Monday 21 October 2019

No album before or since has had so much bite, snarl and swagger

The legendary Sex Pistols debut turns 40 tomorrow.  Thanks to Johnny Rotten’s roots, it had a particular resonance in Catholic Ireland, writes Ed Power

Rebels: Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols
Rebels: Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols
Never Mind The Bollocks album cover
Tom Dunne

Ed Power

On October 28, 1977, the doors were blown off the music industry with the release of Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols. It was profane, provocative, witty, angry - a scream against conformity, corporate hegemony, religion, the British class system. The record business never witnessed anything like it.

As with many of the UK's most resonant musical stories, that of the Sex Pistols has a crucial Irish component. The band, already notorious by the time their debut album appeared, was fronted by Johnny Rotten - aka John Lydon. He was raised in the Caribbean and Irish communities of Finsbury Park in London. With his parents hailing from Ireland, Lydon had duly attended the local Catholic school in London.

The formative experiences of being educated by priests and nuns - allied with family holidays at Garryvoe in east Cork - had thoroughly shaped his outlook by the time he was a fixture on London's mid-70s punk scene. Punks were often angry but, with early exposure to the dead hand of Irish conservatism, Lydon was perhaps unique in actually having something concrete against which to rebel.

"It was deeply unpleasant when I was young... going to Catholic school," he told me several years ago. "If the nuns weren't beating us to death, the priests were trying to grab us in the corridors. It's left very bitter memories. I never liked them... the priests, they always smelt wrong to me. It was the same smell off the nuns. I would describe it as pure evil."

These emotions found an outlet with Bollocks. The album was recorded amid highly fraught circumstances as the Pistols were crowned public enemy number one by the tabloids and no British major label dared sign them. Off stage, meanwhile, the band lurched from crisis to crisis. The sensitive and thoughtful Lydon was at loggerheads with mercurial manager Malcolm McLaren, who had parachuted into the line-up new bass player Sid Vicious (born John Simon Ritchie), a heroin addict who could barely stand straight (in the end almost all the bass on the record is performed by guitarist Steve Jones).

You can hear the chaos on the LP - finally released by Richard Branson's upstart Virgin Records - and it is glorious. In Ireland, moreover, it introduced a new generation to the sharp edge of youth culture. Without Never Mind The Bollocks, there would never have been a Smiths or Nirvana. However, in Ireland especially, its influence was particularly keen - Lydon's gift to the old country.

"I heard the Sex Pistol's 'Pretty Vacant' on late night radio one summer's night in 1977," recalls Tom Dunne, who would later find success through the 80s fronting Something Happens and is today a popular radio presenter.

"I was already a huge music fan but I had never heard anything like this. I had been in bed when it started, but by the second chorus I was on the floor staring in awe at the radio."

"Never Mind The Bollocks for me is the greatest rock 'n' roll album in history," adds Peter Jones of influential Irish punk group Paranoid Visions. "It is ground zero in terms of all music over the past 40 years. Virtually any music and musical genre - from Britpop, hip hop, modern rock, grunge and even pop like the Spice Girls and everything that came in their wake - can be traced back to that album.

"Purely in musical terms, there is no album before or since that has so much power, bite, snarl and swagger. It's the perfect slice of genius that exists for 38 minutes...everywhere you look, the influence on punk rock can be seen." 

Nor has its impact ever truly diminished. "That album taught us that you don't have to be perfect, or shiny, or high-born, or follow what the overseers say," says Steven King of chart-topping newcomers Fangclub. "You just have to be who you wanna be, be loud and f**king mean it."

The Dublin producer and songwriter Joe Chester, for his part, only delved into the record in the 90s. It nonetheless changed his world. "Once I discovered Never Mind The Bollocks (in my early 20s) I listened to almost nothing else for a year."

A generation earlier, Fiachna Ó Braonáin of the Hothouse Flowers recalls a similar response. Attending a strict school in Dublin, the Sex Pistols showed him that you didn't have to conform. You could do your own thing. This wasn't simply an album - it was a new way of looking at the world.

"The idea that valid music could be made with a Woolworth's guitar, a cheap amp, bar chords and a raw message was inspiring. It represented freedom to us as we were growing up.

"And of course, 'Anarchy In The UK' was a righteous invocation in the atmosphere that prevailed in our late 70s gaelscoil, where anything that railed against authority was a good thing."

Irish punks at the time were inspired, though it would be overstating the case to say the Sex Pistols spawned the scene here. Punk had already sunk its claws into the Irish counter-culture.

"I suppose Never Mind The Bollocks was the most anticipated punk album of '77, if not all time," says Pete Holidai of iconic Dublin punk outfit the The Radiators From Space.

"That was in part due to the headline grabbing strategies utilised by Malcolm McLaren. I can't say if it was influential on the Radiators From Space as we had already released TV Tube Heart in August of '77 and had finally gone to the UK to promote it. Glen Matlock [the Pistols' former bassist before Vicious] connected with us and seemed to like the band.

"Never Mind The Bollocks has stood the test of time well due to the quality of production by Chris Thomas, who preferred to focus on an overall sound that would be tight and powerfully layered to deliver maximum impact and potential and transcend the punk DIY ethic."

The most visceral aspect of the Pistols' story is its messy ending. With McLaren and Lydon feuding constantly and Vicious a shambles from the start, the group was inevitably going to come to a sticky conclusion.

They blazed brightly and burned out - falling apart on their notorious 1978 US tour ("Ever get the feeling you've been cheated," he sneered at the end of an infamously chaotic final date in San Fransisco).

By the time Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose on February 2, 1979, the Pistols were for the history books - a cautionary tale but an inspiration too. "The Pistols were doomed to implode," says Pete Holidai. "Their brand of marketing was tailored to be disposable from the outset."

"Later I found out that Never Mind The Bollocks wasn't really a band record at all," says Joe Chester. "Steve Jones played all the guitars and bass and it was produced by Chris Thomas, who also produced Roxy Music, lending it a sheen and sophistication that wasn't quite punk.

"That's when I realised there was often more to music than meets the eye and that the Sex Pistols weren't always what they seemed."

Irish Independent

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