I could tell from what the engineers were saying when they talked about recording the album, Glen's bass was heard on "Anarchy In The U.K." and the infamous "God Save The Queen".  Everything else was done by Steve Jones.

One of the more fascinating aspect of the DVD are the conversations with the four remaining members of the band and to see them today. Obviously, Glen is the one with least pleasant memories, but even he can't help but get excited when talking about the music and the band. Paul Cook the former drummer has the least to say and it falls to Steve and Johnny to tell the story from the band's point of view.

As I've long suspected, the one who really comes out looking like the villain of the whole piece was Malcolm MacLaren. The Pistols appear to have had a career in spite of him, not because of him. He seems to have seen them as a toy he could play with and a means of creating a stir and being flamboyant. The music and what Johnny was trying to do creatively appear to have been of no consequence to him.

His comments about the trial when a shop owner in Manchester was charged with obscenity for displaying the word "Bollocks", as compared to Johnny's, are very revealing. The English novelist and lawyer John Mortimer defended the band and the shopkeeper and had the charges dismissed on the grounds of freedom of expression. MacLaren was horribly disappointed; he said it would have been so much better to have one of them hauled off to jail because of it.

Johnny, on the other hand thought that Mortimer's defense had been brilliant and it was an important matter of freedom of speech and expression. At that point in the interview he got the old familiar evil glint in his eye and turned to the camera and said, "so fuck you" and laughed. He hasn't changed a bit.

One of the other interesting things about this DVD is it debunks the theory the band was inept musically. While it was true Vicious couldn’t play his bass when he joined the band (and who knows if he ever learnt how) the rest of the band was better than competent by the time they got into the studio. While Paul and Steve admit they were no great shakes when they first started, when the band was given proper rehearsal facilities by MacLaren, they began to gel.

Both the producer and the recording engineer say, Chris Spedding was probably one of the most surprised people in England when it was passed around that he played all the guitar on Never Mind The Bollocks. They laughed and said you know you think we might have noticed him if were here. Steve did all the guitar work. The guitar sound on the album was produced by having Steve overdub his guitar with subtle differences each time to give it the depth to make it sound like a guitar army.

It's a common technique but it also requires a great deal of technical skill on the part of the guitar player, and a willingness to be patient, as he had to be able to play the same part over and over again without changing a note or a beat. Couple that with Steve also laying down the bass as previously mentioned and you realize he knew his way around his guitar, thank you very much.

Steve describes Johnny sitting huddled in the corner of the studio with paper and pen writing out song lyrics while around him everybody else was doing their thing. Johnny talks about how he liked to play with language and stretch words through pronunciation to make them work together: hence anar"K"ist and Anti Christ.

Bill Price who engineered the record and Chris Thomas the producer both say the same thing about Johnny's ability as a singer. Listen to how well each word is articulated, even when he sounds as if he's torturing his throat you can hear every last syllable that he is singing.

Classic Albums: Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols is a revealing look at the story of the band and the story behind the making of the disc. Listening to the tracks played on the DVD, I was struck once again by their power and passion.

I remember being in London, England in the summer of 1981. Shops in Portobello market were still covered in plywood from the race riots that had been rocking the city two weeks earlier. At the end of my stay I took a train out through Brixton, where the poor are housed and confined. Looking out at row upon row of brick town houses crammed up against each other, I could well imagine how those streets gave birth to bands like the Pistols.

Compared to the riots of the previous weeks there was nothing nihilistic about the Pistols. The act of creating music is not that of a person with no faith or hope for the future, no matter what people say.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • JC Mosquito

    “The act of creating music is not that of a person with no faith or hope for the future, no matter what people say.”

    Brilliant, Mr. Marcus – and if this revelation is yours, make sure posterity remembers to attach your name to it.

    This is the key to the whole thing, isn’t it? It was never about nihilism – not even pre-punk godfathers the Stooges were despondent – the whole thing was about the joyful noise.

    Thanx for sharing your insight.

    Skeeter.

  • Marty Thau

    Nice article. However one thing needs correction — punk had its origins in New York’s east village in ’74.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    “Never Mind The Bollocks” is indeed one of the great albums of all time and the Sex Pistols almost the perfect band.

  • zingzing

    the sex pistols were an interesting group, but let’s be honest about things… nevermind the bollocks kind of sucks. there’s only really 4 or 5 songs on it that completely work, and most of those were the early singles. plenty of other punk bands put out better albums, and john lydon put out much better stuff himself. but still, for all intents and purposes, the sex pistols were the quintessential british punk group.

    and marty… as much as you would like to believe that punk started in your ‘hood in 1974, that would be really bad history.

    but richard… you make many good points in this peice, but this one betrays you: “The Pistols appear to have had a career in spite of [MacLaren], not because of him. He seems to have seen them as a toy he could play with and a means of creating a stir and being flamboyant…”

    it may be true that maclaren was more interested in his own self than he was in the music, but it is also 100% true that the sex pistols would have been nothing without him. he created the atmosphere for them to meet, he gave them the practice space, he got them all their shows, he talked to the media, he was the one spitting out situationist slogans all over the place. without the media, what were the pistols, and without maclaren, how would the pistols have ever attracted the media?

    maclaren is a crucial part of the sex pistols story. yes, he was an asshole. but who wasn’t? glen matlock? the guy was a whiner. now name me another person in the group who wasn’t completely looking after his own interests…

    save johnny rotten, i think maclaren is the most important part of the sex pistols story… which, in itself, is far more interesting than the actual music. (other than anarchy, and god save… which are really good songs…)

  • JC Mosquito

    Bollocks kind of sucks!?! Compared to what at the time?

    Y’know zing – you might even be right (you often are about this stuff). Personally, I’d sooner listen to almost any of the American punks before the Pistols’ first and last effort. But Bollocks is more than just a record – it’s the hammer that broke rock and roll as it had come to be known by the late 70’s.

  • zingzing

    yeah, that’s what i’m trying to say. bollocks is more important than it is listenable. but it wasn’t really the album that did it anyway, it was those first three singles. the album was a bit of an afterthought in some ways…

    as for albums that were better…
    television-marquee moon, richard hell and the voidoids-blank generation, ramones-ramones, clash-clash, buzzcocks-spiral scratch, wire-pink flag… it goes on and on. that’s just the more popular stuff, and that doesn’t take into account that ’78 and ’79 were much more interesting than ’76 and ’77.

  • JC Mosquito

    Marquee Moon might be the best album of the late 70’s, period. And the best thing about MM was it was the acid test for good taste. I used to tell people that Tom Verlaine was as good a gutarist as Hendrix or Page, and after playing the title track, if they didn’t get it, you knew they never would get it.

    But the unbelievers would just shrug at Television – but EVERYBODY had someting to say about Bollocks. And speaking of guitars,one of the most potent, concise guitar solos of ALL TIME is the 4 note assault in the bridge of God Save the Queen – reminded be of McCartneys’ four noter in Back in the USSR of all things, except with more firepower.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    zing, I’m not sure how an album can be both important and unlistenable, though I agree the singles were all so perfect.

    Skeeter, Marquee Moon is one of the best albums ever! I still get goosebumps and shivers up and down my spine when I listen to it. Shame nothing else Television did ever got close to it though – talk about one hit wonders!

  • JC Mosquito

    “.. important and unlistenable…” I once read a review that called Smells Like Teen Spirit “…as inspiring as it is unintelliglble,” which I thought was a perfect description.

    CR: The reissue of Marquee Moon is even more excellent, with one of the bonus tracks being a nearly as good alternate version of the title track, and the original version of Little Johnny Jewel. And no matter what anyone says, I thought Television’s second album Adventure was nearly as good, with a couple of the tracks topping even some from MM. Just get a copy of the ROIR cassette of Televison, and you got pretty much all there is from the band from that era.

  • zingzing

    ahh, chris, i didn’t say bollocks is “both important and unlistenable,” i said it is “more important than it is listenable.” there’s a difference. i think it’s vastly more important than the actual quality of the album merits. but that’s the thing.

    MM is some great shit, but i would say wire’s chair’s missing is the best album of the late 70s. although maybe talking heads’ more songs about building and food or pere ubu’s dub housing are better. not sure. i flip-flop all the time.

    also, jc, the guitars on god save are fucking fantastic, ain’t they? such a rush…

  • JC Mosquito

    All I can say is, if I was Chris Spedding, I would’ve taken all the credit ;)

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