The Sex Pistols are once again in the news with a new Danny Boyle series Pistol based on Steve Jones's book, Lonely Boy, and the band's God Save The Queen due to be released for Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee. So it's a great excuse revisit a 2012 Total Guitar interview where the guitarist reflects on the key tracks of their seminal 1977 masterwork, Never Mind The Bollocks… Here's The Sex Pistols.
As the man himself says with a pinch of understatement, "It got heavy sometimes"…
Holidays In The Sun
Four almighty ringing powerchords herald the beginning of an album that would change the face of rock music forever, followed by a riff that set the prototype for the shape of punk to come.
“That one came from when we went to Berlin. We went there for a week to take the heat off because we were getting into a lot of trouble hanging out in London. Lyrically, it was inspired by the Berlin Wall. Sid [Vicious, bass] was in the band at the time, but didn’t play on that, unfortunately.
"I played bass on most of Never Mind The Bollocks. Me and Cookie [drummer Paul Cook] would lay down a backing track, sometimes John [Lydon, vocals] would be in there singing or sometimes not, then I’d put the bass down and build the track up with a few guitars here and there. I’m just playing eighth notes on the bass [on the whole album] with a couple of little riffs here and there – it was pretty simple.”
While Steve laid down the discordant intro riff and the relentless distorted thrash that dominates the rest of the track, Rotten upped the intensity with controversial lyrics on the issue of abortion.
“There are two parts [to the intro], one guitar doing the lower notes and another guitar just bending up on the E string at a higher tuning. I just wanted to get a haunting thing going on at the beginning. I have no idea where it came from – it was just in my head at the time.
"It’s one of my favourites; it’s one of the heavier songs on the record. I didn’t even listen to his [Lydon’s] lyrics. I’m not a lyricist by any means – I’m just into melody and chords. I knew what it was about, but I wasn’t really paying attention.”
This track’s strengths lie in its pure simplicity, with a chunky two-chord, two-word chorus, although Steve adds some tasty rock ’n’ roll licks in the song’s middle-eight.
“If you listen to it, it’s a f**king pop song. I wrote the music to it, but Bananarama did it, they covered it and it sounded like a pop song. It’s great to play. I’m a rock ’n’ roll fan. I love the '50s: Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry… My upbringing on guitar, all that music was in my head growing up. The Faces, Bowie with Mick Ronson, Mott The Hoople – my influences were those, so anything that comes out of …Bollocks is owed to those bands. But I couldn’t play that good, so it came out the way it came out.”
God Save The Queen
One of the Pistols’ defining anthems, this mid-tempo rocker married an iconic riff with anti-establishment rants, inciting the BBC to ban the track upon its original release in 1977. It was re-released in 2012 to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – and will be again in 2022 to mark her Platinum Jubilee.
“It was [original Sex Pistols bassist Glen] Matlock’s riff. We would just go down to the studio, he’d have a riff, [and] it’d sound completely different to how it’d turn out. It was very weenie and weird, and wouldn’t sound [like] much. But when I got hold of his riffs and converted them into my style, that sounded a lot more meat and potatoes.
“When we recorded that, I knew we had something special because it had all the elements for a great rock tune. There was a backlash from the royalists. They thought we were taking the piss out of the Queen. I can see how that was a problem for some people back then. It got heavy sometimes. Lyrically, it’s genius, telling the Queen what she’s done to you. It wasn’t just a rock band: it got political and it was offensive to a lot of people. It’s a perfect three-and-a-bit-minute pop song.”
Anarchy In The UK
The public outcry that followed the release of the band’s debut single in 1976 led to them being dropped by EMI. It also happens to feature some of Steve’s best guitar playing on the album.
“We banged it out in rehearsal while John was in the corner figuring out the words. I like the fact that it has two guitar solos. Out of all of the Pistols singles, that was the slowest. If you wanted to attach ‘punk’ to it, it’s not a fast track; it’s laid-back, almost like Booker T & The MGs.
"There are loads of [guitar] tracks on that – I don’t even remember how many. I used one of those MXR Phase 90s on one of the rhythms as well. At the time, [producer] Chris Thomas kept telling me to tune up and it drove me mad, but looking back I’m glad he did and I’m glad we spent that time on it. I think that’s what makes the Pistols' album different from The Clash or The Damned – we didn’t just go in and crash, bang, wallop.”
Although not included on the first 1,000 11-track pressings of the album from October 1977, this classic-rock-inspired tune was put on a 12-track version that was issued one month later.
“The riff is basically like The Doors or The Kinks; it’s not in the [punk] style. But then, what came first, the Sex Pistols or the word punk? We were at the beginning. That’s how we did it, and then bands came along and said, ‘That’s not punk, that’s too slow.’ We were just doing our thing; we weren’t trying to be anything. Most people still get that wrong even 30 years on from that original concept.
“Before we did any gigs, we did the Spunk album [demo] with Dave Goodman. Submission was a classic one from that. We did three songs with [guitarist Chris Spedding] and it was rushed. It sounded very clinical.
I like Chris Spedding as a guitar player. Unfortunately, there’s a myth [that] he played all the guitar on the record. Sometimes, I say, ‘Yeah, he did play it,’ but that’s just to keep the myth going.”
The third single from …Bollocks – and the first one not to be banned in the UK – is a distorted powerchord stomper that features one of the band’s catchiest chorus hooks, an contributed towards the blueprint for modern indie rock.
“Glen came up with the intro to this one. He’s not a guitar player. Well, he thinks he is, but he’s s**t. He came up with some good riffs – Pretty Vacant is a classic riff – but if he was playing guitar on it, it wouldn’t be the song it turned out to be. He’s a way better bass player than I am, but you can hide that a little bit more.”