It all started because Queen frontman Freddie Mercury had to go to the dentist, and his band was forced to cancel a scheduled TV appearance at the last minute. That bit of serendipity gave the U.K. public its first taste of the menace known as the Sex Pistols. On December 1, 1976, the punk rock band was summoned to the studios of Thames Television’s Today program, an early evening live talk show hosted by Bill Grundy. The program’s producers offered its substitute guests the customary assortment of alcoholic treats as they waited in the green room prior to air time. Big mistake. “We drank ourselves stupid,” said the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren.
By the time the four Pistols – Johnny “Rotten” Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock – walked on stage they were cocked and loaded. They’d just released their first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.”, and were itching to carry out the song’s manifesto. Blasé host Bill Grundy antagonized them from the start: “They’re heroes!” he scoffed. “Not the nice clean Rolling Stones.” He then announced “They’re as drunk as I am,” and proceeded to provoke the lads by sneering at the £40,000 advance they’d just received from their record company, EMI.
Guitarist Steve Jones hurled the first obscenity: “We’ve f**kin’ spent it, ain’t we?” Next came orange-haired Johnny Rotten, who said “shit” under his breath. When Grundy forced him to repeat it, he spit it out loud and clear.
Grundy then turned his attention to the ladies on stage, there as fans and no doubt thrilled to be included in this historic media moment. When punk pioneer Siouxsie Sioux of the Banshees coyly told Grundy she’d always wanted to meet him, the schnockered host suggested they “meet afterwards.” This elicited the following exchange:
Jones: You dirty sod. You dirty old man.
Grundy: Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on. You’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.
Jones: You dirty bastard.
Grundy: Go on, again.
Jones: You dirty f**ker.
Grundy: What a clever boy.
Jones: What a f**king rotter.
Was Grundy goading the insolent boys as a ploy to boost ratings? Or was he really that drunk…or stupid?
Whatever the case, British viewers were outraged. Angry callers jammed the station’s phone lines for hours, while the press savored every minute. The Daily Mirror introduced the story with this now-famous headline: “The Filth and the Fury!” The phrase was so fitting that director Julien Temple used it 20 years later as the title of his Sex Pistols documentary.
The 3-minute interview from hell ended Grundy’s career and catapulted the band to international notoriety overnight. They went on to release just one album during their three-year run – “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” – now considered a groundbreaking assault on the bloated world of 1970s arena rock, as well as a pointed attack on Britain’s ruling class. Iggy Pop, The New York Dolls, and The Ramones may have laid the groundwork for what would become known as punk rock, but it was the Pistols – and, in particular, Sid Vicious, who joined in 1977 – that set the standard for punk attitude and style with their safety-pinned t-shirts, jackboots, dog collars, bondage trousers, and asylum haircuts. They spit on the audience, and the audience spit back. And the band loved very minute of it. Proudly unpolished as musicians, they nonetheless influenced countless acts, from The Clash to Nirvana.
Looking back on the most controversial live TV event in U.K. history, Malcolm McLaren told The Guardian in 2007, “As simple and harmless as it seems today, that interview was a pivotal moment that changed everything. Punk became the most important cultural phenomenon of the late 20th century. Its authenticity stands out against the karaoke ersatz culture of today, where everything and everyone is for sale. Punk’s influence on music, movies, art, design and fashion is no longer in doubt. It is used as the measurement for what is cool. And we all know you cannot sell anything today if it is not cool. The only problem is that punk is not, and never was, for sale.”
No, punk ideology is not for sale, but punk fashion is, and yer blogger’s not ashamed to admit that through the years she’s spent a pauper’s fortune on spiked bracelets, padlock pendants, zipper-embellished clothing, hair-spiking gels, skull rings, and black boots galore. Viva la punk!
Here’s the famous interview. In the front row, from left, are: Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Paul Cook, and Grundy. Standing in the back are members of the Bromley Contingent, a group of Pistols fans. Siouxsie Sioux is at the far right, sporting platinum hair.
Here are the Pistols debuting “Anarchy in the U.K.” on British TV:
Dana Spiardi, Dec 1, 2012
(The photo of the Pistols with straws is by Bob Gruen).