The Sex Pistols and Philosophy

“’Never Mind The Bollocks’ changed everything. There had never been anything like it before and really there’s never been anything quite like it since. The closest was probably Nirvana, a band very heavily influenced by The Sex Pistols.”

Classic Albums: The Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (2002) Directed by Matthew Longfellow [DVD]. Worldwide: Eagle Vision.

Why Was ‘Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols’ Such A Culturally Significant Album?

 

With just one studio-album to their name, and a lifespan of two years (Erlewine, Year Unknown), The Sex Pistols has achieved success far greater than many other bands with similar, or even a much greater lifespan. Their debut single, ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ was listed as the fifty-third greatest song of all-time by Rolling Stone Magazine (Author Unknown, 2010), and the album from which it came, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks, Here Come The Sex Pistols’, was listed as the forty-first greatest album of all-time (Author Unknown, 2012). ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ is a culturally significant album, being called “a sociological artefact [sic’]” (Lewis, 2012).

In Attali’s book ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’, he states that “music and the musician essentially become either objects of consumption like everything else, recuperators of subversion, or meaningless noise” (Attali, 1985). I am going to pick out the ‘noise’ in The Sex Pistols and their album ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ The attitude and behaviour exhibited by The Sex Pistols would be considered ‘noise’ by Attali. The ‘noise’ they created led to them being dropped by EMI Records after an interview on the Bill Grundy show (Willman, 2012), in which the band repeatedly swore, which was unheard in media at the time. This act “ended Grundy’s career and catapulted the band to international notoriety overnight” (Spiardi, 2013), with the headline for The Daily Mirror reading “The Filth and The Fury”, and the report calling it “the filthiest language on British television” (Greig, McCarthy and Peacock, 1976). This interview is comparable to Elvis Presley’s early television performances in the 1950’s, in which, according to Marcie Wallace, critics deemed “vulgar and provocative” (Wallace, 2012), which was cultural knowledge on Elvis’ part. Attali would consider his vulgarity ‘noise’. Elvis was seen as a threat to morals in America during the 1950’s, before he became wildly accepted and admired by critics and fans alike. Performances similar to, and even more extreme, than Elvis’ are seen on the television during prime time on a regular basis now. The Sex Pistols were seen as a threat to morality in Britain in the 1970’s with their use of swearing on the television and general rude behaviour, but now swearing has become more accepted and mainstream in society today. Due to their lyrics and the band’s poor public image, the singles from ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ received no radio airplay, but now the noise has become mainstream. Punk is now so acceptable that Sex Pistols singer John Lydon and punk star Iggy Pop have recently starred in mainstream television adverts: Lydon in a Country Life Butter advert and Iggy Pop in a Swiftcover insurance advert. These are adverts that are viewed by all age-groups during the day, so in terms of Attali, punk has become “objects of consumption like everything else” (Attali, 1985). ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ was therefore a major contributor to this idea that profanity is now more acceptable in society today, because they were the first band to do it in such a major way. Profanity has now become such a normal part of culture that people will walk the streets with an anagram of the word ‘fuck’ on their clothes. I am of course referring to the company ‘French Connection UK’, who have the brand ‘FCUK’ on their products. Copycat bands soon followed The Sex Pistols and attempted to act with the same vulgarity as them, but nobody anybody will have the same effect that they had, because the noise has become mainstream. When ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ was released, punk fashion was very rebellious and underground, but now it is “utterly mainstream”, with the tropes of punk “faithfully pogoing all over the high street at brands ranging from Topshop to Asos and Zara” (Cochrane, 2013). In fact, The Sex Pistols was born out of a fashion clothing shop called ‘Sex’, which was run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood. Together, they “brought together four obscure musicians” and that would become The Sex Pistols. McLaren would manage the band (Grimes, 2010). It could be argued that McLaren formed The Sex Pistols as a way of promoting his shop and that fashion created British punk.

            One of the main lyrical subjects on ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ is politics. The band are self-professed anarchists, which is explained in the album’s lead single, ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’: “I am an anarchist” (Lydon, 1977). The grand narrative of anarchy comes from the Greek word ‘anarchos’, which means “the absence of a leader, the absence of a government” (Sheehan, 2003). However, Boff Whalley (2011) believes that the definition of anarchy has changed over time, resulting in pastiche people who do not understand the original meaning of anarchy: “The political and philosophical idea that is “anarchism” has become, headline by headline, dislocated from the current use of the word “anarchy”. Anarchy used to mean the state to which anarchism aspires. Now, of course, it has come to mean disorder – the kind of disorder that comes with photographs of boys throwing bricks at riot police and kicking their way into electrical-goods shops.” Baudrillard would liken this to the post-modern phenomenon, which blames media saturation for a fake meaning of ‘anarchism’ becoming real. It is now widely interpreted to mean chaos rather than a cooperative idea. In ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’, the lyrics mentions three political groups: ‘M.P.L.A.’ stands for the ‘Movemento Popular de Libertacao de Angola’, and they are a political group with a “record of brutality” (Pawson, 2014). The ‘U.D.A.’ is the ‘Ulster Defence Association’, who opposed unification in Northern Ireland and coordinated “the efforts of local Protestant vigilante groups in the sectarian conflict in the province” (Arthur and Cowell-Meyers, Year Unknown), whereas the ‘I.R.A’, the ‘Irish Republican Army’ were in favour of unifying Northern Ireland (Author Unknown, Year Unknown). The lyrics to ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ ask if they’re under the control of these groups, questioning who really holds the power in Britain, with the lyrics “Is this the M.P.L.A or, is this the U.D.A, or is this the I.R.A? I thought it was the UK?” (Lydon, 1977). In 2008, Lydon explained the writing process of the song: “It flowed quite naturally to me. These are just long, long-term motivations that are there and you can’t, can’t, can’t ever underestimate the sheer driving energy poverty will bring you. Being denied everything and access to everything. Government, schools, the lot, tell you that you don’t count. You are scum. Go with the flow or else. That’s an incredible driving energy, to be better than their estimation of you” (Lydon, 2008). Attali would have considered the use of acronyms ‘noise’, because it isn’t mainstream, or pleasant. An interesting line in this song is: “I use the NME”, which has often been misinterpreted as “I use the enemy”. As Eriksen argues, there is much manipulation in popular culture (Eriksen, 1980), and The Sex Pistols would manipulate the media quite often, in order to gain attention. This line is no exception, as it is a prediction of how they’d gain exposure, and it turned out to be correct, because the NME did review the album, saying that “Johnny Rotten sings flat, the song is laughably naïve, and the overall feeling is of a third-rate Who imitation.” (Author Unknown, 2011). The idea of singing in-tune was a grand narrative, and you had to be in-tune in order to be considered ‘good’, but Johnny Rotten killed this grand narrative, and it was the NME who were naïve.

            In keeping with the song Anarchy In The U.K., religion is also a topic that is briefly mentioned in the lyrics. In the opening line of the song, John Lydon (1977) sings “I am an antichrist”. Linguistically, the word ‘anti’ means ‘against’, therefore, Lydon is announcing that he is ‘against Christ’, and does not follow the teachings of Jesus. This line was deliberately used to spark controversy. There are many alternatives that could have been used in place of those lyrics, such as ‘I am an atheist’, but it’s not as provocative as the lyrics that were actually used.

            The band’s anarchist ideas are scattered throughout ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’, and these ideas came from their own, and the public’s negative views on the British government, which had brought the country to it’s knees: “The Seventies were a period of prolonged economic turmoil for Britain, with strike action, rising inflation and increasing unemployment blighting the horizon” (Sofat, 2012). However, a report by the BBC written in the same year as Sofat’s report, contests that statement, claiming that “the truth is that most ordinary families in 1970s Britain were better off than ever” (Sandbrook, 2012). If Sandbrook’s statement were true, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ would never have happened. The country was in recession and the album was The Sex Pistols expressing their negative views on the country’s state, the government who were running it and the monarchy too, using words rather than violence or rioting: “My words are my bullets” (Lydon, 2011). Margaret Thatcher (cited by Hussain, 2013) said: “there is no such thing as society.” Trevor Barnes (2002) feels that Thatcher might have said or believed that “there is no such thing as culture.” But Karl Marx (1859) writes, in his book ‘A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy’, “the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

            The anti-monarchy message is very prominent on the band’s second single from the album, ‘God Save The Queen’. The lyrics “God save the Queen, the fascist regime” (Lydon, 1977) start off the song, and I found two interpretations that contest each other: Thornton (2012) argues that the lyrics take a shot at the monarchy, which at the time was “as fascistic as those of Italy and Germany, yet given the gloss of liberalism.” Even more claims are made by Thornton against the monarchy, when he writes that the “myth that the second world war was fought to protect the plucky Poles or the poor Jews is just revisionist propaganda spread to disguise the real reasons for every war, to protect the economic interests of the rich.” The other argument though is that those two lines are “an argument by extension, but it’s based, like most arguments by extension, in some concept of reality. What he’s trying to do here is explode the idea that the royal family is a good thing. That’s what you do with extension: Present something that seems ridiculous, but if you trace it back, actually in a way it half makes sense” (Stewart, 2014). In Thornton’s article, he writes negatively towards the monarchy and breaks down each line of the song as something negative against the monarchs of the country, and I can understand his argument, because the “Queen has the right to rule: the people of Britain are not citizens, but subjects of the monarch. Most public servants must swear an oath of loyalty, or make an affirmation of their loyalty, to the crown” (Alden, 2002). However, while her rule over the British citizens and ability to advise and warn ministers could be compared to a “fascist regime”, she did not exercise these powers during the 1970’s. Therefore we were not living in a “fascist regime” at the time, but The Sex Pistols were creating noise again, as Attali would conclude. I agree with Stewart’s argument that they were calling the royal family a good thing and, on top of Stewart’s argument, the word ‘fascist’ was used in the lyrics as a way of creating noise. They deliberately chose a word that would have been the most offensive and shocking, because fascism is often associated with Adolf Hitler (Griffin, 2007). The cover artwork for the single featured a defaced portrait of the Queen, creating even more noise. It is illegal to deface or even mock the Queen’s portrait, as it is considered treason (Martin, 2013). A lot of effort went into making this song shocking. It was an opportunity, along with the Bill Grundy interview, to create noise.

            In the song ‘God Save The Queen’, lead singer John Lydon (1977) sings lyrics that are aimed towards the working class: “They made you a moron”, “don’t be told what you want, don’t be told what you need”, and “there is no future, no future for you”. Lydon is ordering the working class to think for themselves, and not accept what Julian Temple (2000) called “a shoddy, third rate version of reality”, in the documentary ‘The Filth and Fury’. In Britain, the working class felt rejected and marginalised. They were told what to do and think, as explained by Steve Jones (2000), guitarist of The Sex Pistols: “You’re supposed to accept it: It’s Shakespeare, it’s great, you’re not.” It is also stated that “people were fed up with the old way”, and Lydon (2000) explains the meaning behind the song: “You don’t write ‘God Save The Queen’ because you hate the English race, you write a song like that because you love them; and you’re fed up with them being mistreated.” The song was a voice for the working class, and helped to bring about socio-political change, despite Adorno’s ideas of how music can inspire such change. Cynthia Nielsen (2011) writes that “for Adorno, music possesses a unique ability to awaken our soporific social consciousness. Music must resist commodification in order to be a powerful force for socio-political change; thus, Adorno lays stress upon unconstrained, unique, autonomous musical structures—structures that evidence originality and highlight individuality, which is the exact opposite of mass produced, commodified music.” However, God Save The Queen does not resist what Adorno would call ‘commodification’ in music, and does not have an “unconstrained, unique, autonomous” structure. Yet it was a powerful force for socio-political change. The ongoing influence of this trope can be heard in songs such as Thou Shalt Always Kill by ‘Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip’, in which Scroobius Pip raps the line “thou shalt think for yourselves” (Meads, 2007). The meaning behind this line is to not follow popular culture or media like a sheep and be your own person.

            Despite many sources stating that ‘God Save The Queen’ was deliberately released as a single in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee as a publicity stunt, Paul Cook (2006) claims that the band weren’t even aware of the Jubilee: “It wasn’t written specifically for the Queen’s Jubilee. We weren’t aware of it at the time. It wasn’t a contrived effort to go out and shock everyone.” On June 7th, 1977, the day of the Jubilee holiday, the band attempted to play the song from a boat named ‘The Queen Elizabeth’, on the River Thames, outside the houses of parliament. Eleven people, including members of the band’s crew were arrested when the boat docked (Savage, 2012).

The Silver Jubilee incident was just one of many controversial incidents that the band had, such as the Bill Grundy interview. The band were initially dropped by two record labels, and struggled to find a home. After being dropped by EMI following the Bill Grundy incident, the band signed with A&M records. According to a report by ‘Channel 4’: “A&M had originally intended releasing God Save The Queen, but had a change of heart at the last moment, paying the trouble some Pistols £75,000 to go away and leave them alone… The Pistols then signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin, which released the single in May 1977, shortly before the jubilee” (Author Unknown, 2012). Despite finally finding a label, The Sex Pistols still faced much adversity, as “the BBC and commercial TV and radio refused to play it and many record shops and high street chains Woolworths and WH Smith were unwilling to stock it” (Author Unknown, 2012). However, despite this, the song still managed to place highly in the charts, but further controversy surrounds what position it actually achieved. Even thirty-seven years after it hit the charts, the BBC still deny claims that they refused to allow the single to reach number one, calling it a “conspiracy” (Author Unknown, Year Unknown), but the fact remains that ‘God Save The Queen’ outsold all other tracks that week, including the official number one: ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ by Rod Stewart. In fact, according to Stuart Maconie (2013), Malcolm McLaren, the manager of The Sex Pistols, “claimed that CBS Records, which distributed both singles, told him the Sex Pistols were actually outselling Stewart two to one.” Even more controversy surrounds the single, as there “is evidence that an exceptional directive was issued by the British Phonographic Institute (B.P.I.) to exclude sales from certain shops, such as Virgin, for that week only” (Maconie, 2013). But it wasn’t only the B.P.I. who were attempting to sabotage the single’s rise to the top of the charts, as a letter that was distributed around Boots stores in the UK was leaked onto the Internet by somebody who was working for the company at the time the letter was distributed. Stephen Yarwood (Year Unknown) claims that the Boots store he worked at “received a memo from Head Office warning us about the dangers of God Save the Queen.” The final paragraph in the memo, dated June 3rd, 1977, asks stores to “please make sure that you are not selling this record and any reference to it should be removed from the “Top 20 Illuminated Sign”” (Author Unknown, 1977). This wasn’t the only case of the single being removed from the charts, as the W.H. Smith chart showed Rod Stewart in the top spot, and the second spot, where God Save The Queen should have been listed, blanked out (Yarwood, Year Unknown).

As well as criticism against the band from these companies, music lovers and critics also had negative feelings towards the band, deeming them ‘sell-outs’ because they signed to a major label, whereas another UK-based punk band Crass stayed independent and never signed to a major label. However, if The Sex Pistols hadn’t have signed with a major, another punk band probably would have signed to a major label eventually. The noise needed to be made, but it could not be made without ‘loudspeakers’, by which I mean the major labels who promoted, distributed and spread The Sex Pistols’ music and noise. Thinking back to the Attali quote earlier, he would call The Sex Pistols an “object of consumption”, because they signed to a major label. Despite signing to a major label, The Sex Pistols stuck to their guns and rebelled against the corporate people who wanted to make them a safe punk band for the general public: An object of consumption. Despite accusations that the band ‘sold-out’ when they signed to a major label, it could be argued that the band were sell-outs right from the day they formed. Journalist Ian Ianonne (2011) writes that “the whole rebellious act was carefully manufactured, just like a punk Justin Bieber.” I find that Ianonne’s comparison of The Sex Pistols to Justin Bieber is unaware of certain factors of the band’s influences, compared to Justin Bieber. Bieber was moulded and had an image built for him. He had a “swagger coach” that worked on “sharpening his moves, his attitude and his wardrobe” (Hoffman, 2009). Bieber was told how to dress and act, whereas the members of The Sex Pistols were “spending afternoons at McLaren and Vivienne’s shop” (Utton, 2012). They weren’t told what to wear, McLaren found members for the band who already represented the appearance and attitude he was looking for. In fact, original bassist Glen Matlock was a “part-time employee of Sex” (Eddy, Year Unknown). Justin Bieber does have credits as a composer for his music, but on his latest studio album ‘Believe’, the songwriting is shared between him and twenty-two other composers (Author Unknown, 2012). However, Bieber’s songwriting credits have been debated, as Lewis Corner (2011) reported that “songwriter Heather Bright has claimed that artists such as Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Kanye West appear in songwriting credits on tracks they haven’t contributed to.” The report later goes on to quote Bright when asking her how Bieber got a songwriter credit, in which she claims “…I don’t know.” The Sex Pistols however, did write their own music, with all four members being credited to writing their second single ‘God Save The Queen’ (Author Unknown, 2012). The Sex Pistols cannot be compared to Justin Bieber in authenticity, as Bieber is very much an “object of consumption” (Attali, 1985), because he has been shaped by his manager and so-called ‘swagger coach’ to act a certain way in his self, and sound a certain way in his music, which is a post-modern phenomenon. Justin Bieber is a pastiche. He began as a blank canvas, on which Scooter Braun has painted the image he sees fit, whereas The Sex Pistols wore what they wanted, acted the way they wanted and wrote the music they wanted. Malcolm McLaren hand-picked the band because they represented the band he wanted to manage.

On October 27th, 1977, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ was released, and it shot to number one in the charts (Author Unknown, 2012). The album’s influence can be heard on music that has come since its release. The punk genre exploded in Britain after the album came out, with ‘Spin’ magazine naming 1977 “the year punk exploded” (Aaron, 2007). The Sex Pistols were at the forefront of the punk scene, and that scene influenced a backlash genre: New wave of British heavy metal. One of the top bands of this genre was ‘Iron Maiden’, who were actually called “kinda punky” (Murray, 2004). However, bassist Steve Harris hated punk and deliberately set out to write music that avoided punk, therefore punk influenced his writing. Steve also claims that lead singer Paul Di’Anno deliberately incorporated as much punk influence into ‘Iron Maiden’s music, just to annoy him. (Harris, 2004). Punk helped shape the sound of the new wave of British heavy metal.

The influence of ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ and The Sex Pistols is also visible in how artists portray themselves. It is my belief that a lot of the lyrics written and behavior exhibited by the band was for pure shock value, in order to gain attention. ‘Marilyn Manson’ and ‘Lady Gaga’ are two examples of modern artists who use shock to gain attention. In Brian Warner’s book, ‘The Long Hard Road Out of Hell’, he states ‘Marilyn Manson’ uses shock to gain attention. This is something that is also done by ‘Lady Gaga’, who performs whilst soaked in what is meant to be blood to create shock value. ‘Lady Gaga’s meat dress stunt managed to gain a lot of attention, with Sean Michaels (2010) calling it “controversial”. The general rude manner of The Sex Pistols was an influence on how the Gallagher brothers, formerly of ‘Oasis’, acted. It is obvious that The Sex Pistols are an influence on Noel Gallagher, who named them the fourth best band of all time (Gallagher, 2008).

‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ is not only culturally important in society and music, but also art. Street artist Shepard Fairey cites The Sex Pistols as a major influence, claiming they, and the punk genre they popularised, changed his life, stating: “That opened my eyes to political and social critique: How art could work with things that are political.” (Fairey, 2010). The Sex Pistols were the gateway to punk for Fairey, and punk influenced him, as well as many other artists. In fact, there is a lot of connection between art and punk music: Dadaism is considered ‘anti-art’, and punk is considered ‘anti-music’. Dadaism would be considered noise in visual form by Attali. An article by Jonathon Jones (2009) discusses the links between punk music, particularly The Sex Pistols, and dadaism. Punk is the musical form of Dadaism.

‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ is a culturally significant album because it represents the views of the working class in Britain during the 1970’s, it provided a voice for a disillusioned nation who were “fed up with the old way” (Temple, 2000). It’s a politically-charged album that commented on the monarchy and the way the working class were treated, giving anarchy as the grand narrative solution and future of Britain. It is also a culturally significant album because of the influence it’s had on the English language: The semiotic of ‘anarchy’ has changed due to punk music. Previously meaning a society without leaders where everybody cooperates, it is now more commonly associated with punk music and “disorder” (Whalley, 2011). Another effect on the English language that The Sex Pistols have had is the use of profanity, which has now “lost its power to shock.” (Duffy and Wheeler, 2004). This could mean that nobody will ever be able to create the uproar that The Sex Pistols did in the Bill Grundy incident ever again, unless new swear words are invented. The album has also indirectly influenced fashion, with punk fashion now considered “utterly mainstream” (Cochrane, 2013). Jamie Reid’s cover art for ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ influence art, but the music itself also did. The music is comparable to dadaism. The album was also a huge influence on music that has followed since its release. One musician who is influenced by ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ is Billie Joe Armstrong of punk band ‘Green Day’, who wrote: “The Sex Pistols released just one album — Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols — but it punched a huge hole in everything that was bullshit about rock music, and everything that was going wrong with the world, too. No one else has had that kind of impact with one album. You can hear their influence everywhere from Joy Division to Guns n’ Roses to Public Enemy to the Smiths to Slayer. Never Mind the Bollocks is the root of everything that goes on at modern-rock radio. It’s just an amazing thing that no one’s been able to live up to.” (Armstrong, Year Unknown). I think you can hear the album’s influence when analysing these band’s sounds: The use of profanity in Public Enemy’s lyrics, the stripped down guitar-bass-drums-vocals approach of The Smiths, and the driving bass-lines of Joy Division. You can hear ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ in everything that is heard in modern popular music today. There had never been anything like it before because of the noise, and there’s never been anything quite like it since, because that noise has now become mainstream.

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