Johnny Rotten turns 56 today, which would have put him around 20 or 21 around the time Nevermind the Bollocks was recorded. Much of the album’s lyrics are confrontational in nature, which makes sense considering these were young men intent on attacking everything around them. But Rotten’s lyrics also are intelligent social critiques of what was taking place in England at the time of the album’s release, which in a way makes him also wise beyond his years. The problem wasn’t just the Monarch, “the problem is you” as Rotten observed in “Problems”.
Like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, and Nirvana’s Nevermind, Nevermind the Bollocks isn’t just an album or a mere collection of songs. It’s also a dividing line and a crossroad. To say music and culture were completely different after its release is a bit of an understatement. Youth culture was changing at an accelerated rate (especially in England) and musically rock and roll had become stagnant and overblown. The older bands that were once rebellious seemed archaic. Every single song on Nevermind the Bollocks was designed and played like the world around the band was coming apart. The music was chaotic and wild. Steve Jones’ muscular riffs cast a line through both cultural and musical lines. Long-winded solos and multi-suite songs seemed obsolete with the opening chords of “Holidays in the Sun”. Johnny Rotten sang every single line, as it was a heat-seeking missile directed at the heart of the English establishment. “God save the queen, she ain’t no human being,” wouldn’t have sounded so sinister if anybody else but Rotten sang it.
For all of their bravado and social critiques though, Nevermind the Bollocks is full of paranoia and even a descent into madness. On “Holidays in the Sun”, Rotten talks about going on the Berlin Wall, but sounds absolutely scared of it and his possessed spewing of the lyrics confirms this. “Please don’t be waiting for me!” He screams at the end of the song as it to suggest that even he doesn’t know the outcome. Then there’s “Bodies”, where he condemns a young woman named Pauline for having an abortion, before actually imagining himself as the aborted fetus crying out for help. If you can write a song that twisted no wonder that throughout Bullocks, Rotten claims to have no feelings for anybody else but himself, declares to be an anti-Christ and wants to be the embodiment of anarchy itself. With this going on, there’s little doubt that Nevermind the Bullocks is one of the most controversial albums ever put to print.
Despite everything, Nevermind the Bollocks wouldn’t have achieved its legendary status if the music itself weren’t great. The myth about the Sex Pistols is that they couldn’t play. Anybody who suggests that probably hasn’t heard the entire album. Each song is layered with walls of Steve Jones’ monstrous riffs and blistering solos. Without Jones’ playing, Rotten would seem like a whiney kid. Paul Cook’s drumming is forceful and pounding – giving the songs extra weight and energy.
In a way, I feel that Nevermind the Bollocks has spoiled me on punk rock. Because it’s so good, everything else in the genre seems to pale in comparison. I’ll listen to a punk-record and think, “Damn I’d just rather listen to the Sex Pistols.” Even the Clash’s debut (while very good in and of itself) doesn’t connect the same way. It would take them another two years for them to make a complete masterpiece (London Calling) and that really wasn’t even a punk album. The Sex Pistols could have only existed in that particular era, and even though they themselves saw no future, Nevermind the Bollocks still remains relevant as ever.