Above the Fold

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★  Jul 22, 2024  ★

The Sounds that Shaped the Sex Pistols

How did the Sex Pistols get their signature sound? Jon Savage retraces the influential punk band's origins and musical inspirations in his book, "England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock," and we've curated a playlist of the artists that inspired them which you can stream. Listen loud.

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“England wasn’t free and easy; it was repressed and horrible.” - Jon Savage

Few artists and bands create a kind of self-mythology like that of the Sex Pistols. From their origins in southwest-London to prototyping the Punk movement and disrupting the music industry with a sneering smirk, Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Sid Vicious (John Ritchie) gave a new name and style to an entire subculture while splitting music into two distinct periods—pre & post-Sex Pistols. Jon Savage describes the forces that would give rise to the band’s formation, falling-out, and lasting legacy in his book, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock.

“Punk was an international outsider aesthetic: dark, tribal, alienated, alien, full of black humour. It spread from the US through the UK and France and through Europe, Japan, and Australia during the years following 1975. For anyone in the UK at that point who felt cast out because of class, sexuality, perception, gender, even choice, who felt useless, unworthy, ashamed, the Sex Pistols were an attraction/repulsion machine of, as Paul Morley notes, ‘infernal’ power that offered the chance of action, even surrender — to something larger than you — and thus possible transcendence. In becoming a nightmare, you could find your dreams” (Savage xviii).

Among these forces were the post-war recession, a newfound enemy in ‘60s liberation, and music groups (both new and old) making their way across the Atlantic. Undoubtedly, the most central figure in the Sex Pistols’ story is their manager Malcolm McLaren, whose political attitudes and creative ambitions would bring the key players together and help define the Sex Pistols’ early sound and influences. Direct links to ‘50s rock/rockabilly staples like Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the Teddy Boys culture those artists helped inspire can be traced back to McLaren himself.

In the early days of their career, The Sex Pistols also drew from the previous Mod scene of the 1960s, with which bands like The Who, Small Faces, The Kinks, and The Yardbirds were associated. The Pistols would go on to twist and distort the Mod connection between music and fashion into their own violent version, combining both into a larger political statement in line with the times.

America’s rock and fledgling punk scenes were also making their way to the UK during the group’s formative years. More specifically, the New York sound that was being created in real-time at CBGB and other venues by acts like the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, Television, the Ramones, and the Patti Smith Group would heavily influence the Sex Pistols, with their nihilistic attitudes and jagged guitar lines. “The new affiliation without a name proclaimed its difference, as all pop movements must: downtown rigour instead of midtown glitter” (Savage 91).

Wearing their iconic glam rock fashions back across the pond, David Bowie and Roxy Music were permanent fixtures on the English airwaves, supported by glossy productions and equally lavish budgets—perfect targets for the Sex Pistols’ riotous rebellion. Soon after their formation, the Pistols quickly solidified the anarchic spirit and erratic behavior that they would become known for, literally stealing equipment and instruments from the groups they wanted to embody.

Among these included a television of [The Rolling Stones’] Keith Richards, multiple guitars from Rod Stewart’s mansion, microphones and an entire PA system from one of Bowie’s concerts in 1973. The English glam and rock scenes of the time that the Sex Pistols sought to disrupt would turn out to be directly responsible for their own creation.

For more, check out England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock here, and listen to our full playlist of sounds that shaped the Sex Pistols below.

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