The history of the Sex Pistols – An evolution of Punk

Katie Drea

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In the 1970’s People in Britain were stuck in a dull 1950s style way of living. Support for the British monarch was extremely popular. There was a lost generation of teenagers and people in their early twenties who were suppressed by the conservativeness of their parent’s generation.

There were little prospects for the next generation shadowed with the depression of strikes and a down turn in the economy, “The Attitude rampant in the education system of letting you know you really didn’t have a future, that you had no job prospects no matter how well you achieved academically, its like why bother, know your place.” John Lydon (Johnny Rotten of the sex pistols).

There was little generational gap for these young adults that was their own except a few subcultures that had sprung in the post war period including, teddy boys, mods, teenagers and skinheads these group had only included a minority of the youth population. What was about to happen in British society could not have been predicted and would hold a lasting effect on British culture in every aspect.

 Sex pistols montage by tiffany terry (flickr)
Sex pistols montage by tiffany terry (flickr)

Glam rock was hugely popular, it went a step further than what the 1960s had gone and people loved it. Sexuality, artists like David Bowie weren’t afraid to wear pink and paint their faces and this new generation followed in suit, finding it a way of expressing themselves in this depressed state. In 1973 an invasion swept onto British shores that would be one the leading influencers for what would was to come “The New York Dolls” a band that were still very much rock and roll but had merged the generational gap even more between the teens listening to it and their flower power rooted parents, they wore nail varnish but still played fast paced rock that was heavy unlike bands like “Pink Floyd“, they didn’t sing about going to space.

Camden rocks in summer by Jacqueline- Aundree Baxter
Camden rocks in summer by Jacqueline- Aundree Baxter

The Kings road in London is one of the birthplaces for this new form of music and anarchy named “Punk”, and it would be the last true subculture thus far in British society. Groups of art college students with an new idea of music began to recruit friends into bands. After word spread quickly around the UK that a new genre of music was evolving, some of the curious youth of the British suburbs decided to start bands.  As TV Smith of “the Adverts” recalls after seeing reviews of one of the London bands to start it all “The Sex Pistols”. Paul Weller of the Jam recalled going up the London to see these bands and taking Amphetamine “we all travelled up to this all nighter, where we took speed as well for the first time, the effect of the pills and seeing this band was like “wow” this is it this our time”. This incurably small scene was spread by word of mouth, going from the “first few curious seekers” to people becoming more and more interested and wanting to be apart of this new subculture. “The UK is such a small place it was able to spread”- Mick Jones (The Clash). Bands were springing up all over the UK and it was evident that this genre of music was soon to make a huge impact of mainstream British culture.

As Lydon explained himself he could “unsing” singing, as he had never thought of himself a singer to begin with. Lydon was the missing piece that they were looking for not only sharing Jones, Cook and Matlock’s taste in music, but also shared this need to tell the truth about his generation the one that had been left out in the cold for so long. Lydon changed his name to Johnny Rotten he would become the poster boy of the genre. The band would be known as The Sex Pistols. There first gig was played in November 1975 and this is said to be beginning of the genre. The Sex Pistols shocked their first audiences, a fresh new sound that was brash and unforgiving. This band were about to make headlines.


In December 1976, “The Sex Pistols ” were asked to cover a cancelled “Queen” interview on “The Today Show” by Bill Grundy, where they drunkenly slurred curse words and insults at an unimpressed and un-cooperative Grundy who decided; if he had to interview them, he would ruin them too.

 

At this point even McClaren thought that the Pistols were over but this could be seen as one of the best publicity stunt that wasn’t meant to be. It catapulted The Sex Pistols from the their underground scene straight onto the front of all British newspapers the next morning, by lunch time the next day everyone including the children of “the soft rebellion of the hippie counterculture”knew and subsequently feared Rotten and his band. As Lydon “Rotten” himself says the parents of this new generation who would become apart of this subculture had been apart of the revolution in the 1960s were completely shocked. “I always knew the 60’s wasn’t a revolution it was a bunch of university students with some what wealthy parents having fun”.

 

This wasn’t just about having fun, the genre was bored of what was going on in society not just socially but politically.

At this time Britain was in ruins and the youth were the ones having to deal with it. They finally said enough was enough and punk was the way of expressing this. The realisation that being a punk was setting yourself in opposition to everyone else in society, his or her style was about expressing yourself, your anger, your sexuality or what ever you wanted to express through clothing. Everyone wanted to be punk, it was a release from British society that was strangled by decisions of its past. The next day The Sex Pistols, The Clash (another well known punk band) and Johnny Thunder and The Heartbreakers set off on a UK tour, but were refused in many venues due to the bad publicity The Sex Pistols were getting.

At this time the subculture was in full swing with a release of punk “zine” or magazine “Sniffin’ Glue” set up by Mark Perry. A magazine that told “punks” what was going on at the hub of the scene, London.

Bands like The Pistols and The Clash were signed to big record lebels and the whole thing was becoming very “mainstream”, The people who created the scene were turning out to be everything they should have been against.

Venues like the Roxy became a place of pilgrimage for many who craved to a part of Punk. McLaren’s shop in Chelsea “Sex” became the place to be seen. It wasn’t just a shop but a hang out, with creations by McLaren’s Girlfriend Vivienne Westwood. This clothing was becoming a popular sight around the Kings road. Her influence on the generation of style would be felt to this day.

Westwood creatively mixed unusual sex shop finds like bondage, with designs that shocked even more. She went completely against the norm at the time with a line that included prints of women’s breasts on men’s t-shirts, everything Westwood created reflected the music, anarchy.

She said, “The best way to outrage society, is to be as outrageous as possible” Westwood had the ability to take the anger of The Sex Pistols and translate it into her clothing that was then worn by the bands that McLaren managed. Quickly many teens wanted in on this new trend and soon the trend also became mainstream. Blue Peter did a segment on how to make your leather jacket punk. The real punks hated this. Their identity was being drawn out and they felt it was no longer theirs.

It wasn’t their’s anymore in regards to clothing, or their taste in music, the only thing the punks had left was mindset that was slowly dwindling too.

On the 7th of June 1977, McClaren organised a gig a on the River Thames to coincide with Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee. Tensions were high on the morning of the trip as even Rotten felt this was a bad idea. Authorities soon shut down the anarchic gig and McClaren was arrested, the genre was becoming an enemy or the state and the violence was publicised in the media. It was clear that punk was becoming bigger than the people who had created it.

In 1977 the band set off on a US tour. The Pistols were initially refused entery into American making them the most feared band to come to cross the Alantic. Many venues wouldn’t even take this “dangerous” band. Their San Francisco gig would be the end of The
Sex Pistols and the end of punk, as it was known at the time. They had been dropped from various record labels.

Although bands like “The Clash” moved more in the way of commercialisation by signing to CBS, they also found influence from the Reggae music scene and “New Wave” music that was emerging in London. Bands like Bad Brains became extremely influential due to their Reggae vibe and a new sound that would merge both African/Caribbean traditional musical influences was created.

 

 

 

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Katie Drea