Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every story still needs to begin with that first kiss.
Noise. Glorious, angry, cathartic noise. Loud. Pissed off. Incredible.
It took me decades to really appreciate the music of The Sex Pistols. When I heard my first Pistols record in 1977, I thought it was intriguing, fascinating, but not really music. Now? Now, I regard The Sex Pistols as one of the all-time great rock ‘n’ roll bands.
But I liked the noise immediately.
British punk rock in the ’70s wasn’t built with me in mind; suburban American teens were not really the target audience of these snotty, safety-pinned Nihilists screaming Anarcheeeee in the yoooooooooooooo-kay! Nonetheless, my own individual level of post-adolescent alienation ultimately made me receptive to the promise of no future, no future, no future for you.
Before the music, there were words in the newspaper. For some reason, my memory associates my earliest awareness of The Sex Pistols with the cold confines of the Media Center at my high school in North Syracuse, NY. It was my senior year, 1976 to ’77. I spent some time in the Media Center, theoretically studying, really just reading histories of comic books and attempting to flirt (to no avail) with the girl at the periodicals check-out counter. There were press reports of this strange punk thing going on in England, sensational, garbled accounts of obscenity, rebellion, a jarring rock ‘n’ roll cacophony, a band literally puking on its audience. The last bit wasn’t true; the rest of it turned out to be Gospel.
Whatever. I wasn’t interested.
I was 16 or 17. My pop music tastes ran to British Invasion and ’60s oldies, The Beatles always first and foremost, plus ’70s acts like Sweet, Badfinger, and The Raspberries. I’d missed a chance to see Alice Cooper (with the lovely Suzi Quatro, my # 1 rock ‘n’ roll crush) in 1975, and would see my first concert–KISS–in December of ’76. I wasn’t opposed to flash, to excitement. But the yellow-journalism tales of The Sex Pistols made punk seem…dumb.
My opinion of punk would revise with the revelation of Phonograph Record Magazine, a tabloid rock rag I discovered in early ’77. PRM‘s tantalizing descriptions of all these punk and peripheral acts I’d never heard–The Ramones, The Damned, The Clash, Blondie, The Vibrators, and of course the Pistols–intrigued me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear…something.
I finally heard The Sex Pistols in the summer of ’77, when Utica’s WOUR-FM played their new import single, “God Save The Queen.” The DJ introduced the track with mentions of the clamor and controversy surrounding the group, and then played the record so listeners could judge for themselves.
“God Save The Queen” was unlike any record I’d ever heard. Even though I didn’t initially think it was music, it was undeniably exciting, enticing. Different. That was good enough for me. I didn’t hear The Sex Pistols again for months thereafter, but “God Save The Queen” did not leave my mind at any time.
Summer ended. College at Brockport began for this 17-year-old freshman. I heard more punk rock, courtesy of the campus radio station. I had my classes, and I betcha I may have studied occasionally. Otherwise? Music. Keggers. Attempts at writing. Flirting. Reciprocal flirting, leading to more than flirting. A few really dumbass actions that I still cringe to recall. Arguments with my roommate. A growing certainty that I would never truly fit in anywhere, a certainty which proved to be accurate.
There were two record stores in town, The Vinyl Jungle and The Record Grove. The Vinyl Jungle was gone in short order, leaving only The Record Grove, whose wonderful manager Bill Yerger had import and independent 45s for sale at the counter. My first punk rock purchases occurred at that counter when I bought the 45s of “God Save The Queen” and The Ramones’ “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker.”
My roommate let me play “God Save The Queen” once on his stereo, so props to him for that. It was just as powerful the second time through, and it retained its power for oh, a zillion subsequent spins over the years. B-side “Did You No Wrong” wasn’t quite as distinctive–what could be?–but I dug it, and I like even more all these decades later.
My girlfriend was a little older than me, about 20 or 21, and she didn’t care for any of that noisy trash I loved so much. Her abrupt replacement was just 17, if you know what I mean, and she didn’t like my music any more than her predecessor did, but she bought me The Sex Pistols’ debut LP as a Christmas gift.
I think I’d already heard the “Pretty Vacant” single before I got my copy of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. I loved “Pretty Vacant” and “God Save The Queen,” and I loved a great album track called “No Feelings.” I liked “Anarchy In The UK” and “Holidays In The Sun.” I appreciated the foul-mouthed shock value of “Bodies,” and I approved of the album as a whole without ever embracing it as fully as I claimed at the time. I glowered at the barely-literate poison-pen review the album received in the campus newspaper, a frothing-at-the-mouth diatribe that sputtered such pithy witticisms as “Simply put, this album sucks!” Oh, you and your clever words….!
That was the basic beginning of my life as a Sex Pistols fan. Back home over Christmas break, my friend Jay came over to watch The Sex Pistols’ planned American television debut on Saturday Night Live, only to discover that our lads were still in England, and their SNL slot would be manned instead by some guy named Elvis Costello. The Pistols eventually made it to America, and the group broke up, acrimoniously and ignominiously, on these shores. When there’s no future, how can there be sin?
The sheer audacity of the Pistols phenomenon stayed with me. So much was made of their image, their DIY sloppiness, their presumed inability to play, that I didn’t realize until long, long after the fact just how solid this much-maligned band really was. Sure, Sid Vicious couldn’t play bass to save his short life, and Johnny Rotten‘s abrasive lead vocals were willfully more caterwaul than melody. But underneath all that? Guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and original bassist Glen Matlock were tight, together. They could play, and they played a basic, invigorating, exciting rock ‘n’ roll sound that doesn’t get the credit it richly deserves. These are terrific records. I wish they’d made more!
But Never Mind The Bollocks was The Sex Pistols’ only real album. There was the double-LP collection The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, assembled posthumously and at least as much sod as odd, and there was a terrific bootleg called Spunk, which preserved the Pistols’ pre-album demos. For a while, I preferred Spunk to Bollocks, but I’ve since settled firmly on the side of the official recordings.
Nowadays, my go-to Sex Pistols audio document is Kiss This, an import CD that contains all of Never Mind The Bollocks, the non-LP B-sides (“I Wanna Be Me,” “Did You No Wrong,””Satellite,” “No Fun”), and a selection of tracks from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, including the Pistols’ cover of The Monkees‘ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and Sid Vicious’ silly deconstruction of “My Way.” If itonly added Sid’s surprisingly amiable version of Eddie Cochran‘s “Something Else” from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Kiss This would be THE perfect Pistols set, but it’s close enough.
And, of course, I still have my original LP of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, a Christmas gift from a girl who would remain my girlfriend for about two more weeks after she gave it to me. No future. No feelings for anybody else, except for myself, my beautiful self. We are the flowers in the dustbin. The poison in your human machine. We’re so pretty, oh so pretty. Noise. Glorious. Angry. Cathartic. Music.
Mine. My music. The transcendence of its noise endures. We mean it, man.
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