Remember the Sex Pistols? Exposing themselves publicly, punching out audiences, vomiting in limousines, those Sex Pistols? Well, they've just made what could be their first fatal error in a career that's been so meteoric that rock writers can't publicize events for them fast enough. The Sex Pistols have just released their first album in America, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" (Warner Brothers, BSK 3147). The Sex Pistols finally may be heard by the masses. The band will finally be judged on its music. Sanity may finally return to vogue.
The Sex Pistols, like the "new wave" they represent, are basically a media-produced movement. Bands like the Ramones and the Pistols were getting tons of publicity when the public thought that "new wave" was a surfing term.
The difference between bands was cultural.British groups such as the pistols and Eddie and the Hot Rods were causing all kinds of physical battles in their attempt to vocalize a blue-collar, working-class Englishmen's political stance. American "punk" acts like the Ramones, the Dead Boys, et al ., were playing CBGB's in New York and being no more political than saying that the Who and the Rolling Stones were washed up.
The came the deluge. The rock press, bored by hearing the same albums in the Top Ten for a year at a clip and looking for anything that might relieve the tedium, seized "new wave" the way pirates seized doubloons, and the latest musical era (error?) was born.
Most of the articles read like war dispatches from the front, since very few people ever saw or heard these bands. Most of the British records were banned on the BBC and none of the American groups had released records. Also, not as many people as you think felt like braving a riot to see Johnny Rotten throw up on stage.
As for the Yankees, suddenly Patti Smith - whose two albums combined couldn't generate enough sales to give Peter Frampton a haircut - was the mother of American "punk" and CBGB's the "place to be." Once again, though, not a whole lot of people were mobbing CBGB's. New York is diffuse enough to support just about anybody, and the dank club did sell out with Talking Heads, Television, and the Ramones. But the total number of people going was minuscule compared to the potential audience. Many club-goers went to CBGB's regularly, the way some Washingtonians hang out at the Apple Tree. These bands were not drawing massive crowds despite the hype.
And hype it was. And is. Robert Christgau's instant epic defense of "new wave" music in The Village Voice cites the new wavers' politics and sociology. Granted, politics and environment cannot be entirely separated from artistic expression, especially in an art as overtly verbal as popular music. But the politics of the Sex Pistols is lame compared to true protesters like Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton. "Anarch in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen" draw any effectiveness they have from manic intensity; the sentiments are really no more complicated than calling the Queen and old fogy.
On the American side, there is no real politics at all and, where the British bands at least have an authentic proletariat sensibility, the Ramones, the Dead Boys and others have nothing but false posturing and a puckish sense of humor. To top it off, the American "new wave" bands generally can't play their instruments worth a lick, either.
The Ramones' new album, "Rocket to Russia" (Sire, SR 6042) includes such socio-political heavies as "Teenage Lobotomy" and "Cretin Hop," and when Stiv Bator of the Dead Boys bashes his head against an amplifier, it's not a political statement - it's an example of how repugnant a band can be and of a good way to get attention and a colossal headache.
Now, thoudh, the furor may peak. The release of "Never Mind the Bullocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" means that everyone will be able to hear what all the fuss is about. The Sex Pistols have an album and must now be judged as musicians. As musicians, they fail.
"We" is no longer the media but the listeners and record-buyers, and I think "we" will reject the Sex Pistols because their music isn't very good. Like all phases of rock, the "new wave" will develop some lasting bands - the talented ones - while the others display the life expectancy of a flash bulb.
The Pistols, Roads, Ramones, Dead Boys etc. do give us some new energy, but energy cannot replace talent, only supplement it.
The groups do offer some frenzied stage acts - people may initially run to see the Pistols because you never know when Johnny Rotten might turn a blowtorch on the first few rows as a tribute to class struggle - but frency is like a supernova: powerful and brilliant during, but cold and empty after.
The Sex Pistols' album is banned in England, which should make it No. 1 there within minutes. And there certainly will be American reviewers who will rally to the cause. But once emotions cool and people really listen to the music, they wil realize that the Pistols ar e not the promised band. The "new wave" will then begin to sort out the good from the dreek, and the chic shall not inherit the earth.