Contract Anarchy: The Many Broken Deals That Led to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’
The Sex Pistols have been called a force of nature – a whirlwind, an earthquake, a Category 5 hurricane. But they say there’s a calm before a storm, that there is quiet in the eye of a hurricane, and with the Pistols there was just chaos, chaos and more chaos.
The wild behavior of the band members and the mischievous machinations of manager Malcolm McLaren created something of a perfect storm. Consider the rate at which the London-based band went through record contracts. In the space of about seven months, the Pistols were signed to EMI Records (then dropped), signed to A&M Records (then dropped) and signed to Virgin Records (and kept, perhaps against the label’s financial interests).
Following a variety of early lineups, the quartet of singer John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon, guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Glen Matlock and drummer Paul Cook had formed, under McLaren’s influence (how much is still debated) in 1975. From the end of that year through the fall of ’76, the Sex Pistols created a riotous noise in London’s underground scene. The band combined stripped-down rock ’n’ roll (influenced by Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, the Ramones and the New York Dolls) with waves of distortion, an aggressive sneer and a thirst for anarchy.
Anarchy wasn’t just a stance, it was the title of their most powerful song. The Pistols had debuted “Anarchy in the U.K.,” Lydon’s excoriation of the status quo, in the summer of 1976 – as they were building a young fan base and spearheading the punk movement in England. McLaren was eager to sign his hotshot band to a big record deal while some of those companies were interested in capitalizing on this new sound.
By early October, EMI (then the biggest recording company in the world) landed the punk trailblazers. Leslie Hill, the label’s managing director, signed the Pistols to a two-year contract that included a reported £40,000 signing bonus. With all parties keen to release some music before the fuss died down, the Pistols recorded “Anarchy” as their debut single, which was rush-released to hit stores in November.
Far from dissipating, the furor and fervor that surrounded the Sex Pistols was only increasing. On EMI’s end, the problems began almost immediately, when certain workers at the company’s pressing plants refused to deal with the band’s single, objecting to the group’s name and the content of their lyrics. When demand later outpaced supply, McLaren and the Pistols would accuse EMI of deliberate sabotage.
That demand skyrocketed after the band’s infamous December television appearance with presenter Bill Grundy on the live Today news program, in which obscenities were uttered by Lydon and Jones – the latter in response to Grundy hitting on band supporter (and soon-to-be rock star) Siouxsie Sioux. The next morning, the Pistols were in all the papers and everyone who didn’t know about punk rock got a speedy lesson in the new movement. Some were horrified, some were curious and “Anarchy in the U.K.” sold a bunch of copies.
If the Pistols appeared to embrace the idea that all press was good press, the folks at EMI didn’t quite see it the same way. The long-running record company began to experience both external and internal pressure to release the band from their contract. EMI Chairman Sir John Reed addressed the issue in a December meeting of the shareholders.
Reed said that EMI would “do everything we can to restrain the Sex Pistols’ public behavior,” according to The Guardian, before the assembled establishment types – a smattering of “Lords” and “Sirs.” But he acknowledged that the effort might be fruitless: “This is a matter over which we have no real control.”
While the Pistols were more famous than most acts who had only one single to their credit, their infamy was also working against them. A December tour of Britain was rife with cancelled dates, due to local communities halting the concerts because of obscene content. Between this and EMI’s public statements, McLaren saw the writing on the wall and began, secretly, fielding offers from competing record labels. He even got some assistance from allies that remained at EMI.
“You had a lot of people internally who know and understand the record business, who were saying, ‘This is no different from the Rolling Stones in the mid-sixties’,” Hill said in Sex Pistols: The Inside Story. “So you had a total split…”
In spite of McLaren and EMI’s behind-the-scenes deal-making, the Pistols were unceremoniously dropped from their contract in January 1977, following more media reports of nasty behavior on a flight to a gig in Holland. The band members found out from a call from the Daily Mirror to their hotel room. After three months and only one single, EMI was washing their hands of “the filth and the fury.”
“Look what EMI did for us – potentially the biggest band in the universe,” Lydon wrote in Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. “They froze. Adverse publicity was a new thing to them. They had never known anything like it. EMI dug their own grave with the money they threw at us… I honestly didn’t care. The check landed.”
With his charges now label-less, McLaren continued to work. Although Hill had advised the manager to focus on independent companies who might be less averse to controversy, he had his eyes still set on a major. McLaren sort of split the difference with a “major indie” in A&M, who entered into a contract with the Sex Pistols in early March of ’77.
Even though the paperwork had been done on March 9, the Pistols’ manager staged a fake signing for the press in front of Buckingham Palace the next day. Lydon, Jones and Cook stumbled out of a limousine to perform the honors, along with new bassist Sid Vicious, who had recently replaced Matlock (supposedly because he had expressed appreciation for Paul McCartney, but actually due to personality conflicts).
If the band’s tenure at EMI had been short, their time at A&M would be a blip. After the Buckingham stunt, the members went to the label’s London offices, where Lydon insulted many on staff, Jones had relations with a fan in the ladies room and Vicious broke a toilet, cut his foot and bled all over the hallways. Other incidents followed, including Lydon threatening the life of a friend of a label executive, and within a week, A&M was finished with the boys.
“We had the Sex Pistols, but that fell apart. They were on A&M for a week in March '77, and it was longer than they deserved to stay,” A&M co-founder Herb Alpert told Goldmine in 1980. “The Pistols were too demanding, too crazy, too drugged out, and as far as I’m concerned, just nonsense. … They were so self-centered they didn’t care about anybody else. The Pistols were very rude to our London staff and there was a scene in our offices there. We had some money invested in them but Jerry [Moss] and I agreed, ‘Let's get them the f--- off, who needs that!'”
It wasn’t just money, A&M had also invested significant resources in the band, who were primed to release their second single, “God Save the Queen,” on the label. When A&M dumped the Pistols, they were forced to destroy 25,000 copies of the forthcoming release (a few survived to become lucrative collector’s items).
Once again, the Sex Pistols were without a label. But, once again, they had walked away with a healthy payday – this time at least £75,000.
“I keep walking out of record company offices with checks,” McLaren said, via Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine. “The boys just want to get their music out.”
Relatively young indie label Virgin, spearheaded by Richard Branson, expressed interest in the band, but McLaren still wanted to hold out for a major company. But after watching two prominent labels sink money into the Pistols, only to drop them soon after, other imprints were reticent to do business with the band. CBS, Decca, Pye and Polydor all rejected McLaren’s overtures.
He managed to secure a contract in France, with Barclay Records, perhaps with the idea that the band’s debut LP (initially titled God Save the Sex Pistols) would at least be available in Britain as an import. But Virgin remained an option, although McLaren tried to convince Branson to make a deal for just one single – which the manager thought would stir the majors’ interests. Branson replied that it was either an album deal or nothing.
With no other options, the Pistols became Virgin signees on May 18. Seeing as “God Save the Queen” was all ready to go, Virgin quickly pressed, released and promoted the band’s second single, which came out on May 27, just in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, commemorating 25 years of her reign.
“If there was going to be a new sound of music, I felt it needed to be on Virgin Records,” Branson recalled, decades later. “For Virgin to sign them, it was going to shake Virgin up, it was going to shake Great Britain up, it was going to shake other bands up and the industry was never the same again.”
McLaren also shook up the band’s Virgin contract, much to Branson’s dismay. Although the document stipulated that Virgin had the rights to distribute the Pistols’ LP in both the U.K. and the U.S. (or at least be given the chance to match a U.S. offer), McLaren disregarded the clause. As sessions for the album were being completed, he sought a separate American label for the band. Fearing that if he fought the Pistols’ manager on this front that he would appear like the out-of-touch establishment executives at EMI and A&M, Branson didn’t put up a fight. In October, McLaren secured a North American contract with Warner Bros. Records for another £22,000.
In addition, the Virgin edition of what was now called Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols encountered competition with other releases – from the same band. A bootleg recording of Pistols demos, called Spunk, was released in October. Then, Branson discovered that Barclay was preparing to put an extra track – “Submission” – on the French version of the release, which was also set to come out a week earlier than the Virgin LP. Not wanting to be topped by an easy-to-get import, the impresario quickly added the bonus song and rushed Bollocks to appear in U.K. shops on Oct. 28.
When the album hit stores, a year and a couple of voided contracts after the Sex Pistols had first signed with EMI, the folks at the band’s former labels discovered that the Pistols had added insult to injury. After forking over money, essentially, for a bunch of bad press, destruction and ill will, there was one more lashing to come on the album’s final track: “E.M.I.” Centered on the group’s first label (with a nod to A&M in the closing moments), the song finds Lydon raging at those who sought to profit off the sensation – and not the sentiments – of the Sex Pistols. “And you thought that we were faking / That we were all just money making,” the singer barks. “You do not believe we’re for real / Or you would lose your cheap appeal?”
After a wild year, the Sex Pistols had delivered their first – and it would turn out, only – studio album. In spite of, and because of, the controversy, Bollocks became an instant hit in Britain (appearing at No. 1 on the charts) and eventually a huge success in other parts of the world (going platinum in multiple countries, including the U.S.). It is now considered a landmark rock recording, one of the most influential albums of all time. According to Lydon, the record company shenanigans only aided in the record’s creative success.
“I recommend a lousy record company every time you run out of songs,” he wrote in his memoir about “E.M.I.” “The material is glorious. It’s one of my faves of the lot.”
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