March 1999

The Sex Pistols - Pistol Whipped: The Sex Pistols Live  
Big Ear Music EAZ 4006
Released: 1999 

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD] Enjoying the Sex Pistols' music entails understanding that we are not supposed to enjoy it. Designed not just to express rage but to be rage, it is anti-musical and anti-lyrical. "God Save the Queen," "Anarchy in the UK," and other notorious Sex Pistols songs did not aim to please music critics, Beatles fans, or those who, in the mid-1970s, when the band writhed, screamed, and sweated its way onto the rock scene, still longed for Peter, Paul & Mary or Simon & Garfunkel to provide a "message." Instead, they affirmed those who were bored, angered, and alienated by the bourgeois wholesomeness hypocritically peddled by the violent and materialistic dominant culture and the high-budget, low-passion sunblocker lotion that often passed for rock.

So rather than lotion, or even beer, or even LSD as in "acid rock," we got napalm. That is why my copy of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, one of the two original Sex Pistols LPs, is still in excellent condition. Want to buy it? It still has the sleeve with the anti-glamor, torn-and-taped-looking, poor-quality pictures of the anti-fab four -- Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, and Paul Cook -- and typed copy with proofreader's marks conveying disdain for slick promotion and polish, and the day-glow pink-and-green cover mocking the gaudiness of commercial rock and everything else that seeks to suck us in. You'll find a similar visual statement on the cover of Pistol Whipped, along with six live and nine studio tracks -- eight of the songs coming from Bollocks.

The word "chaos" has been applied to the Sex Pistols, even in the liner notes to Pistol Whipped. The music is not chaotic; it is structured, internally consistent, and quite predictable. Its kind of singing constantly expresses rage, gut-felt disgust, and abhorrence of conventional melody; and the music ultimately conforms to the reliable and rarely varied rhythm of electric guitar and forcefully attacked drums and bass.

The players merge into a Berlin Wall of sound -- far more spontaneous and intimidating than Phil Spector's more conventional, inviting, carefully crafted middle-class urban mural. Just as the Queen "'s not a human being," individual virtuosity is eschewed. No singing, no ambitious guitar solo, no melodic or rhythmic interlude of any kind ever emerges from the Pistols' pounding, screaming Wall, despite a few guitar phrases suggesting potential. These blokes really mean what they are saying -- it's not satire; it's not a joke; and when we wake up in the morning, we'll be bruised and miserable. "We're so pretty, oh, so pretty vacant, and we don't care."

I find the live tracks here indistinguishable from the studio tracks in terms of sound quality. This is partly because no audience is heard and partly because the original studio recordings were not intended to sound "good" in the first place. On "Substitute," the band's cover of the Who classic, Rotten's voice is mixed too low, so it is difficult to decide whether he accomplished anything rotten and vicious there.

Depraved or not, violent or not, unrepentant or not, the Sex Pistols created the punk genre that has flourished for more than two decades. The vast majority of performers, no matter how cultured, popular, pretty, or affluent, achieve much less. Despite insisting repetitively in two songs, "I'm a lazy sod," it required considerable energy to execute and promote, to the extent that they did, the Sex Pistols' act.

So get a copy of this CD that revives a historic rock act -- or, as the band might say, steal a copy -- and enjoy not enjoying the tunes, or, if you fancy yourself an anarchist and aficionado of punk music, enjoy lamenting how mild the Sex Pistols now sound when compared with what they wrought in the form of later bands who have continued to fill the punk niche.