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This is the eleventh in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
Thirty years ago this month, the baddest, snottiest, most abrasive band in the world came onto the scene with their debut album. The band would blow apart after being together barely 2 years, but would leave in their wake a music scene completely turned on it's head and an album that continues to be as influential and powerful as it was back in October 1977. The band I'm speaking of is the one and only Sex Pistols, and the album is of course Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols.
I don't remember the first time I heard the name the Sex Pistols... I probably first read it on some punk kid's patches as I seem to recall that is how I first heard about the Clash... but I do remember the first time I heard this album. Growing up in the era where "punk" referred primarily to Green Day in the mainstream, the Sex Pistols were a shock, but also a breath of fresh air as their music actually seemed to be more intelligent and controversial than just blatant aggression or apathy, while still rocking hard.
Although there are some similarities between the 12 tracks of this album, they're all relatively straight forward rockers, this album is anything but boring. In fact I think you might have an easier time arguing that the Sex Pistols were actually some sort of electrified folk band (not that you should want to argue that in any way) than arguing that they were boring. Although the groundwork had been laid by the Ramones, the Stooges and the New York Dolls, in my mind the Sex Pistols are the quintessential punk band and this album is not only the quintessential punk album, but one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time.
The opening buzz saw chords of "Holidays in the Sun" set to those marching footsteps seems to set the tone for the entire album. The song is laced with political commentary about the Berlin Wall and the cold war, social rants and a general aggressive stance, all delivered in Johnny Rotten's trademark sneer. It seems to sum up the band perfectly and totally rocks as well. "Holiday in the Sun" might sound to some just slightly tame alongside "Bodies", the song that follows it. One of my favorites, it's is a complete aggressive explosion of social comment on abortion with a killer riff, plenty of punk energy and quasi morbid lyrics. "No Feelings" is actually pretty catchy with some amusing lyrical moments and is also one of the more "pop friendly" tracks on the album... if you want to call anything that the Sex Pistols did pop friendly, it seems like a bit of an oxymoron to me. The aggressive sneer of "Liar" works well with it's kick in the teeth guitar riffs, especially in the chorus and the bridge. This song also features a screaming guitar lead in the middle that is simple, but effective and seems to only up the intensity that much more when the band returns to the verse... another one of my favorites. "Problems" is another great rock song (heck, they really all are), but I'm especially fond of this one's lyrics with it's building chorus and exclamation point "The problem is you". I mean could any statement be more punk than that?
Where "No Feelings", "Liar" and "Problems are more socially directed, the band returns to more to political sniping with "God Save the Queen", a direct shot at the Queen of the UK in the form of a catchy rocker. "Seventeen" has a particularly different musical feel, a bit more of a swagger than some of the other straight forward songs, but it still hits hard, has an absolutely massive chorus and it's apathy fueled, snotty lyrics are incredible. "Anarchy in the UK" is about as rebellious and sneering as any band can be, but combine that with some great, loose rock and roll riffs and you have a song huge enough that I bet when played live everyone sings along to the chorus. "Submission" is another one of my favorites because of a unique style that sets it off from the rest. It's probably the most adventurous track on the album, but don't get the idea that it sounds out of place. This is still firmly a Sex Pistols song through and though, but at the same time it seems to hint at some of bands that would come after the punk movement and subsequently be labeled "post punk".
I don't think anyone can argue that "Pretty Vacant" isn't great rock and roll. It's high energy with a recognizable riff and a catchy feel and lyrics... an absolute classic that easily speaks for itself. "New York" and "EMI" close out the album. The first has a sort of swaying riff over which Rotten's vocals screech, sneer and snicker as the band drives continually forward. The latter sums everything up the same way it started, rocking hard, and also serves as a vehicle for the band to snap at the band's original record label (EMI, obviously), who dropped them after they released "Anarchy in the UK" as a single. Both are great songs, but I think they might be overshadowed a little by some of the others on this album that are just incredible.
Ok... So all of the things I just described sound pretty much like what you'd expect from a punk rock album right? Gritty guitar riffs, aggressive hard edge feel, snotty lyrics and a rebellious spirit, nothing surprising there. So why was I so surprised when I first heard this album (many years ago) and why do I consider it one of the best albums of all time?
First, the musicianship. Punk and proto punk bands have somewhere along the lines gotten a bad reputation as being not as musically adept or creative as some of the other genres. This album is a good example of how untrue that statement really is. Sure, there aren't epic shredding guitar solos and Sid Vicious was known to not exactly be a stellar bass player (I believe it's original bassist Glen Matlock who plays on the album anyways), but there is a subtle quality to guitarist Steve Jones' riffs that is just a perfect compliment to the feel and energy of these songs and the band is so tight and fiery it's overwhelming. Plus there is great variety track to track and some riffs are deliberately loose for emphasis, as opposed to loose because they couldn't play it. "Anarchy in the UK" just wouldn't have the same impact if the band didn't sound like it might descend into a complete musical anarchy.
Second, the lyrics, vocals, social comment and humor. The Sex Pistols have been so influential that there are countless bands that have copped their style and Rotten's inherent sneer. None sounds nearly as authentic and as pushed purposefully to extremes as the original band though. That's the key... it's so easy to overlook these songs as just aggressive frustration fueled rock songs, but they're more than that. There is a exaggeration deliberately in their persona, lyrics and style designed to really sharpen these songs to a sarcastic abrasive edge. A lot of the lyrics are brimming with rebellion and angst, but when Rotten sings lines like "I'm a lazy sod", the chorus from "Seventeen", "God save the queen because tourists are money", from "God Save the Queen", or No feelings for anybody else except for myself, my beautiful self" from "No Feelings", there's a little bit of a dark humor snarl going on as he pushes the envelope towards bitter, almost comical, nihilism, to make their statement as powerful as possible.
That is something that a lot of the bands that followed the Sex Pistols missed in my opinion, going for the more aggressive stance and overlooking some of the band's more subtle aspects. There are little bits of dark humor, sometimes just a simple line that is phrased perfectly, throughout most of these songs that make them that much more effective. I didn't expect such depth from this band when I first started listening to them and I certainly didn't expect it to be as compelling as it is. Any band can try to be political or socially minded, but not too many are as effective as the Sex Pistols. That is one of the major reasons I like this album so much and part of this band's music that I think is often overlooked, sometimes even by dedicated fans.
Third, these songs rock and are truly catchy. There is such an image built around the Sex Pistols that I guess when I first heard their legend of being one of, if not the most abrasive band of all time, I was expecting something musically a little more difficult to listen to. Most of these songs have catchy choruses and are great raunchy rock and roll tracks that are surprisingly fun to listen to despite their somewhat negative lyrics. In fact the lyrics only make them more fun. I could be reading into their music too much with my ideas about social comment, but that won't change the fact that these are great rock songs and that is the number one reason to listen to this album.
Overall, I don't think the Sex Pistols are for everyone as although they might not be as abrasive as some people might expect, they aren't exactly soft and cuddly either. There music is catchy and great social comment though, making Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols not only one of my favorite all time albums, but a rock and roll classic in my eyes... one that all rock enthusiasts need to own.
If you've never been a fan of the Sex Pistols or have dismissed them for any reason, take another look. Even if you can't see these songs as in depth social comment, they're still great high energy rock and roll. If you're already a fan of the Sex Pistols, then join me this month and celebrate their 30th anniversary. I'll be celebrating by listening to this album as loud as I can, often as I can.
The Sex Pistols are also reuniting for a few shows in the UK and one in LA as I wrote about earlier on the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll, and the single "God Save the Queen" is being re released for download and on 7in vinyl.
You can also buy the seminal Sex Pistols album directly from Amazon here: Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols