While they may not have invented the genre, the Sex Pistols emerged in the late 1970s as the very face of Punk Rock. Forming in the midst of a harsh economic recession in Britain – and a musical landscape dominated by Prog, Disco and staged arena Rock — the Pistols were brash, crude, and gleefully provocative, spitting into the face of the British cultural establishment with a howled message of political anarchy and anti-authoritarianism. They were around for only two years and recorded only a single record, but their influence was vast in both the U.S. and the U.K. – the Punk explosion they ignited upended the music business and launched literally thousands of bands.
Formed in London in 1975, the Sex Pistols came together under manager Malcolm McClaren, a visual artist and boutique owner (and, briefly, manager of the New York Dolls) who had a vision for a band that would provoke on every possible level. He took under his wing a trio made up of regulars at his boutique — guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Glen Matlock – who were looking for a singer, and recruited 19-year-old John Lydon, who had no singing experience but was a born provocateur with an unhinged charisma.
With Lydon, renamed Johnny Rotten, at the microphone, the Sex Pistols set about creating a stir – and succeeded hugely. Their first show ended in an altercation and a pulled plug. Subsequent public appearances ended in chaos. There were bans and outraged editorials. The Pistols were signed by EMI, only to be dropped after their first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.” stoked major controversy; the next single, “God Save the Queen” (issued by Virgin), did likewise.
By the time the latter single was issued, bassist Matlock had been replaced by Sid Vicious (real name John Ritchie), a friend of Lydon’s with no musical experience. Self-destructive and nihilistic, Vicious added another layer of menace to the Pistols’ image.
The band’s sole LP, Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols, was released in October 1977. It sold only moderately in the U.S., but went to No. 1 in the UK – though touring behind the record in the U.K. was problematic, as many venues refused to book the band. In December 1977, the band launched its first tour of the States, focusing on small cities in the South (an itinerary planned by McLaren for maximum culture clash). It was an ill-fated venture, plagued by visa problems, cancelled shows, hostile and physically aggressive audience members, Vicious’ growing heroin addiction, and increasing dysfunction within the band. The band essentially imploded at the final show, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, where a visibly disengaged Rotten’s final words to the crowd were: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” The next day he announced that the band was splitting.
Rotten changed his name back to John Lydon and formed Public Image Ltd, which had a run of well-received records in the U.K. Vicious was arrested on suspicion of murdering his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in New York City, and died of a heroin overdose while awaiting trial. Cook and Jones performed with a number of Hard Rock acts. In 1996, the four original Pistols reunited for a world tour they dubbed the Filthy Lucre tour; since they they’ve performed a number of additional shows and tours.