Public Image Unlimited
The silver jubilee of punk has recently prompted PopMatters to put together an excellent collection of essays on punk rock in its various guises during that mythical time between 1976 and 1978. Twenty-five years later, it’s telling that this is still something of interest, something that prompts writers to grab their chance for something to say. Why punk? We’re also more or less at the silver jubilee of disco, yet retrospective looks back to leisure suits and mirror balls are few and far between. Somehow, some way, the fiercely marginal style of punk has become the most important historical moment of music in the last 30 years.
So the release of yet another Sex Pistols disc affords me the opportunity to add my own two cents worth to the whole question of punk music. And the question that interests me most is not what happened 25 years ago, but what it means today. I threw out some ideas about punk 2001 stylee in my review of the recent Green Day compilation, but speaking about the Sex Pistols today allows us to put the events of a quarter century ago in an even better contemporary perspective. In many respects, records (both musical and historical) like There Is No Future can only be approached this way, since they are about piecing together the past in the legacy-filled present.
On Saturday, April 10, 1999, NPR’s Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition, broadcast a story on the interactions of American audiences with British pop music. At one point in the story, Simon interrupts the interviewee to say, “Let me utter some words that I’ve always wanted to say on this show, which is: Let’s listen to the Sex Pistols”, before cutting to a snippet of “God Save the Queen”. What’s interesting is that although the piece wasn’t about the Sex Pistols, and only ephemerally mentioned the band, Simon made it a point to play them. There is a perceptible hint of delight in Simon’s voice as he says the words and pushes play. The generally staid, professional news format of NPR was, probably for the first time, exposed to the rebellious and loud tones of the Sex Pistols, reaching a white, middle class and middle aged audience that had probably never heard the band in their lives.
Or perhaps they had. The legacy of punk is also the legacy of the Sex Pistols, and so we realize that it’s been 25 years since Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols was released. Some of those currently middle-aged NPR audience members were probably exposed to punk in some way in their own youths. Perhaps they were in the large majority that feared and reviled the whole “movement”, but they knew its face, and for most of the world, the public face of punk was the Sex Pistols. The Pistols come loaded with their own mythopoetic history these days, with Johnny Rotten reborn as John Lydon the Minor Celebrity, Sid and Nancy the movie, and reunion tours. And as the Pistols become elevated to an amusing and consumable piece of cultural history, punk is made safe, and people like Simon (who, to give him his due, seems to appreciate and possibly even enjoy “God Save the Queen”) can dabble in their own little moment of anarchy without much worry.
In fact, the Pistols on NPR speaks to their relative position to the whole concept of punk. Ironically, for an ethic and a band that both made their headway espousing anarchy, the Sex Pistols wound up being seen as “leaders” of the punk movement. There’s little doubt that their devilish manager-mentor Malcolm McLaren reveled in this, being both a Ken Kesey and a P.T. Barnum rolled into one. As Mark Desrosiers notes in his essay “Aesthetic Anesthetic: Liberating the Punk Canon”, the great myth of punk, and the near legendary status attributed to the Sex Pistols, was mostly the work of rock critics who bought the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle hook, line and sinker. Decades later, the significance of the Pistols has been pored over time and again. Both Rotten/Lydon and original Pistol Glen Matlock have used books to tell their own stories, while the most comprehensive history of the Sex Pistols that ever need be produced can be found in Jon Savage’s 1992 book, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond.
So what is there left to say about the band? In truth, very little. Which is why albums such as There Is No Future are more or less pointless, expect as another thumbtack in the poster of the Sex Pistols that adorns rock history’s wall. Just about every aspect of the Pistols seems to have been captured on tape or bootlegged and then repackaged as an album posthumously. Five singles, one album, and 20 years of filler are the band’s legacy. You can buy a copy of their infamous last show with Rotten at the San Francisco Winterland. You can buy their reunion tour live. You can buy demos and outtakes and minor concerts. What does There Is No Future have to offer? More of the same.
The good folks at Castle Music and Trojan Records obviously believe in the disc and its ability to offer further insight into the brief work of the Sex Pistols, and for this they shouldn’t be faulted. Basically a combination of demos created when Glen Matlock was still the bassist and before the actual recording of the singles that led to Never Mind the Bollocks, There Is No Future exists to fill in gaps of their material from 1976 that you may not already own. However, if you happen to have a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks and The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, then all you’ll be getting are demo or live versions of songs you already own plus a muddy recording of the boring “Satellite” and a version of the B-side cover “No Fun”.
I’m actually a fan of demo collections in general, as they usually offer some insight into a song’s genesis and how it may have sounded before all the slick studio production gussied it up. Live recordings can also give a little glimmer of the live experience in the best of cases, and when they’re recordings of good bands, they can turn out to be great albums. But the issue here is that the Sex Pistols weren’t ever a great band. They played loud, they played fast, but they also played sloppily and with only the basic modicum of skill. The result is that murky demos and grainy live recordings just sound that much worse. No one ever praised Never Mind the Bollocks for it’s musical genius, it was the power and venom that was extraordinary. The result of There Is No Future is that much of that power and venom is diluted and washed-out.
Of course, for the archivist of Sex Pistols material, this album will probably be essential. It does capture a specific moment in their career that isn’t readily available elsewhere. But it’s more or less preaching to the converted. Those who are satisfied with the superior studio cuts will find this album basically worthless, while those who have spent time and money tracking their every move will be jubilant. In that sense, There Is No Future plays a vital role, but it’s a role that’s artificially created by nostalgia.
It’s a strange catch-22. The Sex Pistols are at once the most vital punk band ever to record, and also the worst thing to happen to punk. By becoming the historical face of punk music, the Sex Pistols overshadow and obscure the many facets of punk that erupted in the late 1970s. As musical historians fanatically trace every last recording of the Pistols, bands that deserve attention of their own get glossed over or ignored entirely. Yet in the intensely hot Roman candle career of the Sex Pistols, so much of punk came to be epitomized that it would be an egregious error not to dwell on them.
And in the here and now there’s not much to do about it. Even if hindsight is 20/20, there’s not much chance to re-write mythology. Aside from fulfilling the drives of personal motivations, it does no good to say that, yes, the Sex Pistols were more punk than the Clash, but Crass was more punk than both. We can hope that an interest in the Sex Pistols will direct curious listeners to the diversity of punk music that emerged out of the period, but there’s no guarantee. With albums like There Is No Future, which will undoubtedly just fall into line with all the other collected material of the Sex Pistols, the myth will simply solidify further.
Today, punk hangs over musical history like a taunting ghost, never allowing itself to be satisfactorily defined, always revealing a different face and playing itself out over time in completely unpredictable ways. We look back to the past with an awed reverence for this strange instant of chaos whose legacy inserted itself into so much of what came after it. But against the assertions of the Sex Pistols, there most certainly was a future, and it was a future in which punk music created and influenced a whole slew of musical offshoots. Destroy, indeed.