“We’re so pretty, oh so pretty, we’re vacant!” — Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistols
We’re dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to take a look back at a watershed moment for punk, and pop culture as a whole, as the Sex Pistols were finally given their deserved spot on Top of the Pops. Amid middle England protests and the very morality of our nation apparently appeared on the brink of destruction, Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Sid Vicious picked up their instruments and poured petrol through our television screens. They needn’t wait too long for a spark.
The year 1977 was a crazy time for Britain. The country was struggling to maintain the upswing of the sixties, a time when London had felt like the cultural centre of the world. The city now stank with the disrepair of a country running on empty both financially and seemingly morally. If there was one band determined to shake Britain out of its slumber it was the Sex Pistols.
A band born out of the frightful London punk scene, it was a situation they not only relished but it was a scene that had been built and crafted by the band and their Bromley contingent for this very purpose. Forged in London’s West End and, more importantly, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique shop ‘SEX’, the scene really took shape under their tutelage. It was there that the ethos of punk had been expertly conjured out of ripped fabric and safety pins. They would bring disorder to the masses.
By the summer of ’77, the Sex Pistols had already left an indelible mark on British society. Their song ‘God Save The Queen’ had rumbled HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee celebrations as the band tore down the Thames screaming their desperate need for revolution, or at the very least their desperate need to be heard.
It was a song that sent shockwaves across the nation and was therefore routinely banned by radio and television stations — BBC was no different, stopping the band from performing the number two single (a hotly debated topic itself) on the famous Top of the Pops weekly chart show. However, that all changed when the band screened the promo video for their next single ‘Pretty Vacant’ — a lip-synching festival of ‘fuck you’ to the establishment.
The track was a bastion of that very sentiment. As Johnny Rotten, the band’s menacing frontman and songwriter said of the track to Rolling Stone: “’Pretty Vacant,’ the concept, turned into really just kind of a football chant. And it was adopted on the terraces by quite a few firms – firms being gangs of hooligans.” He continues: “There is an irony in that song because we weren’t very pretty, and we were far from vacant.”
The song was also uniquely inspired by ABBA and their pop smash ‘SOS’. The track’s original songwriter, Glen Matlock noted how it was influenced by the Swedish masters. “Malcolm McLaren had been going back and forth to the States to be involved in the rag trade and buy old Fifties clothes because he had a Teddy Boy shop, and I knew he ran into Sylvain Sylvain from the New York Dolls and went backstage,” he said.
“Malcolm came back with fliers for the shows and he brought back setlists, but none of these bands had made records at that stage,” recalled Matlock of the influence the New York set had on him and the rest of the Pistols.
“One said ‘Blank Generation’, and that got me thinking about how there was nothing going on in London,” the bassist continues. “There was a real air of despondency and desperation, so I came out with the idea of ‘Pretty Vacant.’” But that was just the start of the songwriting. “I had the set of chord changes and the lyric but I was short of a riff,” recalls Matlock. “I knew it needed a melodic thing, and I heard something on a record by a band called ABBA and it inspired the riff I needed, and I said, ‘Guys, I’ve got it.’”
It would become a smash-hit and turn the Sex Pistols from dirty words into pop stars in waiting. One of the most obvious signifiers of that transition was their inclusion on Top of the Pops.
It was a momentous occasion for the band, a time when they were able to break through the walls put in front of them and solidify their presence. More importantly for the youth of Britain, however, they had finally found the band who would shock their parents out of their armchairs.
Take a look at the ‘shocking’ video below and imagine just how sensational the band must’ve been to the audience of 1977. There’s also an added bonus of the band performing the same track in 1997.