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40 Years Ago: Sex Pistols Swear on Live TV

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On Dec. 1, 1976, Britain exploded in controversy over the Sex Pistols when they appeared on the television program Today. And it was all because Freddie Mercury had a toothache.

Queen were booked to appear on the live news magazine show on the U.K.’s Thames Television. But when their singer required a dentist’s attention, EMI scrambled to replace the band with another act signed to the record label. The best they could find was the Sex Pistols, the rowdy punk upstarts that had recently released their first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.”

Although the Pistols, and the burgeoning British punk scene, had been all the rage in the music press, mainstream coverage had been scant. Even a short interview on a tea-time television show could bring a big boost in publicity. But no one had any idea the kind of publicity, and infamy, which would be generated by this short television appearance.

“They made us wait a real long time in what they jokingly call the green room, which was just free drink,” remembered frontman John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon. Guitarist Steve Jones recalled getting hammered while waiting to go on television, although bassist Glen Matlock has downplayed how much alcohol the band, and its entourage of punk scenesters, actually imbibed.

When it was time to go before the cameras, the Pistols and pals were to be interviewed by Bill Grundy, a 50-something presenter who had made a reputation for himself as a drunk rascal. Invoking his persona while introducing the punk rockers, Grundy declared, “They’re as drunk as I am.”

“He drank more than any of us,” Lydon said. “And he pushed it.”

If Grundy’s blood alcohol level wasn’t apparent in the interview, his dismissive opinion of the young musicians was obvious. Annoyed by Jones, who stepped on the host’s cue, Grundy focused on the money the Pistols were making. The band members sneered back that they had spent it all, while, amid the crosstalk, Jones uttered the f-word for only the third time on a British broadcast.

Not that Grundy noticed as he goaded the Pistols about being a joke and referenced classical music, apparently to draw comparisons between the band’s uncouth appearance and the respect bestowed upon the likes of Beethoven and Mozart. When Lydon mumbled an obscenity, Grundy became determined to have him repeat it on air.

“Nothing, a rude word. Next question,” Lydon demurred, before the presenter demanded to have him to say “s—” on live TV, as he feigned shock.

But what brought the situation to a head was Grundy’s flirtation with the female punks who accompanied the band on the show. One of them was future music star Siouxsie Sioux, who facetiously told Grundy that she always wanted to meet him. When the host told Sioux that they “could meet afterwards,” Jones exploded at Grundy.

“You dirty sod,” he bellowed. “You dirty old man!”

Grundy responded by encouraging him: “Go on, you’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.”

Jones complied. “You dirty bastard,” he sneered. “You dirty f—er! What a f—ing rotter!”

Grundy quickly ended the show. As the punks were ushered back into the green room, the television studio began being bombarded with phone calls, upset with the language they (or their kids) had heard on the air. One man even claimed that he had smashed his TV screen in a rage, but wanted to be reimbursed.

So many calls were coming in that they flooded the phone lines, accidentally forcing callers to the extension in the green room. Sioux remembers that the Pistols and their friends picked up, greeting upset viewers with some more colorful words.

Overnight, the Sex Pistols reached the height of infamy in Britain. The incident became front-page news on London’s tabloids, with the Daily Mirror famously declaring, “The Filth and the Fury!” While media types, politicians and others decried the behavior and tried to ban the Pistols from performing in their cities, young music fans became curious about the group, buying the first single (at least before EMI dropped the band and deleted the record).

As the Pistols were becoming a sensation – for better and worse – Thames Television blamed Grundy for antagonizing the band and coaxing the run of obscenities on the air. He was suspended from telecasts for two weeks as program director Jeremy Isaacs said that Grundy made a “gross error in judgment” with “inexcusably sloppy journalism.”

Grundy took his case to the press, suggesting that his “lovable drunk” persona had no basis in fact and that he hadn’t been drinking on the job. Yet, the man did cop to having an agenda in his interview with the Pistols.

He told the Guardian that his goal was “to prove that these louts were a foul-mouthed set of yobs. And that is what I did prove.”

Although Grundy was reinstated, the Today show was soon canceled and he never hosted another prime-time program. The incident ended his career as a prominent journalist.

The same could be said for the Sex Pistols, who benefited in the short term, and became known in mainstream culture for their shocking attitude more than their music or political statements. Thirteen months later, after a tumultuous 1977, the band would cease to exist.

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