A rising name that started being associated with all things anti-establishment, the Sex Pistols’ reputation went far and wide when it came to being the progenitors of the punk movement in the UK and enacting their influence on future generations. The band’s increasing popularity amongst the younger audiences owed much of its credit to the Pistols being an anarchic force that challenged the conformist nature of music.
Yet, in spite of being one of the most sought-after bands in the rising ’70s punk rock scene, the Sex Pistols were also notorious for their wild antics and shrewd publicity stunts, which, as history would show us, affected them adversely and, in some cases, hindered their progress as musicians in the industry, too.
Their aggressive outlook towards the prevalent musical genres of pop and disco, and establishment in general, often manifested itself physically and, more often than not, quite violently. One such instance was a brawl that the band got into with BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test presenter Bob Harris at London’s Speakeasy Club. Harris was an imposing figure on the music scene at the time, owing to his place at the forefront of TV’s only alternative music show. It was a risky move for the Sex Pistols make, even by their standards.
Fighting between bands had always been customary for such a charged scene, but this bout of fisticuffs almost cost them their gig as punk rock heroes. The fight ended in Harris’ friend needing 14 stitches and the band’s behaviour costing them their record deal, right at the beginning of their career. Off to a rocky start, for sure. So, what really went down on that fateful night?
In March 1977, Bob Harris happened to be in the Speakeasy Club in London with his recording engineer George Nicholson, the same place that the Sex Pistols were at, celebrating their newly-obtained record deal with A&M. Harris was a presenter for BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, a programme which was basically the counterpart of BB1’s Top of the Pops, only OGWT focused on albums by artist rather than chart hits, championing the alternative music scene before such a name even existed.
At the club, the Sex Pistols confronted Harris about when he would play the band’s record on the show. Harris’ ignored them, and things escalated quickly from there. What followed was a huge fight where the band members punched him and threw a glass at Nicholson. Harris got out relatively unscathed, but the glass hit Nicholson’s forehead resulting in him getting 14 stitches. Derek Green at Sex Pistol’s label A&M Records was contacted by Harris’ lawyers two days later. Green, along with A&M’s two founders, Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert, decided to cancel the band’s contract with them with immediate effect. The production for the band’s debut single ‘God Save The Queen’ was subsequently halted.
But the question remains – why did the band become so violent towards Harris out of nowhere? Was there an underlying reason? It seems that Harris himself had the answer to this. As he very specifically explained, “I was the identikit picture of everything the punk generation despised – a 30-year-old, white, middle-class son of a policeman, the long-haired, bearded, ex-hippy, stadium rock-loving, progressive rock-presenting BBC broadcaster.”
It also lay in the fact that Harris was quite apathetic towards the whole punk-rock movement and wasn’t particularly interested in it. He went on to say, “I ticked all the boxes. I became a figurehead for their bile – and it got very personal.” The sudden shift in the music scene came as a pretty big culture shock to Harris, who found it difficult to cope with. “For 11 years, I’d been surfing the crest of a wave”, he said, “but suddenly the music scene in Britain was a hostile environment for me”.
The situation, like every other incident in the band’s past, eventually died down. Harris, despite the tumultuous time that he faced, went on to carry on with his show as usual, and the Sex Pistols too signed up with Virgin Records. It was a home from which they released their debut and sole album and a number one hit in the UK, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols later in 1977.
The punk movement was undoubtedly a significant event in the history of music but carried with it a chain of controversies and scepticism because of its members’ rowdy behaviour — typified by the Sex Pistols. Their altercation with Harris left the world pondering how punk could easily place itself within the music industry. Of course, those involved weren’t bothered by such things; after all, punk rock was there to tear the establishment down, not figure out how to appease it.