The Sex Pistols emerged as a response to the "increasingly safe and bloated" progressive rock and manufactured pop music of the mid-1970s. The band created controversies which captivated Britain, but often eclipsed their music. Their shows and tours repeatedly faced difficulties with organisers and authorities, and public appearances often ended in mayhem. Their 1977 single "God Save the Queen" was regarded as an attack on the British monarchy and British nationalism.
At the end of a turbulent US tour, Rotten left the band in January 1978. The remaining trio carried on with vocals by Jones, Edward Tudor-Pole and Ronnie Biggs before disbanding in early 1979. Vicious died of a heroin overdose that February. In 1996, Rotten, Jones, Cook and Matlock reunited for the Filthy Lucre Tour; they staged two further reunion shows in 2002, and undertook tours in 2003, 2007 and 2008. On 24 February 2006, the Sex Pistols were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they refused to attend the ceremony, calling the museum "a piss stain".
McLaren took over management of the band around this time. Renamed The Swankers, they began rehearsing at the Crunchy Frog, a studio near the London Docklands. In 1974, they played their first gig at Tom Salter's Café in London. Noones was ejected from the band shortly afterwards, due to his unreliability and unwillingness to rehearse.
Glen Matlock was recruited as bass player in early 1975. Around this time, Jones and Nightingale began to argue over the band's musical direction, and Nightingale departed soon afterwards. In August 1975, John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) was spotted by Jones at the now renamed and restyled SEX boutique. According to Jones, "He came in with green hair. I thought he had a really interesting face. I liked his look. He had his 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt on. John had something special, but when he spoke he was a real asshole—but smart." Though he had never considered singing before, after miming along to Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" on the shop juke box, Rotten was asked to join as vocalist. Rotten and his circle of friends were by now dressing in the torn-shirt, S&M-inspired clothing promoted by Vivienne Westwood. The band's core group of followers—including Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin and Billy Idol, who would go on to form bands of their own—came to be known as the Bromley Contingent, after the neighbourhood several were from. Their radical fashion ignited a trend that was adopted by the new fans the band attracted.
NME journalist Nick Kent used to jam occasionally with the band, but left upon Rotten's recruitment. According to Rotten, "When I came along, I took one look at him and said, 'No. That has to go.' He's never written a good word about me since" Following Kent's departure, Cook began to feel that Jones might not be capable enough alone on guitar, and the band placed an advertisement in Melody Maker: "Wanted—Whizz kid guitarist, Not older than 20, Not worse looking than Johnny Thunders" (referring to a leading member of the New York punk scene). Steve New answered the advert, and played with the band for a few weeks, before he too departed.
One of McLaren's first acts as manager was to rename the band. Among the options considered were Le Bomb, Subterraneans, Beyond and Teenage Novel. The band's first gig as the Sex Pistols was arranged by Matlock, who was studying at Saint Martins College. The band played at the school on 6 November 1975. The plugs were pulled before they finished their set. This gig was followed by other performances at colleges and art schools around London.
In early 1976, the Sex Pistols began to play larger venues such as the 100 Club and the Nashville. On 4 June 1976, at the invitation of Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley (who would soon form the Buzzcocks), the band played their first gig in Manchester. Their performance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall inspired a punk rock boom in the city. Two newly formed London punk rock acts, The Clash and The Damned, made their live debuts opening for the Sex Pistols on 4 July and 6 July, respectively. On 3 September 1976, the Pistols played their first concert outside Britain, at the opening of the Club De Chalet Du Lac in Paris. Their first major tour of Britain soon followed, lasting from mid-September to early October.
Their behaviour, as much as their music, brought them national attention. On 1 December 1976, the band and members of the Bromley Contingent created a storm of publicity by swearing during an early evening live broadcast of Thames Television's Today programme. Appearing as last-minute replacements for fellow EMI artists Queen, band and entourage took full advantage of the green room facilities, and consumed significant amounts of alcohol. During the interview, Rotten used the word "shit", and host Bill Grundy, who was apparently drunk at the time, flirted openly with Siouxsie Sioux: "We'll meet afterwards, shall we?" This prompted the following exchange between the host and Steve Jones:
Although the programme was broadcast only in the London region, the ensuing furore occupied the tabloid newspapers for days. The Daily Mirror famously ran the headline "The Filth and the Fury", while the Daily Express led with "Punk? Call it Filthy Lucre"—phrases Lydon adopted for Pistols projects many years later. Thames Television suspended Grundy, and though he was later reinstated, the interview effectively ended his career.
The episode created mass publicity for the band and brought punk into the mainstream. The Pistols set out on the Anarchy Tour of the UK, though many of the concerts were either crowded by hostile press or cancelled by organisers or local authorities. In a television interview, London councillor Bernard Brook Partridge declared, "Some of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death ... I would like to see someone dig a huge hole and bury the lot of them in it."
Following the end of the tour in December 1976, EMI arranged a series of concerts for January 1977 at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. But before boarding the plane at London Heathrow Airport, the band reportedly spat on each other and verbally abused airport staff. "One witness claimed the Sex Pistols were doing something so disgusting that she could not repeat it for publication ... it became generally believed Jones had been vomiting on old ladies in the preflight lounge," reported Rolling Stone. EMI released the band from their contract two days later. "I don't understand it," Rotten remarked at the time. "All we're trying to do is destroy everything.
Matlock was replaced by Rotten's friend and self-appointed "ultimate Sex Pistols fan" Sid Vicious (Simon John Ritchie), previously drummer of Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Flowers of Romance. McLaren approved Vicious as a member on account of his look and "punk attitude", despite his limited musical abilities. McLaren later stated that, much earlier in the band's career, Vivienne Westwood had told him he should "get the guy called John who came to the store a couple of times" to be the singer. When Johnny Rotten was recruited for the band, Westwood said McLaren had got it wrong: "he had got the wrong John." It was Simon John Ritchie—the future Vicious—she had been recommending.
According to McLaren, "When Sid joined he couldn't play guitar but his craziness fit into the structure of the band. He was the knight in shining armour with a giant fist." Lydon later recalled, "The first rehearsals with Sid were hellish. Everyone agreed he had the look. Sid tried real hard ... but boy, he couldn't play bass." Marco Pirroni, who had performed with Vicious in Siouxsie & the Banshees, has said, "After that, it was nothing to do with music anymore. It would just be for the sensationalism and scandal of it all. Then it became the Malcolm McLaren story..." Vicious's amplifier was often turned down, or off, during live performances, and most of the bass parts on the band's later recordings were played by either Jones or Matlock.
Membership in the Sex Pistols had a progressively destructive effect on Vicious. As Rotten observed, "Up to that time, Sid was absolutely childlike. Everything was fun and giggly. Suddenly he was a big pop star. Pop star status meant press, a good chance to be spotted in all the right places, adoration. That's what it all meant to Sid." Vicious responded by actively cultivating a notorious persona. Early in 1977, he met Nancy Spungen, a drug addict and occasional prostitute from New York with a history of severe emotional problems. Spungen is commonly thought to be responsible for introducing Vicious to heroin, and the emotional co-dependency between the couple alienated Vicious from the other members of the band. Rotten said, "We did everything to get rid of Nancy. She was killing him. I was absolutely convinced this girl was on a slow suicide mission. Only she didn't want to go alone. She wanted to take Sid with her. She was so utterly fucked up and evil."
On 10 March 1977, at a press ceremony held outside Buckingham Palace, the Sex Pistols signed to A&M Records. They returned to the A&M offices for what would become an unruly party. Sid Vicious trashed the managing director's office and vomited on his desk. Under pressure from its own employees, artists and distributors, A&M broke contract with the Pistols six days later. Vicious debuted with the band at the Screen on the Green in London on 3 April 1977. The following month the band signed with Virgin Records, their third new label in little more than half a year. The Pistols' second single, "God Save the Queen", was released by Virgin on 27 May. Though widely perceived as a personal attack on Queen Elizabeth II, Rotten later stated that the song was not aimed at her specifically, but was instead intended to critique the deference given to royalty in general. However, the perceived disrespect to the monarchy caused widespread public outcry. The record was banned from airplay by the BBC, whose Radio 1 dominated music broadcasting. Rotten later remarked, "We had declared war on the entire country—without meaning to!"
During the week of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, the single reached number one in the NME chart, but only number two in the official UK chart. Many suspected that the data had been massaged, believing that the record had actually qualified for the top spot, but that the charts had been rigged to prevent a spectacle. At least one radio station announced the song at number one, but refused to play it, as they had been advised it might incite disruptions of the national celebration.
The Pistols marked the Jubilee, and the success of their record, by chartering a private boat, intending to perform live while sailing down the River Thames, passing Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. The event ended in chaos, however, when the boat was raided by police, despite a license to perform having been granted. McLaren, the band, and many of their entourage were taken into custody when the vessel docked.
Violent attacks on punk fans were on the rise; on 18 June Rotten himself was assaulted by a knife-wielding gang outside Islington's Pegasus pub, causing tendon damage to his arm. A tour of Scandinavia, planned to start at the end of the month, was consequently delayed until mid-July. At the end of August came SPOTS—Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly, a surreptitious UK tour with the band playing under pseudonyms to avoid cancellation.
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols was recorded between March and June 1977, in Wessex Studios, Highbury, London, and produced by Chris Thomas, who had worked with Roxy Music. Due to Vicious's lack of musical ability, the bass parts on Never Mind the Bollocks were performed by Steve Jones. According to Jones, "Sid wanted to come down and play on the album, and we tried as hard as possible not to let him anywhere near the studio. Luckily he had hepatitis at the time." Although Vicious did record on one occasion, his contribution was later over-dubbed. Jones recalls, "We just let him do it, innit. When he left I dubbed another part on, leaving Sid's down low. I think it might be barely audible on the track."
Never Mind the Bollocks was released on 28 October 1977, to mixed reviews. Rolling Stone praised the album, comparing its sound to "two subway trains crashing together under 4 feet of mud, victims screaming", and applauded the band for playing "with an energy and conviction that is positively transcendent in its madness and fever". Some critics, however, were disappointed that the album contained versions of all four previously released singles, and considered the release to be effectively a "Greatest Hits" album. The album has come to be recognized as one of the most influential rock recordings since the genre's beginnings. A 2005 Allmusic critique describes it as "one of the greatest, most inspiring rock records of all time".
The album title caused difficulties for the band. Boots, W.H. Smith and Woolworth's refused to stock the album, a Conservative MP condemned it as "a symptom of the way society is declining" and the Independent Television Companies Association refused to carry its TV advertising campaign. In Nottingham a record outlet was threatened with prosecution for displaying "indecent printed matter". The case was overturned when defending QC John Mortimer produced expert witnesses who were able to demonstrate that the word bollocks was an Old English term for a priest. Although the word in popular slang means testicles, in the context of the Pistols' album title it is primarily intended to signify "nonsense". Steve Jones had suggested the title—he claimed unwittingly—inspired by two friends who owned a hot dog stand. According to his account, they would routinely interrupt him mid-sentence, exclaiming "Oh, never mind the bollocks".
The Sex Pistols' final UK performance took place at Ivanhoe's in Huddersfield, on Christmas Day 1977. The band played a matinee and evening show as part of a benefit for the families of striking firemen. The location of the gigs was not announced until shortly before the venue opened, a tactic the band was then employing regularly to avoid the sort of attention that had led to earlier cancellations.
Early in the tour, Vicious wandered off from his Holiday Inn in Memphis, Tennessee, looking for drugs. He was found in a hospital, having carved the words "Gimme a fix" in his chest with a razor. During a concert in San Antonio, Texas, Vicious called the crowd "a bunch of faggots", before striking an audience member across the head with his bass guitar. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he received simulated oral sex on stage, later declaring "that’s the kind of girl I like". Suffering from heroin withdrawal during a show in Dallas, Texas, he spat blood at a woman who had climbed onstage and punched him in the face. He was admitted to hospital later that night to treat various injuries. Offstage he is said to have kicked a female photographer, attacked a security guard, and eventually challenged one of his own bodyguards to a fight—beaten up, he is reported to have exclaimed, "I like you. Now we can be friends."
Rotten, meanwhile, suffering from flu and coughing up blood, felt increasingly isolated from Cook and Jones, and disgusted by Vicious. On 14 January 1978, during the tour's final date at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, a disillusioned Rotten introduced the band's encore saying, "You'll get one number and one number only 'cause I'm a lazy bastard." That one number was a Stooges cover, "No Fun". In the closing lines, sneering at the audience, Rotten declared, "This is no fun, at all." After the performance Rotten addressed the audience directly—"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Good night"—before throwing down his microphone and walking offstage. He later observed, "I hated the whole scenario. It was a farce. I felt cheated. Sid was completely out of his brains—just a waste of space. Malcolm wouldn't speak to me. But then he would turn around and tell Paul and Steve that the tension was all my fault because I wouldn't agree to anything. It was all very bitter and confusing."
On 17 January 1978, Rotten announced his departure from the Sex Pistols. Vicious departed for New York, while McLaren, Cook and Jones took off for a working vacation in Rio de Janeiro. Rotten found himself without money or a means of getting home. He later described the situation: "The Sex Pistols left me, stranded in Los Angeles with no ticket, no hotel room, and a message to Warner Bros saying that if anyone phones up claiming to be Johnny Rotten, then they were lying. That's how I finished with Malcolm—but not with the rest of the band; I'll always like them. He eventually telephoned the head of Virgin Records, Richard Branson, who agreed to pay for his flight back to London, via Jamaica. In Jamaica, Branson met with members of the band Devo, and tried to install Rotten as their lead singer. Devo declined the offer.
The Sex Pistols continued, briefly, with Cook, Jones and Vicious. Attempts were made at finding a new frontman, but the band ended up with all three members taking lead vocal turns alongside guest vocalists. The group did not perform live in the post-Rotten period, but the majority of the recordings from this time were later released.
Vicious relocated to New York, and with Nancy Spungen acting as his manager, began to perform as a solo artist. He recorded a live album, 1979's Sid Sings, backed by "The Idols" featuring Arthur Kane and Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls. On 12 October 1978 Spungen was found dead in the Chelsea Hotel room she was sharing with Vicious, with stab wounds to her stomach and dressed only in her underwear. Police recovered drug paraphernalia from the scene and Vicious was arrested and charged with her murder. In an interview at the time, McLaren said, "I can't believe he was involved in such a thing. Sid was set to marry Nancy in New York. He was very close to her and had quite a passionate affair with her." Out again, he was charged with assault for smashing a beer mug in the face of Todd Smith, Patti Smith's brother. Vicious was arrested 9 December 1978 and sent to Rikers Island jail for 55 days. On 2 February 1979, he died of a heroin overdose after a party held to celebrate his release on bail. He was only 21. Reflecting on the event, Lydon said, "Poor Sid. The only way he could live up to what he wanted everyone to believe about him was to die. That was tragic, but more for Sid than anyone else. He really bought his public image. A fictionalised account of Vicious's relationship with Spungen is the focus of the 1986 film Sid and Nancy, directed by Alex Cox. Lydon has been publicly critical of the film, taking issue both with its portrayal of the main characters and the speculation that Vicious and Spungen had formed a suicide pact.
McLaren had wanted for some time to make a film featuring the Sex Pistols. In 1977 he hired Russ Meyer to direct a script, Who Killed Bambi?, he had written with Roger Ebert. After only a day-and-a-half's shooting production ceased when members of the crew, in protest over unpaid monies owed by McLaren, walked off the set. A second attempt was made in mid-1978, with Cook and Jones starring in the McLaren-scripted The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. Directed by Julien Temple, the movie is McLaren's fictionalised account of the Pistols' history; in it he claims to have controlled and manipulated the band from its inception. The soundtrack featured Jones, occasionally Cook or Vicious, and sometimes Edward Tudor-Pole, trading on their vocals and engaging in McLaren-concocted gimmicks, such as recording two songs on the album with notorious British criminal Ronnie Biggs. Four Top 10 singles were culled from the soundtrack album, one more than had appeared on Never Mind the Bollocks.
Cook and Jones continued to work through guest appearances and as session musicians, and later formed The Professionals. In the mid-1980s, Jones joined then band Chequered Past and then released two solo albums, Mercy and Fire and Gasoline. After playing with the band Chiefs of Relief, Cook currently plays in Man-Raze. Matlock has been involved in various bands, including The Rich Kids (with Midge Ure) in 1978 and The Philistines since 2000, and has released several solo albums. McLaren went on to manage Adam & the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, and in the mid-1980s released a number of hit records as a solo artist.
After a bitter, drawn-out legal case, in January 1986 the four surviving members of the Sex Pistols as well as the estate of Sid Vicious were awarded control of the band's heritage, including publishing rights, master recordings, film footage and exclusive rights to the name "Sex Pistols". This access enabled the production of the 2000 Julien Temple documentary The Filth and the Fury, formulated as an attempt to tell the story from the band's point of view, in contrast to the McLaren-oriented Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle.
On 9 March 2006 the band sold the rights to their back catalogue to Universal Music Group. The sale was criticized by some commentators as a "sell out".
In November 2006, the Sex Pistols were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honour that the band members turned down, with an "obscene gesture" and a suggestion that the Hall of Fame "kiss this". According to Jones, "Once you want to be put into a museum, Rock & Roll's over; it's not voted by fans, it's voted by people who induct you, or others; people who are already in it.
They reunited for five gigs at the Brixton Academy and one each in Manchester and Glasgow in November 2007. They announced a series of European festival appearances in 2008, titled the Combine Harvester Tour. In August, they performed at Budapest's Sziget Festival and at the Dutch festival Lowlands. Lowlands director Eric van Eerdenburg declared the Pistols' performance "saddening": "They left their swimming pools at home only to scoop up some money here. Really, they're nothing more than that. That same year, they released the DVD There'll Always Be An England, combining footage from two of the 2007 Brixton Academy appearances.
The day after the Sex Pistols' infamous appearance on the Bill Grundy Today show, their story appeared on the front page of every national newspaper in Great Britain. Rolling Stone suggested the band, responding "to the star trappings and complacency" of mid-1970s rock, "came to spark and personify one of the few truly critical moments in pop culture—the rise of punk." While they were not the first punk band, the Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks is a singular achievement within the punk movement and an important event in the history of popular music in general. It is regularly cited on lists of the greatest albums ever: In 2006 it was voted #27 in Q magazine's "100 Greatest Albums Ever", while Rolling Stone listed it at #2 in its 1987 "Top 100 Albums of the Last 20 Years". In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked The Sex Pistols #58 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
The Sex Pistols directly inspired the style, and often the formation itself, of many punk and post-punk bands during their brief existence. The Clash and Siouxsie & The Banshees are among those in London's "inner circle" of early punk bands that credit the Pistols. On 4 June 1976, still early in their career, the Sex Pistols performed to a crowd of around 40 people at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. It was to become one of the most important and mythologized events in rock history. Among the audience were many who would later form bands or otherwise popularise the embryonic punk movement, including Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, who organised the gig and would soon found the Buzzcocks; Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis and Peter Hook, later of Joy Division; Mark E. Smith, later of The Fall; Morrissey, later of The Smiths; and Anthony H. Wilson, founder of Factory Records. In addition to the groups they directly inspired, the Sex Pistols influenced many later bands. Among those who have acknowledged their debt to the Pistols are The Stone Roses, Nirvana, NOFX, Oasis, Green Day, Venom and Guns N' Roses.
In 1997, paleontologists Jonathan M. Adrain and Gregory D. Edgecombe named a series of fossil trilobite species in honour of the Pistols' members: Arcticalymene rotteni, A. jonesi, A. cooki, A. matlocki and A. viciousi.
Christopher Nolan, director of the Batman movie The Dark Knight, has said that Johnny Rotten inspired the characterization of The Joker, played by Heath Ledger. According to Nolan, "We very much took the view in looking at the character of the Joker that what's strong about him is this idea of anarchy. This commitment to anarchy, this commitment to chaos. So he's not just a bank robber or an ordinary criminal who is out for material gain. His chief motivation would be that of an anarchist. Ledger's costar Christian Bale has claimed that Ledger drew inspiration from watching tapes of Sid Vicious.