“From day one, we’ve always been shrouded in controversy,” Steve Jones, guitarist of the infamous Sex Pistols, recently said in an interview. In many ways, this single statement could serve as the mandate for the band in general. Despite only playing together for two and a half years, the British punk legends have always had controversy on their tails, from swearing on live TV to persistently taking the mickey out of the royal family and constantly getting into fights. The Sex Pistols were a bonfire with a can full of petrol waiting nearby to ignite it even further.
The Sex Pistols formed in 1975 in London and are considered one of the most ground-breaking groups in music history, arguably single-handedly starting the punk movement of the 1970s as well as the punk fashion and aesthetic with their wild anarchism. The Pistols were Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, though Matlock was replaced in 1977 by Sid Vicious.
The Pistols’ only studio record, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, amazingly considering its genre, reached number one in the UK album chart. The BBC banned their single ‘God Save the Queen’ for its attack on the conformity of 1970s British society and their courtesy to the royal crown and, as a result, it became one of the most censored records in British history.
Yet ‘God Save the Queen’ was not the only record of the Pistols to be banned by the BBC and pretty much every independent broadcaster in the country at the time. Their single ‘No One Is Innocent’ was also denied by the Beeb on July 13th, 1978, two weeks after its release.
‘No One Is Innocent’ was written after the demise of the Pistols, following a disastrous tour of North America in early 1978, featuring the erratic and dangerous behaviour of Sid Vicious, by which point he was heavily addicted to heroin and several shows taking place in redneck bars (intentionally booked to provoke the audiences). This, as a result, led to both Johnny Rotten and Vicious leaving the band.
Following the beginning of the end of the band, remaining Pistols members Paul Cook and Steve Jones wrote and recorded new music. Unfortunately, the controversy of the band did not end with Vicious and Rotten’s exit. After trying and failing to find a new lead singer, Cook and Jones quite shockingly enlisted notorious London criminal Ronnie Biggs to perform on their next track.
Biggs was known for planning and undertaking the Great Train Robbery of 1963, where he managed to steal £2.6 million. Biggs was imprisoned at Wandsworth Prison but escaped on July 8th, 1965, scaling a wall with a rope ladder and dropping down onto a removal van below. He eventually fled to Australia via Brussels and Paris. After spending some of the Great Train Robbery hauls on plastic surgery, he received an anonymous letter informing him that Interpol suspected he was in Australia and should move. Brazil did not have an extradition treaty with Britain, meaning Biggs could not be arrested there. As such, he moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1970.
Given Biggs’ notoriety, he often held parties and barbeques with the public, and hearing note of this, Jones and Cook sought him out as a potential vocalist for their new tracks in 1978. On the recording, Biggs later said: “The record was made in a church studio in Rio with the priest present, who seemed very happy. We were rather drunk by the time we came to make the recording, which explains why it may have appeared a little out of tune.”
In an interview with Mojo, Steve Jones recalls that “Ronnie Biggs rated himself as a bit of a poet, and I remember sitting in the hotel room writing the music while he wrote the words. It was a big accomplishment, to write a song with an infamous train robber. That was a good move.” The chorus is in fact a celebration of Biggs’ escape from prison.
Unsurprisingly then, the BBC refused to play the track given its personnel. But it serves as the Pistols’ final statement and is remembered today for Jones and Cook’s audacious move in recruiting a high-profile criminal.