Although their importance — both to the direction of contemporary music and more generally to pop culture — can hardly be overstated, the Sex Pistols did not make their stand primarily on albums. In fact, the massive discography notwithstanding, the Pistols made only one actual studio album during their fourteen-month existence (November 1976 to January 1978). In a textbook McLuhanesque example of the media being the message, the quartet’s impact did not result from vast commercial success; against the general rock tide, most of their revolutionary work was released on 7-inch singles.
Fulfilling an essential and immaculate role as martyrs on the new wave altar by logically self-destructing (and politely waiting until no one was paying much attention before descending into typical wasted rock-stardom) rather than falling prey to standard rock’n’roll conventions, the Pistols and manager/provocateur Malcolm McLaren challenged every aspect and precept of modern music-making, thereby inspiring countless groups to follow their cue onto stages around the world. A confrontational, nihilistic public image and rabidly nihilistic socio-political lyrics set the tone that continues to guide punk bands. On top of everything, the Pistols made totally unassailable and essential electric music that has stood the test of time, and sounds just as exciting and powerful today as it did way back when.
Populated by such classics as “Anarchy in the UK,” “God Save the Queen,” “Pretty Vacant” and “No Feelings,” Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is an epiphany. Prototypical punk without compromise, it includes almost everything you need to hear by the Sex Pistols. Oddly, at the time of its release, the LP was a disappointment in light of sky-high expectations. Four of the tracks had already been released as singles; many others had circulated on well-known album-in-progress bootlegs, like Spunk. Now, of course, as the best recorded evidence of the Pistols’ existence, it almost defies criticism. Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Johnny Rotten (Lydon) and Sid Vicious (plus Glen Matlock, the original musical architect and songwriter, who was sacked early on, allegedly for liking the Beatles but more practically for valuing pop over posing) combined to produce a unique moment in rock history and Bollocks is the evidence. (The American release adds “Sub-Mission,” changes the track sequence and alters the artwork. UK Virgin made it available as a picture disc. The 1985 British CD also contains the extra track. The 20-cut Kiss This gathers up the band’s primary studio oeuvre.)
The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, the soundtrack to the band’s amazing bio-pic posthumously banged together into semi-coherent form by Julien Temple from a number of aborted film projects, exists in three forms: a one-disc album of highlights and two slightly different full-length two-record collections. In any case, it’s a semi-connected batch of songs by various bands (not just the Pistols) that’s just full of surprises, fun and strange goings-on. There are regular Pistols tracks — some with vocals by Sid, Steve Jones and Eddie Tudorpole taking the departed and uncooperative Rotten’s place — as well as live performances, studio outtakes, symphonic renditions, a surprisingly great disco medley, McLaren’s first vocal foray and much more. A bit lighthearted (and lightheaded), but with loads of sharp music. The single-record extract has most of the prime material, but either full dose is highly recommended. (The CD contains the whole shebang.)
Some Product Carri On is for diehards only, scraping the barrel for radio interviews and commercials — audio vérité for idiots whose interest in the Pistols has more to do with sociopathic fascination than pop culture. However gratuitous and unnecessary as it may be, the album shows careful assembly and is wickedly funny in spots — good for one embarrassing listen then straight into the trash compactor.
While Some Product is completely expendable, Flogging a Dead Horse — wretched back-cover scatology aside — provides the commendable service of compiling seven ace 45s (both sides of each) into one handy Pistols primer. From “Anarchy in the UK” to “The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle,” all of their greatest moments are delivered. If you don’t have a complete set, this record catches you right up; for newcomers, the LP is a must-have. The Heyday is a cassette-only collection of interviews with Lydon, Cook, Jones and Vicious.
In 1985, a flood of new Sex Pistols records — legal, dubious and plainly unauthorized — began appearing. The Mini Album (issued in the US three years later and then expanded in the UK and re-released as the CD-only Mini Album Plus) consists of a half-dozen early album outtakes (July ’76, with Matlock), probably from the same studio supply as those issued on Spunk. The Original Pistols Live, with liner notes by producer Dave Goodman, records a 1976 gig with moderate fidelity and a lively mix. Live Worldwide is a compendium of a dozen cuts from various shows. Cash for Chaos and Anarchy Worldwide are mixtures of live takes and studio outtakes. The Pistols’ side of After the Storm contains four muddy live cuts — “Anarchy,” “Pretty Vacant,” “Liar” and “New York” — from a ’76 gig at Burton-upon-Trent.
For those interested in bootleg-quality concert material from unspecified shows, Live and Loud!! reproduces almost the entire first album (although it omits “Sub-Mission” and “Liar” and includes “I Wanna Be Me” and “Belsen Was a Gas”) in what sounds like a surprisingly cogent and well-played single show. (The CD adds a bonus track.)
The low-fi/high-energy Better Live Than Dead documents another pre-Sid concert with selections from the Pistols’ non-original repertoire — “Substitute,” “Stepping Stone,” “No Fun” — alongside their own classics. Fascinating and reasonably well-mastered, We Have Cum for Your Children is a motley but meaningful packet of oddities and endities: the notorious “Filth and the Fury” Bill Grundy television interview (1 December 1976), radio spots, live and for-broadcast recordings and an intriguing assortment of studio rehearsals and outtakes. Although it contains “Pretty Vacant,” “Submission,” “EMI” (mistitled, perhaps intentionally, “Unlimited Supply”) in versions that are, or at least closely resemble, the ones on Spunk, the LP’s main value lies in clear recordings of the otherwise unissued “Suburban Kid” (just a variation on “Satellite,” the B-side of “Holidays in the Sun”), “Revolution in the Classroom” (with vocals that sound more like a bad imitation of Rotten than the real thing) and Cook’n’Jones’ “Here We Go Again.”
Jointly billed to the Sex Pistols and Ex-Pistols, The Swindle Continues is a similar (and overlapping) studio compilation with a side of first-album rehearsals, demos and outtakes (with one actual B-side, “No Fun,” stuck in as a ringer) and a side of post-split items, mostly by Cook and Jones. There’s the fabulous “Silly Thing” (a ’79 Pistols B-side with Jones doing lead vocals), an absurd acoustic version of “Anarchy in the UK” from a French single, a hysterical disco-mix medley-of-hits called “Sex on 45” and much less. The sound is a shade below good and the total lack of credits an annoyance, but the LP title precludes any such carping. Ever had the feeling you’ve been conned?
An entertaining soundtrack to a nonexistent scrapbook, the haphazardly edited Pirates of Destiny jumps from interview bites to live Sid-era tracks and studio outtakes (but who really cares about an unused backing track for “Pretty Vacant”?), with an Australian LP ad, the otherwise unissued “Schools Are Prisons” (a different song from “Revolution in the Classroom,” with a truly Rotten vocal) and a classic pox-on-punk speech by a London government official for good measure. Most of Side Two is given over to “alternate mixes” of Swindle‘s live-in-the-studio covers (“Substitute,” “Roadrunner,” “Whatcha’ Gonna Do About It?,” etc.) that sound like they were recorded on a cheap cassette machine during a rehearsal.
No Future U.K? (“released with kind permission of Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook”) consists of late-’76 demos and outtakes of the Pistols’ original repertoire: most of Bollocks and the preceding singles. The sound quality is better than the slow, rudimentary performances, few of which have the electric juice the songs ultimately received. “No Feelings” is striking, as are one of the two renditions of “Anarchy” (the other is appallingly weak), “No Fun” and a take on “Liar” that sounds more like Generation X.
Had Matlock’s recent autobiography, I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol, not confirmed the fact that the Pistols did indeed play a 1976 prison gig, few would have believed that Live at the Chelmsford Top Security Prison wasn’t just a sensationalist fraud. Indeed, the crowd noises are obviously fake. Adding to the album’s suspect nature, “producer” Dave Goodman’s liner note recollection of the gig mentions that the band opened with “Anarchy” — but the song appears next to last on the record. Regardless of its source(s), the album — a rare coincidence of great playing and pretty clear sound (save for Rotten’s singing, which comes and goes in the mix) — is one of the better post-Pistols items to surface. Filthy Lucre Live documents the original lineup’s controversial 1996 reunion.
Sid’s post-Pistols album is a classic piece of campy horribleness, a miserable-sounding live record of one of his New York rent-party gigs. The doomed bassist teams here with ex-Doll Jerry Nolan’s band, the Idols, for a pathetic performance of punk standards that’s depressing and morbid. Love Kills NYC is a similar record, issued during the Pistols unexpected vinyl onslaught. There have been others.