'Bollocks' to the unbelievers


August 29, 2003


The rock histories would have us believe that the Sex Pistols were always more important as an idea than as a musical force. Although the group was only together for a little more than two years, released just one official album during its lifetime and imploded in early 1978 after its sole tour of the United States (which lasted a mere 14 days), it ignited a spark that continues to blaze today, wherever passionate rockers with more attitude than ability pick up guitars and drumsticks because they have a burning desire to say something and no other outlet to release their energies.

Never mind that the American punk movement was already well under way via bands such as the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group in New York (to say nothing of groups such as Pere Ubu in less exotic locales like Cleveland) when the Pistols performed their first gig in London in November 1975.

When the quartet's first and last studio album, "Never Mind the Bollocks--Here's the Sex Pistols," was released in October 1977, it did more than any other punk release to drive home the idea that anybody can make great rock 'n' roll, as long as they have the fire. (The last album to do that, Nirvana's second disc in 1991, was named "Nevermind" partly in homage.)


*7 tonight
*Aragon, 1106 W. Lawrence
*Tickets, $45
*(312) 559-1212

I vividly remember the local New York TV news reports when the Pistols arrived in the United States, complete with dour-faced anchors declaring that the band members "couldn't play," made nothing but "sheer noise" and existed primarily to tick people off. That was no surprise; the same had been said of many great rock bands dating back to the '50s, when the music was denounced as a juvenile-delinquent scourge.

What is shocking is the patently false notion that "Never Mind the Bollocks" is a failed or overrated effort--a claim that persists today even in many otherwise knowledgeable quarters.

"It is difficult to listen to 'Bollocks' all the way through, but individual tracks show the Sex Pistols at the height of their power," says Jon Savage, who wrote the most insightful (and sympathetic) biography of the group in his classic tome, England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond. He goes on to claim that the album suffers from "overproduction" and singer Johnny Rotten's (nee Lydon) "increasingly mannered vocals."

To which I can only reply (in true Pistols fashion): "Bollocks!"

Granted, I wasn't present as Savage was to see the Pistols in action (though I've spent plenty of hours viewing posthumous films such as "The Filth and the Fury" and "D.O.A."). And it was certainly difficult to focus on the music at the time of the album's release, when the group was making just as much noise with its celebrated antics, from the ridiculous (playing on a boat sailing down the River Thames, cursing on the BBC) to the tragic (the very public self-destruction of bassist Sid Vicious).

But from the first time I listened to "Never Mind the Bullocks" through today, a quarter of a century later, it has conveyed an electrifying thrill and an undeniable wallop that has everything to do with the music--sociological observations, historical footnotes and "you just had to be there" nostalgia be damned.

For all of the talk about their ineptitude, each of the band members roars through the dozen tracks with a distinctive sound and style of playing that have often been imitated but never been bettered. Paul Cook is a simple but incredibly hard-hitting drummer in a proud tradition that dates back to Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, and his ability to find a unique groove with guitarist Steve Jones rivals what Watts shared with Keith Richards.

With a massive fuzzed-out sound that has inspired as many heavy-metal players as punks--the result of producer Chris Thomas layering countless minimal but effective guitar parts on every track--Jones is the obvious musical star. But that's not to slight original bassist Glen Matlock, who plays on all but the first two tracks (which feature his unfortunate replacement, the doomed Vicious). Matlock provides a melodic and rhythmic counterpoint to Cook and Jones, and he penned many of the album's most memorable hooks, including the indelible "Pretty Vacant."

Then there's Rotten. He snarls, sneers, rants and raves his way through the album's 12 tunes, singing as if his life depended on it. He unleashes a fury that only someone who truly believes that he has "no future" can display, effectively railing against England's pointless figurehead ("God Save the Queen"), his former record company ("EMI"), frauds and con artists in general ("Liar," "New York"), a girl from Birmingham who's had an abortion (the surprisingly un-P.C., anti-choice "Bodies") and most of all the apathy of a blank generation all too willing to bend over and take it all ("Submission," "Seventeen" "No Feelings").

In the process, Rotten gives us some of the most poignant, probing and memorable lyrics since Bob Dylan: "I didn't ask for sunshine and I got World War III"; "I don't believe illusions 'cause too much is real"; "When there's no future how can there be sin/We're the flowers in the dustbin," and these lines from "Problems," which pretty much sum up the core message of the Pistols (and of all great rock 'n' roll):

"Eat your heart out on a plastic tray/You don't do what you want then you'll fade away/You won't find me working 9 to 5/It's too much fun BEING ALIVE!"

Cook, Jones, Matlock and Lydon first reunited in 1996 to celebrate their 20th anniversary, gleefully admitting that they were only in it for the money. (The accompanying concert album was called "Filthy Lucre Live.") In fact, the jaunt didn't make any of them rich.

The '96 tour was "very successful, but not money-wise," Lydon told Billboard. "How would it be? We're the Sex Pistols; nobody likes us, and we don't care."

So why reunite again seven years later? Billboard quite reasonably asked. "Who says we reunited?" Lydon replied. "We never separated. We don't need a reason for anything. Let the copycats sit around and come up with reasons for things. There is a vast amount of disenfranchised [people] in America. It's important to let them know we're still here."

Of course, this is exactly the sort of thing that geezer-rockers ranging from Aerosmith to ZZ Top say whenever they're challenged about why they continue treading the boards when the essential spark that first inspired them obviously was extinguished long ago. The fact is that the Sex Pistols circa 2003 will be no different than any other oldies act, if you're expecting them to have even a shadow of the cultural impact or sheer curiosity value that they had in their heyday. (Though Lydon's current attempts to book the band in Baghdad are at least worth a chuckle.)

On the other hand, few bands in rock history have been quite so deserving of a reassessment on purely musical terms. The music may no longer "mean" anything (even if Rotten still maintains that "We mean it, man!" in the lyrics to "God Save the Queen"). But I'm betting that the songs from "Never Mind the Bollocks" will sound as great onstage at the Aragon tonight as they do on one of rock's best and most enduring albums.