The Story Behind The Music | Sex Pistols First Recording Session

The Sex Pistols first studio recording took place at Majestic Studios in London on 15th May 1976 wth Chris Spedding at the helm. They recorded three tracks: ‘Problems’, ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘No Feelings’. You can hear the recordings on the video link above, and for context here’s an extract from Clinton Heylin’s Anarchy in the Year Zero, a full account of the birth of British punk.

Chris Spedding: I found it very weird, all that [in the press] about them not playing music. If they were notable for one thing it was that. They were always in time and in tune. I couldn’t understand why some … had chosen to attack them on the very thing that was their strength. Obviously, they’ve got cloth ears. [1976]

Getting someone as well-respected as Spedding on board at such an early stage was quite a coup for McLaren. It was almost as if he knew what he was doing, using his carefully cultivated contacts to make something happen – just as soon as the band began to justify his carefully-tailored hype. Well, by now they did. Marco Pirroni, who also came back to the 100 Club that May, recalls discussing precisely this point with McLaren:

Marco Pirroni: Malcolm used to spout [about] anarchy all the time. [But] he did care about the music … He said, ‘They’ve got to get tight, they’ve got to get good.’ … He went to proper people, [like] Chris Spedding … He didn’t just bung ’em into any ol’ studio. They weren’t trying to make them the worst they could be. And they were good.

Spedding was to some extent putting his reputation on the line. Which is why he was determined to capture their muscular musicianship, prepping them at their rehearsal space: ‘I went to a couple of rehearsals … and got them to go through their whole repertoire and I took notes, [then] I chose … the three best songs … they had at the time.’

The gang of studio novices duly assembled outside Majestic Studios, a state-of-the-art sixteen-track facility, the morning after they blew Krakatoa all the way down Oxford Street. McLaren, never one to miss a trick, invited Ray Stevenson down to capture the moment on his candid camera. The three tracks Spedding had chosen were ‘No Feelings’, ‘Problems’ and ‘Pretty Vacant’:

Chris Spedding: I didn’t want to go in and just have total anarchy. I knew enough about presenting something to record companies to know that they usually wanted three songs. I’d used [Majestic] when I did the Here Come The Warm Jets album with Eno. And we got the same engineer, Derek Chandler. I got them to go in there at ten o’clock in the morning [and when] I got there about quarter to eleven they were all set up. We started recording about eleven, about one o’clock we finished and I mixed them … There was two guitar overdubs, that was about it … They’d not been in the studio before … I had [brought] my amps and I stood over the drums while he tuned the drums to get out all the buzzes. Fortunately, his drums sounded pretty good anyway, so there was hardly anything for me to do [except to make] sure that they had a headphone balance and that the singer in his isolation booth could hear all the instruments properly. I asked them to do a rehearsal for me and I switched on the [tape] recorder. So they thought they were doing a rehearsal and they were actually doing their first take … I never really got them to hear themselves back and get all nervous about it … They were [all] more or less first takes, first time in the studio … Rotten sung live, but … in an isolation booth … You can actually hear the way the band played together. It’s not like [the] guitar-overdub soup [found on later recordings].

(Hearing the trio of tracks on a bootleg E.P., in the early eighties, post-Spunk, post-Bollocks, was quite a shock to the system. As Spedding says, there is no ‘guitar-overdub soup’, though there is at least one obvious guitar overdub on ‘No Feelings’. What the guitarist-producer captured does not sound like a demo tape – as Goodman’s July tracks do – but like the first three tracks of a potent debut album the original Pistols never completed before transitioning into a more musical orthodoxy.)

For the band it had been an eye-opening experience. Rotten, in particular, felt going ‘to a proper recording studio … opened our mind[s] to the possibilities’. Predictably, he gave all the credit to Spedding and none to McLaren. It was McLaren, though, who immediately put the demos to use. Two of the initial recipients were Jonh Ingham at Sounds – whose entire playlist the following week was these three songs18 – and Howard Trafford, who dubbed a cassette-copy and sent it to Tony Wilson at Granada Reports, a nightly local TV show with musical content, who promptly lost it, though not before making a note in his diary, ‘Sex Pistols – June 4.’

Read the full story of the birth of punk in Anarchy in the Year Zero by Clinton Heylin.