Those of you who've been hanging around here since NYMary first gave me the spare keys to the car may recall that one of the things I talked about doing early on was using the blog to rescue various things I'd written about pop music over the years for various dead tree media, primarily the old Stereo Review (now Sound & Vision). In practice, however, I've only done it once or twice, partly because it's a royal pain in the ass to transcribe the damn things, but mostly because upon re-reading some of my early stuff I've come to the conclusion that a lot of it is either dated, embarassingly wrongheaded or both, and that I really didn't learn how to write until the early 90s.
That said, the other day I got an e-mail from Eschaton chum/World's Most Aggravating Velvet Underground Fan/blogger of note The Kenosha Kid. The Kid informed me that he had found an old copy of SR featuring my review of the Sex Pistols "Never Mind the Bollocks" album, and that he had intended to give me grief about how lame it was but that to his surprise he thought it was actually pretty good. A few days later I found a copy and reread it myself; to my surprise, I discovered that I kind of agreed with him, so I've decided to share it with you. I've made a few cosmetic changes -- mostly involving punctuation, although I've altered the odd phrase I found insufferably pompous -- but this is essentially 99.9 percent word for word the way it appeared on newstands in February 1978, back at the height of the Jimmy Carter administration.
If one is slightly cynical about things (and in America in 1978, I can't conceive of being otherwise) it's hard to view the meteoric rise of the Sex Pistols to the status of Genuine Phenomenon as anything other than the result of shrewd managerial reading of the public mood. Except for their visual trappings, they're certainly not doing anything that could be remotely called original, either musically or in their public pronouncements. So they're loud, crude, minimally skilled at their instruments; so they spit at queen-and-country, at the rock-and-roll tradition, at the music business, and at anyone rooted in the values of the Sixties. So what? The idea that kids should reclaim rock from the clutches of arrogant superstar tax exiles and balding corporate moguls dates back at least to David Bowie's All the Young Dudes and its contemptuous sneer at older brother "back at home with his Beatles and his Stones." The Pistols' stance of calculated obnoxiousness and musical primitivism is the same ploy countless rockers from Elvis on down have utilized to get noticed in a hurry.
But even granted all that, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Pistols as just this season's hype; there's art lurking beneath the artifice of their debut album. Of course, to appreciate "Never Mind the Bollocks" you have to have a certain tolerance for loud noises. You also have to understand something perhaps not readily apparent, which is that the Pistols are wittily well aware of the contradictions in what they're attempting, the most obvious of these being that to reach the mass audience they want they will have to seduce the very types they detest, especially once they invade America. But they go ahead anyway, in E.M.I and New York, knocking the record company that dropped them (because some execs believed they were seriously advocating anarchy) and sneering at the "bored old faggots" who are habitues of Max's Kansas City (i.e., the trend setters who have helped make punk rock, at lest in the U.S., the Next Big Thing). Unless we're being kidded on some level, how else to explain the theatrical panache with which the Pistols deliver such utterly ridiculous lines as "I'm a lazy sod." Or the very idea of giving themselves surnames like Vicious and Rotten?
The blatant put-ons notwithstanding, however, the Pistols' political message comes across with undeniable power. It should be noted that, among other things, they happen to be the most legitimately influential protest songwriters in over a decade, and as with Bob Dylan it hardly matters whether they're completely sincere or not. God Save the Queen, which they released as a single just in time to spoil the Silver Jubilee for a lot of their countrymen, is something of a small rock masterpiece in that regard (as well as the strongest track on the album); it's also a remarkable revival of the kind of spleen-venting the Angry Young Men of the British theater were doing twenty years ago. As James Walcott observed, there isn't that vast a gulf between John Osborne and Johnny Rotten, and if you doubt it, I suggest you listen to the way Rotten yowls "God save the Queen...we mean it, man."
As you may have gathered by now, I don't find the Sex Pistols particularly threatening, for all their revolutionary fervor. Rotten is a first-rate rock-and-roll singing actor (his Cockney whine is almost cute), and though the band still has some growing to do, when they're on they have a drive and power reminiscent of the MC5. "Never Mind the Bollocks" may be a little repetitious at times, but the best cuts are viscerally exciting and easily accessible rock by any standard. Still, by the rules of the game the Pistols are playing, if somebody like me (who represents a lot of what they claim to be rejecting) comes to terms with them, it smacks of co-optation. And so, that I do rather like them indicates a failure on their part, it seems to me. I hope that when they bring their peculiarly English brand of sonic assault to these shores in person, they'll do their damndest to make me uncomfortable about my endorsement. After all, if I read them right, that's their job. -- Steve Simels
SEX PISTOLS: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.
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For what it's worth, I really wouldn't change much except for that bit about them being minimally skilled at their instruments. In fact, other than that, by and large I think I nailed it.