It may seem a bit odd to hear the two bands ABBA and the Sex Pistols in the same breath but their connection is stronger than you think. Original bassist, and one-time principal songwriter of the Pistols, Glen Matlock, was a huge fan of the pop royalty.
He was such a fan, in fact, that he lifted a bass line straight from one of ABBA’s most recognisable songs, ‘SOS’ and placed it in one of the Sex Pistols ultimate punk anthems. It’s a little known fact that may make your punk friend want to pull out his safety pins.
‘Pretty Vacant’ may well be one of punk’s finest anthems but the song’s classic riff is taken straight from ABBA’s chest of pop smashes. Matlock is said to have been a fan of the band from Sweden who, at the time, were one of the biggest pop artists around, churning out chart-topping hits and generally operating as the antithesis of punk—before punk was even punk.
Revisiting the song’s origination with Rolling Stone, Matlock reflected on how the track came about and while it was inspired by the ABBA riff, the song’s original conception was influenced by the States. “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.'”
As you might imagine the large majority of the song was already composed before Matlock heard the ABBA song in question, but it did add a flourish to the song which it desperately needed. “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.'” The riff he heard was taken from the band’s song ‘SOS’, which featured on ABBA’s musical film Mamma Mia with Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep providing the vocals in that performance. Not quite the punk image you’d expect and far away from Johnny Rotten’s razor vocal.
It’s likely not something Matlock is ever too happy to talk about in great depth but he has on occasion shown his love for the band, sometimes trying to incriminate his bandmates too. “I always got quite a bit of stick for liking ABBA,” Matlock told The Mouth, “but I think as pop songwriters they’re fantastic. I mean, if you listen to the drums on ‘Waterloo’ it could be Paul [Cook] playing it… I think perhaps he’d picked up a bit, subconsciously, on that.”
However odd it may be to think of one of punk’s most well-known songs being inspired by the ultimate anti-punks ABBA, it did at least provide Sex Pistols bassist, Matlock, an unusual pen pal for a while, the musician recalled in RS, “I mentioned the ABBA influence in an interview once and the bass player from ABBA somehow got my address and started sending me Christmas cards for about 10 years.”
Listen to both of the songs below and see if you can hear the resemblance.