Influence and Infamy: How the Sex Pistols Impacted the Future of Music
For a band that once inspired the headline, “The Filth and the Fury,” the Sex Pistols have a clean recording history. The sum total is, essentially, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. One studio album, containing all four singles released while the quartet was intact. Over and out.
In most cases, a one-LP legacy would damage a group’s reputation. A dozen songs are hardly enough to assemble a legend. But these aren’t just any 12 tunes. These are the songs that set U.K. punk alight, delivered by a band that launched an entire movement of back-to-basics rock ’n’ roll. These are the distorted chords that continue to reverberate through music, the sneering lyrics that helped countless others spit in the face of the status quo.
If Never Mind the Bollocks isn’t the most influential album in pop music history – and merely one of a few that have made that kind of impact – it’s probably the only record to arrive 25 years into rock ’n’ roll’s run and create such a ripple effect in so many genres of music. The roots of rock's earliest stars run deep (for obvious reasons) and the British Invasion behemoths left a near-universal impression, but the Pistols are a singular influence on so much of what came in their wake – fellow British punks, post-punk outfits, thrash, hardcore, college rock, Britpop, grunge, glam metal, hip-hop, alt. country and even the rock dinosaurs that Johnny Rotten was seeking to destroy. Punk was bigger than just the Sex Pistols, and yet, Never Mind the Bollocks seems to loom larger than it all.
So let’s begin with the members of the movement that the Pistols started, even though they weren’t looking to set a trend at all. The quartet of John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon, guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Glen Matlock and drummer Paul Cook were merely hearkening back to raw rock ’n’ roll via influences such as Alice Cooper, early Who, the New York Dolls, David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson and Chuck Berry. The Damned (who would earn the mantle of the first British punk single with “New Rose”) played their first gig supporting the Pistols. When the Sex Pistols opened for Joe Strummer’s 101ers, the singer-guitarist ditched pub rock to form a punk act of his own: the Clash. Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol first gained a reputation as Pistols’ fans. Punk bands both legendary and forgettable sprung up like crazy, even before the Sex Pistols had released one single.
“Nothing would have happened without the Pistols,” said Pauline Murray, of punk group Penetration, in Punk Rock: An Oral History. “It was like, ‘Wow, I believe in this.’ What they were saying was: ‘It’s a load of s---. I’m going to do what I do and I don’t care what people think.’ That was the key to it. … It was the attitude that got people moving, as well as the music.”
And there’s one Pistols gig in particular that appears to have had an enormous effect on future generations of music. The band’s concert in June 1976 in Manchester drew a small crowd (30 to 40 people, it’s been estimated), but made a legendary impact. The show was organized by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, who had just begun the Buzzcocks. The audience included Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (who would form Joy Division), Mark E. Smith (leader of the Fall) and a young journalist named Steven Morrissey (future frontman for the Smiths). Just from that one show, the Pistols forced an impression on punk, post-punk and indie rock.
But seeing as how the Sex Pistols’ first run only lasted a couple of years, not every musician could get a contact high from witnessing the band’s fearsome live performances. Future waves of punks, including hardcore bands and pop-punk outfits, would derive their primary inspiration from listening to Never Mind the Bollocks. From Black Flag to Bad Religion, from the Circle Jerks to the Germs, carrying the Pistols’ influence was just a given.
“If I had to choose one record to listen to, it would be Never Mind the Bollocks,” wrote NOFX bassist/singer Fat Mike (via My So-Called Punk). “That record changed my life.”
He’s not alone. Social Distortion’s Mike Ness once talked about how he wanted to be “Orange County’s Sid Vicious,” referencing the punk icon (and, by all accounts, awful musician) who replaced Matlock in the band. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong honors the Pistols’ impact on his trio, while also recognizing their far-reaching influence.
“The Sex Pistols released just one album … but it punched a huge hole in everything that was bulls--- about rock music, and everything that was going wrong with the world, too,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “No one else has had that kind of impact with one album. Never Mind the Bollocks is the root of everything that goes on at modern-rock radio. It’s just an amazing thing that no one’s been able to live up to.”
As Armstrong suggests, Bollocks didn’t just pave the way for more punk bands, but also left an impression on groups outside of that tradition. Influence is claimed by considerably less abrasive bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Stone Roses, whose singer Ian Brown once said, “If I could write one song as good as ‘Anarchy [in the U.K.],’ I’d be happy.”
A variety of other musicians appeared to agree with Brown about the Pistols’ first single, which has been released in a cover versions by thrash kings Megadeth, glam metal hit-makers Mötley Crüe, comedic rockers Green Jellÿ and via a collaboration between Tito Larriva and members of U2 (for the soundtrack to The Million Dollar Hotel).
Other covers of Bollocks tracks reveal similarly varied reverence, including “God Save the Queen” (covered by Anthrax and Motörhead), “Pretty Vacant” (rapper Lady Sovereign) and “E.M.I.” (as “MCA” by Joan Jett). Madonna sampled part of “Anarchy” on tour. Alt. country fixtures the Waco Brothers and Paul Burch pilfered a Johnny Rotten quote for a lyric in “Great Chicago Fire” (“Did you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”).
But the Pistols’ significance didn’t only apply to younger bands that formed in the punk quartet’s wake. The old guard couldn’t help but acknowledge the rock upstarts, whether it was Neil Young using Rotten as a prop in “Hey Hey, My My” or Jimmy Page admitting that he liked the band’s songs. Meanwhile, Pete Townshend of the Who – the one dinosaur act that the Pistols appeared to enjoy, given that they covered “Substitute” – found himself impressed with the group’s sound.
“When you listen to the Sex Pistols, to ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ and ‘Bodies’ and tracks like that, what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening,” the guitarist/songwriter told critic Greil Marcus. “This is a bloke, with a brain on his shoulders, who is actually saying something he sincerely believes is happening in the world, saying it with real venom, and real passion. It touches you and it scares you; it makes you feel uncomfortable. It's like somebody saying, ‘The Germans are coming! And there’s no way we’re gonna stop ’em!”
If the established rockers of the ’70s saw the Sex Pistols as a threat – even an exciting one – a couple of the biggest bands of the ’90s would view them as rock’s saviors, and ones completely worth emulating. Both Oasis and Nirvana worshipped at the altar of the Pistols. Oasis’ guitarist and songwriter Noel Gallagher has continually praised the band and, especially, Never Mind the Bollocks for its guitar sound and Lydon’s “anti-singing.”
“I made 10 albums and in my mind they don’t match up to that, and I’m an arrogant bastard,” Gallagher said in 2013. “I’d give them all up to have written that, I truly would.”
Late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain once placed Never Mind the Bollocks on a list of his top 50 favorite records of all time. And it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that Nirvana’s breakthrough 1991 album was also called Nevermind.
“The Pistols’ album has the best production of any rock record I’ve ever heard,” he wrote. “It’s totally in-your-face and compressed. All the hype the Sex Pistols had was totally deserved – they deserved everything they got. Johnny Rotten was the one I identified with, he was the sensitive one. The only reason I might agree with people calling our band ‘The Sex Pistols of the ’90s’ is that, for both bands, the music is a very natural thing, very sincere. But in terms of influence, f---, no! Rock is too exhausted for that. We haven’t produced a totally original sound like that.”
Of course, the Sex Pistols’ impact goes far deeper than just music. Their album helped inspire a chatty game show (Never Mind the Buzzcocks) and seemingly counter-intuitive credit cards. Their spiky hair and ripped clothes became a fashion style. Their band members, especially Lydon and the departed Vicious, became icons of defiance – shorthand for rebellion, whether meaningful or not. The Pistols became synonymous with punk. Decades later, their filth and their fury continues to resonate.
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