This incandescent UK punk band came together under the aegis of entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren during the summer of 1975. Periodically known as the Swankers, with lead vocalist Wally Nightingale, they soon metamorphosed into the Sex Pistols with a line-up comprising: Steve Jones (guitar), Paul Cook (drums), Glen Matlock (bass) and Johnny Rotten (b. John Lydon, vocals). By 1976 the band was playing irregularly around London and boasted a small following of teenagers, whose spiked hair, torn clothes and safety pins echoed the new fashion that McLaren was transforming into commodity. The group's gigs became synonymous with violence, which reached a peak during the 100 Club's Punk Rock Festival when a girl was blinded in a glass-smashing incident involving the group's most fearful follower, Sid Vicious. The adverse publicity did not prevent the group from signing to EMI Records later that year when they also released their first single, 'Anarchy In The UK'. From Rotten's sneering laugh at the opening of the song to the final seconds of feedback, it was a riveting debut.
The Pistols promoted the work on London Weekend Television's Today programme with Bill Grundy, which ended in a stream of four-letter abuse that brought the group banner headlines in the following morning's tabloid press. More controversy ensued when the group's 'Anarchy' tour was decimated and the single suffered distribution problems and bans from shops. Eventually, it peaked at number 38 in the UK charts. Soon afterwards, the group was dropped from EMI in a blaze of publicity. By February 1977, Matlock was replaced by punk caricature Sid Vicious. The following month, the group was signed to A&M Records outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. One week later, A&M cancelled the contract, with McLaren picking up another parting cheque of £40,000. After reluctantly signing to the small label Virgin Records, the group issued 'God Save The Queen'. The single tore into the heart of British nationalism at a time when the populace was celebrating the Queen's Jubilee. Despite a daytime radio ban the single rose to number 1 in the New Musical Express chart (number 2 in the 'official' charts, though some commentators detected skulduggery at play to prevent it from reaching the top spot). The Pistols suffered for their art as outraged royalists attacked them whenever they appeared on the streets. A third single, the melodic 'Pretty Vacant' (largely the work of the departed Matlock) proved their most accessible single to date and restored them to the Top 10. By the winter the group hit again with 'Holidays In The Sun' and issued their controversially titled album Never Mind The Bollocks - Here's The Sex Pistols. The work rocketed to number 1 in the UK album charts amid partisan claims that it was a milestone in rock. In truth, it was a more patchy affair, containing a preponderance of previously released material which merely underlined that the group was running short of ideas.
An ill-fated attempt to capture the group's story on film wasted much time and revenue, while a poorly received tour of America fractured the Pistols' already strained relationship. In early 1978, Rotten announced that he was leaving the group after a gig in San Francisco. According to manager Malcolm McLaren, he was fired. McLaren, meanwhile, was intent on taking the group to Brazil in order that they could be filmed playing with the train robber Ronnie Biggs. Vicious, incapacitated by heroin addiction, could not make the trip, but Jones and Cook were happy to indulge in the publicity stunt. McLaren mischievously promoted Biggs as the group's new lead singer and another controversial single emerged: 'Cosh The Driver'. It was later retitled 'No One Is Innocent (A Punk Prayer)' and issued as a double a-side with Vicious' somehow charming rendition of the Frank Sinatra standard, 'My Way'. McLaren's movie was finally completed by director Julien Temple under the title The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. A self-conscious rewriting of history, it callously wrote Matlock out of the script and saw the unavailable Rotten relegated to old footage. While the film was being completed, the Pistols' disintegration was completed. Vicious, now the centre of the group, recorded a lame version of Eddie Cochran's 'C'mon Everybody' before returning to New York. On 12 October 1978, his girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found stabbed in his hotel room and Vicious was charged with murder. While released on bail, he suffered a fatal overdose of heroin and died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of 2 February 1979.
Virgin Records continued to issue the desultory fragments of Pistols work that they had on catalogue, including the appropriately titled compilation Flogging A Dead Horse. The group's impact as the grand symbol of UK punk rock has ensured their longevity. The unholy saga appropriately ended in the High Court a decade later in 1986 when Rotten and his fellow ex-Pistols won substantial damages against their former manager.
After years of rumour and sigh it was confirmed that the original band would re-form for one lucrative tour in 1996. The press conference to launch their rebirth was at the 100 Club in London. The usual abuse was dished out, giving rise to the fact that nothing has changed except the lines on their faces and rising hairlines - they added that they thought Green Day and Oasis were too 'poppy'. The tour was awaited with eagerness as this really was a case of putting their mouths where the money is. Their debut at Finsbury Park was nostalgic rather than groundbreaking. Rotten was still obnoxious and they still hated Matlock. What they did prove, however, was that they can still play and sweat, just like the hundreds of pretenders that have followed in their wake over the past two decades.
Four years later Julien Temple's film documentary The Filth And The Fury was released to excellent reviews. Featuring a mixture of archive concert footage, contemporary news reports and recent interviews with surviving members of the band, the documentary was everything The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle should have been and more. The original members reunited for a second time in the summer of 2002 as a riposte to Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee celebrations. 'God Save The Queen' was re-released in May, but only managed to reach number 15 in the UK singles chart. They reunited again in August 2003 for a brief USA tour, which included a casino ballroom in Las Vegas. The Sex Pistols were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in March 2006.
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