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From Sid Vicious to San Francisco: Inside the final year of the Sex Pistols

@TylerGolsen

Everyone in Britain had heard of the Sex Pistols in 1976. Whether it was through their notoriously raucous shows, their scandalous write-ups in the British press, the wicked power of their debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, or their infamous interview with Bill Grundy, the Pistols had taken the English music scene by storm. Around them, bands like The Clash and Siouxsie and the Banshees were beginning to take punk out of the underground and into the mainstream. There was no doubt who was leading the charge – no one could touch the Pistols, and they didn’t even have an album out yet.

But from the time that the band officially brought in Sid Vicious to fill the bass slot, the group were doomed. They were a ticking time bomb; a car driving full speed off a cliff with no breaks. First and foremost was Vicious’ clear lack of ability as a musician: former bassist Glen Matlock might have been a personality clash, but his musical ability was never in question. Vicious, on the other hand, had no prior experience, and it took an alleged speed-fueled night listening to the first Ramones album for him to pick up his skills. Even then, his abilities on the instrument were minimal at best.

More importantly, Vicious was trouble. A violent rabble-rouser who instigated a number of fights and confrontations at previous Pistols gigs, Vicious was a volatile figure who took the focus away from the band’s music. Although he and John Lydon were mates, it was clear that Malcolm McLaren brought in Vicious mainly for his image and ability to cause a stir wherever he went, whether it was by wearing Nazi regalia or carving messages directly into his chest.

No one knew it at the time, but from the second that Vicious was officially brought into the band in February of 1977, the Sex Pistols had less than a year of existence left in them. The highs would be monumental – a single that took direct aim at the Queen during her diamond jubilee, an allegedly doctored chart to keep them out of number one, a fantastic debut album – but the lows would be impossible to recover from. Drug abuse, infighting, label jumps, arrests, and a final US tour officially spelt the end of the group.

To celebrate, or possibly mourn, the 45th anniversary of Vicious’ addition, we’ve created a timeline representing all the major events that happened in the final year of the Sex Pistols’ existence. Most of the band’s most notorious moments happened during their final eleven months together, and the number of incidents that occurred could almost be tracked on a day to day basis. That’s how fast the world of the Pistols was moving at the time, but it would all end quickly. Here’s what the last year of the Sex Pistols looked like.

The final year of the Sex Pistols, a timeline:

February 1977 – Glen Matlock leaves the band

By the end of 1976, Glen Matlock had a tenuous position within the Sex Pistols. He had a combative relationship with John Lydon, but it was exacerbated by Malcolm McLaren, who found their conflicts to be creatively stimulating. McLaren also disliked Matlock’s desire for a greater say in the band’s business and music and, with that, figured his image wasn’t strong enough for the pioneering punk that McLaren was pushing with the Pistols.

In February 1977, Matlock either left or was thrown out of the band. The official explanation was that Matlock liked The Beatles and washed his feet too often, with other claims that he was trying to push the band into sounding more like the Bay City Rollers also quoted at the time. Matlock had a major hand in writing the group’s songs, and with the group reaching the height of their fame, his departure was the first nail in the band’s coffin.

During the interviews for the band’s appearance on the programme Classic Albums, guitarist Steve Jones admitted that letting Matlock go was “a mistake” while McLaren said the band “never really recovered” from his departure. Lydon was repentant as well, feeling as though both he and Matlock “both got doped” by McLaren’s scheming.

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February 15th, 1977 – Sid Vicious joins

As Lydon put it, he needed “an ally” within the band. McLaren was taken by his image and his reputation, not to mention his easy susceptibility to Gonzo behaviour. Jones and drummer Paul Cook were less than convinced, considering his lack of abilities as a musician, but it was ultimately decided that Sid Vicious would join the band on February 15th, 1977.

Vicious was an ardent Pistols fan and was a member of the group’s infamous entourage, The Bromley Contingent. He also lived quite a life before even joining the group: he turned down a sham marriage with the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde to get her a work permit; he beat up Hynde’s boyfriend, NME journalist Nick Kent, at a Pistols gig, and he had played the drums at the first Siouxsie and the Banshees concert.

When Vicious joined, he had never played bass before. But by that point, the Sex Pistols were too big to fail. Vicious was a part of the inner circle, he looked and acted the part, and he was dedicated to the band’s success. That was good enough, and so Vicious was officially drafted as the group’s new bass player.

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March 10th, 1977 – The Sex Pistols sign to A&M Records

Apart from Matlock’s departure, the band were dealing with another minor crisis: they had been kicked off their original label, EMI, in January. The band’s notoriety quickly attracted offers from other labels, and it wasn’t long before the Sex Pistols signed to A&M Records on March 9th, with an official public ceremony happening the next day.

Showing up outside of Buckingham Palace, the group proceeded to get drunk and invade the A&M offices unprompted. Vicious cut his foot on a toilet bowl, Jones made advances to a woman in the bathroom, and Lydon was verbally abusive to the company’s employees. A fight with another group from the label at a club a few days later was the final straw, and the Sex Pistols only lasted on A&M for roughly a week before being dropped by their second label.

A&M had already pressed roughly 25,000 copies of the band’s newest single, ‘God Save the Queen’. Following their expulsion, nearly all of these singles were destroyed. The band played their live debut with Vicious a few days later, and McLaren set about trying to find the band their third record contract in three months.

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May 27th, 1977 – ‘God Save the Queen’ is released

McLaren found a willing participant in the band’s carnage in Richard Branson, who agreed to sign the Pistols to Virgin Records in May of 1977. The band had already recorded ‘God Save the Queen’, and the single was ready to be rush-released. But there was a problem: the manufacturing plant workers refused to press the single.

That was due to the cover art, which depicted Queen Elizabeth with her eyes and mouth ripped over to reveal the band’s name and song title. As a direct attack on the monarchy, the Pistols planted their flag directly against the royalty. The dispute was eventually resolved, and ‘God Save the Queen’ was released on May 27th.

An instant success, the single was an enormous seller in the UK, despite being banned from the BBC. ‘God Save the Queen’ peaked at number two on the UK Singles Chart, allegedly due to some doctored figures that put Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ at the top of the chart. By most accounts, this was the peak of punk rock as a cultural phenomenon, with both the original wave of the genre and the Pistols themselves edging ever close to a glorious demise.

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June 7th, 1977 – The Riverboat Incident

As part of the publicity for the release of ‘God Save the Queen’, McLaren devised a wild publicity stunt: rent a Riverboat and blast the band’s performance on it down the Thames. The Queen had her own Riverboat parade planned two days later, and the event was a clear mockery of the feverish attention that surrounded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The event went well enough, but when the boat docked, there were police constables waiting for it. The band were able to escape down a side stairwell, but McLaren and a strong contingent of the band’s entourage were arrested. It was precisely what McLaren had wanted, but the rancour against punk rock, and the Pistols, in particular, was starting to grow beyond the band’s control.

Band members faced public assaults, while Sex Pistols gigs were routinely cancelled by promoters due to violence and pressure from local authorities. The band began touring under different names, but the combative nature of their live shows persisted. All this time, the band continued to go into the studio to finish recording for their debut LP.

October 28th, 1977 – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is released in the UK

Even though the Pistols were the impetus for much of the punk rock boom in the UK, they were late to the party when it came to releasing their debut LP. By October of 1977, the Damned, Buzzcocks, and The Jam had all released their debuts while the Pistols were trying to get their own record primed for release. The wait would be worth it, though, as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols made an immediate impact when it was released at the end of October.

Part of the long gestation period came from the fact that the band didn’t have a bass player. Matlock was out, and while Vicious was in, he was laid up in hospital during most of the recording sessions. This was probably for the best, and Vicious’ two credits on the album for ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Bodies’ are mostly mixed out of the final masters. It was up to Jones to complete the guitar and bass tracks on the album, which producer Christ Thomas later stated gave the compositions unity.

Upon its release, Never Mind the Bollocks rose to number one on the UK Album Charts, even though a ban from major retailers and an obscenity case regarding the album’s title tried to diminish the album’s sales. The group were bolstered by the LP’s success, but with strong external pressure and internal factions tearing the band apart, the future looked increasingly uncertain.

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December 25th, 1977 – The band’s final UK performance

After the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, the Pistols set out on the ‘Never Mind the Bans’ tour of the UK. With the title being a clear tongue-in-cheek reference to the band’s near-inability to play anywhere, the band lived up to the name by having half of the tour’s concerts cancelled. With an increasingly hostile reception at home, McLaren hatched a scheme that would eventually spell the end of the band: a tour of America.

But before that could happen, the Pistols played one final show in the UK on Christmas Day, 1977. The night show would be a standard Pistols concert, but the group put on an uncharacteristic matinee show for children. All of the funds raised went to charitable causes, and although it did little to rehabilitate the band’s image, it was a noble gesture that ended up being one of the band’s final.

Even with their success, the group were in disarray: Vicious was addicted to heroin and dependent on his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Jones and Cook were frustrated by the slow process of getting their debut released, while Lydon was having conflicts with McLaren over the latter’s perceived willingness to take the credit for the band’s success. Everything was about to reach a head as the group departed for America in the new year.

January 14th, 1978 – The band’s final concert in San Francisco

The US tour was messy, even by Sex Pistols standards. Vicious had difficulty getting drugs and lashed out at concertgoers in increasingly violent ways. McLaren had purposefully booked gigs with abrasive audiences in the southern United States, and Vicious revelled in the combative nature of the shows. Lydon, meanwhile, was sick and felt alienated from his bandmates, his manager, and the punk scene as a whole. The entire enterprise was running on fumes by the time they pulled into their final stop in San Francisco.

Facing another antagonistic at the Winterland Ballroom, the Pistols haphazardly crashed through 13 songs before Lydon led the group in one final encore. Playing The Stooges’ ‘No Fun’, Lydon unmistakably called out how little fun he was having, questioned why he was still going, and openly gazed at the crowd while the band bashed away behind him. As the song careened to its conclusion, Lydon asked the crowd “ever feel like you’ve been cheated?”, left the stage, and pulled the plug on the Sex Pistols.

Remarkably, footage of the full concert exists, as the show was being taped for a local television programme. It would be the final performance of the Sex Pistols’ original career, and the final time that Lydon, Jones, Cook, and Vicious all shared the stage. Less than a year after Vicious joined, the Sex Pistols were now officially done, and it would only be a year after their final concert that Vicious himself would die in February of 1979.