The host sits back in his chair and looks in contempt at his group of young guests, a mob of misfits that represent everything that is wrong with the youth of today. He is a seasoned professional, a man of respect, he had started his career by interviewing the Beatles, so what was he doing now all these years later wasting his time with these talentless hooligans. It was no secret they had all been drinking before stepping out in front of the camera, whatever it would take to survive such a tedious ordeal. ‘They are punk rockers. The new craze, they tell me,’ he sneers. ‘How did it come to this? ‘ponders fifty-three-year-old Bill Grundy as just one hour earlier he was scheduled to welcome the country’s most adored rock band Queen into the studio, yet now across the table he sees four young men and their teenage entourage who had introduced themselves to the world just a few days earlier with their first record Anarchy in the U.K. These are the Sex Pistols and they are about to make television history.
The fact that the four-piece even made it into the latest episode of Today was something of a stroke of luck, although for all involved to some degree this would prove be luck of the worst kind. Up until this fateful day on Wednesday 1 December 1976 punk had been nothing but a cult curiosity, having first emerged from the New York club scene with the likes of the Ramones and Blondie, but eventually it cast its influence over a generation of British rock fans and soon teenagers across the country formed their own group that would draw heavily from both fifties rock ‘n’ roll and the raw aggression of the Stooges. The Damned would be the first band labelled as punk to release a single in the United Kingdom, with New Rose having made its debut just two months earlier via the independent Stiff Records. But the Sex Pistols had been a cleverly-marketed masterstroke from an ambitious manager called Malcolm McLaren who, having already gained some experience within the new culture through his work Stateside with the New York Dolls, intended on creating the biggest band in the world and had already signed his latest clients to a major label, EMI Records.
Despite having earned a reported £40,000 from a two-year contract with the company, in truth the Sex Pistols felt like they were out-of-place on a label that housed such revered artists as T. Rex and Queen. Even on the rare occasions that they would grace the offices with their presence they were the scourge that threatened to tarnish the reputation of an enterprise that made wholesome music for respectable people. ‘It was very hard to tell what was going on, other than how jaded and old EMI was and how lost,’ explained frontman John Lydon, then better known as Johnny Rotten, in his 2014 memoir Anger is an Energy. ‘They had no concept of how to invest in a future. They probably just saw us as, ‘Oh look, that looks like it could be a movement. Let’s get on it!’ We weren’t the first punk band to sign a deal. The Damned did that some time before us, which was bizarre…using our punk moniker and beating us to the alleged punch. I don’t know if they were happy with their situation either. Not much was said.’
With the investment they had made on the band it is understandable that when Anarchy in the U.K. was unleashed upon the world on 26 November EMI had great expectations that it would take the public by storm and just four days after their appearance on Today the single would make its way into the British charts, first emerging at no. 43 before climbing up five places, where it would remain for the next three weeks before seemingly slipping back into obscurity. Queen, meanwhile, had enjoyed their first number one the previous Christmas with their epic Bohemian Rhapsody and by the time that Anarchy in the U.K. reared its ugly head eleven months later they had returned to the Top 10 with another popular track, Somebody to Love. For Grundy, who had first entered the industry twenty years earlier as a newsreader for Granada, the opportunity to interview a band as respected as Queen was an experience that may have rivalled the Beatles, but with his guests pulling out at the eleventh hour the label saw this as an opportunity to exploit their new client.
They hated each other
While in retrospect the furore that would surround the debacle on Today may have seemed like a calculated marketing trick conjured up by a businessman as manipulative as McLaren, their invitation would come as a last minute surprise and one that the band were not prepared for. At the time they had gathered together in an old cinema where they were rehearsing for their highly-anticipated upcoming tour but when the manager received a phone call from the label informing him that they were required to make an unscheduled appearance on a daytime television show they were quickly ushered to the studio. ‘The band was not in a great mood,’ recalled McLaren. ‘They never were. They hated each other. Over at the Thames station we all gathered in the green room and drank ourselves stupid.’ As confirmed by numerous sources the band were plied with alcohol before they were brought out into the studio, while Grundy, who was reportedly also under the influence, seemed antagonistic against his guests even before they were presented to him.
Everything about their appearance on the television show was guaranteed to court controversy and anger the more liberal viewers, particularly as Today was broadcast prior to the watershed at 6.25pm, during which time the audience would likely have included young children. While the Sex Pistols were the intended guests they were accompanied by four other individuals that were collectively known on the punk scene as the Bromley Contingent. One of these, nineteen-year-old Susan Ballion, would become an artist in her own right two years later under the stage name Siouxsie Sioux, when she became a pop culture icon through her work with Siouxsie and the Banshees. ‘We wandered through the studio and standing there were the Bromley Contingent,’ said bassist Glen Matlock in his book I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol. ‘Siouxsie’s tits were more or less hanging out…again. I thought, ‘Oh no, we want to do our stuff as a group and there’s these bleeding Herberts again.’ Malcolm was still going on with his idea of making it look like some big movement, with a capital M. We’d already done Young Nationwide with the Bromley Contingent.’
From the moment they had been informed that they were to abandon their rehearsals and make their way to the studio the Sex Pistols had been given little chance to process the events that were taking place. By the winter of 1976 Queen were about to release their fifth album, while they had already enjoyed several hit singles and a successful world tour in support of their latest offering A Night at the Opera. But the Sex Pistols had only one single to their name and had not even begun to work on an album or follow-up release; therefore, all they had was their outlandish behaviour and outspoken beliefs. One can’t help but wonder if EMI were aware of what kind of disaster they had arranged and if they had allowed the band to cause havoc on prime time television in an effort to gain exposure for a song that otherwise may have passed by with little fanfare. Sat in the green room anxiously awaiting their curtain call as they helped themselves to the alcohol at their disposal, what would transpire over the next few minutes would transform them from another cult band to the controversial face of punk rock.
‘I remember feeling sort of nervous at the time,’ drummer Paul Cook told authors Fred and Judy Vermorel. ‘And they lined us up against the wall like for the beginning of the programme. And this woman said some corny remark like, ‘Would you let your daughter go out with one of these?’ That was at the beginning and they said, ‘We’ll be seeing them later in the programme: the Sex Pistols.’ Then it came on. Glen started talking first and we thought [Grundy] was going to talk about the record and tour. And he went straight into, ‘You’ve got all this money, ain’t this rather against your anti-materialistic view of life?’ Started putting us down straight away without even getting an interview.’ With his opening question Grundy would question the band being awarded $40,000 from their record company and how this could contradict the very ethos of punk rock, accusing the Sex Pistols of having already sold out just days after the release of their first single. But things would only become worse as the host attempted to antagonise his guests and provoke them into behaving outlandishly for his viewers.
Despite EMI eager to replace one of their artists with another from their roster, once Queen had announced that they were unavailable it seemed that those behind Today and Grundy in particular were angered by their presence. ‘Matlock found out afterwards that the host Bill Grundy had been arguing with his producer because he didn’t want to do the interview,’ claimed Jones in his autobiography Lonely Boy. ‘So I don’t know if he’d got drunk to show his producer he didn’t give a shit, or maybe he did the show like that every night. Either way he was pissed and so was I…I’d necked at least two bottles of Blue Nun in the green room, maybe three, but it worked out better for me than it did for him. From the second we walked in there Grundy didn’t like us. The angle he was coming from was all about making us look stupid; he had no interest in talking to us on a normal level. That was kind of the M.O. in those days; it was the old British class system operating at full strength.’
The first pitfall would come when Gundy further prompted the point he had raised about the money they received from EMI, to which guitarist Steve Jones mumbled, ‘We fucking spent it, ain’t we?’ With this statement almost inaudible it would appear to pass the host by but as Grundy then began to list possible heroes that the band could look up to, such as classical composers like Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach, Lydon whispered, ‘That’s just their tough shit.’ Despite attempting to move the conversation away from his fau par, the singer was then pressured into repeating his obscenity and with the tone finally lowered as far as it can go Grundy was determined to see how far he could push his guests. Yet it would not be his accusations that the band had already sold out that would cause the interview to turn hostile but his inappropriate behaviour towards the Bromley Contingent which, in light of the controversy surrounding the sexual misconduct of many television presenters of the seventies and eighties towards young women, almost seemed like the Sex Pistols taking a stand against a corrupt institution.
‘Then he turned to the girls – Siouxsie and the others – and tried to drag them into the conversation,’ detailed Matlock on the moment that the interview took a hostile turn. ‘When he asked Siouxsie if she’d meet him afterwards Steve went into Warp Factor Five and weighed right into him: ‘You dirty old sod, you dirty old man.’ Grundy just wound him up: ‘Keep going chief, you’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.’ So Steve told him he was a dirty fucker, a fucking rotter (Rotter? That one cracked me up). Grundy turned to the camera, ‘Well that’s it for tonight. I’ll be seeing you soon. I hope I’m not seeing you again! From me though, goodnight.’ And that was it.’ In just a few minutes the Sex Pistols had made television history and from the spew of expletives that Jones would level against his irritated host the British public reacted with venomous disgust. No sooner had the cameras stopped rolling and the band were finally allowed to take a breath their lives would change forever and McLaren’s first decision was to evacuate the building as fast as possible, getting his clients to safety before the police arrived to arrest them.
Piss off, you old git
Yet not everyone was so eager to leave in such a hurry as Siouxsie Sioux, having enjoyed the anarchy that she had been privy to, would then cause further havoc behind the scenes as angry viewers began to phone the studio to express their disgust at the shocking behaviour that this new group had displayed live on television. ‘I remember after the TV show we were sort of whisked off into this green room and you could feel this, like…we’d opened Pandora’s Box,’ she would recall over forty years later. ‘And they put us in the green room which is where the switchboard was with all these phone calls coming in from irate members of the public saying, ‘I just watched this disgusting…’ And we were picking up the phones and saying, ‘Fuck off, you silly old cunt’ or, ‘Piss off, you old git.’ No matter how much McLaren would like to take credit for orchestrating all that, that was definitely…no one knew what had happened. A lot of people were taken by surprise by it. He had tried various tactics and none of them really worked.’
Fleeing from the scene like a gang of criminals, the band were thrown into a car and Lydon dropped off at the nearest tube station before they all returned to the safety of their homes. Amused but thinking little of their endeavour, it would not be until they awoke the following morning and saw the reaction from the tabloids that they realised the impact that their actions had on the country. Perhaps most infamously, the Daily Mirror ran with the headline The Filth and the Fury and claimed that almost two hundred viewers had phoned the studio to complain following the broadcast, while a spokesman for Thames Television had attempted some level of damage control by stating, ‘Because the programme was live we could not foresee the language which would be used. We apologise to all viewers.’ The following day the Sun revealed that the Sex Pistols were intoxicated before they appeared on the show and that alcohol had been supplied to the group by the network. By Friday 2 December, just two days after the incident, it was announced that Grundy had been suspended from his role as presenter of Today and that he had attended tense meetings with executives to discuss his future with the company.
Another casualty of their Today fiasco would be the cancellation of numerous dates from their proposed Anarchy tour that would result in shows in Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow among others being terminated at the behest of their promoters. On the same day that the Daily Mirror ran their article, McLaren was called into the offices of EMI to negotiate how the label and band could recover from the controversial episode. ‘Leslie Hill, the managing director of EMI, called my home,’ said McLaren. ‘I had to be in Manchester Square in minutes. There had been a meeting with EMI’s senior management, a statement needed to be issued to the press and they wanted me there. On my arrival I was ushered into an office where Hill was pacing the room. The morning’s papers were strewn across his desk. ‘What was I going to say?’ he asked. ‘Simply boys will be boys,’ I replied.’
Initially EMI offered their support to the Sex Pistols and even condoned their shocking behaviour, believing that it would help to generate interest in their full-length album, but within days they realised that their clients were nothing more than a thorn in their side and one that, despite the investment they had made just two months prior, they needed to distance themselves from. On 8 December, just one week after their appearance, the Guardian published an article that indicated that the label’s shareholders were uncomfortable with their association with the notorious band and that they were considering terminating their contract. Almost a month later, in the first week of January 1977, they finally made their decision. ‘EMI feels it is unable to promote this group’s records in view of the adverse publicity generated over the past two months,’ they announced in a press release that revealed the Sex Pistols had been fired after only one release.
Before their dismissal from EMI the controversy that surrounded their outrageous television appearance seemed destined to elevate them to superstardom but events would soon take an unexpected turn. ‘Everything prior to Grundy was good, in my book,’ admitted Jones. ‘It was like the normal progression of a band; we’d just made a great record, people were showing up to see us and getting converted, there was a real scene. Getting recognised for what we did by the music press was fun and it was something we could cope with. But then overnight we were on everyone’s fucking breakfast table and the Sun and the News of the World were doorstepping us in Denmark Street. Grundy didn’t just catapult us to a new level of fame, it took the whole thing into another dimension in a way that was hard to grasp. Don’t get me wrong, the notoriety was a good laugh and it definitely brought us a lot of new fans very quickly. The police was banning us, local councils were banning us…everyone was fucking banning us. It was exciting at first.’
When the Sex Pistols were first portrayed as loud and obnoxious by the British press, the group revelled in their newfound infamy but as the repercussions of their actions began to take hold they felt the results of all their hard work slowly crumbling around them. The witch-hunt that the press had created following their altercation with Grundy may have seemed amusing at first but soon it would backfire in their faces. ‘Bill Grundy was a fat, sexist beer monster who knew nothing about us and shouldn’t have been interviewing us in the first place. All we did was point that out,’ stated Lydon in his 1994 book Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. ‘It was an achievement rather than a detriment when EMI signed and then three months later dropped us. I honestly didn’t care…EMI struck me as a lame label. Guys in suits; that’s all I remember about EMI. They had one A&R chap with vaguely longish hair and he’d be allowed to wear jeans and a nice shirt. He was the token jester to make out how jolly rock ‘n’ roll they all were. But when you visited the EMI offices there was nothing but guys in suits at every table and secretaries all dolled up from nine to five. They seemed bourgeois for me, a lack of looseness.’
Looking back on the incident over four decades later and taking into consideration the reputation that the Sex Pistols would gain, it seems ridiculous to think that a major label such as EMI would even consider bringing a group such as these onto a daytime show where families would watch with the hope of seeing respectable, clean viewing. And yet as a replacement for Queen someone at the label thought that this new punk band would make the ideal guests. ‘This Pistols had this chance to go on TV and it was just fantastic to be watching it because it just got better and better,’ claimed filmmaker Julien Temple who, a few years later, would direct the rockumentary The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. ‘It was what they always were, they were a black comedy, a music hall act and the fact that the guy was so drunk was brilliant.’ Former Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder would cause a similar controversy almost twenty years later when he would utter the word ‘fuck’ several times during an interview with host Chris Evans on the music show TFI Friday but the reaction that his loose tongue would cause paled in comparison to the outcry that the Sex Pistols would cause in the early evening of a seemingly ordinary Wednesday in 1976.
‘The oddest thing at the time was that none of us could work out what Grundy was up to,’ admitted Matlock. ‘Why did he keep pushing John and Steve to swear? Years later I got an answer of kinds. I met a journalist in my local. He’d known Grundy through work, or the Fleet Street grapevine. His version of that evening was that Grundy hadn’t wanted to interview us. It wasn’t because he thought the show shouldn’t do anything on punk but that he didn’t know enough about it himself and felt someone else should do the interview. Or perhaps he just didn’t think we were worth giving the time of day to. After all, he was the first man to interview the Beatles on TV, for Granada in the early sixties. He must have considered us well beneath him.’ And then as the storm began to grow following the show’s broadcast the Sex Pistols soon found themselves standing alone against the establishment. ‘Just being banned everywhere and Malcolm being quite incapable of backing us up on that,’ said Lydon. ‘We should have gone for it at that point and really flooded the networks and the media with, ‘Why aren’t you backing us?’ But we didn’t look for allies.’