The Sex Pistols' 'Never Mind The Bollocks' at 35: Classic Track-By-Track

CLASSIC TRACK BY TRACK REVIEW

The Sex Pistols' 'Never Mind The Bollocks' At 35

by Gary Graff


The Sex Pistols, circa October 1977

"Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols" may not be the best punk rock album ever, but it is the most important -- and certainly ONE of the best in all of rock 'n' roll much less its genre. With its 35th anniversary on Oct. 27, now is the perfect time for a track-by-track survey of (and listen to) the classic album.

The Sex Pistols had already made its share of reputation-staking headlines by the time "Bollocks" came out at the end of October 1977. The quartet's first single, "Anarchy in the U.K.," caused a furor in Britain and managed to get the group booted off its original label, "E.M.I." -- which was immortalized on "Bollocks' " closing track. "God Save the Queen" made the group public enemy No. 1, with bannings and contentious media appearances in its wake. Of course, all that -- and another big hit, "Pretty Vacant" -- made the Pistols heroes to Britain's burgeoning population of disaffected youths and punk rock partisans and stirred up interest in whatever the band was up to. So it was no big surprise that the album, released on Virgin after A&M also found the Pistols too hot to handle, reached No. 1 in its homeland and is a fixture on any greatest album survey that has come out in its wake.

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Lost in the socio-political impact, however, is the fact that "Bollocks" is a damn fine rock 'n' roll album an that the Pistols could more than hold their own as a band. "Yeah, people tended to overlook that," guitarist Steve Jones said later on. "I mean, we meant everything we sang about and the politics and all that, but we had gotten together, really, to play music and make records. We took it seriously. We wanted to be good." And they were; Jones, drummer Paul Cook and original bassist Glen Matlock had clearly listened to their Stooges, MC5 and Rolling Stones records and were both tight and dynamically taut. John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) possessed one of rock's great adenoids and a wicked lyrical sensibility that not only pushed buttons but took great glee in doing so, which made the songs that much more evocative and appealing.

Matlock, who contributed a great deal to "Bollocks," was booted in February of 1977, replaced by the late Sid Vicious -- more a personality than a player. The move certainly bolstered the band's notoriety even if it helped insure the Pistols would be a short-lived concern. The group broke up in January of 1978, though it reunited (with Matlock back in the fold) for intermittent touring since 1996. "Bollocks," however, is the only full album the Pistols have ever released, and are ever likely to put out. As such, it's a profound, resonant and movement-launching moment -- one that's been oft-imitated but never duplicated and always cited as a seminal entry in the rock 'n' roll lexicon.

"Holidays In The Sun"
"Bollocks' " opening track is the aural souvenir of a band vacation that started in the British island of Jersey and wound up in Berlin after, the group members say, they were booted from their first stop for ostensibly -- and believably enough -- disturbing the peace. A barely (and by the end of the song un-) hinged Lydon rants about the Berlin wall, communism, claustrophobia, World War III and "a cheap holiday in other people's misery," while the song opens with a military tromp of boots that leads into Jones' descending guitar riff and a chugging, forceful rhythm. Better than a postcard and much more impactful than a T-shirt.

"Liar"
This angry, accusatory tirade doesn't leave much to the imagination -- except, perhaps, its subject. Lydon has said it's about both McLaren and also then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Co-writer Matlock, meanwhile, thought Lydon was writing about him and their fractious relationship. Regardless, it's one of the album's least specific and most universal tracks and a must for any break-up mixtape.

"No Feelings"
"I got no emotions for anybody else/You better understand I'm in love with myself/Myself...My beautiful self." At the end of the first verse Lydon fully vents the Johnny Rotten character as gleefully self-absorbed, unapologetically self-righteous, nihilistic, narcissistic and potentially violent ("I kick you in the brains when you get down to knee and pray"). Jones' slashing attack is prototypical, and the group plays with a Stooges-like ferocity that makes the song as garage as it is punk. (The Banamarama version still makes us giggle, by the way.)

"God Save the Queen"
The Pistols had already called for "Anarchy in the U.K.," but it was this slamming of Britain's most cherished institution that really put the band on the map, at home and internationally. You can't really call a monarch an inhuman figurehead, a tourist attraction and the head of a fascist regime, in her Silver Jubilee year no less, without courting both admiration and ire -- and the Pistols got plenty of both. The sheer bollocks of the gesture and the song's subsequent banning in some quarters gave the group all the cred it needed moving forward, and Lydon, who had the lyrics written before the rest of the group came up with the song's muscular crank, tapped into not just a disenchantment with the monarchy but a general unease about the state of the commonwealth with its "no future" mantra. A classic that's worn the test of time surprisingly well.

"Problems"
The closing track of "Bollocks' " original first side and was something of a toss-off, cooked up one night in the studio when the band members acknowledged that had run out of song ideas. That being the case, they didn't improvise badly with another forceful, Stooges-aping grind over which Lydon ranted at those who were part of the problem rather than the solution. It packed more socio-political wallop than maybe he intended, but it managed to make a statement against malaise and detachment -- "You won't find me living for the screen," "You got your brains dehydrated" -- and declaring that "It's too much fun being alive."

"Seventeen"
The album's shortest song (2:01) opened the original side two as, indeed, a kind of flip-side to "Problems." Lydon, who had re-written an original set of lyrics by Jones that he was unable to read, is in full, sneering teen angst mode, offering up a Pistols mission statement with "We like noise, it's our choice/It's what we wanna do" while the whole gang gleefully chants the "I'm a lazy sod" refrain. An unapologetic celebration of the purpose of having no purpose.

"Anarchy In the U.K."
Matlock, who came up with the song's riff, initially balked at Lydon's lyrics for the Pistols' first single -- particularly the opening "I am an anti-Christ/I am an anarchist" couplet. But you couldn't ask for a more sensational arrival for a new band than this combination of killer track and go-for-the-jugular sentiments that turned any vestiges of the hippie, pacifistic wing of the protest movement on its ear with its embrace of unfocused, violent overthrow ("Get pissed! Destroy!"). EMI dropped the band in the ensuing furor, which only helped the Pistols' first shot explode even louder.

"Sub-Mission"
Pacifying McLaren's demand for a song about bondage, the Pistols came up with this sly, rhythmic (almost funky) ode about a submarine dive ("sub mission," get it?). It wasn't exactly what the boss ordered, but it made the point that the Pistols weren't about to take managerial orders, either. References to "going down" could have been a euphemism (ya think?!), but in an album loaded up with socio-political import, this is a welcome slice of winsome fun.

"Bodies"
A mentally disturbed fan named Pauline was the inspiration for and subject of this not particularly flattering portrait -- although the way the group members talked about her she may well have considered being called "an animal" and "a bloody disgrace" something of a compliment. And Lydon's liberal discussion of abortion -- not a common topic in 1977 -- and numerous F-bombs certainly added the group's evil aura. The song's intro, however, is one of the most sophisticated arrangements the Pistols ever tackled, while Jones' guitars throughout have a double-tracked meatiness that makes the track sound a little more savage.

"Pretty Vacant"
"Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen" may be more famous, and infamous, but "Pretty Vacant" was, in some ways, the biggest hit -- NME's Single of the Year in 1977 and the song that got the group on "Top of the Pops." Matlock has even said it was inspired by ABBA's "S.O.S." It's certainly a top-shelf pop anthem, a fun listen and easy to sing along with -- especially to its decidedly ANTI-pop lyrics. Lydon also drives another nail in the coffin of the peace-and-love generation when he growls that I don't believe illusions/'cause too much is real," and it's the song that arguably rings truer than any of its mates some 35 years later.

"New York"
Tired of constant hearing about what was going on across the pond, the Pistols took aim at the New York City wing of the punk scene here -- and, semi-specifically, the New York Dolls. With the group pummeling behind him, Lydon lashes out at Max's Kansas City and the artists' pill-popping reputation. To the Pistols they were all poseurs ("You're looking bored and you're acting flash/With nothing in your gut you better"), and this diss track sounds like a precursor to the tact rappers would be taking not too far down the line.

"E.M.I."
You didn't think the Pistols would take being sacked by their first record company without comment, did you? "E.M.I." is a cheerfully blatant spleen-venting that takes the venerable label to task for bailing on the band amidst the controversy over "Anarchy in the U.K." It's a trademark track as well, tunefully thrashy with a final verse call-and-response that still sounds like a template for more than three decades of punk and alt.rock that came later. And Lydon gets a last-line slap in at A&M, too, which makes the tune a little more nasty -- but in a good way.