Graded on a Curve:
Sex Pistols,
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols

Well here it is–the first and best punk album ever vomited upon an unsuspecting public. And I don’t want to hear any naysaying or quibbling. With 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols Johnny Rotten and Company fired a shot heard round the world, and the aftershocks of this LP will be felt as long as kids continue to form punk bands, which is forever.

Never Mind the Bollocks sounds every bit as snotty and uncompromising as the day it was released, but hindsight affords us the opportunity to look at where it fits into the history of rock ’n’ roll. The first thing I would note is how much it has in common with smart English hard rock. Given a large quantity of speed and set loose in the studio, Mott the Hoople might have sounded like this. Which brings us to another point. Like Mott’s Ian Hunter, Johnny Rotten is one smart bloke. He may not have attended Oxford, but our lad Johnny had a knack for saying what was on his mind. And he summed up what was on his mind when he said, “Sometimes the most positive thing you can be in a boring society is absolutely negative.”

The songs on Never Mind the Bollocks are slower than I remember, and their sound is fuller; they don’t have that razor-thin edge one associates with, say, the Ramones or the Clash. And they don’t have the pop overtones of those bands either. Listen to the Ramones now and they sound like a bubblegum band; the Sex Pistols don’t blow bubbles and their songs might as well be Brighton rock. The Sex Pistols roar thank to Steve Jones’ blunderbuss guitar, and Johnny Rotten is purest ferocity. The Sex Pistols produce a ferocious din, and I can’t think of a punk band that has ever come close to equaling them in sheer savagery.

I prefer the cartoon nihilism of the Sex Pistols to the pretend revolutionary tendencies of the Clash; if nothing else, cartoon nihilism is far funnier. By “cartoon nihilism” I mean to imply that the anarchy advocated by this band probably goes no further than ripping the occasional car radio antenna off. I do not mean to suggest Johnny Rotten’s disgust, hatred, and bile are not real. It only takes a few seconds of LP opener “Anarchy in the U.K.” to demonstrate the man isn’t just taking the piss. He snarls and whines and quavers; hell, he practically ululates on occasion, and I struggle in vain to think of any subsequent punk singer who can compete with him when it comes to expressing his utter abhorrence of absolutely everything. It was Rotten who led Robert Christgau to write of the Sex Pistols at the time, “They mean no good.” Christgau then went on to add that Sex Pistols’ influence actually worried him, and I can’t think of any other band that left poor Bobby absolutely nonplussed.

The abortion rant that is “Bodies” didn’t just give Christgau the shivers; it makes a clamor musically and the lyrics are ugly. Is it anti-abortion? Rotten–er, Lydon–has nuanced sentiments on the subject, but there’s no doubt that “Bodies” is one of the grimmest takes on the subject this side of those nutjobs who wave photos of aborted fetuses outside Planned Parenthood clinics. And Rotten’s rants on England’s shoddy treatment of its working class (see “God Save the Queen”) and the sad state of England’s affairs in general (see “Anarchy in the U.K.”) are every bit as vitriolic. “No future” summed up a feeling prevalent not just amongst England’s youth but just about everybody, and it’s a sentiment that still rings down the years. “Pretty Vacant” is a great piece of play-acting that points an accusing finger right back at the band and its mindless ilk, and is as great a declaration of not caring as ever you’re likely to run across.

And so it goes–”Submission” is a pun and has as much to do with the deep sea as it does 50 shades of grey, while ”Holiday in the Sun” is a positive statement on divided Berlin of all places, which just goes to show you how much Rotten loathed his homeland, where it seemed everyone wanted to beat him up. “No Feelings” is (or so I suspect) a tongue-in-cheek declaration of callous narcissism that would go on to launch a thousand punk rock threnodies, and carries on in the great tradition of the Stooges “No Fun,” a song the Pistols themselves liked to cover.

Perhaps the most important thing to be said about Never Mind the Bollocks is there isn’t a single song on it that hasn’t stood the test of time. Its 12 friendly little ditties are keepers to the last, feral communiques from a band too smart to outstay their non-welcome. There was no second Sex Pistols album per se, and this was only fit and proper–careerism would have been the death of them. Johnny Rotten stuck around just long another to deliver a telling kick to the pricks before changing his name back to Lydon and forming Public Image Limited. The Sex Pistols were here and gone in a flash, and the wreckage they left behind was beautiful. There will never be another band like them.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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