Wednesday, July 05, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 015: The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols

I loved the Sex Pistols; I mean, I really loved the Sex Pistols. I had already seen Television and the Patti Smith Group at CBGB in lower Manhattan in Winter ’76, but I didn’t encounter this record until moving to Chicago in Fall ’77. At that time, the undergraduate College at UC was pretty nightmarish—UC administration either (a) neglected the College in favor of the much-vaunted Graduate School, or (b) enacted absurdly demanding requirements and standards to try to compete with the Ivy Schools, about which they had a terrible inferiority complex. Most of the UC undergrads living in the Shoreland Hotel were into disco, which I hated—yet another musical trend I figured out too late. So pretty quickly I stopped going to classes and started hanging out in blues clubs on the South Side (Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge still one of my favorite music clubs in the world). But I also met some dear friends (shout-out to Ed Derse and Fred Duca) and my first great love. Other than that, I read books in the library and visited Maxwell Street Market, where I met Arvella Gray (and God, I wish I’d known about Chi what I know now; I would have found a lot more musicians).

And that was the context in which Lin and Mary introduced me to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Lin was a poet from New Orleans and Mary had been living in England and brought the disc back. They used to love to put this LP on at disco parties where the spandex-and-double-knit crew were dancing to Bee Gees. I loved the power of the music, the sense of a deeply-felt “Fuck You” to ‘70s music culture; at least, that’s the way I heard it. Years later I heard the stories about Malcolm McClaren creating the Pistols out of a punch of yobbos and an Irish lunatic who hated each other, but at the time I just knew I loved the pissed-off-ness of the songs. The ones I remember the best were Holidays in the Sun (“I-don’-wan-no-hol-i-days-inna-SUN / I-wanna-go-ta-the-new-Bel-SEN”), God Save the Queen ("God save-the-Queen.....the Fascist-re-GIME"), Anarchy in the U.K., and Pretty Vacant ("We're so prit-ty--O so prit-ty...VA-cant---and we don't CARE!").

It was even more years later that I came to realize just how brilliant the Pistols’ whole punk parody actually was. Sid was a worthless loser, but Steve was a pretty good guitar player, and John…Ah, John…

John Lydon/Rotten is one of the most brilliant put-on artists to come out of 20th-century pop culture. I’d put him on par with Dali, Antonin Artaud, Frank Zappa, and John Cage. He tapped into the classic anti-Brit Irish Calibanian archetype: for 150 years, the English illustrated papers had been depicting the Irish as simian sub-humans, as ready to drink or fight as work. John understood the power of that archetype, the power of the despised. His attitude was “you want a rock ‘n’ roll caveman? I’ll give you a rock ‘n’ roll caveman out of your worst nightmares.”

Lydon never gave in to the media machine. The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, a documentary on the Pistols only-and-last US tour, ends with Rotten alone onstage at their last show, a sardonic chuckle in his voice, asking the audience,

“Ever get the feeling…you’ve been cheated?!?"

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Rock 'n' roll should, in part, be about saying "fuck YOU!" to the power structure. John always remembered that.

Let’s hope rock ‘n’ roll never forgets.


RMVela said...

When i first picked up guitar on my own (around 11) the first two songs i learned were "Holiday in the Sun" & Sab's "Paranoid". for some reason, the Pistols really did a number on me, its the same feeling i got listening to old Johnny Cash tunes, that hurt, broken, angry feeling in the pit of your stomach.

CJS said...

Yeah. Paraphrasing Zappa: "Pretty is not beautiful." Paraphrasing some old guy I met in the west of Ireland "[said approvingly] there's great violence in that music."

Dharmonia said...

I don't know if I have any hope of rock and roll saying "fuck you" to the power structure any more. A lot of the media that allowed rock to do that has been completely emasculated by, or sold out to, massive corporations. If rock and roll figures out how to use the internet to say FU to the power structure, they might be able to do it again, as long as ATT et al are not allowed to commandeer the Internet. Otherwise, they're going to have to keep relying on their elder statesmen like Bruce and Neil and Roger Waters to occasionally hurl a brick at the gates of Mordor.

CJS said...

Punk rock. Ani DiFranco. The Minutemen. Mike Watt. Iggy and the Stooges. et al