The Sex Pistols

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The Sex Pistols

Despite their short existence, the Sex Pistols were perhaps the quintessential British punk rock band. Whilst The Clash were both more articulate and politically motivated, and The Buzzcocks had more astute pop sensibilities, no group exemplified the spirit, and the inherent contradictions, of punk rock better.

The group was formed by pop svengali Malcolm McLaren from the a small ad for "Hip Young Gunslingers" and dressed from his boutique, very much in the style of The New York Dolls, who were doyens of the New York City new wave music scene. Following a showcase gig at London's 100 Club, they were initially signed (for a large advance) to the major label EMI. Shortly afterwards the group created a storm of publicity in the UK when, goaded by interviewer Bill Grundy, the band made extensive use of the word "fuck" on an early evening television programme. The ensuing furore occupied the tabloid newspaper for days and the band were swiftly dropped by the label, to be picked up by the independent Virgin records. A shambolic tour of the UK followed, with the majority of the concerts cancelled by local authorities and many of the rest ending in states of semi-riot.

If their first single "Anarchy in the UK" served as a statement of intent: full of wit, anger and visceral energy, that intent was fulfilled with the group's first album "Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols".

The followup single in 1977 was God Save the Queen, a swingeing attack on the British Royal Family and, by extension, the institutions of Britain delivered in Rotten's trademark sneer. Coming at a time when deference to royalty was still a predominant trait in both the establishment and the country as a whole the record was quickly banned from airplay by the staid BBC, whose Radio 1 dominated music broadcasting.

Nevertheless, in the week of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, the record reached number one in the charts; its title and artist were replaced with a blank space in many publications.

Some more singles were taken from the album, including the excellent "Pretty Vacant", an ode to apathy, and bassist Matlock was replaced by Sid Vicious, who could not play. From then on the band was essentially directionless. Following the sapping 1978 American tour, the disillusioned Rotten quit, famously asking "Ever get the feeling you've been had?" from the stage in San Francisco. The remainder of the group soldiered on for a short time, trading on their reputation and gimmicks, such as recording with notorious British criminal Ronnie Biggs and Vicious releasing a version of "My Way", but after the release of the movie "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," they finally split.

Rotten, now using his given name Lydon, went on to form the group Public Image Ltd. Vicious was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen in New York but died of a heroin overdose before coming to trial. A fictional account of Vicious's relationship with Spungen was later recounted in the 1986 film Sid and Nancy.

The group remain influential however, both for the musical style they were pivotal in helping to define, and in terms of their influence on the British cultural landscape, helping to change the cultural climate. Whereas previous challenges to the class system had come mainly from within, such as the public school and OxBridge dominated satire boom of the 1960s or the socially realist theatre of the 1950s, the Pistols communicated directly with a much wider audience and, to some extent, the resulting shock waves can still be felt.