November 26 – Anarchy…In The EMI Offices?

Oh the humanity! Some would say punk was born on this day in 1976 as the Sex Pistols released their first single, “Anarchy in the UK” on EMI Records. Despite getting a 40 000 pound contract with that company (the largest it had ever given a new artist and equivalent to about $500 000 now), EMI fired the band and gave them more money to walk away after an infamous BBC-TV interview in which Steve Jones called the interviewer a “dirty f***er” and hearing various reports of mayhem at their shows.

Astoundingly, despite the band’s notoriety at the time, it might have gone relatively unnoticed if not for a high-profile, last minute TV appearance in the UK when they replaced… Queen! The Freddie Mercury outfit pulled out at the last moment and someone figured the Sex Pistols would be the next best thing for the viewers! One’s named Queen, the other sings “God Save The Queen”, some unaware booking agent probably figured. The single ended up selling 55 000 copies and hitting #38 in the UK before EMI pulled it; their next single “God Save the Queen” went to #2 on Virgin Records and in between the band had signed on with , then been fired by , A&M Records. 

Never afraid to bite the hand that feeds them, the Pistols quickly went and wrote a scathing song knocking the old label, fittingly and simply called “EMI.” John Lydon (Rotten) says that’s one of his favorite songs of theirs and it was written because “EMI wanted to sign us to show what a grand, varied label they were, but really they were not.” The EMI single was received with a variety of opinions: NME said “it will take a far better band to create raw music for a generation” while journalist John Robb opined it was “the perfect statement of a stunningly powerful piece of punk politics.” It, “God Save The Queen” and “EMI” all made it onto their only real studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks. Remarkably, showing they’re equal parts savvy businessmen as well as anarchist rockers, except for a handful of cover versions they recorded that were put onto another album, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, they never recorded again…but that hasn’t stopped them putting out seven compilation and five live albums since!

Should you happen to own one of the original 7″ singles, it won’t make you rich, but will help you buy a Christmas gift or two. Depending on condition, original copies go anywhere from about $100 to closer to $1000 if you sell it.

June 4 – Pistols Whipped Manchester Into Creative Fury

This night in 1976 was one of those times that probably seemed relatively insignificant at the time but ended up being one of the major turning points in modern music. No more than 150 people in Manchester, England paid 50 cents (about $4 today) to see the land’s most notorious band in concert – the Sex Pistols. At this point the Pistols were becoming nationally-known but had yet to put out a record or replace Glen Matlock with Sid Vicious. Matlock would soon get the boot for being “too nice” …and arguably too talented a player as well.

The band was playing the Lesser Free Trade Hall, at the time the city’s most-popular concert hall, rifled through 13 songs, including covers of Paul Revere and the Raiders “Steppin’ Stone”, the Who’s “Substitute”, and the Stooges “No Fun”- twice! As well they played a few of what would be their own staple of tunes including “Pretty Vacant.” John Lydon left the stage, asking if they ever felt like they’d been had.

Evidently quite a few in the crowd didn’t. In attendance were Morrissey, who decided to form a band right then and before long created The Smiths, Mark Smith who’d form The Fall, Mick Hucknall (soon to be in Simply Red), Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks (who booked the show) and Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner – who’d soon form Joy Division. Hook recalls “it sounded awful…I literally thought ‘I could do that!'” He went home and told his dad he was going to be a rock musician, and his dad answered “You won’t last a week. Here I am, 40 years later.”

May 27 – Buckingham Palace Was Not Amused

Oh the humanity! It wasn’t punk rock’s start, but it was the start of it being noticed and frightening parents far and wide. After months of notoriety and an astonishing 125 000 pounds (about $700 000 in today’s funds) paid to just “go away” from EMI and A&M Records, the Sex Pistols finally release their first record for the Virgin label. “God Save the Queen”, arrived this day in 1977.

True, the Clash and the Stranglers (and in the U.S., the Ramones) had all put out albums by then, even the Pistols themselves had a prior, minor hit with “Anarchy in the UK” on EMI Records. But it was this 7” single really defined “punk” for the masses and caused a ruckus. Radio stations in the UK banned it, many record stores refused to stock it, the band were beaten up by monarchists (mind you, performing the sneering song saying the queen “ain’t no human being” on a boat near the palace on the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee had to be known to be a wee bit provocational!) …but it sold 150 000 copies in the first week, probably hit #1 – the first punk single to do so – and helped the band, in their short career make people ranging from Siouxshie Sioux (enjoying her 64th birthday today) to Peter Hook to Morrissey decide to start bands.

So, why did we say “probably” hit #1? Well, the chart compiled by influential music publication the NME put it at #1 that week. However, the BBC – which banned the song for “gross bad taste” – had it at #2 on their own chart, behind Rod Stewart. If that seems a bit fishy, consider that for that week or two, and those weeks only, the chart refused to count sales from stores which owned record labels… ie, the copies sold at the large Virgin stores in the UK, didn’t count. That particular rule was dropped as soon as Sid Vicious and the boys had fallen out of the limelight.

Years later, Johnny Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) said of the song, “you don’t write a song like that because you hate the English race, you write it because you love ’em and are fed up with them being mistreated.” That said, he wasn’t in favor of a re-release of the single to coincide with the Queen’s golden anniversary in 2002. He called that a “circus” and “totally undermines what the Sex Pistols stood for.” It came back out anyway, and made it back up to #15. Controversy notwithstanding, or perhaps because of it, the song lives on like an anthem for the late-’70s disaffected. Rolling Stone list it among their 200 greatest songs of all-time (curiously enough right behind another hit song from that year, but from an entirely different point of view – Abba’s “Dancing Queen”) while Q magazine once declared it “the most exciting song” ever. What would be quite exciting indeed would be to come across a legitimate A&M Records copy of “God Save the Queen.” They never officially released it, and had the Pistols on their roster for a very short time. But in that short time, they began pressing copies of the single, which they withdrew quickly when they dropped the band. However, a few executives and other types around A&M in England held on to a copy or two, and now the few that do show up regularly fetch over 10 000 British pounds in auction.

January 14 – Farewell 2: Sex Pistols

Eight years after the Supremes last show (or at least to the ears of many, the last one that mattered since it was Diana Ross’ last with them), another finale from a well-known act. But with little different atmosphere. On this day in 1978, the Sex Pistols played their last concert, at least the last in nearly two decades and the final one with that naughty Sid Vicious.

It’s not clear if the few thousand present at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom knew it would be the last they’d see of the Pistols or not. It’s equally unclear if many would have really cared.

Despite being nearly a household name to this day and synonymous with “punk rock”, the Sex Pistols volatile career was a brief one. They’d been formed by Malcolm McLaren about four years earlier and played their first gig just a shade over two years before the Winterland Show, on November 6, 1975. Their ground-breaking Never Mind the Bollocks album had only been on shelves for three months or so when they triumphantly headed off to conquer the U.S. … a little later than planned because the Americans weren’t too quick to offer them visas and entry into the country. As a result, a late-December ’77 show in Pittsburgh that was meant to kick off the tour was canceled and instead, they made their debut in Atlanta a week later.

While there was at least a little bit of a punk scene in New York, Toronto and L.A. at the time, the wily McLaren chose to pick less-likely sites to put the Pistols, except the finale. They were booked into places like Memphis, Dallas, Tulsa and Baton Rouge. All the better to have them shock the rednecks, their manager figured and true to form, battles ensued with regularity. Vicious smashed someone in the San Antonio audience (at a place called Randy’s Rodeo) over the head with a guitar. In Dallas, a woman jumped on stage and punched him, to which he responded by spitting blood in her face. Any publicity was good publicity, at least to Malcolm.

All the while, singer Johnny Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten was getting more and more disgusted. Lydon was no fool, despite his persona, and was worried by and appalled by Vicious, and wasn’t getting on well with the other two members either. He said the fame had begun Sid’s downward spiral. “Up to (becoming stars), Sid was absolutely child-like. Everything was funny, (he was) giggly. suddenly he was a big pop star…adoration. That’s what it all meant to Sid.”

To compound that, along the way the erstwhile bassist met heroin addict Nancy Spungen who quickly got him joining her in shooting up. Lydon called her “evil” and suggested “we did everything to get rid of Nancy. She was killing him…the girl was on a slow suicide mission, only she didn’t want to go alone.”

Such was the state of affairs when they pulled into the Bay Area, the first concert site here where they perhaps did have a real fanbase. They were booked into the legendary Winterland Ballroom, a 5400 seat venue in San Fran’s Japantown (hey… I didn’t name it folks.) It had been Bill graham’s site of choice for his local acts through the ’70s. Local rock station KSAN was broadcasting the show live, and apparently the two local opening acts, the Avengers and The Nuns were fine as it goes. But the Pistols put on an abbreviated set, opening with “God Save the Queen.” According to Ultimate Classic Rock, guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook were okay, Lydon was his usual self but Vicious was “floundering on bass.” After a short set, he addressed the crowd and told them for an encore “you’ll get one number and one number only, ‘cuz I’m a lazy bastard!” They kicked into a cover of the Stooges “No Fun”, ending with Sid kneeling, yelling “this is no fun! No fun!…”

It was the end of the tour and the end of the band. Lydon said “I felt cheated and I wasn’t going on with it any longer. Sid was completely out of his brains, just a waste of space.” He took off without the other three and just three days later, they officially disbanded.

Lydon soon started the somewhat more talented and longer-lasting Public Image Ltd. Out of his brains Sid fared worse though. His girlfriend was murdered in a New York hotel later that year, with him being arrested for it, and he died of an overdose in 1979 while out on bail. As for the Winterland, that too was in its last days. They had a Grateful Dead concert on New Year’s Eve to see in ’79, then closed the place. It was sold and torn down by 1985.

November 6 – Raunchy Show Led To Premature Evacuation (Of Stage)

About a dozen people at St. Martin’s Art College in England got to see something this night in 1975 that probably made them say “Well, that’s something!” In a land where Art Garfunkel, Leo Sayer and Rod Stewart had all had #1 singles in the previous couple of months, The Sex Pistols performed live for the first time ever.

Mind you, only for about 10 minutes. The band had just recruited John Lydon to sing, based on his look (he showed up at Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Sex’ clothing store with green hair, a sneer and a Pink Floyd t-shirt modified to say “I Hate Pink Floyd”) and given him the name “Johnny Rotten.” They got the gig, opening for a local band called Bazooka Joe, because bassist Glen Matlock was a student there. Bazooka Joe, by the way had one Stuart Goddard on bass. Years later he’d become better known when he changed his name to Adam Ant.

The Pistols played only four songs from all accounts – covers of the Who’s “Substitute”, the Monkees’ “Steppin’ Stone”, Small Faces “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?” and something called “No Lip” by Dave Berry. Apparently they were rather forgettable but very loud. The Pistols likely had planned to do their own “Pretty Vacant” as well, as they had it written by then, but the plug was pulled on them before they could. Some say Bazooka Joe cut the power, worried their amps (which the Pistols were using) were going to be wrecked, others (such as Canadian music historian Alan Cross) say a horrified school official cut off power to the stage! Either way those four unremarkable songs ended up changing the face of modern rock more than any number of better-trained, more accomplished bands of the mid-’70s did.

January 31 – Music’s ‘Rotten’ Day

It’s a “rotten” day- in a manner of speaking. John Lydon turns 64 today, so happy birthday to the spiky-haired Sex Pistol.

Lydon, aka “Johnny Rotten” is one of the more intriguing characters in rock.The voice of the Sex Pistols had Irish parents but grew up in London and describes himself as “British first and foremost – proper London working class”, although he’s now an American citizen and resides mainly in L.A. What Brit doesn’t crave “Holidays in the Sun”, after all?

For a celebrated rebel who wrote “Anarchy in the UK”, he’s a surprisingly normal, old-fashioned chap. Although best-known for being the sneering voice of the Sex Pistols, he’s put out a whole lot more (11), and more musically adventurous, varied, records under his newer band name, Public Image Ltd. (which lacking the notoriety of the Pistols have had only middling success, with five UK top 20 singles including “This Is Not A Love Song” which got to #5 in ’83 and “Rise”,a hit on American college radio in ’85.) His memory of the Sex Pistols is somewhat one of regret. For a symbol of a “lost generation”, he’s remarkably hard-working; he describes himself as ” working class” and has, when not recording music, hosted a radio show (which was rather a cynical version of what this very website does, presenting daily music news), has been on various British TV shows , voiced a character in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies and even created a documentary on spiders (he says he’s more of an “enthusiast” than expert)! Then there’s the two books he’s written . While he describes the Upper Class as “parasites” he also notes too many working class people are “lazy…never accept responsibility for their own lives”. One is never short of quotes when Lydon speaks… he’s against gay marriage but idolizes Oscar Wilde, “the biggest poof on earth”; he was a fan of Barack Obama and calls the Donald Trump-led Republicans “a crazy, loony, monster.” While several female artists have accused him of being rude and at times rough, he’s been married to the same lady for over 30 years and describes himself as a “pacificist by nature.”

Long may the road rise to him!

November 26 – Anarchy In The EMI Payroll Dept.

Oh the humanity! Some would say punk was born on this day in 1976 as the Sex Pistols released their first single, “Anarchy In The U.K. on EMI Records.

Despite getting a 40 000 pound contract (something like $400 000 today) with that company, the largest it had ever given a new artist, EMI fired the band and gave them more money to walk away. That, after an infamous BBC-TV interview in which Steve Jones of the band called the interviewer a “dirty f***r” and various reports of mayhem at their shows.

Astoundingly, despite the band’s notoriety at the time, it might have gone relatively unnoticed if not for a high-profile, last minute TV appearance in the UK when they replaced… Queen! The Freddie Mercury outfit pulled out at the last moment and someone figured the Sex Pistols would be the next best thing for the viewers!

The single ended up selling 55000 copies and hitting #38 in the UK before EMI pulled it; their next single “God Save the Queen” went to #2 on Virgin Records and in between the band had signed on with , then been fired by , A&M Records. Never afraid to bite the hand that feeds them, the Pistols quickly went and wrote a scathing song knocking the old label, fittingly called “EMI.” John Lydon (Rotten) says that’s one of his favorite songs of theirs and it was written because “EMI wanted to sign us to show what a grand, varied label they were, but really they were not.”

The EMI single was received with a variety of opinions: NME said “it will take a far better band to create raw music for a generation” while journalist John Robb opined it was “the perfect statement of a stunningly powerful piece of punk politics.” And should you happen to own one of the original 7″ singles,on EMI,  it won’t make you rich, but will fetch on average about $44 if you sell it.

July 4 – Fireworks Of A Different Kind On Stage In The UK

1976 was of course a year of looking back at history in the U.S., which was celebrating its bicentennial. Across the ocean, it was a time of change in the UK and nowhere was that more apparent on this day than at the Black Swan pub in Sheffield.

There fans packed in to see the bad boys de jour, the Sex Pistols (who were building up quite a reputation even without releasing an album to that point) and got an added bonus. Opening up for the Pistols was a new, unknown band called The Clash! It was the first appearance for The Clash, coming only a month after manager Bernard Rhodes approached Joe Strummer about joining a band with Paul Simonon to “rival the Pistols.” The first performance by Strummer & co. was said to be brief but, according to musicologist Alan Cross, “witnesses left impressed by the Clash’s sense of honesty and raw energy.”

Meanwhile, 160 miles south in London at the same time, The Ramones were making their British debut! This came two years after their first trip to the stage, in their native Big Apple. They were opening for The Flamin’ Groovies at the Roundhouse, an old railroad roundhouse converted into a 3300-seat theatre in the 1950’s. Apparently Marc Bolan was one of the crowd and, despite the near polar opposites of T-Rex and Ramones music, they brought him onstage anyway, to great applause. The following night they met both the Pistols and Clash, in a meeting that would be a punk rocker’s wet dream.

June 15 – When Their Pleasures Became Known

Few and far between are albums as relatively “unknown” yet utterly ground-breaking as one released this day in 1979. Punk had largely run its course in Britain and the kids were ready for something new, something that took the anger and negativity of punks and made it… different. Less hostile, more hopeless. That was what Joy Division offered up 40 years ago with Unknown Pleasures.

The comparison to punk is no coincidence. Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner of the band both decided to be in a band after seeing the all-important Sex Pistols show in Manchester back in 1976. Hook actually borrowed money to buy a bass guitar the very next day! By the following spring, they were playing the clubs in the city as “Warsaw.” Along the way they changed to the equally-gloomy sounding “Joy Division”, a phrase taken from WWII Nazi concentration camps. They financed their own EP in 1978, An Ideal for Living. It caught the attention of Melody Maker which said that while the record had the “Familiar rough-hewn nature of home-produced records” there “are a lot of good ideas here” and summed up that they “could be a very interesting band.” Tony Wilson thought so too; he signed them to his Manchester label, Factory Records.

Martin Hannett, a young producer on the rise in the punk and post-punk scene, was brought in to run the controls on the first album, which was recorded over just three weekends. He was known for creating a “sparse” sound which would go on to define the band. Unlike many record producer/artist energies, they seemed to get on well together. Hannett said “they were a gift to the producer… they didn’t argue.” The band would later disagree over whether he captured the real essence of Joy division, but ultimately it defined the group and to some degree, a whole genre! Peter Hook grudgingly agreed years later “(he) did a good job on it…Hannett created the Joy Division sound” and made it possible to hear Ian Curtis’ voice much better than people in crowds at live shows did.

The Joy Division “sound” had little joy to it. Alan Cross notes that “drums and bass seem to have been treated as lead instruments” and “gloomy” seems the dominant adjective used to describe them. That mattered little to critics though; the album was and remains, a certified favorite of the decade. At the time, the NME gave it a perfect-10, saying it was “extraordinary” and visited “a labyrinth that is rarely explored with any smidgeon of real conviction.” Smash Hits called it a “bleak nightmare soundtrack,” which we gather was a good thing.

For all the critical adoration, the record was no smash hit. Wilson originally printed up 10 000 copies; they sold by the end of ’79, allowing him to make 5000 more. At the time, it failed to chart at all. Not helping was the fact the record had no single drop from it. “Transmission” was their single at the time, and it was a standalone 7” not put on Unknown Pleasures. The single didn’t do much at the time either, except in New Zealand where it inexplicably took off and got to #2. Only after their second album, and the death of singer Ian Curtis did the record make it onto the lower levels of the UK chart and eventually topped the “indie” chart , selling enough to earn them a gold record.

Time has been kind to it though. List after list has retroactively lauded the LP. Rolling Stone would later grade it a perfect 5-star and rank it as the 20th best debut album ever, appreciating how “they sound like they’re performing in a meat cooler,” conducive to making its sound “a model for countless brooding rock bands to come.” The NME has put it among their 50 greatest albums of all-time on 3 separate occasions since.

As we know, the gloom was real- Curtis commit suicide the following year, and the rest of the band lightened up a little in the guise we know them as now – New Order.

May 27 – Lizzie Wasn’t Laughing But Pistols Laughed All The Way To The Bank

Oh the humanity!  On this day back in 1977, the queen was not amused…but the British public may have been. After months of notoriety and an astonishing 125 000 pounds (about $500 000 in today’s funds) paid to just “go away” from EMI and A&M Records, the Sex Pistols finally release their first widely-distributed record, “God Save the Queen”, on Virgin Records.

True, The Clash and The Stranglers (and in the U.S., the Ramones) had all put out albums, but this was the song that really introduced and defined “punk” for the masses. The song slamming the queen and royalty was nothing if not controversial and caused quite a ruckus. Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) of the band said their idea at the time wasn’t so much to incite meaningless anger as to wake up the masses. “You don’t write ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write it because you love them and are fed up with them being mistreated.” As it happened, it came out very nearly corresponding to Queen Elizabeth’s 25th anniversary of taking the throne, something the band say they weren’t aware of when recording. Retrospectively, one has to take into account the British condition back in the mid-to-late ’70s, with high unemployment, massive labor unrest and frequent strikes and, very much akin to the industrial cities of the northern U.S., many cities seeing most of their long-term industrial employers shuttering their doors. The working class youth had little reason for optimism.

Radio stations in the UK banned it, many record stores refused to stock it, the band were beaten up by monarchists (mind you, performing the sneering song saying the queen “ain’t no human being” on a boat near the palace on the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee had to be known to be provocational!) …but it sold 150 000 copies in the first week, hit #1 on the NME chart. The official British singles chart had it at #2 however, something the band’s management said was a case of falsifying records to prevent the Pistols having a #1. The Stranglers would have a similar complaint a few years later in Britain with their “#2” single, “Golden Brown” which they say outsold the #1 single (that argument had merit as “Golden Brown” came out as both a 7″ and 12″ single and the sales of the two were listed separately) . Either way, #2 or #1, the song made the Sex Pistols land a spot in music history,  and is still ranked by Rolling Stone among the 500 greatest songs of all-time. 

The Pistols may not have been the most accomplished musicians, nor prolific but they shaped the next few decades of the music world. In their short career, they became major influences on future stars ranging from Siouxshie Sioux to Peter Hook to Morrissey to Green Day.

By the way, it was the Virgin Records single which came out 42 years ago. A&M had pressed some copies of it before ditching the band, and some “escaped”. If you happen to have your hands on one of those, authentic, A&M versions of it, start planning your retirement. It can easily sell for over $1000 and in a few cases, may fetch approximately $25 000 at auction!