Not Just an ‘Extra-musical’ Scandal: A Musical Dialectic in and through the Sex Pistols’ Recordings
One of the first impressions you get when listening to the only studio LP by the Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s the Sex Pistols, is its sound quality — too ‘good’ and ‘professional’ to be associated with so-called ‘punk aesthetic’. Indeed, this album was recorded at one of the major studios in London, the Wessex Studios, under the control of two veteran producer/engineers, Chris Thomas and Bill Price. However, does it necessarily mean this record is ‘not’ a punk record?
The seeming contradiction in the Sex Pistols’ musical career is rather to say that it is necessary to illuminate the dialectic in and through the recordings, from a historical point of view. A pivotal point was in early 1977 when the guitarist Steve Jones, most infamous for ‘extra-musical’ scandals, had to play the bass in the recording, on the producer’s suggestion, replacing Glen Matlock, who, allegedly the most ‘musically experienced’ member, ended up leaving the band just before the sessions. Several previously unreleased recordings give evidence of what was the crucial difference between the recordings before and after his departure.
For example, the intro of No Feelings presents the particular simplicity and the vertically oriented procession of Jones’s guitar playing, while Matlock’s introductory notes, linking the first and the second half of the intro, and the following bass licks, taking on the influence of notably 50’s rockabilly, used to play a crucial role in justifying the song’s horizontal progression. After his departure, the ‘professional’ recording process by Thomas and Price replaced the horizontal elements that the bassist had planted in the ‘ideal’ image of this song, with, conversely, the reinforcement of the vertical elements, so as to make what would become considered as the Sex Pistols’ sound.
Sangheon LEE is currently a PhD candidate in Musicology in Gustave-Eiffel University, France, working on Anglo-American Pop/Rock. Before his PhD course, he studied French Literature (Korea University, South Korea), and gained two Masters in Musicology, one about Richard Wagner and his French critics in the mid-19th century (Korea National University of Arts, 2012), the other about the song forms of Hardcore Punk in its sociocultural context (University of Paris 8, 2015). As a rock musician, he released a self-produced album (2010) on which he wrote all songs, played the guitar and sang.