Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”

Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks album coverThis past week, I’ve been listening to the Sex Pistols’ 1977 debut (and only) album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Admittedly, that statement isn’t very punk rock and seems antithetical to the idea of the Sex Pistols. I’m not very punk rock either. Still, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) spoke of the importance for musicians to know their craft and the work of others. I do that every week.

The album opens with the sound of troops marching as “Holiday in the Sun” begins. The dirty distorted guitars buzz in, providing a fantastic start to an album. Here comes the first line “Cheap holiday in other people’s misery” during the intro riffs. It hints at the tone of the album and introduces the listener to singer Johnny Rotten’s vocal style. His voice confidently delivers an attitude at turns sardonic, accusatory, witty, disgusted and angry. That single opening line expresses all of that really well before the actual lyrics even start. Most of the lyrics attack an institution of some kind, whether it’s the royal family, classicism, social norms, government, or even the music industry. This album gives voice to the disaffected frothing with disillusionment.

Twenty years ago, I thought it was sounded universal and fresh, now it definitely sounds 1970s and British. It’s the sound of youth, but it’s the youth of today’s youth’s grandparents. I imagine to a younger generation it might even have all the quaintness that “Rock Around the Clock” had to me at their age. Still, the Sex Pistols music is so infused with rebellion that it still carries some sense of danger, however outmoded.

The distinguishing riff of “Holiday in the Sun” follows the Andalusian cadence; This is a descending I5-VII5-VI5-V5 progression; Of course, the V (G5 in this case) provides a perfect return back to the I (C5) so it sounds great to our ears. It’s always been one of my favorites. This solid progression can provide a sense of menace as it does here. The Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” provides a much less menacing example. A verses repeat a V chord, dropping down to IV for rhythmic emphasis, and the choruses are I-II. This sounds a lot of like  I-IV-V, giving the song a solid rock n roll feel.

The track “Pretty Vacant” has always been one of my favorites. The song opens with the guitar playing a distinctive broken A-chord. Undoubtedly, the opening riff provide some inspiration to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. A I5-VII5-IV5-I5-VII5-V5 chord progression supports the verses. The choruses follow another descending riff: IV5-IIIb5-I. I notice here playing the chords within the key is not necessarily a conscious concern. As with Nirvana, the Pistols like wrote songs by finding movements of power-chords along the frets that sound good.  Basically, for rock n roll, sometimes you gotta get your head out of the books and your fingers on the guitar.

The closing track “EMI” has also been one of my favorites since I first heard it. Johnny’s catchy vocal delivery instantly makes the song lovable. Plus, who doesn’t love a good middle-finger to the record company track? Well, okay, it could be pretty lame and come across as cry-baby whining that the average listener can’t relate to. I appreciate the audaciousness involved in blatantly naming the company. They lyrics involve too some admonitions regarding pop culture and the music industry for everybody’s ears. That and the song gets strength from its fantastic mixture of anger and fun. One can get a lot of musical miles out strong vocals, a chorused (or is it double-tracked?) overdriven guitar, bass, and drums.

The final song of the Sex Pistols final concert (not counting reunions) was an emotional expression of disappointment and disgust. For an encore they performed a cover of The Stooges’ song.  Appropriately, this song was “No Fun.”  I’ve never heard the original, but I’ve always liked the Pistol’s covers of it. I won’t go into the background stories of the Winterland concert, but suffice it to say Johnny had had enough; He was facing that realization and the last few minutes of that performance were the result.  The Pistols weren’t built to last, but they produced a powerful album during their short existence.

David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”

David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s 1972 “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. I’d heard some of the songs before, but I’d not listened to the whole album before this week. I loved the Bauhaus cover of “Ziggy Stardust” and the Nina Hagen cover. This concept album is musical theater that tells stories about a messianic alien outsider. The central character of Ziggy Stardust personifies the legends and mythology of rock music. Bowie wrote his own legend like a child playacting as their self-crafted superhero. There remains this sense of ambiguity, though, so Ziggy could just as well be a combination of Bowie and Ronson.

The album opener “Five Years” set the scene that the Earth is in danger with beautiful variation of the 50s doo-wop chord progression. A dry kick drum and snare slowly fade in to start the song, and then a slowly strummed chord. The well-written opening lines “Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing; News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in” nearly tell the whole story indirectly. I love that emotional imagery hits before the factual news.

Bowie also insist upon rhyme on this album. In the first verse of “Five Years” all four lines rhyme: “sighing”, “cry in”, “dying”, “lying”. After that, the rhymes are in couplets. Towards the end, Bowie sings “And it was cold and it rained so felt like an actor; And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there.” This particularly clever rhyme made me realize something about the album. While Bowie is definitely singing, his vocals are just as much the performance of an actor.

Moonage Daydream” slams in with glam rock guitars and vocals. Like much of the album, I can hear that Marc Bolan and David Bowie were significant influences on each other. The lyrics bristle with rock n roll nonsense that recalls Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. As an androgynous space invader, Bowie yanks the danger and fire of 50s rock into 1972.

The next track “Starman” tells of the bewildered and bewitched audience catching the radio pirate emission. The starman arrives a cautious savior warning the inhabits of Earth “not to blow it, cause he knows it’s all worth while.” And then he encourages the children to lose it, use it and boogie, which again makes me think of Marc Bolan. The last verse has two young listeners discussing what they heard on the radio. The final line of “Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright” reminds us that rock n roll is risky music for youth in rebellion.

The album closer “Rock N Roll Suicide” is probably my favorite track. It has a driving anthemic rhythm that runs from the intro with bare strummed acoustic guitar to the final crescendo of horns, strings, drums, electric guitars, chorus, and desperately cried vocals of “gimme your hands!” It begs for audience participation. The first verse is cinematic in its narrow focus, iconic and poetic with its step-by-step description of disappointment and emptiness:

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall’s calling, it lingers, then you forget
You’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide

This is another album that musically is built on basic rock ‘n’ roll chord progressions, many looking back to the doo-wop era. The production is early 70s dry, without the massive reverb found in the early 60s or the shimmering reverb later heard in the 80s. The creates punchy drums that sound fantastic on vinyl. While the instruments are generally playing relatively simple parts, they create a great sound. Bowie’s performance makes us want to believe. It’s really quite out of sight.