In 1976, the band at the tip of everyone’s tongue was the Sex Pistols. Led by a snarling and confrontational Johnny Rotten the band had released their single ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ to a hungry London crowd and to critical acclaim. While it had been some fuel to add to the punk fires that were beginning to burn like a phosphorus flare, it would take another spark for the entire scene to blow-up.
The single was proving popular among the London crowd, both aggravating the establishment and enticing the youth of Britain as it did, when Malcolm McClaren, the band’s manager and husband of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, found a spot for them on TV show Today with the host Bill Grundy the hype would reach fever pitch. On this day on 1st December 1976, the Sex Pistols would announce themselves to the world with a four-letter foul-mouthed rant that would not only seal their place in the charts but, ultimately, their place in history.
Everyone’s favourite band, Queen, had originally been booked to appear on Bill Grundy’s Today show but Freddie Mercury developed a severe toothache. It was so bad that Mercury, who had a known phobia of the dentist, decided he had to make his first visit to one in years and the band’s appearance was cancelled. It would make way for one of the most infamous moments in British TV history.
The host had been hoping for Queen to arrive at the studios and likely provided a thrilling chat about costume design and the fundamentals of making music with an operatic joie de vie. In reality, what Grundy and the audience at home got was the bristling Bromley Contingent.
That was the name for a group of punks who had dominated the scene with their outlandish costuming and galling attitude — their deliberately aggravating style only outdone by their big mouths. This group were determined to see their names in lights for whatever reason they could find. It was a group filled with names that would become synonymous with punk: Siouxsie Sioux (who features in the video), Billy Idol, and even later Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, were all part of the group.
The Pistols then-current bassist, Glen Matlock, remembers the event very nearly not happening. The band were in rehearsals for their 1976 Anarchy Tour at the time. Matlock says, “We very nearly didn’t do it,” he said. “This big limousine turned up outside this place. [Being] punk rockers we were like: ‘We’re not getting in that thing.’ Then this phone call came through from [band manager] Malcolm McLaren saying: ‘If you don’t do it your wages will be stopped this week.’ We were all in the car like a shot.”
Guitarist Steve Jones says of the unforgettable experience: “I remember downing about four bottles of Blue Nun and I was fucking just having a fucking good old time, pissed… by the time we went out there. And that’s all I remember.” The intoxication levels aside, it would be Jones to start the ball rolling when the band did make their first TV appearance.
Grundy wasn’t a fan of the band from the very off. After a patronising introduction, the brazen host decided to take the band on regarding their anti-capitalist credentials. After asking about their £40,000 advance from EMI Steve Jones replied, “We’ve fucking spent it, ain’t we?”. Remarkably this swearing didn’t get picked up by the host but once Johnny Rotten was scolded like a school kid by Grundy for saying the word “shit”, something the host then asked him to repeat for the audience, Jones, seemingly affronted, would let rip.
Steve Jones: “You dirty sod. You dirty old man.”
Bill Grundy: “Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on. You’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.”
Jones: “You dirty bastard.”
Grundy: “Go on, again.”
Jones: “You dirty fucker.”
Grundy: “What a clever boy.”
Jones: “What a fucking rotter”
– Today TV show, December 1, 1976
The words would rock through Little England and shock a generation to its core, and in turn, introduce punk to the masses. Malcolm McClaren was quoted as responding simply: “Fucking hell, the band have just sworn on live TV.”
With a tour on the way, I’m sure he saw headlines and dollar signs in equal measure. While McLaren was famed for orchestrating stunts it appears as though this one, was purely organic.
The press were certainly quick to pick up the noise this small scene was trying to create — bear in mind by 1976 nobody knew what punk was… at all — they missed one of the best moments of the whole debacle.
Following the band’s removal from in front of the cameras to the Green Room and with the BBC likely losing government funding and grey-haired audience members at every turn, at this time “fuck” had only ever been uttered twice in British TV history, the phone lines to complain about the show were quickly all filled up.
In a turn of events that are straight from a sit-com television series, the phone calls were accidentally sent to the Green Room. A room filled to the brim with the belligerent punks who had just insulted the entirety of England. They dutifully dished out more abuse to whoever managed to get through to complain. The perfect customer service.
Writing for The Guardian in 2007, Malcolm McLaren claimed that he was delighted by the incident. “I knew the moment the autocue lady threw up her hands and her bag, her make-up cascading through the air, that we had smashed the deception. It was live TV and the Sex Pistols were front-page.”
And there they would remain for an unstoppable few months before the wheels would come off. Many people pointing to this moment as the ignition spark to their eventual engine explosion. But for now, look back at one of the most infamous moments in rock and roll history — the moment the Sex Pistols turned the air blue.