Sacred Cow Saturday: “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”

Punk rock has been around long enough  to hold within its musical boundaries a slew of albums considered both classic and essential. We here at Dying Scene love and appreciate these classic albums, but every once and a while we have the urge to challenge what the community has deemed sacred. Every Saturday, two Dying Scene writers will square off head-to-head and either attack or defend one of these so-called classics. Up for slaughter today is “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.” Does the 1977 classic hold up today? You be the judge. Carson Winter will be defending and Jason Stone will be attacking.

Let the battle begin!

The Defense

The Sex Pistols weren’t interested in change. This is perhaps the most defining contrast from their contemporaries. While The Clash represented punk rock becoming more politically aware and positive, the Sex Pistols were content to be heard. They screamed, they cursed, and used every polemic in the book to give their discontent a voice. And in retrospect, nothing quite encapsulates a young person’s directionless anger than Never Mind the Bollocks. There’s a certain beauty to “Anarchy in the UK,” and while many will discredit it as politically uninformed, this is a lazy interpretation. “Anarchy in the UK” is a personal song, not a political one and it perfectly represents the confused, frustrated voice of adolescence: “Anarchy in the UK, it’s coming sometime and maybe, I give a wrong time stop the traffic line, your future dream is a shopping scheme. ‘Cause I wanna be anarchy.” Those aren’t the words of a revolutionary, those are the words of a young man snarling at the status quo. It’s a rejection of social norms, and by juxtaposing the ideas of consumerism with anarchy, Rotten is saying he’d rather accept and celebrate real self-destruction than take part in a culture he views as shallow and complacent. This is punk at its core.

“Bodies” is perhaps the most vicious attack on the entire album, and an unlikely pro-life argument. Much of Never Mind the Bollocks remains accessible, but “Bodies” represents a righteous middle finger to sensitive sensibilities. Rotten sings “I’m not a discharge, I’m not a loss in protein, I’m not a throbbing squirm. Fuck this and fuck that, fuck it all and fuck the fucking brat. She don’t wanna baby that looks like that. I don’t wanna baby that looks like that.” Taking a conservative stance on such a prominent issue is all but unheard of, and while the Sex Pistols are far from joining the Young Republicans, the fact that they entrench themselves in unpopular opinion (especially in regards to the punk scene) makes them all the more credible. But politics aside, Rotten is once again making a larger issue personal to find its meaning. The undiluted verbal poison that pumps its way through the veins of “Bodies” is self-reflective. While he may not have consciously realized it, Rotten was describing the very movement he reluctantly solidified– a generation of youth alienated by mainstream culture. When taken from this perspective,  it’s hard not to apply abortion as a metaphor for the lost, angry, and unwanted, and “Bodies” as a reckless validation for their right to exist.

It is Steve Jones’ slavish devotion to rock ‘n roll subversion that makes his fretwork unique and admirable. To hear Jones do what he does best, listen to literally any song on Never Mind the Bollocks and hear his incalculable influence on punk rock guitar. Jones’ chunky rhythms and rock ‘n roll leads make for an athletic companion to singer Johnny Rotten’s desperate, venomous, sneering vocals and allow him the rock ‘n roll soapbox he deserves.

I wasn’t around when the Sex Pistols were tearing their way through the music scene like a self-destructive tornado, but I know Never Mind the Bollocks still holds up as a testament to just how powerful punk rock can be. No band better represents omni-directional angst and fury quite like the Pistols. While it has become a rite of passage for the modern punk to dismiss these gloriously angry forerunners as substanceless fashionistas, Never Mind the Bollocks remains a masterpiece.

The Attack

As someone who was born at the very tail end of the 1970s, I obviously wasn’t around for the footnote in music history that was the “Sex Pistols Era.” As such, I can’t comment first-hand as to how groundbreaking their only studio album, Never Mind The Bollocks…Here’s The Sex Pistols, was. In retrospect, I also can’t comprehend why it was considered so ground-breaking in the first place. To me, “Never Mind The Bollocks…,” and in fact the whole Sex Pistols ‘thing,’ is among the ultimate in “guess you had to be there” moments in music history. For years now, I’ve found the vast majority of the album to be a bore, really.

Moreso than with most bands, it’s tough to separate the music that the Sex Pistols played from the image that they portrayed, so this critique is largely, perhaps misguidedly, aimed at the whole “product.” Because that’s exactly what the Sex Pistols were, ultimately;a product. Volumes have been written about Malcolm McLaren’s Lou Pearlman-like tendencies, so I won’t rehash that history. From a purely musical standpoint, there isn’t a whole lot to write home about on Bollocks. By and large, the album is a mess. In and of itself, that’s not a death knell, as this is punk rock we’re talking about. But there’s a difference between the controlled chaos of Ramones or of a Clash track like “White Riot” and the incongruent noise that persists throughout much of Bollocks.

Steve Jones, the band’s guitarist, demonstrates the only real musical chops (or competency) whatsoever on the album. This is borne out by the fact that he also plays bass on all but one song, “Bodies,” due to the fact that Glenn Matlock had already left the band and reportedly couldn’t agree on a dollar sign that he deemed satisfactory enough to appear on the album, and the fact that Sid Vicious was too busy being a degenerate. (My complete lack of comprehension as to why Sid Vicious ever attained anything resembling cultural icon status could fill volumes, and is probably best left to another argument entirely, especially since he wasn’t a part of Bollocks.) Jones really does an admireable job on the album, and if there is any real influence that can still be heard in good, quality punk rock nowadays it comes from his presence.

My main problem with Bollocks itself is and has always been Johnny Rotten’s manufactured angst. His contrived snarl quickly grows tired to the point of becoming almost unlistenable, or at best unintentionally comical, by the end of the album’s A-side. There are myriad occasions in which it sounds as though Rotten was mumbling his way through off-the-cuff lyrics seemingly as they popped into his head. Much has been made about the cultural importance of Bollocks and the rallying-cry that it apparently served as, but to me that’s always been, well, bollocks. Some improvisational spit-balling is fine, obviously, but in this case, it leaves the sense that any real ‘shock value’ that the album contains was written just for the sake of being shocking (read as: to sell more records), not because there was any real substance or angst or vitriol involved. Case in point: Rotten has said in more recent years that the reason he used “I am an anarchist” at the end of the second line of the band’s seminal track “Anarchy In The U.K.” was that he needed something to rhyme with “antichrist,” and that’s the best he could come up with. Groundbreaking, really.

Perhaps the most honesty and insight that we get from Rotten throughout the album (however unintentional it may be) comes from the line in “No Feelings,” when he condescendingly wails “I’m in love with myself, my beautiful self…no feelings for anybody else.” Don’t get me wrong; Bollocks isn’t a total bore. In fact, I quite like “Pretty Vacant,” and in spite of it’s contradictory lyrics (which I don’t think were meant to be contradictory or thought-provoking, I think they’re just plain vapid) I think that it’s the most underrated track on an otherwise overrated album. Long story short, you can keep your Bollocks. I’ll take The Buzzcocks, or even Cock Sparrer, any day of the week.


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