Artist: Sex Pistols
Title: Pretty Vacant
Description: single; album track, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1979
The killing joke is that the first punk single I bought with my own pocket money, aged 13, was Somethin’ Else by the Sex Pistols. This was in March 1979, a month after the death of Sid Vicious and over a year since the band broke up onstage at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. This was the Sex Pistols’ testimonial year, the year of flogging a dead horse, the year The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle provided their patchwork, cartoon legacy and four hit singles that didn’t have Johnny Rotten on them. I signed on for punk the year that punk was dead, the year, according to England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage, that “Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall and there was no way of piecing him together.” Ever get the feeling I’d been cheated?
I neither knew nor cared; in that formative year for me, the Sex Pistols were my favourite band, and records kept coming out with their ransom-note logo on, so I bought those with my pocket money too. My appreciation of their story, and their historical context, came subsequently. By the end of that year, I was fully versed in their short back catalogue. In 1980, when I formed my first bedroom band, DDT, with Pete Sawtell, Pretty Vacant was one of our first attempts at a cover. (Also, You’ve Got My Number by the Undertones.) Pete played guitar; I sang and played “drums”, which were two bike tyre levers and a Tupperware tub. There were no printed lyrics to Pretty Vacant, so we guessed them: “I’ve just remembered a germ can fly,” sticks in my head. I have never been able to place a Sex Pistols single higher than Pretty Vacant ever since.
The Pistols have passed through the cleansing fires of history more than once. They’ve been sanctified and dismissed, inflated and belittled, shouted from the rooftops and stuck in the bargain basement. The passage of time seems to oversimplify and overcomplicate punk simultaneously. At the time of writing this piece, John Lydon had been making headlines by having a pop at Russell Brand for advocating anarchy and revolution, which is confusing, but then Lydon was 58 and he did it first (he’s 65 now). Pretty Vacant earned the Pistols their first Top Of The Pops appearance and Single Of The Year in the NME, and yet it’s always overshadowed by Anarchy In The UK and God Save The Queen, for self-evident narrative reasons. For all its tuneful bluster and gut-level impact, it seems not to define the band or provide a handy shortcut for makers of music documentaries. It lacks highlighter-pen buzzwords like “Antichrist”, “IRA” or “Belsen” (“Bel-sunn-ah”), and the poetry of “there’s no future in England’s dreaming” or “flowers in the dustbin”. But I don’t care.
Steve Jones’ surprisingly intricate intro, which hangs in the air longer than you might expect from a music thumbnailed as nasty, brutish and short, is then duffed up by Paul Cook’s heftily pummeled drums and what we may assume is a spectral bassline also supplied by Jones (Sid was not encouraged to the album sessions and apparently had hepatitis at the time anyway). By the time Lydon, or Rotten, sneers into earshot, it’s crashing around with suitable violence but the arrangement never takes its foot off the floor or loses its balance. Jones and Cook would require a bulldozer to knock over when in their extra-sensory pomp. There may be little finesse in the guitar shadowing the vocal, but this is not dumb music.
For a band all about turning up, saying something outrageous and pissing off, Never Mind The Bollocks always takes you aback with its subtleties, wit and tunes, satisfactorily and perhaps against all odds marshalled by producer Chris Thomas. And Pretty Vacant, the little song that could, has to fend for itself, with a lyric about very little and only Lydon’s bear-baiting emphasis on the second syllable of “vay-cunt-ah” to cause offence. You could even pick up the tune and guitar parts and lay them over a Thin Lizzy song, but where’s the dishonour in that? Both bands were talented, commercial hitmakers. (And of course Cook and Jones ended up playing with them.)
Pretty Vacant is both pretty and vacant. How about that? The lyric is adamant it will not give anything up and says so: “There’s no point in asking, you’ll get no reply.” (Jamie Reid’s sleeve cunningly depicts an empty frame.) What’s more, “You’ll always find us … out to lunch.” In other words, you won’t find them at all. By the way, could there be a less “punk” place to find them than out to lunch, whether literally or figuratively? I find the whole song so playful. It’s of a piece with the future, Rottenless confection Silly Thing (“Oh you silly thing, you’ve really gone and done it now”). The Pistols weren’t all concentration camps and fascist regimes.
“Stop your cheap comment, ’cos we know how we feel.”
Lydon builds a wall around himself lyrically and yet somehow, invites you in. There’s joy in the chorus (“We’re so pretty, oh so pretty,” they mouth off, Lydon enunciating the hard “t” with feeling), no matter how much the band might protest to not care. I never can quite match it up with Glenn Matlock’s claim that the riff was stolen from ABBA’s S.O.S., but I like the idea.
I will intellectualise this visceral slab of discontent no further. It is what it is: a band who could write and play, writing and playing with verve and wry humour and the occasional flourish, captured in their moment and giving the idea of punk some actual bollocks.