Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'
The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols
Virgin / Warner
28 October 1977
Mendelsohn: I appreciate what Never Mind the Bollocks did for music in general. That's probably the last nice thing I'm going to say about this album. How about you, Klinger? Do you have any nice things to say about the Sex Pistols?
Klinger: I went out of my way to really listen to Never Mind the Bollocks in preparation for this Counterbalance (unlike previous editions, where I just had my manservant give me the gist of the record). I had no idea what to expect. Like many impressionable teens, I picked up the disc in a fit of youthful rebellion then put it aside when the demands of maturity (you know, like finals and stuff) made it seem a little silly.
Now here I am, a 42-year-old man with a wife and kids and a mortgage, waiting to see what this record has to offer me. And at first, I was pretty pleased with the overall adrenaline rush of opener "Holidays in the Sun". The guitars are crunchy, the tune clips along nicely, and overall it was quite pleasant. But after 35 minutes of being hectored by a barely coherent teenager, I was almost ready to dig out some old Yes albums and pretend punk never happened. Almost.
Mendelsohn: You made it through the whole thing? How many times? I can only stand about ten minutes of this, and I made the mistake of starting over each time, so I ended up listening to the first three songs a couple of times—and then I just gave up. Because I don't like this album. Even when I was a rebellious teenager, I never liked this album. And I had some really bad taste in music back then.
But after working our way through the first nine albums on The List, I'm beginning to understand the reason behind these album rankings. It seems that a large part of an album's ranking depends more on the cultural effect than on the music. That is not to say the cultural effect shouldn't be taken into account, but if you are going to compile a BEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME list, I think it should focus more on the actual music and not the media blowback.
Klinger: Ah, but the critics have spoken, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. It's ranked by everyone from Rolling Stone and VH-1 to Pitchfork and the Anarchist, and it's appeared on lists from the UK to China. Meanwhile, the best I can muster up is that it's an important record with a few pretty decent songs—and you think it stinks outright. Either they're hearing something we're not, or this is the greatest case of groupthink since the Bay of Pigs.
Maybe we should start by having you go into greater detail about what you dislike about Never Mind the Bollocks. It may prove illuminating.
Mendelsohn: I'm a firm believer in music as the message. Music for the sake of music. The pure artistic expression as the sole motive for music. Not that music can't have a message—the message is an important part. But it should be music first, message second. I'd maybe go as far as a 50/50 split. But the message should never outweigh the music.
Sex Pistols were never about music—they were about the message. It was the message that got them attention, it was the message that made them famous, and it was the message that inevitably brought them down. The message: "We're young, we're angry (but we don't know why), and we hate you (because our mothers didn't hug us enough)." Never Mind the Bollocks was just a byproduct of that message.
Take a quick look at the band's history. There were only two "real musicians" in the group. Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were brought in for their look. Strike one. The band then goes on to draw more attention for saying naughty words on live television than for the music they play. Strike two. And while the Sex Pistols may have galvanized the punk movement, paving the way for much more talented bands, they themselves had little in the way of talent. Strike three.
If I had to guess, I would attribute the Sex Pistols' universal popularity to the fact that most music geeks hate disco and most of the people who did like disco either rode the white pony for too long or ended up in middle management and now can't be bothered to listen to any music, let alone write about it.
Klinger: Interesting points, Mendelsohn, although I'll counter that original bassist Glen Matlock was a key player in the development of their original sound. His affection for pop history (he was ostensibly sacked for not hating the Beatles), coupled with Steve Jones and Paul Cook's semi-secret love of the Who and their ilk, certainly gave them a semblance of rock competence. They weren't virtuosos, which was, of course, part of the point, but singles like "Anarchy in the UK" and "God Save the Queen" demonstrate, to my ears anyway, that they weren't exactly chimps banging away on their instruments either.
So I must contend that when you separate the Pistols from their myth, the album you're left with isn't nearly as terrible as you make it out to be. I'll say it's a serviceable rock album with a few catchy hooks and some pretty solid songs. And although it may be hard to hear what the fuss is all about in these post-millennial United States, the great documentary The Filth and Fury has shown me just what a huge deal the Pistols were to late '70s Britain. "God Save the Queen" was not only a chart-topper, but it was also a cause for national concern as it related to young people who really felt that there was no future.
In listening to it today, that myth is the most frustrating thing about Never Mind the Bollocks. You can't escape the awareness that you're listening to one of THE GREATEST ROCK ALBUMS EVER MADE, and you also can't escape the feeling that it actually might not be.
Mendelsohn: No, nowhere close. And using the word "great", in any of its conjugations, as an adjective to describe this record, is a gross misuse of the English language. Unless it's something like, "This record is a great disappointment, as are all of the music nerds who consider this 'music' to be worthy of praise."
Don't defend Never Mind the Bollocks. It's OK if we both dislike it. Give in to the dark side. Let's just pan it, chalk up its popularity to rampant drug use or group idiocy, vow never to listen to it again, and move on to Number 11. I hear the next guy on the list actually knows how to play his guitar.
Klinger: But the myth, Mendelsohn, the myth! The idea that rock 'n' roll is supposed to about inchoate teenage rebellion! Smashing the state! Sticking it to the man! Savagely punching people who use words like "inchoate!" The Sex Pistols were all about that. They totally destroyed everything that came before them, and nothing was ever the same again! They rinsed their feet in Jethro Tull's lemonade, man! They were the flowers in our dustbin! The flowers! In our dustbin!
Whew. Now I'm tired. And a little dizzy. But even in my dotage (perhaps especially because I'm in my dotage?), I can't help having a soft spot for the idea that rock music was meant to offend sensibilities and that Sex Pistols represented a necessary corrective to the horrible case of the gout that rock had developed by 1976. I can't really see myself digging this disc out and pumping my fist to "Bodies" any more than I can see myself wearing the Chuck Taylors that I dutifully safety-pinned when I was in thrall to Never Mind the Bollocks. But I can't bring myself to actively dislike the album, no matter how much it may annoy me when it's actually playing.
Mendelsohn: The Sex Pistols were a bunch of young punks with bad teeth and even worse musical sense. If they hadn't had a shyster manager/cat wrangler pushing them from one open microphone to the next, they would have never amounted to jack squat because they were too stupid to work the system for themselves. I appreciate what they did for music but not what they did to the music.
You argue message and I counter with music. This could go on all night.
Klinger: Well, I'm willing to call this one, but make no mistake this is an argument we'll be revisiting again and again, given the countless punk, post-punk, and "alternative" albums that are the Sex Pistols' true legacy.
Mendelsohn: Oh, the inchoate irony!
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Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.
This article was originally published on 19 November 2010.
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