Monday, March 13, 2006

The Sex Pistols Were No Good

by Chris
Let me just preface this by saying that I know I'm not the majority on this one. Many people with great taste in music love the musicians that I am about to shit all over, and although I respect those people's opinions, I disagree with them.

"Oi! Let's piss in people's ears an call it music!"

I think the Sex Pistols are at best, the third or fourth worst thing to ever happen to rock music. They couldn't play for crap. They were awful, unlikeable people. Their songs and lyrics were so poorly written that...well, I don't know if I can even call them "written" at all. They coasted by on that now-tired image of rebelliousness and anger that is always guaranteed to sell buckets of tickets, records, and T-Shirts to ignorant and hormonally moody teens. The Sex Pistols were not the first to do this, and unfortunately they would not be the last. What gets me is that they did it so poorly, and are looked back on so fondly. I can't see how someone could have actually heard a Sex Pistols song and still say that they were good or relevant in any way.

Punk was such a wonderful thing when it was new. The movement was a backlash against overproduced, glitzy stadium and glam rock. Punk was a new sound, inspired by bands like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, driven by reckless energy and the desire to create music that was unlike anything people had heard before. There wasn't much of a form to it, it was more of a musical philosophy than a particular sound.

Television (the first punk band to play at CBGB's, legend has it that they even built the stage there) caught people's attention by playing rock epics with great lyrics that managed to avoid the fakeness of arena rock. The music was a little rough about the edges but was still played skillfully and with an energy that had never been felt before. This was before the Sex Pistols came along and made it okay, and profitable, to perform and act like you didn't give a shit.

You must own this album.

Patti Smith was another of the great punk pioneers. Her music was surprising to hear, influenced by beat poetry, folk, reggae, and even the stadium rock that she was rebelling against. She was the anti-Bowie; a woman who looked and dressed like a man, she made down-to-earth rock songs about the confusion of everyday life, sexuality, religion, and death. From the subject matter you would think her songs are downers, but they aren't because she is singing from a position of power and strength that women didn't have before. "This is what I see, I don't fuckin like it, we're gonna change it." When she sang sad she did it with the forced sadness of a teenage girl, and when she sang mad she did it with the gleeful rage of an empowered young woman. At 19 years old, she had practically created the punk scene.

Then came the Ramones. We all know about the Ramones; they made punk a big thing by playing short, catchy, sloppy songs about stuff that everyone could identify with (partying, fucking, irresponsibility). It was music so accessible that anyone could buy a guitar and learn to play in a week. I'm not sure how I feel about the Ramones. For one, they did a lot for punk by selling a ton of records and showing that it is possible to make a living by playing this music. They got radio play so they brought new fans to the scene. They are a bunch of really cool Brooklyn dudes and not once did they ever pretend to be anything else. I just don't particularly care for their music. They had little concept of rhythm or timing, the lyrics were doggerel, and they just weren't very good musicians. I blame the Sex Pistols on The Ramones for this reason. "Oi! These Brooklyn guys made wads of cash by playing shitty music, I bet it would be easier if we got rid of the music part and just sold shitty attitude!"

Soon after punk started gaining notoriety in New York, the London punk scene came and pretty much fucked everything up for everyone. London punks started giving themselves awful haircuts, tearing up their clothing, and going for days without showers because they thought it was in fashion. The NY scenesters just couldn't afford haircuts and new pants, and often could go days without finding a place to crash and bathe! This is what the Sex Pistols come from, this fashionability that ultimately killed the great punk movement. Back to that later.

Ah, the Clash. Listening to their first album, it is easy to see how it happened. It was easy music to play, but not so easy as to sound crude like the Ramones or Sex Pistols. It was loose, quite sloppy, and Joe Strummer's voice was downright awful. But all you had to do was pop it into the record player and you knew that you were on to something special, that you were listening to something important. The lyrics were exceptional, the Clash were one of the first bands to actually come out and say what was happening in the world without clouding it up with metaphor and allegory. The songs were all well written with catchy hooks in all the right places. They were successful, but I think people confused Joe's terrible voice and the sloppy style of playing their instruments with a lack of talent, and that led to the final nail in the coffin:

So good it hurt.

London Calling. The greatest punk record ever made. At the time the Clash released London Calling, punk was wildly popular all over. The problem was that the successful bands were the ones that stressed accessiblity, the ones that sounded like music anyone could play in their garages. Bands like the Sex Pistols. The punk fashionistas saw this upgrade in the quality of music from very good to great as "selling out." They had never heard the great early punk acts, and were confusing punk with poorly made rock music and not the genre-defying force of creativity that it was. So when London Calling came around, the Clash were said to have "transcended" punk rock. It was great music so therefore couldn't possibly be considered punk.

From this point on, no great music was ever called punk. Now when a punk act makes a record that is musically relevant (Violent Femmes, the Pixies, Pavement, the Flaming Lips, Green Day) they are said to have "broken free from the limits of their genre." This is really ridiculous to me as I've always seen punk as a movement that was never really supposed to have any limits in the first place.


Blogger Nick said...

Flaming Lips is punk? I have been living a lie.

3/13/2006 09:12:00 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Their early early stuff was quite punk. I believe one of their old bootleg albums was called "finally the punks have started taking drugs."

3/13/2006 11:32:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I took the title to mean that they had in a way abandoned punk by, as you say, 'transcending' it.

Perhaps it is punk, but I don't think I'll be able to see them that way. Flaming Lips is just such focused whimsy, that I have a hard time coalescing that image with the unaccountability that I relate punk with.

3/14/2006 03:29:00 AM  
Blogger Colin said...

I'm in agreement with a lot of what you wrote. And yeah, "London Calling" is the best punk album. I just don't think that the Pistols are as bad as you make them out to be.

3/14/2006 07:10:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

The Sex Pistols, much like the Ramones, are more important for their influence than anything else. For example, there's a scene in the film 24-Hour Party People (a film you should all check out) in which the Sex Pistols play in Manchester. In the audience were the members of the future bands Joy Division and Happy Mondays, and the narrator of the film, played by Steve Coogan, pinpoints this moment as the beginning of the Manchester music scene. I don't particularly enjoy the Sex Pistols, I don't own any of the recordings, but I am amused by them as pop culture artifacts.

3/14/2006 07:21:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

This is a great post. I don't really have anything to add, except that you've got me listening to Patti Smith this afternoon.

3/14/2006 05:07:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Never listened to Patti Smith. Might check that out as well.

And 24 Hour Party People was the shit. One of the main reasons I want to see Tristram Shandy.

3/14/2006 05:12:00 PM  

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