Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols Cassette

Sex Pistols - Never Mind The Bollocks Audio Cassette

So who actually did play the bass?… Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols is probably one of the most hotly-debated albums of all time. Much of the confusion probably stems from the insistence by the late Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols manager) that the band couldn’t play their instruments. Notions sprang up, in the wake of this, that the songs were recorded with various levels of ‘depping’, right up to a belief that the entire backing track was played by top session musicians and the only band member on the album was vocalist Johnny Rotten.

Clearly, that was/is far-fetched and quite ridiculous. Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook were obviously very competent musicians (despite McLaren’s sensationalist rhetoric), so paying hefty fees for session players to record on their behalf would have been pointless and a waste of money. There are also one or two mistakes on the album (very noticeably on Bodies), which you wouldn’t expect from top session players. There’s another lingering rumour that former Pistols demo producer Chris Spedding played some or all of the guitar parts. But the generally accepted version is that Paul Cook played the drums, Steve Jones played all the guitar parts, and all the bass parts except for a line on Bodies (said to have been recorded by Sid Vicious), and the bass on Anarchy in the UK (recorded by original bassist Glen Matlock before he parted ways with the band).

Anarchy in the UK had been recorded in 1976 and released as a single, but by 1977 when the rest of the tracks for Never Mind the Bollocks were being built up, Sid Vicious was the Sex Pistols’ official bass player. I’m not sure I accept the widely held view that Vicious couldn’t play, but Steve Jones apparently didn’t think he was good enough to record on the album, and Vicious was in any case in hospital with hepatitis during at least some of the recording period, so it’s fairly certain most of the bass parts were played by someone else. Some have suggested that Glen Matlock was hired back in on a paid session basis, but you can tell it’s not him because the lines are played differently. For example, on Pretty Vacant, Matlock used to play a descending pattern in the verses, but the version on Never Mind the Bollocks sees the bass sticking to the roots of the chords. It’s a different approach – the kind of approach a ‘depping’ guitarist would take.

So the most convincing story for me is that Jones played exactly what he claims – all the guitar; most of the bass. The drums are entirely in keeping with Paul Cook’s playing. I saw Cook play live once in the 1980s with Chiefs of Relief, and he was very solid and professional. The “can’t play” stuff was just a publicity gimmick. The original Pistols, with Matlock on bass, were in fact a very good band. Had they not been, they’d never have caused the cult sensation they did before UK punk went onto vinyl in 1976.

Of course, this raging debate has detracted somewhat from the potency of this album. Never Mind the Bollocks is a seminal slice of rock. The attitude’s punk, the vocals and lyrics are punk, but the sound is totally mainstream. It’s huge, full and very heavy, but it’s commercial – a brilliant piece of production. Whilst the other punk rock acts were shipping out their trashy, garage-band personality, the Sex Pistols were providing a polished and altogether more professional alternative. As the only ‘proper’ album the Sex Pistols ever released, Never Mind The Bollocks stands as the ultimate representation of this defining and staggeringly influential act.

This cassette isn’t an original issue. It hails from the 1990s, and it doesn’t even have a chrome formulation I don’t think (although there are some filled impressions for the high bias tabs on the shell, so I’m sure it’s a ‘Type II’ formulation in a Type I format). Not a product you can go out and pick up on the high street now though. And I’m sure it’ll have a couple more plays before I put it back in its drawer.

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