The Classics 033

The Classics 033

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Wednesday, 20 May 2020
COLUMN
“Pretty Vacant” from the Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols LP by the Sex Pistols.

A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols LP by the Sex Pistols.

The problematic thing about albums which come to be regarded as “culturally significant” is that, after it has been released and that cultural significance presents itself on a larger scale, everyone whats to get their hands on it and tool around with it in order to put their fingerprints on it and make it their own – in any small way they may be able. Easily one of the albums on which this custom has presented itself is the Sec Pistols’ only studio album, Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols; since its release in 1977, several producers’ names have been attached to the album (Bill Price, Chris Thomas and Dave Goodman), and little things about the sound of it seem to change a bit with each successive release – so it only makes sense that if we want to present a review of the album (rather than a re-contextualization of the music), we go back as close as we can to the original music and the original presentation of it. It is those reasons which make a review of an original, 1977 vinyl copy of Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols the only way to go, and so that’s what we’re doing here.

As needle catches groove and marching jackboots set the rhythm of “Holidays In The Sun,” it’s actually unnerving how quickly both the band and the noise they make seems to override and rewrite the natural rhythms in listeners’ bodies. Before one word escapes John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon’s mouth, Paul Cook’s thumping, stomping drums cause listeners’ posture to contort (shoulders drop, knees bend, hands curl into fists) and Steve Jones’ greasy-slick and gritty guitar tone causes eyes to narrow, brows to furrow and lips to curl into a sneer. Without even trying, “Holidays In The Sun” gets listeners ready for a fight and winds them tightly – so much so that, after the descending guitar riff explodes and then seethes for a second with palm-muted power, the release exerted when Johnny Rotten enters the aural frame is absolutely astounding. That entrance illustrates the personification of unbound rebellion.

Only with the benefit of hindsight does it really become obvious why the hook in the first verse of “Holidays…” is so great. The words “I don’t want a holiday in the sun/ I want to go to the new Belsen/ I want to see some history/ ‘Cause now I’ve got a reasonable economy” flawlessly encapsulate everything about the spirit of being a teenager; they’re negative in an almost petty way (“don’t want a holiday in the sun”? Everyone likes those – even most of the Sex Pistols wound up going to Rio de Janeiro after the band imploded in 1978, while Lydon went to Jamaica at the same time), throwing around Nazi references (“Belsen”) for shock value (which the band would do again in “Belsen Was A Gas” – one of the few songs in the Sex Pistols’ book which didn’t appear on Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols), and then flaunting wealthand stepping on the trappings of it(like a vacation to a historical location – with history – “because now I got a reasonable economy”), just to put some more listeners still clinging to the image of greatness found in poverty off. This is a flawless act of rebellion which is actually smart enough to not posture or wave a banner – it implies ideas and images without outright stating, thereby implying an intelligence that the words themselves don’t actually muster. Listeners who get it will be hooked, and those who don’t will chase after the image and going over the Berlin Wall which comes later; without even trying, the Sex Pistols just have everyone whoever had a problem with authority in lockstep with them. No one has been as brilliantly oblivious before or since, and it’s only the first cut on the album. Not only that but, given the reasonably fast fade out that “Holidays In The Sun” gets on this 1077 pressing of the album, it sounds like it may have been mastered for the song’s 7” single pressing.

Because of the fairly abrupt, almost rounded-feeling end to “Holidays In The Sun,” listeners may feel as though they’re left hanging by the end of the song – a perceived flaw that “Bodies” (which might just have inspired Nirvana’s “Polly,” if you listen to it the right way) takes advantage of in more ways than one. Of course, the precarious and unbalanced vibe that Steve Jones’ guitar and the rhythm section supplied by Paul Cook and Glenn Matlock compliments the end of “Holidays…” beautifully and has listeners falling healong into “Bodies” as a result – but the angle that the song takes after listeners are in is particularly salacious; the notion of a pro-life song written and recorded the way this one is easily remains one of the strangest and most potent statements on Never Mind The Bollocks. There is no poetry or colorful subject blanching about abortion in “Bodies” as the song builds and the vitriole with which Johnny Rotten names the act as the song’s subject is just amazing now, forty-three years on. That sort of nightmarish tone is upheld here in the vinyl release (much of the subtlety is lost on the CD) as Rotten’s vocals echo around the mix – particularly when the singer screeches for his “Mommy” before pleading “I’m not an animal.” In this particular case, other formats and/or pressings have dome the listening experience no service at all. The same more vivid sound quality rings through in the clarity of “No Feelings,” which manages to sound simultaneously sludgy and over-produced (it’s a little unclear how many guitar overdubs were done on “No Feelings” but, occasionally, a tiny snippet of an extra part rings through brilliantly and the effect is profound – like finding a tiny sliver of gold in a mass of sewage) as well as prisitine and brilliant and, after that, “Liar” crashes its way througha little anemically (readers are free to disagree, I’ve just really never liked Lydon’s vocal performance on this song, and lines like “So when you tell lies, I’ll always be in your way/ I’m nobody’s fool and I know all ’cause I know/ What I know” just make me cringe) with “Problems” in rudderless pursuit (the production affixed to the vocals hints at the often mechanical sound that industrial and goth bands would eventually use to much greater effect, but an argument could be made that everything had to start somewhere), before “God Save The Queen” smashes listeners over the head and closes the side (unlike on the UK version of the album, which inverts the last two cuts and sees “Problems” close the side).

Since this release on October 28, 1977, “God Save The Queen” has inhabited a perfectly peerless position in the pop music pantheon. Ignoring the fact that, yes, the song lives in infamy as the cut that the Sex Pistols played as they sailed along the Thames during Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee (well, apparently the band made it through several cuts from the album on that trip, but that’s the one that the documentary film cameras which were along for the ride were intended to catch), it’s also a flawless slab of rock that no one could have estimated would turn out so well when it was recorded by a bunch of kids in their early twenties. The song absolutely erupts with vim, vigor and vitriol from the second Steve Jones’ overdriven, cutesy-campy-crass guitar performance opens it, and Paul Cook’s muscular drumming proves to be capable of instantly getting pulses racing as well as bodies moving – but it is Johnny Rotten who (as has been the case elsewhere on the A-side of Never Mind The Bollocks…) locks listeners in and makes the performance unforgettable. Even from the first stanzas on his lyric sheet, Lydon takes political unrest and complaint and imbues his performance with universally accessible pop culture ideology; the words, “God save the queen/ Her fascist regime/ They made you a moron/ A potential H-Bomb” contain culturally accessible cliche, and then “God save the queen/ She ain’t no human being/ There is no future/ And England’s dreaming” contain the commentary capable of spurring the minds of those who hear them as well as those who can feel the desperation into action. Some sociological critics of the day may have scoffed at the Pistols and called “God Save The Queen” unfounded heresy but, forty-three years later and with even members of the English royal family abandoning the British isles and choosing instead to inhabit former British colonies, the sentiments feel increasingly apt.

The sentiments which characterize the second half of “God Save The Queen” – particularly the ominous feel of the words “We’re the future – your future” first and then the “No future” choral refrain which appears toward the end of the cut feel increasingly apt with the passage of time and events which have occurred both in Britain (Brexit, anyone?) and around the world in the twenty-first century feel increasingly apt in this day and age, as well.

Now, there’s no question that “God Save The Queen” ends the A-side of Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols on a pretty impressive peak which is guaranteed to have listeners scrambling to flip the record over and keep that energy up, but the band throws them off-balance by opening the B-side with “Seventeen.” That’s not to say the song is poor (it isn’t), it just twists the first themes in the song slightly and offers no resolution for them. First, the opening lyrics date the song’s subject as being twelve years older than assumed (twenty-nine, not seventeen) and then just offers a series of obvious observations which go nowhere (“But when your mummy dies/ She will not return” and then “We don’t care about long hair/ I don’t wear flares” later) before blazing through the choruses (I’m a lazy sod”) and finally conceding the way for “Anarchy In The U.K.”. Now, simply calling “Seventeen” a throwaway cut would be doing the song a significant disservice but saying that it embodies a slightly different angle on the antithetical ethos and aesthetic of punk is absolutely right; here, the Sex Pistols see the easy route to take for a throwaway song (“Seventeen! Younger and snottier than Alice Cooper was when they confessed to not knowing what they want! It’s easy!”) and make it push against everything the band guesses that the theme might imply. Here, the band revels in its own obstinance for a solid couple of minutes, and then just moves on.

…And after “Seventeen” blazes out (at two minutes flat, it is the shortest song on the album), “Anarchy In The U.K.” stomps in to level senses in its wake. All these years later, no band has managed to challenge the deliberately crass demeanor of “Anarchy”; between mangling the King’s English just to make it fit form and meter (how else could one hope to explain a couplet like “I am an antichrist/ and I am an anar-chiest”?) and deliberately inhabiting the “rebel without a clue” image that one generation placed upon its successor (“Dunno what I want but I know how to get it”) as well as just throwing mothers who need to worry about something a bone with surprisingly good grammar (“I Wanna destroy passersby”), Anarchy In The U.K.” is smart enough to recognize all the stereotypes that punks were being saddled with at the time and plays to audiences on both sides of the conversation incredibly well. Now, that is not to say the song is flawless (the lyric about a future dream being a shopping scheme still induces cringes in this writer), but it is to the band’s credit that they bull their way through and make it work with something which resembles a focused vision. After that, the Pistols turn their gloriously foolish desire upend expectation on themselves with “Sub-mission” (John Lydon has said that Malcolm McLaren wanted a song about S&M or bondage and being submissive, but what he got was “Sub-mission” – the name of which had to be added to the album’s back cover with a sticker because of a misprint, on early pressings), coyly sneak some fould language past the censors with “Pretty Vacant” (you can almost hear Lydon grin when he spits the words “We’re so pretty, oh so pretty vay-cunt!”), spit on McLaren’s pals the New York Dolls (and that band’s hometown, by extension) with “New York” and then wrap both the side and the album up with a stiff middle finger to the label they left behind, “EMI”.

In the years since the release of Never Mind The Bollocks…, it has become incredibly easy to forget the subtle nuance of many of the album’s cuts (plenty of bands have covered the songs and the number of formats onto which the album has been placed (and remastered for), but easily one of the most obvious and glaring examples is “EMI.” The song’s bridge and both the chord and dynamic changes which occur within it are absolutely astounding; Steve Jones’ guitar [the guitarist also played bass on this cut –ed] and Paul Cook’s drums nearly trip over themselves as the chord progression changes through the bridge and solo break, but they hold together somehow and really illustrate that these punks are far from musically inept. Listeners will find themselves wide-eyed as “EMI” spirals to a close and, when it does close, the end simply winks out with a little raspberry and the band calls it a day. It may not be so true on CD but, when “EMI” closes, those who run front-to-back with Never Mind The Bollocks… will find that they still need a second to adjust to the sudden silence. It somehow feels pregnant – like it may explode at any moment until the needle lifts.

Now, forty-three years after Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols was released, the album is every inch the Classic this column is intended to serve. It has inspired other musicians to make their own sound, it has caused innumerable conversations regarding where punk rock may be going and where it’s been, it has started riots and it has forced people to pay attention when they had previously hoped that, if they ignored it, this musical sub-genre and the community which supported it would fade into obscurity. That’s an imposing order but, when you look at it that way, it instantly becomes understandable why the Sex Pistols only released one studio album. The truth is that Never Mind The Bollocks… is the only album the Sex Pistols needed to release; it is hard, it is pure, and it has informed a legion of other bands and albums. Had they released more music, it would only have diluted the band’s legacy. [Bill Adams]

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