Heroes: Sex Pistols by Nick Gill

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Punk's shock troops gamely took the bullets from an outraged press while setting the standard for the outbreak of creative iconoclasm that followed

I am a product of Carlisle. I tell you this with huge pride. 

Geographically, Carlisle is cut off from the rest of the country, separated by the Scottish Borders, the Pennines, the Lake District and the sea. But, growing up in the '60s and '70s, it could feel culturally isolated, too. If a bomb went off in London, you might not hear of it in Carlisle for months, maybe years.

Back in 1976, I had a paper route. I can remember it in snapshots. The spring-loaded letter box that rapped my fingers. Proudly delivering papers through the doors of three Carlisle United players. Stopping on High Meadow to read, through my snorkel hood, a newspaper headline entitled: "The filth and the fury!"

The story is well-documented of how Malcolm McLaren put the Sex Pistols together from a bunch of reprobates hanging around SEX, the shop he ran with Vivienne Westwood on London’s King’s Road. Check out Jon Savage’s comprehensive and meticulously researched tome England’s Dreaming if you want the full story.

But back in 1976, all we knew of this phenomenon was what we were being told by an extremely conservative press. And the Sex Pistols, in turn, were using and abusing this easily shocked media to make us feel scared of them and their music. 

Johnny Rotten was the pantomime villain, sneering contempt from the page. Steve Jones the muscle. Sid Vicious just looked out of it, probably because he was. And then there was a female version of these freaks to delight newspaper editors by the name of Siouxsie. 

I loved rock music back then, and didn’t necessarily think there was a problem with it, but I was massively turned on by these scary-but-sexy new pretenders.

I followed the story. Each weekend, the good people of Belle Vue, Carlisle, would get their papers slightly later as I pored over tales of these spitting, safety-pinned youths getting banned from concert halls, rejected from record labels and generally blamed for all the ills of the country.

Word got round school and a group of us couldn’t have been more excited. We loved the Pistols’ debut single, "Anarchy In The UK" — we would have loved it even more if we had actually heard it. But the radio refused to play it, and the internet hadn’t been invented, so we had to make do with a dangerous and intriguing song title that promised so much. 

Then we heard that John Peel had played it, and that someone had taped the show. So we congregated at said bootlegger’s house and listened to this nasty, snarling racket like excited teenagers discovering porn. And we had never heard anything like it. Genuinely. That is what gets lost today: this was so fucking new, it hurt.

When people talk about the impact of punk, they always use language like "a shockwave that destroyed everything in its path."

But, as far as I can remember, punk didn’t arrive in Carlisle quite like that. Copies of the second Pistols single, "God Save The Queen," entered the city quietly like a shipment of cocaine. This was, after all, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. You just didn’t throw stones at the Queen.

Thank God for the wonderful independent shop Pink Panther Records that decided to sell it. This is where I bought my copy. And this shop would become my second home for the next few years. 

Then we learned that God Save The Queen had made it on to the jukebox at our favorite (only) snooker hall. My mate and I went there and played it, repeatedly, standing next to the jukebox, making sure everyone knew it was our request even though we were the only people in the hall.

Punk was becoming a badge. It was a flag under which to fight. When we started taking punk singles such as "Anarchy," "New Rose," "Complete Control" and "Blitzkrieg Bop" to rock night at The Blues Club, chairs would fly.

And then Dave Lee Travis, I think, finally introduced the Sex Pistols on Top Of The Pops like someone bringing news of a natural disaster. My parents, still recovering from a heavily made-up David Bowie performing "Starman," finally gave up all hope for the human race. 

And we bought more records and listened to Peel and discovered more music and bought more records. And we went to gigs and saw The Clash and the Ramones and The Jam and Buzzcocks. 

And I didn’t know what I had. I was too young to recognize that this was important. I thought it was just about bands, records, gigs and fanzines. I didn’t understand I was witnessing the most powerful expression of youthful anger and creativity that would happen in my lifetime.

But I would. The mindset that propelled punk was a mindset I would try my damnedest to take through life. To this day, I need to be challenged in music, words, film and art. I like being surprised. I moan when I’m not being surprised enough. I chose to earn my crust at a company with a black sheep as its logo — and I’m glad I did.

Jamie Reid’s iconic "God Save The Queen" sleeve design stares down at me from my office wall, reminding me daily of what fresh thinking really looks like. I take my hat off to Johnny, Steve, Paul, Glen and poor Sid. They started it. They were vilified. They were the riders at the front of the cavalry who took the bullets for all who would follow. And that makes them heroes in my book.

We all want to be rebels. We all like to believe that we’re breaking rules. But do we see enough of it now, particularly in our own grown-up industry? The Pistols weren’t born out of science or research or consensus. They were a few snotty kids rioting with creativity, originality, bravery and purpose. If you fit that description, there’s a desk for you at Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

But never mind the bollocks. The other weekend, my teenage daughter came downstairs and I said: "You’re looking nice today, honey." She went straight upstairs to get changed. Maybe there’s hope for the human race, after all.

Nick Gill is the executive creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.


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