The Sex Pistols: Success Away from Numbers
Patti Smith once said: “To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It’s freedom.” The Punk Rock genre has produced many groups of artist around the world, all of which have a message to get across. They have their freedom of speech to thank for this, the same freedom that Patti Smith refers to, and the same freedom that allowed Punk Rock to spread around the world. The nature of Punk Rock stems from the desire to express one’s feelings of nonconformity and anger, among others. This is what attracts audiences consisting of oppressed minorities or the frustrated youth
Origin and Identity
Many bands, especially in the 1970s, were able to channel these emotions into lyrics, disregarding the fluidity of the music itself. It was not about how good the songs sounded, but how powerful the message was. Hence, many of these bands were not able to attract mass audiences. Nonetheless, this came with the freedom; “freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful.” One of these bands is the Sex Pistols, considered one of the biggest, if not the biggest, exponent in the history of the Punk Rock genre. The Sex Pistols did not achieve the commercial success that other 1970s British rock bands such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin reached, mainly due to different marketing methods directed to a more specific audience.
The Sex Pistols were one of the most influential bands of the Punk Rock movement. They got together in 1975 in London, and many argue that they brought Punk Rock to the United Kingdom. Although their prime years consisted of a very short time (1975-1978), they produced one of the most popular albums in punk rock’s history: Never Mind Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Stephen Erlwine calls their songs “three minute blasts of rage”, whose themes were usually along the lines of anarchy, abortion, violence, fascism, and apathy.
According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Sex Pistols “restored a sense of danger to rock music.” Their concerts’ audiences, mainly the cynical youth of Britain, broke out into brawls with fist fights, flying bottles, insults and spitting; a sense of danger and risk that actually turned the band on. Shows had to be canceled because of the group’s notoriety. Their music was at times rants against the British crown and EMI, the first record label that dropped them because of their excessive profanity. Soon after being dropped by EMI, they were signed by A&M. However, this record label dropped them as well, shortly after the band came out with their hit single God Save the Queen.
Not many copies this vinyl were produced, as an effect of the rift between the band and their former record label. This would go on to make the physical copies of this single even more valuable among the Punk Rock community. According to Harry Wallop, Consumer Affairs Editor for The Telegraph, this Sex Pistols single was the most collectable record in 2011, reaching a price of $11,700 per copy. It comes to show how much value vinyl collectors would give to this rarity. Their manager, Michael McLaren, owned the boutique Sex, where the band’s core members originally met up; hence the name Sex Pistols. Although they had a manager, lead vocalist Johnny Rotten handled the band’s publicity on his own, thus showing the lack of importance that they gave to their own marketing strategy. Their lack of marketability led to them being fired by two major labels.
The Sex Pistols fed off the tension in the air during the late 70s in Britain, whose poverty and unemployment featured workers’ strikes and general unhappiness with the British monarchy. They grabbed the attention of the oppressed, which included many defiant teenagers. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stated: “The punks’ overt hostility, offended a country that had always taken pride in its mannerly ways.” It is important to consider the socioeconomic situation around the band during their rise. Britain was in a recession at the time of the Sex Pistols’ rise to prominence, and the band was able to grab the attention of the nonconformist and angry youth of Great Britain with their confrontational and controversial style. This lead to a lot of negative publicity, and many considered The Sex Pistols public enemies. One of their most popular songs, God Save the Queen, led to the band receiving physical attacks and verbal harassment. As guitarist Steve Jones said: “We are not into music. We are into chaos.”
Their influence to the genre of punk rock is undeniable. Liberté writer Blazej Lenkowski claims: “They were brutal, filthy and by behaving in such a manner they attacked efficiently a conservative style of thinking. Everyone can dislike them, everyone can even hate them, but if we are talking about creative rebellion during the second half of the twentieth century, we have to remember about them and include them into the discussion.” Many would say that the New York-based band the Ramones was the biggest name in Punk Rock. Paul Nelson of the Rolling Stone would probably disagree, since he thinks that the Sex Pistols make the music of the Ramones sound like it was invented by Walt Disney. Their influence is even transcendent in the Punk rock that would arrive 20 years later.
As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame puts it, “It is hard to imagine Green Day’s “American Idiot” without the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” having come before it, and that is true of countless punk-rock recordings.” The same attitude of confronting society through lyrics can be seen between both bands, despite different generations and different countries. However, Green Day has been able to emulate the ideals of the Sex Pistols in that of not necessarily striving for commercial success at the expense of sending their controversial message. Lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong says: “A lot of punk rock is not going to be in the mainstream. It’s below the radar. The beauty of it is that you’re not supposed to always know. It’s subterranean” It is hard to imagine any other band having as much an impact on the genre of Punk Rock as did the Sex Pistols.
Three Bands: Similar Origin, Different Paths
Never Mind Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, is not only the Sex Pistol’s masterpiece, but arguably also the most influential album in the global history of the Punk Rock Genre. They sold around 1.3 million copies worldwide. Surprisingly, they had more customers in the United States than in the United Kingdom. This comes to show that Britain’s general public was not too fond of this group of young artists. Although 1.3 million initially seems like a vast amount, it did not compare to the sales of other 1970s albums from fellow British Bands, such as Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd.
Let’s take Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon as an example. This album is considered one of the commercially successful albums is the history of contemporary music. Having sold over 45 million copies, its impact to the music industry is undeniable. The Sex Pistol’s music and style were both very different than that of Pink Floyd. However, both bands consisted of 5 young London boys with vast musical talent, looking to put their words into lyrics. Another band that would be familiar to this scenario would be Led Zeppelin. Although their rise into fame began in the mid-late 1960s, in 1971 they released their album Led Zeppelin IV, which would go on to become their most popular album. Nick DeRiso, associate editor of “Ultimate Classic Rock” describes the album as “reshaping the band’s sound and its legacy forever. There’s a reason this is Led Zeppelin’s best known, most recognized project. Everything comes together right here.” This album sold around 23 million copies worldwide. Other well-known albums released by Pink Floyd include Coda (1 million copies sold), Presence (3 million copies sold), Led Zeppelin III (6 million copies sold), In Through the Door (6 million copies sold), Led Zeppelin I (8 million copies sold), Houses of the Holy (12 million copies sold), Led Zeppelin II (12 million copies sold), and Physical Graffiti (16 million copies sold).
When compared to the Sex Pistol’s bestselling album, we can see that Led Zeppelin’s worst selling album is not too far behind in sales of Never Mind Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, which was their bestselling masterpiece. We can also analyze the same pattern by comparing the sales of the Sex Pistol’s albums with sales of Pink Floyd albums, strictly in the United States. The Sex Pistols, upon releasing their album Never Mind Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, sold around 1 million copies in the United States, which was around 700,000 copies more than those sold in their native England. Let’s now take account of how successful were the album sales of their fellow British musicians Pink Floyd. Some of these albums are The Final Cut (2 million copies sold), Meddle (2 million copies sold), Division Bell (3 million copies sold), A Momentary Lapse of Reason (3 million copies sold), Animals (4 million copies sold), Wish You Were Here (6 million copies sold), Dark Side of the Moon (15 million copies sold) and The Wall (23 million copies sold).
With the graphs above each bands’ success is being put in numbers, which is exactly what the Sex Pistols would not want to be done. It is not at attempt to undermine the relevance of the Sex Pistols, but rather an analysis of how big of a difference a band’s audience actually makes. As can be seen in the following graphics, there is certainly a monumental difference between the commercial success of the Sex Pistols compared to that of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. This is a rather obvious fact not only to Rock and Roll fans, but to basically anyone with a general background knowledge of music. However, sometimes it needs to be seen in numbers and graphs in order to understand the monumental differences between three bands with similar upbringings. The three bands being analyzed are made up of young musicians from London.
They would all go on to impact the Rock genre. However, the main difference between the Sex Pistols and Led Zeppelin/Pink Floyd is that as discussed before, the Sex Pistols’ music was directed towards a subgenre of Rock, which was Punk Rock. Hence, with a smaller target audience, they did not have as much commercial success than like other bands did. However, other factors can be taken into account. Never Mind Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is the only studio album that was released by the Sex Pistols. One could argue that if the Sex Pistols had stayed together and produced more albums, they would have maybe reached higher levels of fame and prosperity. Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s success was in part a product of longevity, and their willingness to expand their fan base. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd toured across the United States for big portions of their music careers. This allowed them to be marketed as global superstars, rather than just emerging British bands.
Needless to Pink Floyd’s success was not just a product of good marketing. Their music was pure quality. Hernan Campbell, writer for Sputnik Music says: “An orchestration of sounds that seduce the mind, and hypnotize us out of our conscious world, while leaving us lost in a musical haven” That is definitely hard to top. One would ask “Why didn’t the Sex Pistols do the same thing and expand through overseas tours?” Well, they actually did. The Sex Pistols’ first attempt at a US Tour was their last one. The band broke up before a concert in San Francisco. Therefore, no more studio albums were recorded, and potential for big commercial success was lost. Perhaps it just was not meant to be for the Sex Pistols who are considered the biggest exponent in Punk Rock. It is worthy to note, however, that the Sex Pistols got together later in their careers for several reunion tours, especially in 1996 when they went on a six month overseas tour. However, they did not produce any studio albums. The Sex Pistols simply did not want a big public image for them. In a 2013 interview with Le Monde, lead vocalist Johnny Rotten said: “I felt the Sex Pistols were turning into a caricature, reduced to the “public image” that Malcolm McLaren, our manager, was looking to give us.” This comes to show that fame and recognition was far from what the Sex Pistols wanted to achieve together. For them, success didn’t come in numbers of albums sold. Their idea of success was stirring as much turmoil as possible among the Britain’s youth, making them aware of the flaws within British government, monarchy and society. Paul Nelson, in his 1978 review of the Sex Pistols’ album, said “In a commercial sense, however, the Sex Pistols will probably destroy no one but themselves, but theirs is an unholy was that isn’t going to be won by statistics, slick guitar playing or smooth studio work. This band takes rock and roll personally, as a matter of honor and necessity, and they play with and energy and conviction that is positively transcendent in its madness and fever.”
The motives of the Sex Pistols was different than that of other bands contemporary to them. The lack of commercial ambition from the group’s individuals, as well as their vast amount of controversy, did not make the Sex Pistols very marketable as a band. They did not target or attract mass audiences, as did Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Profanity on public television to go along with their audiences’ fist fights certainly did not help the cause, especially not amongst Britain’s conservative majority in the 70s. However, they were a big force to be reckoned with amongst the Punk subculture. Within the Punk population, they did not need publicity or marketing strategies in order make their name known. That is why success cannot always be measured in numbers.
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