Unabashedly crude, intensely emotional, calculated either to exhilarate or to offend, the Sex Pistols' music and stance were in direct opposition to the star trappings and complacency that, by the mid-'70s, had rendered rock & roll irrelevant to the common bloke. Over the course of their short, turbulent existence, the group released a single studio album that changed, if not the history of rock, at least its course. While the Sex Pistols were not the first punk rockers (that distinction probably goes to the Stooges), they were the most widely known and at least, to appearances, the most threatening. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols unquestionably ranks as one of the most important rock & roll records ever, its sound a raw, snarling, yet mesmerizing rejection of and challenge to not only rock & roll music and culture but a modern world that offered, as Rotten sang in "God Save the Queen," "no future." Whether the Pistols were simply a sophisticated hype run amok or the true voice of their generation has been widely debated, yet, oddly, that neither matters nor explains how they came to spark and personify one of the few truly critical moments in pop culture — the rise of punk.
The Sex Pistols were the brainchild of young entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren. The owner of a London clothes boutique, Sex, which specialized in "anti-fashion," McLaren had conceived the idea of a rock & roll act that would challenge every established notion of propriety when, in 1975, he found himself managing the New York Dolls in their final months as a group. A part-time employee of Sex, Glen Matlock, played bass with Paul Cook and Steve Jones; he let McLaren know they were looking for a singer. McLaren approached 19-year-old John Lydon, whom he had seen hanging around the jukebox at Sex and who was known mainly for his rudeness.
Lydon had never sung before, but he accepted the invitation and thoroughly impressed the others with his scabrous charisma. McLaren had found his act; he named the group the Sex Pistols. Allegedly, Lydon's disregard for personal hygiene prompted Jones to dub him Johnny Rotten. Ten minutes into their first gig at a suburban art school dance on November 6, 1975, the school's social programmer literally pulled the plug. In the early months of 1976, McLaren's carefully cultivated word-of-mouth about the Sex Pistols made the band the leader of the nascent punk movement. Their gigs inspired the formation of the Clash, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and countless other rebel groups in the second half of the '70s.
The press and the record industry ignored the Sex Pistols at first, but by the end of the summer the uproar — both acclamatory and denunciatory — was too loud to be ignored. In November EMI outbid Polydor with a recording contract worth £40,000. The Sex Pistols' first single, "Anarchy in the U.K.," was released in December. That month the band used the word "fucker" in a nationally televised interview; the consequent outrage led promoters and local authorities to cancel all but five of the dates scheduled on the group's national tour and EMI to withdraw "Anarchy in the U.K." — Number 38 on the U.K. chart in January 1977 — from circulation and to terminate its contract with the Sex Pistols.
In March Matlock left to form the Rich Kids and was replaced by John Richie, a previously nonmusical friend of Rotten, who named him Sid Vicious. That same month A&M signed the Pistols for £150,000; just a week later the company fired them for a balance payment of £75,000. In May Virgin signed the Pistols and released their second record, "God Save the Queen," timed to coincide with the Queen's Silver Jubilee that June. The song was immediately banned from airplay in England. Nonetheless it was a top-selling single (cited as a blank at the Number Two position on official charts, listed as Number One on independent charts).
When no British hall would book the Pistols, the group went abroad — to the Continent in July and to the U.S. in December, by which time the debut album had been released. In America the band found itself the object of a little adulation, considerable hostility, but mostly uncomprehending curiosity, which turned to scoffing when the group made only halfhearted attempts to live up to its reputation for savagery. Rotten was characteristically critical of the sensationalism and opportunism that had been attached to the Pistols (for which he blamed McLaren), and on January 14, 1978, immediately after a concert in San Francisco, he announced the breakup of the group.
Jones and Cook remained active in the punk movement and formed the Professionals; Jones materialized in the mid-'80s in Chequered Past, featuring former Blondie rhythm section Nigel Harrison and Clem Burke, ex-Iggy Pop sideman Tony Sales, and singer Michael des Barres. Vicious initiated a haphazard solo career, which ended when he was imprisoned in New York on charges of stabbing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in their Chelsea Hotel room. He died of a heroin overdose while out on bail before he could be tried.
Dismissing the Sex Pistols as "a farce" and reverting to his given name, Lydon formed Public Image, Ltd. In 1986 the surviving members of the group and Vicious' mother won a lawsuit against McLaren, charging he had tied up their royalties in two management companies. The plaintiffs were later awarded approximately $1.44 million. That same year, the critically acclaimed Alex Cox film Sid and Nancy was released.
In 1996 all four original members reunited to embark on a world tour, including Europe, North and South America, Japan, and Australia, dubbed the Filthy Lucre Tour. The Sex Pistols, uncharacteristically "professional" onstage, nonetheless attacked the old repertoire with a fury. Filthy Lucre Live, which documented the re-formed band's London performance, was released in the States in time for the tour's U.S. arrival. In 2000 Julien Temple's The Filth and the Fury documentary on the Pistols included some of the footage originally released as The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle in 1980.
Jones debuted Jonesy's Jukebox, a successful L.A. radio show, in 2004; Rotten, meanwhile, appeared on a British reality show as well as his own Discovery Channel nature series. Though the group still reforms for the occasional short-lived tour, one live gig they didn’t make was the 2006 Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony: Before the Sex Pistols could be inducted, the band members posted a message on their website, saying “were [sic] not your monkeys.” The band reunited again to play a handful of shows in late 2007 and in 2008 embarked on a European summer festival tour called the "Sex Pistols: Combine Harvester Tour."