The Sex Pistols were becoming a sensation throughout the UK at the tail end of 1976. Having toured throughout England, the band was building a reputation for their combative and aggressive nature, heralding the new scene of young iconoclasts that would become the punk movement. By this point, the Pistols had also written their first masterpiece, ‘Anarchy in the UK’, and their growing audiences were making them one of the most volatile enterprises around.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, manager Malcolm McLaren was finding it difficult to get a record company to sign off on the notoriously wayward Pistols. Mostly seen as a passing fad or an affront to more “serious” music, the nascent punk scene was given little respect by major labels in England. Even though American contemporaries The Ramones had released their debut album in April of ’76 on major label subsidiary Sire Records, most English punk bands like the Damned and Buzzcocks had to make do with independent labels for distribution.
However, McLaren was insistent that the Pistols would be huge and found it necessary to give them the visibility a major label could offer for them to take over the world. Riding the wave of the strong press following the band’s headlining appearance at the 100 Club Punk Special, McLaren managed to convince the suits at EMI, the same label who had signed The Beatles a decade and a half before, to take a chance of the country’s most popular punk group.
The three months that followed were filled with notoriety, controversy, and headaches for EMI. They quickly found the band uncontrollable and constantly on the brink of combustion, while getting them into a studio to record proved to be its own special kind of misery.
The band, and McLaren, purposefully flaunted the label’s stiff reputation and penchant for guiding the artists on their roster towards a certain level of professionalism. That was never going to fly with the Sex Pistols, even as their popularity continued to grow, EMI had no choice but to pull the plug on their investment in the first month of 1977.
While their time on EMI was brief, the effect it had on the Pistols was monumental. Here, we’ve collected the most important events that occurred before, during, and after the signing, making it one of the most important and incendiary record deals of all time.
The Sex Pistols and EMI timeline:
September 20, 1976: Sex Pistols play the 100 Club Punk Special
Punk was an ongoing concern during the fall of 1976. Previous pub rockers like Joe Strummer had converted to the punk ideology. At the same time, alternative goth fashions became popular with singers like the Damned’s Dave Vanian and Siouxsie Sioux, a member of the Pistols’ entourage, the Bromley Contingent. McLaren looked to condense all the most important young punk bands into a festival to celebrate the scene’s coming out.
“Festival” was a little too close to the hippie-dippie flower power that punk was trying to eradicate, so McLaren called his two-night gathering at the 100 Club a “Punk Special”. Featuring the newly-formed band The Clash, along with an embryonic version of Siouxsie and the Banshees, the punk special featured Europe’s most vital punk outfits, including the Damned, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, and France’s The Stinky Toys. It was all headlined by the Sex Pistols, and McLaren ensured that publications like Melody Maker and the NME were there to document it all.
Due to the positive reception that the Pistols received, McLaren was able to leverage negotiations with EMI, leading to an alleged £40,000 advance. It seemed like an odd match on paper, the leaders of the antiestablishment punk scene signing with the label that epitomised the established music industry. Was it a case of both parties conning each other, EMI for the publicity and the Pistols for access to recording studios? Only time would tell.
November 26, 1976: ‘Anarchy in the UK’ is released
The Pistols performed a few concerts in the month after signing with EMI, and during that time, the band entered the studio to track their first single. Although they had written most of the songs that would eventually appear on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols by this point, there was always a clear idea about what would be the band’s opening salvo: ‘Anarchy in the UK’.
The band made an infamous appearance on the BBC programme So It Goes in September, where Johnny Rotten began the song with a shout of “Get off your arse!” It was the band’s concert opener, with the power of the song was honed in on by McLaren and the Sex Pistols themselves. Well rehearsed and relatively tight from the string of live performances, the band recorded the song with Chris Thomas, producer and engineer for the likes of Pink Floyd and Roxy Music, in a relatively short amount of time.
‘Anarchy in the UK’ would prove to be the only verified recording to feature original bassist Glen Matlock. Although the band made an initial recording of ‘God Save the Queen’ during October 1976, the session that produced the master track would be taped in March of 1977. Sid Vicious had joined the band by this point and is credited on the single, but guitarist Steve Jones most likely played the bass part.
December 1, 1976: The Bill Grundy Incident
The band were already tabloid fodder when they were given a new platform to make headlines during an infamous outing on the Today programme hosted by Bill Grundy. The presenter had a reputation as a drunkard, something he acknowledged during the band’s appearance and set out with the goal to poke the bear at the group most famous for being antagonists themselves.
Given the notoriety of this event and the subsequent “The Filth and the Fury” headlines that it generated, in truth, it’s remarkable to see how reserved most of the band are during the interaction. Of course Jones’ famous torrent of obscenities is the exception, but Rotten especially is taciturn.
Grundy mentions EMI’s advance, to which Jones responds, “We fucking spent it.” When asked about classical composers, Rotten gives a sarcastic remark followed by another obscenity. Grundy goads him into repeating it, and like a repentant schoolboy, Rotten obliges.
It’s when Grundy attempts to accost Siouxsie Sioux that leads to Jones calling him a “dirty sod” and a “dirty fucker”, among other things. The public fallout in Britain was tremendous. While EMI initially believed that their singing would add some cheeky disruption to the mainstream, they didn’t expect massive blowback and criticism from this kind of behaviour.
The label was under increased pressure to drop the band, but they were reluctant to buy the Pistols out of their two year contract.
January 6: The end
Throughout December of 1976, the Pistols continued to court controversy. EMI’s packaging plant experienced a workers protest that found many of their labourers refusing to handle the band’s single. Shows were hijacked by protestors, most notably outside the band’s performance in Caerphilly, Wales, that sought to counteract the group’s music with carolling.
‘Anarchy in the UK’ had broken into the top 40 of the UK singles chart, but the continued bad press began to take its toll on the band’s label. When increased damage to their reputation ensued, the final straw came while the band were en route to a series of concerts in the Netherlands, during which they allegedly began spitting and puking in a hungover spectacle. A report from The Evening News that same day was enough for the label to make a decision.
Although they initially announced after the report they were sticking by the group, EMI announced that they were terminating their contract with the Sex Pistols only two days later. All told, the record contract lasted three months, with the band taking and squandering their £40,000 advance with only a single song to show for it.
October 28, 1977: Never Mind the Bullocks is released, complete with the song ‘EMI’
It didn’t take long for the band to find a new label willing to take a chance on their indecent reputation. In a press conference staged outside of Buckingham Palace on March 10, 1977, A&M Records publicly signed the band. Following the ceremony, the group made their way to the label’s office, where new bassist Sid Vicious cut his foot smashing a toilet bowl.
In the week following the signing, Rotten had managed to make incendiary public comments about the label. The band instigated a fight with another group, and a friend of Rotten’s threatened to kill a close friend of an A&M suit. Subsequently, only six days after making a show of signing the band, A&M tore up their contract and kicked them to the kerb.
McLaren approached Richard Branson to take on the band, and he agreed, signing them to what would be their third and final label, Virgin Records.
A full year after they initially signed with EMI, the Sex Pistols released what would be their only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The album’s closing track was a pointed and incendiary rebuke of their first label, containing lines like “I tell you it was all a frame/They only did it cos of fame” and “Blind acceptance is a sign/Of stupid fools who stand in line”. The track, ‘EMI’, was a final bit of revenge that closed the Sex Pistols-EMI story for good.