In the history of rock there has never been a greater example of media manipulation than the Sex Pistols. From the Stones refusing to wear ties to Bowie claiming he was gay to Ozzy biting the head off a dove, press-savvy rockers have been tricking the media into endless headline coverage as long as there have been mothers to fear for their daughters' purity. But none have done it so expertly as Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols did in 1977.
After signing with EMI and recording "Anarchy in the U.K.," the Pistols were slowly becoming darlings of the English press, gaining prominence as the leaders of a curious musical revolution called punk rock. Politicizing the music with a title requesting an overthrow of the British government, along with referencing himself as an "Anti-Christ," singer Johnny Rotten was layering his enemies atop one another, expanding his demographic of outrage.
In December 1976, Queen cancelled an appearance on the Today program, to be replaced with the latest sensation, the Sex Pistols. Host Bill Grundy, admittedly very drunk himself, antagonized the also inebriated band into unleashing a string of curse words on live air television. The Daily Mirror headline the next morning ran "The Filth and the Fury!" When the band tried to take their show on the road, touring with the Damned and the Clash, venue after venue cancelled due to overwhelming public pressure. When the band were actually allowed to play, Pentecostal groups came out to protest, pompously singing "Silent Night" and forbidding their curious children from entering the venue to see what all the fuss was about.
The uproar caused the band to be dropped by EMI.
After firing bassist Glen Matlock for liking the Beatles and washing his feet, the Sex Pistols adopted their number one fan as replacement. Despite not knowing how to play a single note, Sid Vicious would go on to be one of rock's most famous bass players, inventing the dance craze of pogoing and the fashion trend of dog-chain with padlock. The heroin-crazed addition to the Sex Pistols was the perfect concept member of a band becoming increasingly known more for haircuts and heresy than for music.
The filth and the fury continued when press-savvy manager Malcolm McLaren staged an exhibition of the bands signing a contract with new label, A&M Records, just a few hundred feet before the gates of Buckingham Palace. The label had just recorded the band's recently recorded single, "God Save The Queen," a scabrous crunch of punk rock madness with lyrics like "she ain't no human being" and "we're the poison in your human machine." The outrage of borrowing the title of the nation's anthem while denigrating the Queen was typical Johnny Rotten antagonism, but holding an event celebrating the capitalism of such an endeavor within sight of the Queen's sacred home? For a nation terrified of even turning their back toward her royalty, it was unimaginable.
The signing itself was completely spurious: the band had actually done the official signing the day before at A&M offices. But the headline hungry manager behind the band would not miss the opportunity to invite the press out to view a team of bizarre looking drunk kids stumble out of a limo and metaphorically piss in the monarchy's face while making a cool 75,000 pounds. Sid Vicious' father had actually worked for years as a guard at the palace -- earning a short sight less than his son was now making -- and legend has it he was on duty that very afternoon.
An after party was held at the offices of A&M records following the signing. Like a more violent, intoxicated version of the Marx Brothers, the Sex Pistols set about reeking unforeseen havoc on the posh building, Vicious smashing a toilet and cutting his foot, trailing blood everywhere he went, while Rotten cursed and threatened every upscale executive in sight and guitarist Steve Jones getting it on with an unnamed fan in the restrooms.
The incidents terrified A&M Records and, after a similar encounter at a Pistols show in which an executive had his life threatened, the band was dropped from their second label. Twenty-five thousand copies of "God Save The Queen" had been pressed by A&M, but most were destroyed (if you got your hands on one of these, it would no doubt fetch a handsome sum).
Supposedly, neither EMI nor A&M had foreseen the trouble the Sex Pistols would cause them would outweigh the benefits of having a nationally infamous group on their label. This apparently wasn't the assessment of Virgin Records, who became the band's third representative in under a year. Despite protests from factory workers laying down their tools and refusing to make the record, "God Save the Queen" was eventually released, climbing to number two, in spite of bans from the BBC and several radio stations and record stores.
Although the band would eventually breakup in January 1978 after a bizarre U.S. tour, there would be more staged incidents of arrests and outrage to follow. In the Sex Pistols' wake, a succession of acts like Marilyn Manson and Eminem would take cues from the band's public antics, finding the pulse of Western purity and speeding it up until every pious mother and finger-pointing preacher suffered a moral coronary.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music