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Sex Pistols, Vernon Yard ©Barry Plummer
Sex Pistols, Vernon Yard© Barry Plummer

Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s Steve Jones

  • TextPaul Moody

Yesterday marked 40 years since The Sex Pistols’ debut album was originally released, however the band’s true story is only just being told, as guitarist Steve Jones explains

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Sex Pistols, Vernon Yard ©Barry Plummer
Sex Pistols, Vernon Yard© Barry Plummer

“We were all really into the visuals,” says Steve Jones, musing on the combustible chemistry which brought The Sex Pistols together. “John had spiky green hair and the ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt, Glen was into the mod thing. The first time I saw Sid he was wearing a mauve and white striped mohair sweater, faded blue jeans and white brothel creepers. I thought to myself, ‘now there’s an interesting guy’…”

Such was the explosive effect of The Sex Pistols’ two and a half year existence – you can hardly call it a career – it’s easy to get blinded by their impact. Released in November 1977 at the tail end of a two and half year assault on society’s sacred cows, debut album Never Mind The Bollocks detonated with nuclear force.

In an era when the sight of newsreader Angela Rippon’s legs on The Morecambe & Wise Show seemed risqué, their image – nihilistic, Nazi-fixated, defiantly working class – scared the establishment witless, and their songs about insurrection (Anarchy In The UK), abortion (Bodies) and the downfall of the monarchy (God Save The Queen) sent shock waves through Middle England.

40 years on, it can be seen as pop culture’s Big Bang. Fawned over by critics for its seditious message and used as a sonic springboard by countless bands – among them Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, and Green Day – its blast force still reverberates in everything from Liam Gallagher’s sneer to the shock tactics of HMLTD.

“The first time I saw Sid he was wearing a mauve and white striped mohair sweater, faded blue jeans and white brothel creepers. I thought to myself, ‘now there’s an interesting guy’…” – Steve Jones

All in all, quite an achievement when you consider that it was all part of a Dadaist masterplan cooked up by the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren. Or maybe not.

“Malcolm had a big ego,” says Jones. “He liked to think he was pulling the strings but the truth is he really wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, he was very important and he had a lot of great ideas, but he had no input whatsoever on the musical side of things.”

A resident of Los Angeles for the last 35 years, Jones’ rough edges – like his vowels – have long been smoothed over by the Californian sunshine. However, his in-built bullshit detector remains on high alert. It was this – and, you sense, decades of hearing the band’s story retold by serial memoirist Rotten – which drove him to write his brutally candid autobiography, Lonely Boy.

Jones demystifies – and humanises – the band, explaining that it was his own troubled childhood which motivated him to get the group together. A self-confessed kleptomaniac and prolific Peeping Tom who was sexually abused by his stepfather, he gravitated towards Let It Rock, the shop run by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood on Chelsea’s Kings Road, as a way of escaping the dead-end future mapped out for him.

While he acknowledges McLaren’s Fagin-esque role in his development – once saving him from a custodial sentence by bamboozling the judge with a “brilliant line of bullshit” – his graduation from artful dodger to proto-pop star was swift.

With the Pistols line up completed with the recruitment of Rotten – nicknamed by Jones on account of his appalling dentistry – the band quickly secured a deal with EMI.

However, having been goaded into a four-letter outburst by host Bill Grundy on The Today Show, they then became household names overnight – for all the wrong reasons.

“Grundy was the big dividing line in The Sex Pistols story,” writes Jones. “Before it, we were all about the music, but from then on it was all about the media.”

The way Jones tells it, the chaos that followed was more a Carry On-style comedy of errors than a premeditated assault on the culture. Sacked by EMI only to be snapped up by A&M – and then Virgin – in a blaze of publicity, the band still had their debut album to record. A matter complicated by the fact that they had replaced bassist – and principal songwriter – Glen Matlock with the musically-challenged Sid Vicious.

“Grundy was the big dividing line in The Sex Pistols story. Before it, we were all about the music, but from then on it was all about the media” – Steve Jones

“It was really weird getting rid of Glen,” he says with a hint of regret. “He didn’t want to go along with the program. It’s a shame because musically it worked – that’s where all of Never Mind The Bollocks came from.”

Working with producer Chris Thomas at Wessex Studios, Jones set about creating a record which would accurately reflected the band’s live power. “I loved what Chris had done with Roxy Music so I knew I could work with him. We wanted a big thick sound and Chris gave me a lot of time to get the guitars right. He let me do my thing, which was great because technically I wasn’t that good.”

With the band effectively a man down, Jones also supplied most of the bass parts. “Sid used to drive me nuts,” sighs Jones. “It wasn’t his fault, he just got slung in there, but he couldn’t play a note.”

With the Queen’s Silver Jubilee approaching it dawned on them that one song in their repertoire might make a good single. With lyrics penned by Rotten at the breakfast table while waiting for his mum to cook him beans on toast, God Save The Queen was released in  Jubilee Week, June ’77, causing national outrage.

However, despite out-selling all opposition it only reached number two. The controversy surrounding it still causes Jones’ hackles to rise.

“That was the peak,” he growls. “Or it should have been. The powers-that-be wouldn’t let it go to number one because they couldn’t handle it. It would have been too embarrassing to have a song alienating the Queen in Jubilee Week.”

While follow ups Pretty Vacant and Holidays In The Sun followed it into the Top 10, the combined force of the band’s assorted enemies – among them jingoistic Teddy Boys, the tabloids, the police, the GLC and the local councils who banned them from playing unless under a pseudonym – made further progress impossible.

Banned by all the major retailers, Never Mind The Bollocks nonetheless saw the band finally reach number one thanks to advance orders of 125,000. It felt like a pyrrhic victory. Bloodied and bruised and with Vicious by now addicted to heroin – The Sex Pistols split up on stage in San Francisco three months later, at a gig where they were paid the princely sum of $67.

It’s little wonder that the band’s central players scattered to the four winds. Jones and Cook fled to Brazil to hang out with Ronnie Biggs, Rotten to Jamaica and Sid to junkie oblivion with girlfriend Nancy Spungen in New York.

Within a year, he’d be dead at just 21, overdosing on heroin while on bail for Spungen’s murder.

“We didn’t think we were making a classic album. We were just doing our thing” – Steve Jones

“Sid was a good kid,” sighs Jones. “He played like a dummy but he wasn’t one. Unfortunately he made the big mistake of getting in with Nancy. From that point on it was always going to happen. He seemed destined to go down that road.”

Image conscious to the last, Vicious wrote a note a few days before his death asking that he be buried in “my black leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots”. Perhaps the cool kid with the white brothel creepers wasn’t so dumb after all.

40 years on, he’s indelibly inked on rock history as punk’s premier pin-up. As for The Sex Pistols, for all the filth and the fury, Jones stresses they’re best remembered for what they were – a bunch of young kids doing what came naturally.

“That’s the greatest thing about youth,” he says in conclusion. “You don’t worry about anything. We didn’t think we were making a classic album. We were just doing our thing. Luckily enough it turned out good, because here we are 40 years later still fucking talking about it.”

The Sex Pistols 1977: The Bollocks Diaries as told by the Sex Pistols, published by Cassell Illustrated, is out on December 1st and the boxset, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition), is available to purchase here.