“Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be fun,” Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten told British rock journalist Charles Shaar Murray in 1977. “You’re supposed to enjoy it. It’s not about taking a million fucking years to learn a million fucking chords on the guitar.”
That clarion call — sounded as their anti-royalist diatribe “God Save The Queen” was getting him razored in the streets, and the group banned from England’s airwaves and concert halls — probably formed more bands than anything else the Pistols did in their brief lifespan, November 1975 to January 1978. It bears repeating that they didn’t invent punk rock so much as helped refine one approach to it, and served as a popularizer. But damn, what a great, powerful band they were.
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Ignore the fashion aspects of the group, or (mis-)manager Malcolm McLaren’s misinformation campaign via the woeful yet entertaining mockumentary The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle claiming he manipulated them into existence. The Pistols were a great rock ‘n’ roll band at their core. Drummer Paul Cook understood the power inherent in not getting terribly frantic with your grooves. He held them a midtempo, at the swiftest, yet with an insane amount of drive, played hard. Guitarist Steve Jones applied heavy metal’s huge roar to the garage six-string ethic of the Stooges and New York Dolls. Original bassist Glen Matlock was the band’s composer before Sid Vicious replaced him. He infused their songs with his ‘60s mod/pop ethos and the swagger of the Faces (equally a Jones and Cook favorite).
But Rotten, who reverted to birth name John Lydon post-Pistols, was the band’s X-factor. He brought a sinister outsider gaze to the band, brought to life in his ferocious lyrics, abrasive vocals and unnerving stage presence. Without him, the Pistols would have merely been a good rock ‘n’ roll band. With him, they were something else entirely.
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In 26 months, the Sex Pistols disrupted British society, rock ‘n’ roll history and the music business. They were a subject of debate in the worldwide press and the Houses Of Parliament. And they inspired just as many bands as the Beatles, the Velvet Underground and Ramones did, and not just punk groups. Here are 15 of those bands, alongside the most Pistols-esque highlights from their discographies.
There was an almost instantaneous rivalry between the Pistols and the Clash, the band that usurped them as England’s Top Punk Group after their 1978 breakup. But it was the Pistols who showed the way to the castoffs of attempted Dolls clones London SS and pub rockers the 101ers’ singer, Joe Strummer. “As soon as I saw them, I knew that rhythm and blues was dead, that the future was here somehow,” Strummer told Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon in 1976.
“Every other group was riffing their way through the Black Sabbath catalog. But hearing the Pistols, I knew. I just knew. It was something you just knew without bothering to think about.” A number of such early Clash anthems as “Clash City Rockers” had more than a little Pistols to ‘em, and Sandy Pearlman imbued second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope with the same huge rock production as Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols.
Bolton Institute students Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish attempted to form a Velvets-inspired band in late 1975. Reading about the Pistols in the music press, they traveled to London to see them in February 1976. Blown away by what they saw, Trafford became Howard Devoto, McNeish rechristened himself Pete Shelley and their band transformed into Buzzcocks. They organized the Pistols’ Manchester debut in June 1976, where they met their future bassist (and later guitarist) Steve Diggle. There, future members of Joy Division, the Fall, the Smiths and the founders of Factory Records all found their calling. The Spiral Scratch EP, driven by Devoto’s nihilistic intelligence, was Buzzcocks’ most Pistols-ish moment. Though if you dig deep into the chainsaw pop that marked them after his exit, you can hear the Pistols beating in their hearts.
Despite their proud initial amateurism, the Slits might have been the ultimate homeland embodiment of the Pistols’ influence. In fact, McLaren wanted to manage them after the Pistols split. Rotten later married singer Ari Up’s mother Nora Forster, becoming Up’s stepfather. And if the Pistols connections don’t run deep enough, Cook drummed on the Slits’ 2006 comeback single, “Number One Enemy.” His daughter, current English pop star Hollie Cook, was a latter-day Slit.
Mari Elliott saw the Pistols playing on a pier in the summer of 1976, on her 18th birthday. She then transformed into one of punk’s greatest frontpersons, Poly Styrene. The band she assembled, X-Ray Spex, combined a huge Jones guitar sound and dedication to big riffs with a cocktail lounge saxophone reminiscent of Roxy Music. Like all the best post-Pistols bands, X-Ray Spex took the influence and created something unique from it, likely explaining Rotten’s high regard for them.
When Joy Division emerged from the other side of that June ‘76 Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall Pistols gig, they dubbed themselves Warsaw and displayed the same dedication to heavy riffs. In fact, New Jersey ghoul-punks Misfits half-inched the chord progression from the song “Warsaw” for “Horror Business.” As singer Ian Curtis internalized his nihilism, going from “fuck this” to “I’m fucked,” Joy Division’s music similarly imploded. They helped invent post-punk as they evolved, until ending with the dark, jangly beauty of the epic “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The post-Curtis version of the band, New Order, wandered even farther afield from that initial Pistols blueprint.
Joan Jett displayed likely the first American evidence of the Pistols’ impact. While leading the Runaways, she arrived at a 1977 photo shoot in a homemade Pistols T-shirt, safety pins festooned in the neckline and spikes cut into her shaggy mane. Following the Runaways’ dissolution, Jett flew to England to record with Jones and Cook, including an early take of “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” the obscure glam B-side that eventually became her first solo chart-topper in 1982. From that point, Jett’s trademark glam blasts featured the enormous Pistols guitar crunch and swagger.
D.C. hardcore innovators Bad Brains have repeatedly indicated the Pistols’ music was among that which transformed them from a jazz/funk outfit to fire-breathing punk rockers. It’s easy enough to spot the influence on the early demo tape Black Dots. “Redbone In The City” is “God Save The Queen” with rewritten lyrics, singer HR rolling his r’s like Rotten. Then you get blinding debut single “Pay To Cum” the following year, which sounds like a Pistols 45 played at 78 RPM. Bad Brains are a spectacular example of how taking Rotten and crew’s influence to an extreme yielded fresh results.
Hard to believe, but ‘80s British indie’s flagship band the Smiths are yet another outgrowth of that June 1976 Manchester Pistols gig. Morrissey, then a famed New York Dolls die-hard and prolific writer of letters to the U.K. rock weeklies, was definitely at Lesser Free Trade Hall. Did he like them? Hard to tell by what he wrote to the hapless editor of whatever rag he was thumbing through at the moment: “The bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire had those few that attended dancing in the aisles despite their discordant music and barely audible audacious lyrics, and they were called back for two encores.” The Pistols nevertheless catalyzed the Smiths, the influence manifesting most audibly in the monarchy-skewing “The Queen Is Dead,” especially live.
It’s impossible to listen to Orange County punk titans Social Distortion and not hear the Pistols lurking somewhere within. Mike Ness has acknowledged the influence many times, and it’s especially audible in their earliest, most punk material, as on debut LP Mommy’s Little Monster. But with their entire history flashing big, crashing Gibson chords, bent guitar strings and a “don’t fuck with me” attitude, even Social Distortion’s most countrified material bears the mark of the Pistols.
With their breakthrough album’s title sounding suspiciously reverent to Never Mind The Bollocks, at least in part, how could Nirvana deny any residual Pistols damage? Kurt Cobain expressed his gratitude in the book Dead Gods: “All the hype the Sex Pistols had was totally deserved — they deserved everything they got. Rotten was the one I identified with, he was the sensitive one.” He also admired Bollocks’ production, calling it the best “of any rock record I’ve ever heard.” It liberated the grunge royalty to fully take advantage of that major-label recording budget and allowed Butch Vig to make Nevermind sound as big, loud and clean as possible.
Guns N’ Roses
“Rock ‘n’ roll in general has sucked a big dick since the Pistols,” Guns N’ Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin told Rolling Stone in 1988, explaining why Appetite For Destruction laid waste to ‘80s corporate rock. The band’s raw power, chaotic energy and explosive Gibsons felt more like punk in the Pistols sense than the well-manicured, polite hum of ‘80s mainstream metal a la Poison. Band members Stradlin, Axl Rose and Duff McKagan all repeatedly acknowledged the influence. Jones’ sub-metal post-Rotten riffer “Black Leather” made the punk covers record The Spaghetti Incident?’s tracklisting. McKagan also later rounded out Jones’ mid-’90s all-star outfit Neurotic Outsiders, playing “Black Leather” in the clip below.
OK, do you really think Green Day would exist without the Pistols? Billie Joe Armstrong has addressed this: “The Sex Pistols released just one album…but it punched a huge hole in everything that was bullshit about rock music, and everything that was going wrong with the world, too. No one else has had that kind of impact with just one album.” He went on to call Bollocks “the root of everything that goes on at modern-rock radio.” It’s certainly at the root of Green Day’s enormous guitar sound and crash-and-burn energy, as well as the wide-screen production of records such as American Idiot.
The Jesus And Mary Chain
The Jesus And Mary Chain crashed onto the sedate London indie scene with surly attitudes and unruly feedback-laden guitars, dressed in black and ready to rock. They didn’t play concerts — they played riots. They couldn’t be bothered to entertain. All this, plus exciting records like debut album Psychocandy, garnered them all manner of “new Sex Pistols” notices in the press. The JAMC’s Jim Reid admitted the Pistols were a starting point for them, but also daunted them: “We heard the Sex Pistols and all that, and we wanted to be in a punk band, but were very confused. The punk ideal was that you shouldn’t be able to play your guitars very well.” He went on to explain that the Pistols’ fully formed chops were the source of confusion, in light of punk’s “anyone can do it” rhetoric. The Jesus And Mary Chain just got on with it.
It’s hard not to listen to Bikini Kill’s rowdy riot grrrl anthems and not hear the Pistols at their heart. That disorderly spirit? The collision course guitar work? Kathleen Hanna’s ferocious commitment to tearing down the old order? Is this not the Sex Pistols in spirit, if not deed? Bikini Kill took the best parts of the Pistols’ ethic, changing the swaggering machismo Jones brought to the band into fierce feminism. It’s most evident on their absolute classic “Rebel Girl,” especially the version produced by Jett, featuring her extra guitar power.
“Who defined the 1970s,” Oasis’ Noel Gallagher once asked Time Out magazine. “You could say David Bowie, but if you say that, you’re gonna go, ‘Whoa, what about the Sex Pistols?’” What about them, Noel? He’s never made any bones about the Pistols’ impact on the Britpop megastars. One only has to listen to early Oasis tracks, especially “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Debut album Definitely Maybe is all beefy Les Pauls, short tempers and cocksureness. If that’s not an embodiment of the Sex Pistols, what is?