ROCK MUSIC in the '70s has been confronted with a curious dilemma which is due, in part, to rock's unique capacity for being an art form, social phenomenon and big business simultaneously. What happens when a young, brash and rebellious style of music, becomes middle-aged, reserved and a bastion of Corporate America? As rock has sunk slowly into the commercial quagmire, various attempts have been made to reverse the decline. All of these attempts, including reggae, heavy metal, country rock, space rock, etc., have met with only mixed results, and rock continues to sink.
As part of the movement to save rock, enter the punk rockers and their chief English exponents, the Sex Pistols, who have a new album in the U.S. entitled Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Brothers BSK 3147). The group has been creating a stir in England for many months. They caused an uproar when they shouted obscenities on a BBC interview. They wear torn clothes and chains and sport tousled haircuts as befits a group of fine young punks. Recently, the group was a source of controversy, when their visas to enter the United States were initially refused on the grounds of the group's moral unsuitability (the visas were subsequently granted).
For those unfamiliar with it, punk rock is an amalgam of '50s naivete, '60s banality, and '70s poor taste. Musically, it mixes repetitive rhythms, basic chords and garbled vocals into what resembles every rock musician's first band, practicing in Mom and Dad's basement.
According to the punks and several reviewers as well, this naive primitivism is deliberate and constitutes the basic idea behind punk rock. For them, the music is a rebellion against the slickly produced commercial packages which (they claim) are produced by a majority of contemporary rock groups. They believe that they (punks) must return rock to the "bad boy" image it once enjoyed, recapture its former energy, and restore to it the rebellious character which made it exciting. For the punks, the solution to rock's dilemma is simply that it must step backward to move ahead.
All of which seems very commendable and yet, one suspects, very convenient. For the fact is that, for all their artistic (or anti-artistic) pretensions, their scandalous behavior and their punk-chic dress, the Sex Pistols are wretched musician. If guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Sid Vicious and drummer Paul Cook are capable of anything beyond the most basic handling of their instruments, they fail to show it. Without exception, the songs on Bollocks consist of repeated guitar chords, distorted beyond recognition, backed up by a rhythm section that bashes away without regard for dynamics or subtlety. The vocal posturings of lead singer Johnny Rotten contain only the vaguest hint of melody while lacking the character of a Daltrey, Stewart or Jagger.
In describing Bollocks it is pointless to discuss individual songs because they all follow the same formula - heavy-handed power chord introductions, followed by several minutes of unintelligible vocals, set to a monotonous 4/4 beat. Guitar solos, as such, are usually meandering lines which bear little, if any, connection to the songs themselves. Maybe this is why the Sex Pistols have been called "primal" and much has been made of their energy. One could easily substitute the words "mindless" and "busy." The word "primal" implies a submission to a certain instinctive intelligence, while "energy" is usually a directed force. The Sex Pistols have neither intelligence nor direction.
Musically and pop-image wise, the Sex Pistols resemble some mid-'60s imitators of the Who and the Kinks. The resemblance, however, is purely cosmetic. While the group has all the trappings of its British predecessors (Union Jacks, outlandish clothes, unruly hair) it lacks the musical expertise and songwriting genius which characterizes those groups. The Sex Pistols are content to be young, rebellious and forceful. Such groups as the Who and the Kinks advanced beyond these qualities to produce a sensitive and powerful musical blend - the Sex Pistols are merely ersatz.
The song lyrics on Bollocks are no better than their musical back-up and adhere closely to the Rock-for-Shock school of writing. Self-styled social revolutionaries, the Sex Pistols offer only pimple-faced philosophy. Johnny Rotten shouts, "I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist" in the song "Anarchy in the U.K." but he could just as easily have shouted gibberish, because the vacuity of thought or purpose in the song negates any true commitment they might have. Shouting, once again, he proclaims, "God save the Queen, the fascist regime" in "God Save the Queen" yet he fails to be convincing because there is no musical or intellectual substance to support those words.
This lack of substance is what is most perplexing about the Sex Pistols. They seem to be offering their non-talent and demanding that it be accepted. It would be absurd to relate this (as some writers have) to a rock version of Dada, because where the Dadaists were anti-art, they nonetheless offered an aesthetic choice. With the Sex Pistols, the choice is the present state of affairs or nothing. Lacking any real solution to the present state of rock, they give up and offer their musical shortcomings as the solution. Rock music deserves and demands, better.