The Week Punk Broke Through: Sex Pistols' 'Never Mind the Bollocks' & Ramones' 'Rocket to Russia' Turn 40
Forty years ago this week, two albums arrived to push punk rock to its cultural apex—and kick-start a long romance with a new form of self-expression.
This week in 1977, two monumental albums arrived: The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and Ramones' Rocket to Russia. One was from the snarling, clothes-pinned freaks that stained Queen Elizabeth II’s waning empire and the other was from the leather-clad, working-class toughs from Forest Hills, Queens, New York. Their sounds collided in a rivalry that would escalate among fans into a decades-long, trans-Atlantic debate over which band rightly wore the punk crown. But together, the Sex Pistols and Ramones would change the fundamental shape, sound and style of pop culture. Theirs was a new form of self-expression—and it’s in the DNA of many of the greatest artists of the last four decades.
From Nirvana to Miley Cyrus, The Strokes to Carly Rae Jepsen, The Pixies to Kanye West, Kesha to Lil Wayne and far beyond, punk rock has infected the lifeblood of the culture. And not just from a musical perspective -- punk is more than sludgy power chords played at breakneck speed. It’s a style -- thank Vivienne Westwood, who was married to punk impresario Malcolm McLaren, for its look. But it’s even more. It’s a reactionary art against rigid older generations, inspired by the Dada movement and anarchic politics, with its own ethos and attitude. Punk is a state of unfiltered artistic revolt. And it all boiled over in ’77.
That summer and fall were packed with new releases from other fledgling punk bands, including Throbbing Gristle, Suicide, Dead Boys, The Runaways, The Vibrators, Johnny Thunders, The Stranglers, Talking Heads and others. But Never Mind the Bollocks and Rocket to Russia are marble columns of the genre, providing the image and sound of “punk” in our collective mind’s eye and ear.
The fuse was lit a year before with Ramones’ well-received debut album. The band’s fast, brash and poppy sound was, in a sense, a pumped-up caricature of the ideologies celebrated by the other artists in the New York City scene, centered around CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, including Television, Blondie, Suicide and Patti Smith. And on the road, the Ramones spread that gospel from venue to venue—and those in the U.K. watched with a keen eye and ear.
On July 4, 1976, Ramones performed at London’s Roundhouse and many of the future leaders of the British punk scene were in attendance, including the Sex Pistols. Around that time, the U.K. punk scene hit the gas pedal—The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Adverts, Generation X, The Slits and X-Ray Spex, The Damned and Buzzcocks, to name a few, all sprouted up. Punk rock was born in the U.S., but it was galvanized in the U.K.
There was a lot to inspire the music on both sides of the pond. Both nations and their iconic major cities were in a tough economic situation, and the Cold War was in full swing (and not going particularly well for the traditional Allies—the Vietnam War had ended just a few years earlier, with helicopters in full retreat from the U.S.’ Saigon Embassy). The unemployment rate in England skyrocketed, and the Big Apple was impoverished and neglected after decades of mismanagement, rife with arson, blackouts, looting, drugs and the Son of Sam serial killings. All around, the dreams and idealisms of the ‘60s were crashing and burning, and in its wake was a new generation of teenagers with strong political opinions and a lot of free time. The walls of the Western World were collapsing at the feet of the anarchist punk kids, dressed up like post-apocalyptic greasers in their tattered Levi's, soiled T-shirts, chains, and leather jackets.
And its sound was invigorating and liberating. Musically, British punk was a militant, bare-bones nod to glam rock (T. Rex, Bowie) and their ‘60s rock heroes (The Kinks, Animals). For the NYC scene, it was inspired by the late '60s, early ‘70s pioneers (the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls) and Detroit horsepower (The Stooges, MC5).
And both bands' frontmen cut a memorable image. The Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, with curled lip and dumbfounded stare, sneered about our bleak outlooks. The shy-looking and towering Joey Ramone stood firm, grounding his blitzkrieg bop with the songcraft of a Girl Group hit and setting it loose with the ferocity of a Gestapo attack dog. Never Mind the Bollocks gave us the barreling kiss-off “God Save the Queen,” released during the Silver Jubilee (a celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 25th year on the throne). It was banned by the BBC -- what better press than that? -- and several in the group's orbit were arrested when the band performed the song on a boat in the River Thames. Then there’s the call-to-arms “Anarchy in the U.K.”: “I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist,” Rotten spews. “Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it, I want to destroy the passerby.” These are perhaps the two most iconic (if clichéd) punk songs of all time.
Then on Rocket to Russia, Ramones provided an even more polished, clean version of their sound. There are 14 songs in less than 32 minutes—no track exceeds 2:49—and its guitars glisten and glint. It gave us their classic cover of “Do You Want to Dance,” plus “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” the first Ramones single to enter the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 81 peak), and "Rockaway Beach," which reached No. 66—the highest any Ramones single would ever go in the U.S.; those remain the only three Ramones songs to ever chart on the Hot 100. Rocket to Russia was the band's highest-charting album to date, reaching No. 49 on Billboard 200. It was a high-water mark.
So, yes, it was all downhill from there. Never Mind the Bollocks would prove to be the Sex Pistols’ only studio album. Rocket to Russia, meanwhile, was the last Ramones album to be recorded with the band's original lineup intact. There were drastic events for the Pistols, too—bassist Sid Vicious, who played on only one Never Mind the Bollocks track due to a drug-related illness, fatally overdosed months after allegedly murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, at New York City’s Chelsea Hotel.
Aside from that, punk rock’s holiday in the sun proved to be a watershed moment in pop culture. Within one week in 1977, two earth-shaking albums arrived—it was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that changed the hearts and minds of many who listened and parsed the sound. It influenced (and continues to influence) generations of musicians and authors and artists. Punk rock’s rebellious spirit is the gift that keeps on giving.