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.

The Story Behind the Music | The Sex Pistols TV Debut

September 4th 1976, Tony Wilson’s Granada TV show So It Goes broadcasts The Sex Pistols performance of ‘Anarchy in the UK’.

An abridged extract from Anarchy on the Year Zero by Clinton Heylin

For the Pistols, problems were a day-to-day occurrence, but so was a common determination to turn Rock on its head. And what better place to really shake ’em up than Manchester, second home to the band and the movement, and the first home of Granada TV studios. Because, after much toing and froing, the Pistols had been booked to close the last show in the first series of Granada’s late-night music show, So It Goes, compered by none other than Tony Wilson.

Although the show would not be going out live – they weren’t that stupid! – it was going to be recorded live to tape and with Tony Wilson on their side the Pistols hoped it might even be broadcast pretty much ‘as is’. Wilson’s producer was happy to go along with the majority of Wilson’s madcap ideas for the show, even if he hadn’t as yet realized that the Pistols closing the series might be a political statement on Wilson’s part…

…Wilson later claimed, ‘As they came off the stage there was complete silence, except for the footsteps of the producer coming down from the box to try to hit somebody.’ [So It Goes producer Chris] Pye dismisses that frankly incredible version as ‘nonsense’. He does, however, admit ‘we all sat around the following day going, “Fucking hell, what happened last night? What is David Plowright going to say?”’

The performance of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ on So It Goes is still probably the most alive rock performance ever shown on British TV. Even the point at which Matlock leans into the mike to sing the harmony line, realizes the mike doesn’t work and kicks it off the stage, works perfectly in the context of the order-from-chaos being caught on camera.

For the band, it was simply business as usual. But they still decided to make themselves scarce. As Matlock put it, ‘A few mike stands went over at the end of “Anarchy”, nothing more.’ Even if Wilson was later reprimanded, he remained the compere for So It Goes when Granada commissioned a second series, the following year. And this time the staid Mr Walker was nowhere to be seen.

The emphasis of the show would now be mostly, if not entirely, the wave of bands following in the Pistols’ wake. And to kick things into gear, Wilson decided a repeat broadcast of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ was in order. After all, only two regions had ever seen the show first time around – Granada (covering the North West) and London Weekend – coincidentally the two hubs on the punk machine. It also gave the Pistols an opportunity to catch it themselves, since the original broadcast went out on September 4th, while they were in Paris doing a number on the French disco scene.

Read the full story of this episode and its part in a revolutionary year for British music in Anacrchy in the Year Zero: The Sex Pistols, The Clash and the ’Class of 76.
Click here to order a hardback collector’s edition for just £10.

The Screen on the Green


29th August 1976 was the day Punk in the UK exploded. The Screen On The Green was McLaren’s big play – his first opportunity to show that three bands was indeed a movement. The three key bands played together on the same stage for the first time. Buzzcocks first foray to London. The Clash’s first ever public gig billed as Clash, and Sex Pistols, the trailblazers, headlining with a storming set to underline their dominance. And the punk crowd came out to play in all their finery, putting on their best bin bags and strutting their stuff. Read all about it in Anarchy in the Year Zero.

Enjoy all three sets. Links below.

Buzzcocks – Screen on the Green, Islington, August 29th, 1976

Audio. Buzzcocks set from The Screen on the Green Mid-Nite Special.

Clash – Screen on the Green, Islington, August 29th, 1976
Audio. Clash set from The Screen on the Green Mid-Nite Special, their second public gig and first time they were billed as Clash.

Sex Pistols – Screen on the Green, Islington, August 29th, 1976
Audio. Sex Pistols set from The Screen on the Green Mid-Nite Special

Read all about this night, what it meant and how it fitted into the explosion that was Anarchy in the Year Zero.


Clinton Heylin | The Middles Show


Mick Middles talks with Clinton Heylin about Anarchy in the Year Zero, with music from Sex Pistols recorded live in 1976, plus The Clash, The Stooges and PiL. Recorded 3rd June 2016.


Click here for more on Anarchy in the Year Zero: The Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Class of ’76.

Clinton Heylin Interview


When Clinton Heylin called in to Route HQ to sign the Collector’s Edition of Anarchy in the Year Zero, he took time out to answer some questions about the book.

Why did you write the book?
There have been punk histories over the years, and obviously I wrote a relatively famous one myself, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, all of 24 years ago, but I always thought this was unfinished business. I think one of the extraordinary things about the Pistols story which nobody really picks up on is this thing about direct inspiration. People went and saw the Sex Pistols then formed a band. I don’t mean that they saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show or that they heard a record, quite liked it, and several years later became The Smiths, I mean they went, they saw, they became musicians. There really is no parallel in popular music, either before or after.

How does this book differ from other punk accounts?
Well obviously it’s very concentrated. It starts with the Sex Pistols’ first gig in November 1975 and it ends with the final gig of the Anarchy Tour in December 1976, so it’s very compressed. The point of doing it this way is to try and give a sense of the sheer momentum of that story. This is a band who have never made a record, they are making the front pages of all the music papers and appearing on television before they even have a record deal. It’s pretty revolutionary stuff. It’s an extraordinary story and in order to get that story and momentum across, you have to compact it into this very tight narrative of those initial 86 Pistols gigs with all the little spin-off bands, and everyone else in the shadow until the end.

You talk about spin-off bands, how would you describe the hierarchy of punk?
If you talk about the hierarchy of singer-songwriters, there’s Dylan and then there’s everyone else. The hierarchy of punk is the Sex Pistols and then everyone else. Obviously I am talking about English punk here, and with English punk you are either the Sex Pistols, or you’re directly influenced by the Sex Pistols, or you’re not punk. To be a punk band you have to have seen and been directly inspired by the Sex Pistols. It is not about whether you play fast or whether you play with barre chords or don’t know what a middle eight is. There are people who keep insisting that The Stranglers are a punk band, indeed that The Vibrators are a punk band, both of those bands were in existence long before the Sex Pistols and in neither case can it be said that they were directly inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols play.

What’s the distinction between Year Zero punk of 1976, and the punk of 1977 which most people associate with punk rock?
1977 is the year of punk in the same way that 1967 is the year of psychedelia. Sgt. Pepper came out in 1967, ‘God Save the Queen’ came out in 1977. In neither case was it the year of that particular movement. Psychedelia was pretty much dead and buried by the time Sgt. Pepper came out; the year of psychedelia was 1966. All the interesting things that were going on – Pink Floyd, The Move, Tomorrow, Happenings – were all happening in 1966, not 1967. Well, punk is a bit like that really; once it becomes a cultural movement, once the tabloids think they know what punk is, it’s over, because it has to be. Once any art movement becomes a public movement, it cannot retain its true self. At the end of the book I quote Lenin who said, ‘Whoever expects a pure revolution will never live to see it,’ which is actually what he said about the Easter Rising and he’s right on many levels. The thing that I try to tell in the book is that the original punk movement was incredibly elitist. All this ‘we are all in this together, it’s the working-class lads’ is all arrant nonsense. It’s being instigated by a guy who runs a fetish sex store on the King’s Road, this is not somebody who is trying to start an annex to the Socialist Workers Party. The elitism is there in the snobbery of the individuals – you can see it in the way they looked down on the people who turned up to see the Sex Pistols in November 76, let alone November 77. In the book I quote Steve Severin turning to Siouxsie Sioux at a gig at Notre Dame saying ‘It’s all over’ because all these people had turned up in bin liners.

Why did it all go so wrong for the Sex Pistols?
Punk is combustible, that’s really the point about it. The Sex Pistols are a train wreck because of the figures in the band and the man who oversaw the whole exercise, Malcolm McLaren; those five individuals were never going to be able to keep the thing together for any kind of period of time. They all had massive issues, unresolved. Johnny Rotten was a time bomb and that’s part of what made him so incredible. People who I interview in the book, people who talk about that period, they all say that over that year when he was in the original band, the transformation in Rotten was something to behold. But there are losses and there are gains; by the end of it he was a magnetic performer but he was also starting to believe his own publicity. Sadly, it was him that conspired to end the band more than McLaren, more than circumstances. Obviously the Bill Grundy show had an effect, but it’s really that he started to believe it was his band, and it never was.

Do you see McLaren as the charlatan he is often painted?
McLaren, I think, has been slightly dumbed-down in history, but it’s entirely his own fault. I have no sympathy for him on that front because obviously he set out to convince everybody that it was all some great master plan, which of course it wasn’t. He was making it up as he was going along, but everybody who worked with McLaren in that time period has great fondness for him, so you can put that aside. What perhaps he didn’t realise was just how successful the joke would become. What is amazing is to be able to go back and realise that he connects all the dots; he’s getting people to come down to see the Pistols from NME, from Melody Maker, he’s making phone calls, he’s pissing people off, he’s getting them to write things they don’t need to, he’s doing everything he can to make this happen and it’s inspired. He gets Chris Spedding to produce the Sex Pistols six months after the band started playing, that’s impressive. He then gets Chris Spedding to pick up the bill for it as well, which is even more impressive. He’s the only one of those punk entrepreneurs who didn’t get screwed over by the record labels, in fact he took EMI to the cleaners. He was shrewd, he understood how the business worked. Unfortunately, at the end of it, it sort of became a battle between him and Rotten and instead of these spontaneous happenings, he started to try to make things happen. I think that’s the turning point. Obviously there’s the incident with Nick Kent being beaten up at the 100 Club, we don’t really know whether McLaren was behind that, but whoever was behind it, it is a turning point because he was starting to try and make things happen when there was no need to.

What’s your connection to the story, were you there?
I was sixteen years old in 1976. I’d been going to gigs for 5 years and like everybody my age who read the NME religiously, I was waiting for the next big thing. NME and Sounds were the two weeklies that I read so I read Jonh Ingham’s two-page piece on the Pistols in April 76 and I remember thinking, ‘Oh yeah, okay.’ I didn’t hear about the first Pistols gig in Manchester until it took place. I knew someone at my school who’d been to that show and he’d told me about it. I was aware enough to know when they played the second time but I hold my hands up, the reason I knew about the second gig was really because of Slaughter and the Dogs. Everybody from South Manchester knew Slaughter and The Dogs, everybody was into Bowie and that kind of thing. My curiosity was not the Sex Pistols, it was seeing one of the local bands make good.

What happened when you saw the Sex Pistols then?
I have to say in my case all I really remember is the trouble because there was a lot at that gig and it got pretty hairy. I remember I split early, I didn’t see the end of the show. I was down the front and it was no fun, as they say. But, from that point forward, I kind of figured it out. I quote Linda Sterling in the book saying Slaughter and The Dogs were one thing and the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks were another. Because Buzzcocks were in Manchester, I was more aware of them than the Pistols, and Spiral Scratch coming out was exciting, all of that. The Grundy show was only shown in London, but one of the things that people don’t talk about was seeing ‘Anarchy’ on So It Goes. It was absolutely extraordinary. Just to see a band like the Sex Pistols on TV had a profound effect. By 1977 I was seventeen, I was old enough to have a motorcycle and was able to start going to gigs on a regular basis. I saw pretty much everybody. It certainly was what I thought I was looking for all along. I’d grown up with Slade and T-Rex and all that so in that sense I always knew there was something up. I mean, I like prog bands, I still do, but I knew that they weren’t it.

In the book you talk about a small handful of people who were there and saw the Sex Pistols and they were all inspired to go on and do something else and get involved, would you count yourself amongst those?
Yeah, absolutely. I grew up reading the NME and had always wanted to write about music. I remembering replying to the ‘Young Colts’ advert that NME ran which Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill ended up getting jobs out of. I must have been one of the first people to buy Paul Morley’s Out There, the little fanzine that had a review of the Sex Pistols. I can’t remember reading that review, but I can remember where I bought the fanzine. I remember fanzines being a big inspiration, just the idea of them. I had access to a Zerox machine, which many people didn’t, because my dad had one in his office that I could raid to print my own fanzine. After the Sex Pistols I started a Public Image fanzine very early in 1978 when their first record came out. It was called Piles, Public Image Limited Information Services. I think we did 5 issues. I’d been listening to avant-gardy, proggy, kraut-rock stuff prior to punk so I didn’t have a problem with the direction things went in. My real love after the Pistols were bands like Wire and Siouxsie and The Banshees who were much more interesting to me than the na na na na na na. XTC were a great band, very underrated, and you could see all those bands for 10 bob. So it absolutely inspired me. The first book I wrote was From The Velvets to The Voidoids, which actually came out after my Dylan biography, but my first proper book was a punk book, and it continues to hold up for me and the music still holds up for me and the energy still holds up. I put on that tape of the Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall and it never fails to galvanize me, I put it on and I’m like ‘yeah’.

A lot has been made of the impact that the DIY ethos has had on music in particular. Do you think the same applies to writing?
People forget how inspirational that punk writing was in the NME and Sounds and Melody Maker. Go back and read them. Jonh Ingham’s piece about the Sex Pistols is a great piece of writing. And to hear Johnny Rotten say ‘I want more bands like us’, remember this is an interview taking place just four months after the band was formed. To have the arrogance and the sheer chutzpah to say that, and then of course it all came true. It is an extraordinary piece of foresight, and that whole aspect, reading about punk – remember there were no records, the first record came out in November 1976, we’d been reading about punk for nine months at that point, and reading about it week after week after week, reading about these bands that we couldn’t go and see. I didn’t see The Clash or The Damned until 1977, so we were reading about these and wondering ‘What the hell do they sound like?’

Charles Shaar Murray’s memorable quote about The Clash being a garage band that should stay in the garage with the motor running, there’s something great about that line. I wasn’t a musician though I did form my own crappy punk band like everyone else did. We were called The Pits, and trust me, that’s what we were. I was the drummer, we were truly atrocious. We had some great songs, ‘Sleep a Little Longer Grandma’, ‘Baby I’m a Terminal Case’, ‘Thank You God Now Get Off’, the usual punk fayre. We headlined the Tewkesbury Punk Festival.

There is definitely that Punk DIY spirit in the writing too. It’s hard to think about that now in terms of social media, the internet and interconnectivity. Certainly for me, I don’t feel that the youth are as connected as the people in the book. The people in the book had to hunt to find what they were looking for, but that hunt is what inspired them.

The interesting thing about DIY writing is the ability to say what the hell you want. And now we’ve lost that. The constraints now, even though there is the pretence that you can have your own blog or whatever, the reality is that you cannot say what you think. Somebody will shut you down, somebody will distort what you say. In Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography, she made a comment about her own body and choices that she made and she was pilloried for it by people who’ve got no damned right, who’d done nothing. Think of the good that woman has done for women who want to also make artistic statements and all these people just laying into her. Whereas, one of the beauties of punk is not only the ability to offend, but the desire to offend, an actual determination to set out to think of the worst thing that you could say to somebody 40 years old and say it. Of course the establishment reacted with horror, but it was a battle worth fighting. If you believe in something, you should be able to shout it from the roof top.

What do you consider is the legacy of 1976?

Obviously, like all art forms, the legacy is in the art. And that doesn’t just mean the music, that means the image, the literature, that means everything that goes with it. I get slightly annoyed by people talking about punk happening in 2016, it’s like people talking about the new psychedelia, there’s no such thing, there can’t be because times have changed, you cannot have punk in 2016. In its pure state, punk ended the day that The Roxy opened. If you want to have a new music movement, think of your own name, don’t come up with somebody else’s. You can take inspiration from punk, but the inspiration shouldn’t be ‘I would like to be like that’. The last quote from Rotten in the book is ‘When I said I wanted bands to be like us, I didn’t mean exactly like us’. Punk was something that could only be very short lived.

Click here to order a Collector’s Edition of Anarchy in the Year Zero: The Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Class of ’76.


Anarchy in the Year Zero | Collector’s Edition

A special signed and numbered collector’s edition of Clinton Heylin’s account of the birth of Punk is available to order now. At standard cover price, the collector’s edition comes with a set of original postcards. First come first served. Click here to order.


‘For those who weren’t there, but swear they were, now you are.’
– Richard Boon, former Buzzcocks manager

Anarchy in the Year Zero: Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Class of ’76 by Clinton Heylin is an account of a movement that not only changed the face of British music, but had a profound and lasting effect on the course of British culture as a whole. This is a forensic, passionate and breathtaking chronicle by one of the world’s leading rock historians, who was there in 1976 at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester, when the course of popular music changed forever.

Published to coincide with Year Zero’s 40th anniversary, the book reconstructs the narrative of ‘Punk ’76’ – the real Year Zero – authoritatively, if not dispassionately; to connect the dots not only literally (providing, for the first time, an accurate chronology), but laterally – by showing how many of the characters that circle the Sex Pistols spin off into new vistas of music, fashion and pop culture. Heylin’s distinctive approach of using multiple eye-witness accounts of all the key players in the story skillfully combines the objective rigor of a biography with the personal immediacy of a memoir. The result is that the reader feels as though they are there, on the inside, as the drama of this truly transformative year for British culture unfolds before us.

Clinton Heylin is one of the leading rock historians in the world, with over two dozen books to his name. These include biographies of Bob Dylan (Behind The Shades), Van Morrison (Can You Feel The Silence?), Bruce Springsteen (E Street Shuffle) and Sandy Denny (No More Sad Refrains), as well as his acclaimed pre-punk history, From The Velvets To The Voidoids, the one and only history of rock bootlegs, Bootleg, and, most recently, the highly acclaimed It’s One For The Money: The Song Snatchers Who Carved Up A Century of Pop, nominated for the 2016 Penderyn Book Award. He lives in Somerset.

‘Heylin has done a masterful job of mapping the when, where and who’s who in the Pistols pied piper saga.’
– Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth


Clinton Heylin signing Collector’s Edition

>>Click here to order Anarchy in the Year Zero Collector’s Edition