1977 was the year punk rock faced the full wrath of Britain’s establishment. John Lydon and other leading combatants relive a year in the eye of the storm.
n the morning of november 24, 1977, john lydon woke up in room 715 of the albany hotel in nottingham and prepared himself for what would become one of the most significant court trials in rock history. the sex pistols’ singer had been drinking until 4.30am, and was badly hungover, but managed to don a natty outfit of tartan bondage trousers and south american straw topee hat. half a mile away, at nottingham magistrates court, a hearing to determine whether or not the title of the group’s debut lp, never mind the bollocks, here’s the sex pistols, was “indecent” was already underway, and lydon – alias johnny rotten – was determined not to miss the spectacle of eminent defence lawyer, john mortimer qc, arguing the pistols’ case.
“I loved the whole thing,” remembers Lydon today. “My attitude was to get the best fucker we could [ie Mortimer] to snap back at the prosecution. Who has the right to tell us what words we can and cannot use? I thought the whole point was that we were humans and had created language. People telling you what you can and cannot say is unacceptable.” Appearing in the dock that morning was Chris Seale, the 28-year-old manager of Nottingham’s Virgin record store, who was accused of contravening the Indecent Advertisement Act 1889 by displaying the Never Mind The Bollocks artwork in his shop window. For the three local magistrates trying the case, Regina v Seale was, superficially, a parochial matter concerning the propriety of the city’s retail outlets; but everybody present in Court 12 knew that the outcome would have massive ramifications for the Pistols, punk rock, and the future of artistic freedom in Britain. If the verdict was guilty, the Pistols would not only continue to be banned from performing live in the UK, but their records would be removed from sale. It would almost certainly sound their death knell.
“It wasn’t ‘bollocks’ on trial,” says music journalist Caroline Coon, who appeared as witness for the defence, “it was the Sex Pistols. They’d become too influential. The powers that be wanted to crush them – just as they had tried to silence bands like The Rolling Stones a decade before.”
n a bright afternoon, mojo is enjoying a drink at a west london bar with lydon, visiting the uk from his la home to promote mr rotten’s songbook, a coffee table tome of his collected lyrics. the singer, now 61, is all too aware that the words contained between its covers include some of the most extraordinary in rock, from the sex pistols’ god save the queen, anarchy in the uk and bodies, to pil’s low life, death disco and home. the bulk of his pistols lyrics were written in 1976, when lydon was just 20 years old, making the unholy stink they caused even more remarkable. “i never thought they’d be taken so seriously, and discussed in parliament under the treason act, or in court,” he says. “they were the words of a kid. it was just an opinion and it turned into [the spark for] the punk movement or whatever you want to call it. it wasn’t a fashion statement. a lot of people felt the same way as me – disenfranchised, disassociated, uninvolved.” the song that arguably caused the greatest hoo-hah was god save the queen, released in june 1977 as the first single on the pistols’ new label, virgin, the band having already been dumped by both emi and a&m for their toxic behaviour – in the latter case, the newly recruited sid vicious lashing out with a broken beer mug at an associate of radio dj bob harris, inflicting a wound that required 18 stitches. the timing of the single – with its immortal line, “god save the queen/she ain’t no human being” – couldn’t have been better designed to create moral panic. although first scheduled for release on a&m three months earlier, it was now due to hit the shops just a week before the queen’s official jubilee celebrations began on june 6. malcolm mclaren’s stunt to promote the record – chartering a pleasure boat called the queen elizabeth to perform the song as they chugged past the houses of parliament – famously ended in a police boarding party and his and partner vivienne westwood’s arrest. the publicity generated helped the single top the charts; but it also induced an atmosphere of roiling anti-pistols ire. the first sign that the band and its entourage risked physical danger came on june 13, the day after a sunday mirror front-page declared “punk rock jubilee
Thomas claims that “John knew his attackers”, but when MOJO asked the singer about the episode in 2007, he was circumspect. “We went to a local pub, and it’s kind of my manor down there,” he recalled. “It’s all Arsenal territory, but as you wander down [towards the Pegasus, now an interior designer’s] it gets a bit West Ham-my. Whether you like it or not, those things do come into play, in that council flat way. “They probably thought, ‘Fucking hell, they’re invading my territory! They look like aliens!’” he added. “God Save The Queen was well known. It was what it was, and then it went away. No big deal.” Yet the attacks – including one on Paul Cook that same weekend, when he was chased by Teddy Boys and beaten with an iron bar, and another unprovoked assault on Rotten at Dingwalls in Camden on June 22 – would mark a tipping point in the band’s relationship with McLaren, and the start of Lydon’s years as a reclusive star, unable to enjoy an ordinary social life. For Thomas, the episode at least demonstrated that his other employer cared. The reason Bollocks was recorded at weekends was that, throughout the early summer, the producer had been working weekdays with Paul McCartney on the soundtrack of the Wings Over The World tour documentary. When news of the Pegasus fracas belatedly
made the front page of the Daily Mirror, Macca instructed his office to phone round London’s hospitals to see if Thomas had been admitted. “I walked into the studio and Paul said, ‘Hey, I thought you’d been injured in the attack on the Sex Pistols?’ I said, No, Paul, that happened at the weekend. I didn’t think to mention it…”
n the immediate aftermath of the god save the queen tumult, rotten grew ever more furious at his manager’s seeming indifference to the group’s safety. mclaren’s secretary, sophie richmond, found the singer a flat in chelsea cloisters, a shabby mansion block in sw3, but its gloomy atmosphere (he complained it “smelled of old lady’s fannies”) did little to alleviate his anxiety; nor did his new flatmates: vicious and his heroinaddicted american girlfriend nancy spungen. matters reached a head on monday june 27, when both rotten and vicious, coming down off speed, demanded that mclaren get them out of the country. his response was to arrange a two-week tour of scandinavia, beginning on july 13. the sense of a group in crisis was amplified by the relentless bickering in the days leading up to the tour, stirred up by mclaren, whom richmond felt was doing “the wrong thing by jumping in so strongly [against rotten] on Steve and Paul’s side” at every opportunity. The fault lines widened when McLaren left for Los angeles for a series of meetings about a proposed Sex Pistols film, with which none of the band was particularly enamoured. Before leaving, McLaren had failed to resolve an argument with Virgin boss richard Branson over whether or not the promo clip for the band’s next single, Pretty Vacant, should be aired on Top Of The Pops. The group agreed it shouldn’t, but it was nevertheless broadcast on July 14, with Branson claiming that “it was too late to get the tapes back” from the BBC. That rotten had lost faith in McLaren’s ability to manage the Pistols was clearly communicated in a show he recorded with Capital radio’s Tommy Vance, just before the group left for Denmark. Billed as ‘The Punk and His Music’, it provided the public with their first glimpse of the ‘real’ person behind the gnarly rotten carapace, one with broad musical tastes, ranging from dub and folk to glam rock and the avant-garde. among his exquisite deep cuts were Tim Buckley’s Sweet Surrender, Bobby Byrd’s
Back From The Dead, Peter Hammill’s The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning and Ken Boothe’s Is It Because I’m Black. “That was just me being me,” says Rotten. “What did people think I was going to do, play The Clash? (Laughs) Music was always important to me and I wanted to show that. Malcolm didn’t like it because he wanted to present me as something I wasn’t. He was playing a game, and I was already wise to that.” The real bombshell, however, was his on-air critique of McLaren’s management technique – or lack of it. “It’s fashionable to believe Malcolm McLaren dictates to us but that’s just not true,” he told Vance. “What really amuses me is the way they say he controls the press, a media manipulator. The point of it all is that he did nothing.” When the show aired, neither McLaren nor Rotten were in the country, but the damage done would prove irreparable. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian tour – the Pistols’ first proper outing since a three-day visit to Holland in January – successfully distanced them from the troubles in London. Unable to find drugs to feed his growing heroin habit, Vicious was less unpredictable and obnoxious, and performing live once more bonded the group. There were other benefits, too. “That [tour] was a real laugh,” recalled Jones. “Gorgeous crumpet… knew everything. Not like English birds, all fat and sweaty, these were little blonde beauties.” “You could be raped and have a sauna at the same time,” concurred Lydon. The only downside came in Stockholm, where the local biker gang, the Raggare, beat up fans, and the Pistols had to hightail it from the venue in a police van. By now, violence had become such an integral part of the Pistols’ existence that the episode was shrugged off; Rotten even admired the “hard and brutal” attitudes of the Nordic people, likening the gigs to a “Viking beer monster’s tea party”. Back in London, there was more drama, though this time of an intensely personal kind. While Rotten was away, his new partner (now his wife) Nora Forster, mother of The Slits’ Ariane (aka Ari Up), had miscarried their child. The loss complicated an already problematical time for the 21-year-old singer, now living with Sid in what amounted to a safe house on Sutherland Avenue in Maida Vale. Since the attacks at the Pegasus and Dingwalls, Rotten had grown ever more wary of walking the streets unaccompanied. The added threat from Teddy Boys bedazzled by the prospect of an all-out Teds v punks war, as promoted by clashes that summer on the King’s Road, now meant he needed to be constantly mob-handed. John Tiberi, the Pistols’ road manager and confidante, recalls that after the attacks, “It was John’s reaction to have all his mates round, his little gang, with John as Pinkie in Brighton Rock.” Chief among them were old friends John Gray and John ‘Rambo’ Stevens, plus 18-year-old Jah Wobble, whose credentials as a teenage psychopath had been enshrined by his assault with Sid Vicious on NME journalist Nick Kent a year earlier. “I just didn’t want to go out and socialise with anyone,” Lydon explains. “That was the moment when I just wanted to be myself. You’re put under a magnifying glass and ever y move you made could be misjudged by others. So I became a very retiring person. The
vision from inside the Pistols looking out was very difficult. There was too much to cope with at such an early age. I was leaping into something that I didn’t fully comprehend – none of us did, we were just babies.”
n The early weeks of augusT, the pressure to finish an album was intensifying. The sex Pistols may have been punk’s undisputed figureheads, but musically their imprint was worryingly slight. while The Clash, Jam and Damned were now all veterans of uk tours, and each had an album under their belts, the Pistols had released just three singles. There was now a manifest danger that punk would burn itself out before some of the very tunes that had inspired the movement had been committed to vinyl. with Thomas now free from McCartney duties, work at wessex stepped up. Bill Price had nailed most of the basic backing tracks earlier in the year, leaving Thomas to finesse the guitars and vocals. “steve and Paul lived in the same place and whenever they were bored they’d run through the set, so they played faultlessly,” recalls Thomas, whose stellar CV already included The Beatles, Pink floyd and roxy Music. “so the backing tracks were usually Take 1, then steve would overdub two rhythm guitar parts, then add bass. It was all done to the same recipe, the only album I’ve made where that’s the case. sid couldn’t play well enough to be on the record – we ended up banning him from the studio anyway.” rotten found the close attention to Jones’s guitar work a constant source of irritation. “all the guitar overdubs!” he says. “It wasn’t steve’s fault. Chris Thomas was looking for a guitar hero. we had Queen next door, with Brian May dingling away. someone’s ears may have intercepted some flightsof-fancy guitar action. People came in and out. Des o’Connor was there at one point.” Thomas: “I remember the Pistols going in to hear what Queen were up to. They were doing the stomping stuff for we will rock you in the main studio, and we were mixing next door in studio 2. a lovely bit of graffiti later appeared in the upstairs room near the pool table: it said ‘sid loves freddie’.” as the album neared completion, a debate raged over whether it should include the group’s three a-sides, together with a fourth, holidays In The sun, scheduled for release in september. Branson was adamant they should be featured; rotten, concerned that fans would be ripped off, argued not. aware of their lack of unreleased recordings, the group set to work on a new song, Bodies – the most brilliantly noxious and challenging broadside they’d ever deliver. rotten’s lyric concerned abortion – a subject rarely broached in rock’n’roll – and, for the first time in a Pistols song, he felt compelled to unleash a string of expletives. Today, he regards the track as a paradigm of what he was seeking as an artist. “I didn’t write it to cause a commotion,” he maintains. “It was realism. My mum had a lot of miscarriages when she was young, and as the oldest child I had to carry the bucket and flush it down the outside toilet. sometimes it took several flushes, and sometimes there’d be recognisable body parts. “There was a girl called Pauline who did turn up at my front door with an abortion in a clear plastic bag. so all of that, and all of the experiences from my past, came flooding in [to the lyric] in an instant. none of it was abstract or intellectual; for me, it was working-class life at its grimmest. It was a subject which I thought should be dealt with.” Thomas was overawed by the song, and recorded the
backing track with Sid playing some bass (his only contribution to the album). The producer also claims a small part in its development. “John was singing it originally in the first person,” he says. “It went, ‘I don’t want a baby that looks like that…’ Then he did it in the third person: ‘She don’t want a baby…’ I said, Why don’t you mix it up?, fully expecting a beer bottle to come flying past my ear. But John liked it. So we edited the two together.” During the last two weeks in August, the group let off steam with a clandestine and hastily arranged UK club tour as the S.P.O.T.S – the Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly. Once again, playing live helped them set aside their personal differences, and ecstatic audiences, resigned to never seeing the country’s most notorious rock act in concert, were overwhelmed. “It was the best time,” recalled Jones. “Those shows were fucking great.” By mid-September, Bollocks was mixed and ready to go, but Branson procrastinated over its release, partly due to an ongoing row with McLaren over foreign licensing deals and the profusion of Pistols imports on the French Barclay label. To goad the Virgin boss into action, McLaren sanctioned the infamous Spunk bootleg of Bollocks demos. Eventually, after he’d signed a Pistols film and LP deal with Warner Brothers in the US for $750,000, the record was delivered to the shops that had agreed to stock it on October 28, 1977. Within a few days its “indecent” title – and Bodies’ chilling lyrics – would be the subject of a prosecution that threatened to close down the band and criminalise one of the English language’s finest curse words.
n SATUrDAy nOVEMBEr 5, 1977, PC Julie Storey was alarmed to discover that nottingham’s Virgin record store was plastered with sleeves of a lurid-looking LP with the word “bollocks” in the title. Believing that “bollocks” was an obscene word, she asked the shop’s manager, 28-year-old Chris Seale, to remove the offending display. His reply was, “What about free speech?” Seal eventually acquiesced; then, as soon as Storey left, he put the display back up again. Four days later, and after four more warnings, he was arrested by Sgt raymond Stone under the Indecent Advertisement Act 1889 – the only offence on the statute book that seemed relevant to the matter. By then, there had already been several other official objections to Bollocks. First, Conservative Shadow Education Minister norman St John-Stevas had complained to the press about the language used in Bodies; subsequently, the Independent Broadcasting Authority had banned all radio adverts for the LP. Virgin’s response – since sales of their product were being hit – was to hire one of Britain’s most celebrated barristers, John Mortimer QC, to defend Seale in court. Mortimer, author of the rumpole Of The Bailey books, was well-versed in cases involving freedom of speech, having defended publisher richard neville and his associates in the Oz Trial of 1971, after the underground magazine had published its notorious ‘schoolkids’ issue featuring a pornographic cartoon of rupert The Bear. In fact, Branson had first employed Mortimer around the same time, when the future Virgin boss was
prosecuted for producing a Student Advisory leaflet relating to the treatment of venereal disease. To better understand his brief, Mortimer arranged a conference with Rotten, the only Pistol interested in the case. Remarkably, the uppercrust silk and council flat punk got on famously. “I loved his honesty, and his interrogation,” says Lydon. “The bloke wouldn’t sit there and put up with supporting a lemon. You had to justify your corner. I really respected him as a human being; he was only interested in the truth. For me, mentally, I began to appreciate the whole barrister thing. It was like. ‘Do you want to win or lose?’ I want to go on with [the case]. It was a big learning curve.” Branson advised Mortimer to call Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon as a witness for the defence. As one of the Pistols’ earliest champions, she was well placed to argue their artistic and cultural worth, but also had the attraction of having appeared in court on numerous occasions, via her work with Release, the charity she founded in the late ’60s to help drug-busted hippies. Today, she believes that the dark forces of the state may have had a hand in the prosecution. “People in high places were obviously keeping a close eye on things,” she says. “It’s unlikely God Save The Queen had gone unnoticed. Questions were being asked by Members of Parliament.” The idea that the state considered a guilty verdict crucial is supported by the fact that, to counter Mortimer, the Crown engaged its own star barrister, David Ritchie QC. That they were set to do battle in a provincial Magistrates Court, more used to trying speeding offences and fining drunks, further exposed the deep implications of the matter. What Regina hadn’t banked upon, however, was the defence’s secret weapon – one Professor James Kinsley, the 55-year-old Head of English Studies at Nottingham University. The Professor was greatly tickled by the idea of proving in court that, far from being obscene, ‘bollocks’ was a robust and inoffensive Anglo-Saxon term for ‘small balls’ or testicles. Moreover, in the phrase “Never mind the bollocks”, it simply meant ‘nonsense’ – this, apparently, because Victorian clergymen were colloquially known as ‘bollocks’ and, as they generally talked a lot of rubbish, the word acquired this second definition. On the morning of the trial, November 24, Mortimer, Branson and Caroline Coon caught the early train to Nottingham and awaited Kinsley’s arrival. When he appeared, much to their amusement he was sporting a dog collar – it transpired that the Professor was also a practising Anglican priest.
The accounts of the trial that survive in the contemporary weekly music papers make fascinating reading. Mortimer’s opening gambit centred on the notion that the Nottingham police couldn’t possibly find the word “bollocks” upsetting, since The Guardian had used the word – and the album’s cover – in a frontpage story, and no local newsagents had yet to his knowledge been arrested. He argued instead that what really offended the police was the Sex Pistols themselves. While cross-examining Caroline Coon, David Ritchie QC lost ground when he struggle to determine whether or not the LP featured the word ‘fuck’, a subject on which Coon proved delightfully vague. (Really, he should have listened to the record.) But it was the dog-collared Kinsley’s loquacious disposition on the noble history of ‘bollocks’, from Caxton’s Bible to well-worn veterinary texts, to its synonymous use as ‘nonsense’ that sealed the prosecution’s fate. After Mortimer’s closing speech, passionately arguing that free and vivid use of the English language shouldn’t be a criminal matter, the three magistrates, led by the sexagenarian Mr Douglas Betts, retired to consider their verdict. When they returned, Betts had this to say to Chris Seale: “Much as my colleagues and I deplore the vulgar exploitations of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchase of commercial profit… we reluctantly find you not guilty.” Rotten, who’d made it to the courtroom in time for the summing-up, was mobbed by rapturous fans in the public galler y. Outside in the street, a throng of reporters and TV crew gathered, eager for a comment from the vindicated Sex Pistols singer. When he appeared wearing his topee hat and a wide grin, he declared, “Great – bollocks is legal. Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks!” ITH A SMALL ARMy Of fANS in tow, Richard Branson led his triumphant team to a nearby pub, the flying Horse. Over pints of Guinness and brandies, they toasted their win, but the victory would prove a Pyrrhic one. Though Never Mind The Bollocks would remain on sale, shifting more than 125,000 copies in its first month of release, the Pistols were rapidly disintegrating. Just a week after the trial, an attempt to rehearse – the group’s first practice in two months – came to nothing when the only member to turn up, remarkably, was Sid. Humiliated, the bassist returned to his flat in Pindock Mews, Maida Vale and badly beat up Nancy. The other Pistols were appalled, and temporarily fired him, before reinstating him. Rotten’s relationship with McLaren, meanwhile, went from bad to worse and on January 17, 1978, at the end of a disastrous 12-day US tour, he finally quit. The Pistols themselves had done what the authorities and their brutal assailants couldn’t: smashed the group apart. But, 40 years on, Never Mind The Bollocks endures as a monument to their meteoric brilliance. “I’m not a romantic but there were some great moments,” said Lydon. “Making that record was such a difficult thing for us to do as a band. I hate it when other people take the credit for it, ’cos it takes away from the immense effort it took to make it. We were lucky to get what we did onto tape.” The reverberations of Bollocks were to prove seismic. As a cultural artefact, it instantly attained a status similar to that of Rock Around The Clock or Sgt. Pepper. To this day, it remains arguably punk’s most powerful and influential statement – this despite arriving 18 months after Ramones,a full six months after The Clash and around the same time as the second LPs by The Damned, The Jam and The Stranglers. The Bollocks trial, meanwhile, marked another important step forward in the liberalisation of the arts, building on the advances that came with the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case in 1960, the Oz Trial and the Gay News action of 1976. Curiously, though, Bollocks’ court victory didn’t unleash a tsunami of foulmouthed, taboo-breaking punk songs or Republican anthems; by early 1978, punk’s anger had burned too bright to endure much longer. Besides, who could ever top Bollocks? for Lydon, the lyrics he wrote as a Sex Pistol continued to haunt him, and long after he’d moved on to the expressionistic experiments of PiL he was still the subject of police harassment and public opprobrium, driving him out of the spotlight. In 1981, he vacated the flat in Chelsea’s Gunter Grove he’d bought around the time of the Bollocks trial and exiled himself in New york and then LA. “In England, I was always viewed as an Irishman, and in Ireland they took me for an Englishman,” says this erstwhile Destroyer Of Civilisation. “In America, they just saw me as me. And that was very liberating.” M
The 40th anniversary deluxe edition of Never Mind The Bollocks is released by UMC in October.
The Stranglers’ JJ Burnel on-stage at The Nashville, London, 1977: “There were so many punch-ups.”
Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle in London, October 1977: “The country was in musical chaos.”
Bollocks on trial: (from left) Pistols barrister John Mortimer and (below) advocate Caroline Coon; Rotten models his trial topee hat, Brunel University; Virgin boss Richard Branson cashes in. Pressing concerns: (left, top to bottom) Nottingham record shop rebel Chris Seale on the front page of The Sun; fruits of the bootleg market; original Bollocks artwork.
Jayne Casey and Holly Johnson, Big In Japan, startling punters at Rafters, Manchester, November 17, 1977.
Rotten anticipates vindication, October ’77: “It was a big learning curve.”