Were the Sex Pistols, the creators of the British punk rock movement, actually punk? This is a difficult question to answer as you take into consideration the reasoning, or more so the person, behind their creation. The genius behind the formation of the Sex Pistols? Malcolm McLaren, or in John Lydon’s words, “the most evil man in the world.”
Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s clothing boutique “Sex” was a staple for the early punk movement in Britain. The original focus of the store, originally named “Let it Rock” was to bring customers a taste of nostalgia for the classic rock era, despite McLaren’s opinions on rock ‘n’ roll being an “excuse for selling records.” When the Store was rebranded as “SEX,” the vibe of the store completely changed. The merchandise became “pornography inspired” with the sale of bondage wear and clothing depicting sexual taboos, attracting a more artistic crowd. This included Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Wally Nightingale, who formed the band, the Swankers.
The young men practically had to beg McLaren to manage their band, but in his eyes, their image was not marketable enough to be worth it to him. This specifically applied to Wally Nightingale, who McLaren referred to as a “real wanker, with glasses.” Since his look didn’t reflect the vibe of McLaren’s store, the only way he would manage them is if Wally was replaced by Jones as guitarist and they found a singer that had the look he was going for. Steve Jones didn’t have the sex symbol appearance that McLaren desired either, but he saw more potential in him to pull off the look he was trying to sell.
This begs the question of whether the Sex Pistols can truly be punk if the intention of McLaren was to promote his shop since punk is a culture of anti-corporatism and anti-consumerism. Even as they got more popular, McLaren continued to exhibit consumerist ways, such as trying to get the boys to write songs that plugged the SEX shop or promoting the shop’s clothing through the band’s wardrobes. The anti-conformist principles of punk weren’t being displayed as McLaren manipulated the view of the band to fit the image he was trying to sell.
Malcolm McLaren’s performative activism in regard to the punk movement in Britain is painfully obvious. Despite this, the effects of the Sex Pistols are still felt almost 50 years after the band’s demise. Were they even a real punk band? Depends on who you ask. Will they still be known as the force that made punk rock the global phenomenon that it is today? Absolutely.