The group originated from Jones and Cook’s early band, known as the Strand, who would often hang out in a shop on the King’s Road, run by Malcolm McClaren and his then-girlfriend Vivienne Westwood. A friendship formed between McClaren and the Strand, and he became their de facto manager, inviting Matlock to join the group and dropping band member Wally Nightingale.
A member down, Steve Jones moved to lead guitar, leaving space for a new frontman. Luckily, the band stumbled upon John Lydon, who attracted them with his green hair and distinctive clothing. Rebranding himself as Johnny Rotten, Lyden joined the band in 1975, and, using a name they had informally worked under in the past, the Sex Pistols were born.
Gigging in colleges and art schools across London, the band started to build a fan base, and were invited to perform at increasingly prestigious venues. This attention led to the group being picked up by EMI, who released the band’s first single Anarchy in the UK. Sex Pistols became known for their wild behavior as much as their music, something which was only exacerbated after Glen Matlock was replaced by the notorious Sid Vicious, a well-known fan of the band who is credited with inventing the “pogo” dance.
In 1977, the band signed to A&M Records, and then moved to Virgin just a few months later. Also that year, they caused immense controversy with their track God Save the Queen, thought to be the most censored record in British history, and finally released their one and only album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols that October, reaching number one.
The group began a U.S. tour which saw Vicious, now addicted to heroin, spiraling out of control. During this time Rotten was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the band, and so few were surprised when they announced their breakup in the January of 1978. Following the split, Sid Vicious moved to New York and, after being arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, died of a heroin overdose aged 21. Just a few days later, Rotten took McClaren to court, where it was revealed the latter had used most of the money the band had earned to fund a film project.
Since then, the original members have reunited a few times but always failed to fully reignite the magic of the past. Despite the band ending in tense and tragic circumstances, the influence and legacy of the Sex Pistols cannot be overstated; their performance style, aesthetic and political ethos has become completely synonymous with punk rock. Although they only released one album, it is a genuine masterpiece which has been reissued numerous times over the years.
# 10 – EMI
As you can imagine, the band did not take kindly to being dropped by their record label EMI just four months into a twenty-four-month contract and, when they finally released their debut album later that year, used the opportunity to publicly trash the label. Thankfully, “EMI,” is not just a brainless and petty “diss track,” and instead delivers some genuinely good commentary. The band point out that the record label should have known exactly what they were signing up for by associating themselves with the Pistols, but instead seemed to assume the band’s wild behavior was some kind of publicity stunt rather than a true reflection of their manic personalities. Similarly, the lyrics make it clear that the band know the label only signed them to make money off the emerging punk bandwagon and had no real passion for the genre.
The song’s central “EMI” hook is a genuine earworm which works perfectly with its accompanying guitar riff. Meanwhile, Rotten’s trademark rolled R’s give the track an edge of danger, which is underlined by the pulsing chords which form the heart of the track. This is a relentless punk attack targeted at EMI, but one can’t help but sense a slight tongue in cheek vibe to the track, especially when, at the end of the song, Rotten cheekily name checks A&M, the label they would sign to after being canned by EMI, which they were with for less than a week before being dropped, once again, for bad behavior.
There can be no doubt that the Sex Pistols must have been a nightmare for their record labels to deal with but, thankfully, their turbulent label experiences led to fresh and catchy songs like this.
# 9 – Silly Thing
Throughout his work with the band, Malcolm McClaren was obsessed with producing a film about the band’s rise to fame. In 1980, two years after the band had broken up, his dreams were finally realized with the released of mockumentary film The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle. A soundtrack was created to accompany the film, but with Rotten refusing to participate it was left to the other Pistols to take charge, as such, Silly Thing sees Paul Cook take lead vocals.
The production on “Silly Thing” is notably more polished than on Nevermind the Bollocks, lacking the scratchy punk elements (which many would argue are an essential part of the band’s oeuvre) and replacing them with a room filling sound which almost borders on stadium-rock. Similarly, odd though it is to hear a Sex Pistols track without Johnny Rotten’s unmistakable vocals, Cook does an admirable job and rightly eschews any attempt to mimic his ex-bandmate. Cook’s vocals are broad and heavily layered, making him sound almost reminiscent of a football chant – it’s as if the song is inviting listeners to sing along.
There are some who will dismiss tracks from The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle as non-canonical, not “real” Pistols, but to do is to do those who worked on the album a disservice. The frantic guitar on Silly Thing is toe-tappingly catchy, and the rousing vocals are impossible to resist. Sure it would likely sound even better with Rotten at the helm, but instead of worrying about “what-ifs,” listeners should just enjoy the track for what it is, a bouncy and well-produced Sex Pistols oddity.
# 8 – New York
There has always been a tradition of feuds between musicians, from Oasis and Blur in the 90’s to Taylor Swift and Katy Perry today, so it should come as no surprise that back in the 70’s the Pistols were feuding with the best of them. Before the band hit the big time, Mclaren spent some time in New York City working with the New York Dolls, and it was the latter who would be at the receiving end of the scathing put downs on New York.
The Pistols held no punches on this track, and, amongst the meaningless profanities and out-dated homophobic language, they hit upon some real knockout blows. The band target the Doll’s inability to move with the times and their outdated glam-rock style, as well as mocking the overly intellectual art clubs which the Dolls frequented.
Of course, a diss track will only work if a band can produce an exceptional song to deliver their burns, and, as ever, the band don’t disappoint. New York has a thumping instrumental, full of spiky riffs and barbed hooks; it’s non-stop assault of sound reflecting the incessant lyrical destruction of their target. Thanks to the obvious spite in Rotten’s voice, there can be no doubt that he truly means every word.
“New York,” is a riotous rant which you would not want to be victim to, and, petty though it is, is yet another example of the band’s acerbic personalities resulting in a wondrously catchy and venomous track.
# 7 – My Way
Another highlight from The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Scandal, this cover of Frank Sinatra’s 1969 classic saw Sid Vicious take lead vocals. The track begins with some screeching strings, almost acting as a warning for what is to come, and it’s not long before Vicious’ vocals begin. At first, the singer adopts a mocking faux-sincere tone, the perfect foil to the excessive orchestral elements, over-compensating for not knowing the lyrics by inserting his own foul-mouthed improvisations, but it’s not long until he fully commits himself to the song.
The switch from the orchestral instrumental to a punk rock sound sees Vicious drop the silly voice and deliver his own offbeat tones, occasionally slurring just for the hell of it. The guitars here are chunky and full-bodied, and the band do an amazing job at utilizing various techniques throughout the song, delivering heated strumming, chugging chords as well some delicious guitar whooshes.
Of course, knowing what happened to Vicious following the recording of the song only serves to heighten its bittersweet atmosphere, perfectly displaying how context can massively change the effect a song has on listeners. There’s something haunting about hearing such a tortured figure having so much fun on a track, and one can’t help but sense a hint of pride in Sid’s voice throughout the songs as if he knows he truly has done it his way and that no one can take that away from him.
As well as serving as a stark reminder of the dangers of rock ’n’ roll excess, “My Way,” is simply a really great track, taking an already iconic song and imbuing it with the boundless energy and danger of the Sex Pistols. There aren’t many cover songs which are worthy of such note, but “My Way,” undoubtedly is.
# 6 – Submission
During the mid-70’s, Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood ran a shop known as SEX on the Kings Road. As you might imagine, the shop specialized in fetish-wear, and, inspired by this, McClaren asked Rotten to write a song about bondage. Already growing sick of his manager, Rotten did the only logical thing and decided to intentionally misinterpret these instructions and write a song full of submarine metaphors instead.
Submission is noticeably slower than a lot of the Pistol’s work, giving them time to create a much more funky atmosphere than usual. The song begins with some lovely hi-hat work, allowing Paul Cook the rare chance to take center stage, which sets the scene for a smooth and cool instrumental, full of discordant guitar runs and some rich solos. For once, the bass isn’t entirely drowned out by guitars, which gives the track a slick quality missing from a lot of other Pistols tracks.
The slightly slower, Kinks-esque tempo works particularly well with Rotten’s vocals, giving his graveled runs the indulgence they deserve. The band even utilize some high-pitched shrieking during the track, almost as if mimicking a dolphin; even further removing the track from what Mclaren must have had in mind.
As well as representing the band’s eternally rebellious nature, “Submission,” stands out on Never Mind the Bollocks by showing a different side to the band. The track does not lack any of the qualities which make the Pistols so exciting; it just delivers these elements in a different, funkier way.
# 5 – No Feelings
If you’ve ever doubted the impact the Sex Pistols had on rock music then simply listening to No Feelings should tell you that the band’s legacy is still felt today. Indeed, their legacy can literally be heard today, as No Feelings features some incredible chords which have surely influenced innumerable contemporary rock musicians.
You might not expect a Sex Pistols track to be the place to find references to high culture, but the band showed they were full of surprises by using the Greek myth of Narcissus as inspiration for the song’s first verse, which introduces a narrative about a guy so in love with himself that he doesn’t care at all about anybody else. The rest of the song see’s the protagonist try to shake off an admirer who doesn’t seem to accept or understand his lack of interest.
The track features some massive chords, which are effortlessly magnetic and utterly futile to ignore. The song’s instrumental is a ceaseless storm of punk energy which somehow manages to reflect the song’s story; just as the protagonist is too narcissistic to care about anybody else, the track’s perpetual wall of guitar is too all-consuming to allow the listener to even consider thinking about anything else.
“No Feelings,” is an agitated and unhinged track which doesn’t stop for even a second. Like a tidal wave of rock, this song will sweep you up and not let you go until it’s finished with you. Truly incredible.
# 4 – Holidays In The Sun
The band’s fourth single saw them put their unique stamp on the classic “summer vacation” song, but rather than celebrate days on the beach and hot weather, the Pistols deliver an altogether more cynical take on the trope.
Holidays In The Sun came about after the band felt trapped and claustrophobic in London so decided to take a trip to Berlin, which, at the time, was divided in two by the Berlin Wall, splitting the democratic West from the communist East. The track’s big irony is that it sees Rotten seemingly desperate to escape the “free world” and explore the communist state – a typically arch subversion of what it means to go on vacation.
The track begins with the sound of military marching on gravel, making it immediately obvious that this is certainly not your everyday summer bop. This marching is soon joined by some growling guitar runs and an epic drum intro before Rotten’s vocals join the mix, the roguish glee in his voice making it clear that’s he’s giddily excited to be corrupting the listener’s expectations about what a vacation song can be like.
One of the best elements of the track is the militaristic “Reason” chant which underscores the song’s chorus. As well as injecting the track with yet more violence-tinged drama, the chant is perfect for audience participation and, even on first listen, you can picture hoards of Pistols fans punching the air along with the hook. The lead guitar on Holidays In The Sun is also worthy of note, with the post-chorus chords being particularly stirring and suitably fast-paced while still being pleasantly melodious.
In fact, were the lyrics different, it would only take a small bit of toning down for the instrumental to be perfectly suited for a genuine vacation song. Of course, the Sex Pistols would never be interested in something so banal, and frankly, we should be thankful that this was the case, as Holidays In The Sun is an outrageous, utterly singular spin on a classic concept.
# 3 – Pretty Vacant
The band’s third single, Pretty Vacant, undoubtedly has the best guitar of any Sex Pistols songs; it is simultaneously distorted and crunchy, while also being robust and broad.
The song begins with some chunky riffs, which are soon joined by climactic drums and Rotten’s idiosyncratic voice. In many ways Pretty Vacant is one of the band’s most conventional productions, featuring a standard verse/chorus structure (which is lacking on a lot of the band’s tracks). This is the closest the band ever came to making a traditional pop song. Of course, this being the Sex Pistols, they avoided fully adhering to the status quo by annunciating the song’s titular hook in a way which made it sound like a particularly rude curse word – something which did not go down well following the band’s debut performance on the historic British music show Top of the Pops.
The lyrics are perhaps the least interesting thing about this song, being rather repetitive and lacking the edge of controversy or irony usually associated with the band. Luckily the incredible guitar work more than makes up for this, featuring some hugely infectious and magnificently danceable riffs which saw Q magazine place the song at number 26 on a list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks of all time.
While the two songs remaining on the list have earned their place partly because of their cultural impact, Pretty Vacant is an equally important, arguably musically superior, Sex Pistols classic.
# 2 – Anarchy in the UK
You need only speak to someone who was a teenager during the 70’s to learn just how genuinely revolutionary the Sex Pistols were. They provided a much-needed antidote to the safe and sterile music of the time and gave youths an outlet for their repressed anger and discontentment. With tracks like this, it’s easy to see why the Pistols managed to cause such a moral panic; it must have been alarming for parents to see their teenage kid suddenly obsessed with a scrawny green haired singer who aggressively growled about being the antichrist.
“Anarchy in the UK,” is an explosive mix of tightly produced guitars and a viciously addictive set of vocals. Rotten sounds at his very best on this track, his voice gritty and gravelly, and his intonation utterly outrageous. Seeing Rotten sing during his prime must have been something to behold, he truly embodied the band’s brash and cocksure attitude – so confident and bold that even on video it truly feels like nothing can stop him. Although some might not approve of the song rhyming “Antichrist” with “Anarchist,” to do so is to fundamentally misunderstand what the Pistols were about. They seem to be making the point that they refuse even to follow rules of language, let alone anything else society has to offer.
This abrasive and spiky track was an unbelievably ballsy way for the Pistols to announce their arrival onto the pop charts, forcing teenagers, parents and wider society to take note of four charismatic upstarts who, in their own words, came to destroy everything.
# 1 – God Save the Queen
There are very few songs that can claim their first few seconds are instantly recognizable to people from every living generation, but “God Save the Queen,” is one of them. The electrifying riff of the track’s intro is the very definition of iconic.
This second single from the band is easily one of the most controversial songs ever, attacking the Queen as a figurehead for the establishment and everything else the band saw as wrong in 70’s Britain. Of course, with hindsight it’s obvious that the band were just looking to get people thinking, rather than attempting to organize any kind of meaningful coup, but, at the time, people were furious. The song was banned by the BBC, as well as local radio stations, effectively blocking the song from getting any mainstream public attention, and even major high street shops refused to stock the single. Despite this censorship, the song became a pre-internet viral sensation and managed to reach number two on the charts (although conspiracy theorists claim the song was purposefully blocked from reaching the top spot.)
As well as picking up on the high levels of youth disenchantment, the track’s immense success is no doubt down to the fact that it is an absolute banger – the central guitar riff alone is absolutely phenomenal. It is next to impossible not to find yourself nodding your head (at the very least) for the duration of this extraordinary song. It is one of those tracks that is imbued with a certain kind of alchemy; it gets hearts racing and toes tapping almost at a subconscious level. Perhaps it’s because, for Brits at least, the treasonous lyrics feel dangerous and forbidden, and yet, the song’s anarchic appeal seem to be international; the track was even used during the introduction of the London 2012 Olympic Games, which, coincidentally, the Queen herself was attending.
There can be no doubt that this spine-tingling track is punk’s finest achievement and its wild legacy lives on to this day. Even the song’s iconoclastic artwork has gone down in history. “God Save the Queen,” is one of those rare tracks which has deservedly reached almost mythical status, single-handedly bringing the punk movement into mainstream consciousness.
Over their short and tumultuous career, the Sex Pistols rocked the music industry – and Britain as a whole – to its very core. No one knew what to do with these wild kids who genuinely seemed not to give a damn and managed to cause controversy wherever they went. That their music still resonates today is a reflection of the pure talent and sheer magic possessed by both incarnations of the unparalleled four piece. There are very few bands who can be said to have genuinely changed the world, but, undoubtedly, the Sex Pistols are one of them.
Updated Nov 16, 2020
Top 10 Sex Pistols Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2017
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