Rewind: The Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks … (1977)

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Contrary to the prevailing narrative, one would be mistaken to view the demise of early punk rock as a spontaneous burnout, rooted in the genre’s own energy and outward fatuity, as opposed to a natural result of the collapse of the unique social paradigm that necessitated its being in the first place. The punk subculture emerged in the mid-1970s as a means via which the disenfranchised urban youth of Britain and the coastal United States could rail against the hegemonic civic currents of the time – the decaying post-war order, with its kitchen-sink drabness and bouts of industrial tumult, and, equally, flower power idealism, a philosophy with little street-level resonance, entrenched as it was among aging communal sets and a university-educated elite.

Indeed, the movement at its height acted as a lumpen assault on hippy aesthetics and values, the relentless violence at its musical core a challenge to the optimism of a generation lost amid a druggy, Dharmic, free love-replete haze, as subtle as a croquet mallet to the large intestine. Derision of punk rock’s muddled politics, a cartoonish quasi-anarchism somewhere between Georges Sorel and Groucho Marx, is fundamentally misguided – this ostensible illiteracy forms the nucleus, in itself, of an outstandingly dangerous politics, unprecedented in its amplitude and radicalism. The harsh bass lines and adenoidal vocals obscured a communicative depth unparalleled to this day; behind their superficial absurdism, it should not be forgotten that ‘God Save The Queen’ and ‘Anarchy In The UK’ are sincerely political, albeit infantile (“Is this the U.D.A or / Is this the I.R.A?”) anthems.

It was this flirtation with hyperindividualism that would ultimately cost punk its fire. With the advent of Reagano-Thatcherite dogfish capitalism at the turn of the decade, the punk vision was not merely expropriated by the establishment, but flipped totally on its head. Cues were dully taken from the movement’s veneration of the militant outsider; now, however, the ‘outsider’ was a venture capitalist, a soft-spoken John Galt who traded in safety pins for bronze cufflinks and the corridors of dim-lit community centres for seventeenth-floor boardrooms in London and New York. The affair stands as a confiscation of intellectual capital as gratuitous and appalling as ‘Che chic’. Faced with the prospect of gradual institutionalisation, the punks were forced out of the social space they had forged from blood and iron in all manner of experimental, less politically incendiary directions.

That’s history. So why, in 2015, does Never Mind The Bollocks … demand another listen? As a professional project, the Sex Pistols were an unmitigated train crash, their ephemeral career culminating in a U.S. tour that remains legendary for all the wrong reasons. Living as we do in the society of the spectacle, where today’s celebrity nude is tomorrow’s livestreamed beheading, the album, despite its much-touted shock value, is unlikely to provoke and scandalise quite as it once did; in an age where Robin Thicke’s odes to date rape pass as vaguely edgy summer hits, even ‘Bodies’, Johnny Rotten’s censor-baiting abortion diatribe, won’t affect modern listeners in the same way it did their parents and grandparents, the sex-and-violence-starved subjects of Mary Whitehouse’s Britain. Bluntly, audiences accustomed to the refinement, production quality and craftsmanship contemporary rock prides itself on will take little away from this – Steve Jones’ guitar riffs shun complexity in the name of pugnacity, Rotten’s lyrics constitute an unrelenting torrent of Dadaist twaddle and reprehensible images, and Sid Vicious isn’t even on here, heroin abuse having confined him to a hospital bed for the duration of the band’s studio slot. He wasn’t even that good, apparently.

No, it’s the raw anger at the heart of this LP, an ire it unleashed upon an unsuspecting, infinitely more conservative world some 40 years ago, that continues to burn and galvanise. This is the White Album on glue, a musical helter-skelter that drags us through the grime and sweat of a long-lost England, that spits in our auricles before daring us to revel in the sheer hideousness of the whole thing. Literally every one among the 12 tracks here, set to a guitar-thrumming unmatched in its audacity and heaviness, doubles as an in-joke or hilariously vile innuendo – ‘Pretty Vacant’ is the Pistols turning the satirical gun on themselves (“Don’t ask us to attend ’cos we’re not all there”), whilst ‘Submission’, an incoherent pseudo-Jungian anecdote involving octopuses and submarines, was written to satisfy Malcolm McLaren’s demands for a kinky limerick a la the Velvet Underground. No album prior to this had demonstrated such puerile articulacy; no album since has encapsulated a time, place and mood with such ghastly perfection.

Perhaps it would not be too much a turgid cliché to suggest that little can be said here that hasn’t been said before. There’ll always be an England – and we’ll always have the Sex Pistols. Thank bollocks.

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Desperado, social scientist, pop culture aficionado and occasional dabbler in journalism.

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