The Sex Pistols: How they changed music

Forty years after their first ever show, we look back on the anarchic attitude and sheer debauchery that saw Johnny Rotten and co. change music forever.

Peter Iantorno November 3, 2015

November 6, 1975, and John Lydon is anxious. The scruffily dressed 19-year-old is usually full of bravado and bluster – that’s how he landed the job of lead singer for newly formed band The Sex Pistols – but as he waits to go on stage at London's Saint Martins College for the band’s first ever gig, he is a bag of nerves.

The Pistols are supporting pub rockers Bazooka Joe (featuring bassist Stuart Goddard, who would later find fame under his pseudonym, Adam Ant) and so new are they to the gigging scene, they have to borrow all their equipment, from amps and microphones to the drum kit used by promising young drummer Paul Cook, from the headline act.

The group takes to the tiny stage in front of a largely disinterested audience and immediately launches into a deafeningly loud yet distinctly out-of-tune cover of The Who’s Substitute. This is followed by a similarly raucous rendition of Dave Berry’s Don’t Give Me No Lip Child, then Small Faces’ What’cha Gonna Do About It, both of which are delivered so aggressively that the audience has no choice but to at least take notice.

By the time the band moves on to The Monkees’ (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone, Lydon’s nerves are a distant memory and he and the rest of the band are playing up to the crowd, smashing their borrowed equipment on the floor triumphantly.

The Pistols have won round the skeptical audience, but just as they launch into the first of their own songs, suddenly the music stops and the scrawny quartet are confronted by the five members of Bazooka Joe, who have pulled the plug, furious at the damage to their loaned equipment.

Punches are thrown, a skirmish ensues and just like that, the first ever performance from The Sex Pistols comes to an end after less than 20 minutes. Musically the show is unremarkable at best, but the sheer aggression and complete disregard for the rules shown by the band has done far more than a pitch-perfect performance ever could have.

Of course, we all know now about the indelible mark that The Sex Pistols left on music. Widely credited with popularising the punk movement, hundreds of highly influential bands in their own right, from Buzzcocks to The Clash, cite them as a major musical influence.

But it wasn’t always obvious that the Pistols would make such an incredible impact. The brainchild of Malcolm McLaren, the owner of a London anti-fashion clothes boutique called ‘Sex’, the band was formed when Glen Matlock, who was a part-time employee at the shop and already played bass in a trio with Paul Cook and Steve Jones, asked McLaren to help find them a lead singer.

Going on image alone, McLaren approached 19-year-old John Lydon, who regularly hung around the jukebox at Sex and was known for his distinctive anti-establishment style (his home-altered ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ T-shirt being a prime example) and his notoriously poor personal hygiene, for which lead guitarist Steve Jones would later dub him ‘Johnny Rotten’.

Even though the youngster had never sung before in his life, there was something about the combination of the style, the attitude and the nickname that just worked, and so, The Sex Pistols were formed.

After the farcical yet attention-grabbing conclusion to the band’s debut show, manager McLaren realised that he was on to something and he set about spreading the word that The Sex Pistols were the most dangerous new band in the country.

The more shows the band played, the more their popularity grew, with a burgeoning fanbase of teenagers who were bored with the monotony of life and sick of sticking to societal norms.

By the start of 1976, just a few short months after their debut gig, the band had built up a large following, but despite this McLaren regularly booked them to play tiny venues, often performing on the dance floor, with only a rope separating them from the hoards of raucous fans.

A wild summer of gigs up and down the country followed, and word of the Pistols’ ferocious live act spread with every performance. They made their first TV appearance in September that year on Tony Wilson’s So It Goes, performing their debut single, Anarchy in the UK, plus two more unscheduled numbers before smashing up the set. The wilder Rotten and co. got, the more the British public took to them, and by October they had been signed on a two-year contract by major record label EMI.

However, while the anarchic portion of the public seemed love the Pistols’ crude antics, in December EMI decided that they had gone a step too far after lead guitarist Steve Jones went on a foul-mouthed tirade on live TV. The label subsequently dropped the band and withdrew Anarchy in the UK from the shelves, and concerned local authorities and promoters canceled all but five of their 20 planned shows.

Things went from bad to worse for the Pistols, as first Matlock left the band, after falling out with Rotten (to be replaced by Rotten’s friend John Simon Ritchie – nicknamed Sid Vicious) and then the band lasted only a week of a new record deal with A&M before being dumped again due to a bar fight in which the friend of a company director was threatened.

However, thanks to the incredible vision of Virgin boss Richard Branson, The Sex Pistols were not to be denied and, backed by Branson’s label, Virgin Records, they released their second and most controvertial single God Save The Queen.

Timed perfectly to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, the single, which featured the scathing lyrics, “God save the Queen/She ain't no human being/There is no future/In England's dreaming", prompted a tidal wave of public opinion, ranging from adulation from the disparate youth to outcry from the establishment.

Despite being banned from every radio station in the country, the song sold more than 150,000 copies, propelling it to number two in the UK charts. The Sex Pistols were front-page news, and the punk movement was here to stay.

Yet while the bad had triggered a movement that would be impossible to stop, the foundations upon which the group itself was built were far less sturdy. As is so often the case with young rock stars, Sid Vicious was consumed by drug addiction and the rest of the band weren’t far behind him.

In 1978 the group had been all but banned from most venues in the UK, so it went on tour in the US. Vicious’ drug-addiction was taking hold, and disagreements between manager McLaren and Rotten were causing fractures within the group. Already fragile, the band simply could not continue, and on January 14, 1978, they went to San Francisco to play what turned out to be their final performance.

Before throwing down the microphone and storming off stage for one final time, Rotten addressed to crowd: “Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?” he asked, clearly a jibe at McLaren, who he felt had used the band for his own personal gain.

Although there have been subsequent reunion attempts, it was on that night that the band really ceased to be. Yet, while they were never built to last, the legacy of The Sex Pistols lives on to this day.