Perfect Sound Forever

On the Sex Pistols and Steve Jones

by Cyrus Manasseh
(April 2021)

Through the final decades of the last century, and still for us today, the influence of the Sex Pistols on musicians and culture as protesters and rebels against the cultural status quo has been enormous. Although there have been various reunions after the band disbanded in January 1978, in only a very brief period, 1976-78, the recalcitrant and pot-stirring Pistols exerted their influence. In fact, without the Pistols, entire genres of music, including indie, electro, thrash metal, grunge, and rap, probably wouldn't have existed in the way that they did, and even much of the music of the '80s at least would have sounded completely different. There probably wouldn't have been "back to basics" bands like the Buzzcocks, Magazine, Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays, or even the Madchester scene, which came out of Britain in the '80s and included the Stone Roses, the Verve, and Oasis. Australian bands like Midnight Oil and the Angels, and American ones like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, would not have existed as they did, or at least would have sounded very different.

While all this may be true, the Pistols haven't always received the musical approbation they deserve. Even though Rolling Stone magazine put them as number 58 on its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time, sometimes due to their anarchic presence they have been known more for their political attitudes and fashion sense than for their music. Yet their music was actually very consistent and very well played. Significantly, much of the Pistols' musicality came from guitarist and cofounder Steve Jones, who took from the old and created something new and who, from the beginning, through his guitar playing, was a driving force that strongly shaped the band's sound. Jones's mutinous anthemic style and sound maintained certain links to classic rock, but greatly reflected the spirit of youth in Britain at the time. His guitar playing represents and reflects the band's altering of the sound of popular music.

In fact, Jones's secret to the success of his simple cutthroat style of guitar playing was that it was always executed perfectly, even though much of what he played came from the frustration of not knowing how to play. Inspired by Mott the Hoople, the Small Faces, and Roxy Music's performance of "Virginia Plain" on the British TV music show Top of the Pops, and a style that had been embedded in a long tradition from Link Wray's "Rumble" in 1958 to the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" in 1963, Jones-reacting against much that had been exemplified in the music by classic rock dinosaurs-through the Pistols reinstalled, along with guitarists such as Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, the original simplicity of early rock and roll, often using only three chords to generate a sufficient amount of stir against what was then being seen at the time as a stifling pompous virtuosity coming from progressive bands like Yes, Deep Purple, and ELP, with their fanciful technical abilities and extended solos.

But though he had railed against much of what existed at the time, he, and punk in general, had not been shy of guitar solos as long as they were economical, much like you'd hear in the garage rock that influenced it. Jones helped set the template for that in punk-you can hear it in the Clash and in the Buzzcocks, whose steady wall of sound and style of short fast catchy songs would also resurface in the '90s with grunge bands like Nirvana and even indie band Nada Surf, as well as many others who reflected Jones's immense and powerful influence. Reviewing the last Pistols show of their ill-fated U.S. tour in 1978 for Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus said that Jones sounded like he was playing "a guitar factory instead of a guitar."

Born in London, Jones had grown up with his mother as an only child after his father had left him at the age of two. Living a life of crime and enduring fourteen criminal convictions he had lacked the ability to function normally until his forties. Yet despite this, his overall musicianship had revealed an accuracy, an energy, a great sense of drive and determination, and much raw talent. Even though he had learned to play only a few months before the band had started gigging, he would go on to use his role in the Pistols to save him from his unstable life, providing the band's singer, Johnny Rotten aka Lydon, with a space in which to carry on his anarchic proclamations.

In fact, Jones's surprisingly good musicianship, which had existed contrary to Pistols' manager and impresario Malcolm McLaren's desire for the band to not actually be able to play well so that much of the public could identify with the band's sense of hopelessness, had connected directly with the British youth, captivating them and catapulting the band towards helping create a great moment of change while dismaying much of the general public and symbolizing a transition towards greater cultural freedoms.

Aiming to disrupt and protest against as many traditional values as possible, the groundbreaking Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols-the only studio album by the Pistols, recorded at Wessex Sound Studios in London in October 1977-had revealed Jones's ability through his guitar playing to create a very great frenetic energy that always has a sense of precision, economy, and consistently tense momentum-helping to show everybody just how good an amateur can sound. Filled with "hits," the album is similar in spirit to the Beatles' debut album, Please Please Me, released in 1963, in the way that it goes rapidly from one song to the next with a minimum of fuss. Throughout, Never Mind the Bollocks aims to show that the Pistols are a no-bullshit band. Jones's powerfully consistent playing helps the band sound like they own and rule the culture. On the album, even though the Pistols' original bassist, Glen Matlock, is credited with writing the tunes and Lydon the lyrics, Jones did even more than just put his own stamp on the music-in fact, he gave the Pistols almost all of their sound.

On Never Mind the Bollocks, Jones's impressive and powerful guitar sound was achieved by using two different-sounding Gibson Les Paul guitars. Other than on "Bodies," where he used a Les Paul with single coil pickups to create its prominent chugging sound, the majority of his sound was executed through a twin humbucker-equipped Les Paul through a Fender Twin amplifier, which he had stolen years before from a reggae band that was opening for Bob Marley. Although using more distortion on his guitar, the guitarist often sounds as if he had taken the Who and the Kinks as a kind of inspiration, playing similar repetitive chords-like riffs on all songs, filling the sound with coherency and urgency and an overall evenness, which ties each song to the next while providing a tight musical framework for Lydon to inhabit. In addition, owing to the absence of Matlock's replacement, Sid Vicious, on the sessions, Jones also played bass on the album.

On the album's opening track, "Holidays in the Sun," Jones plays like a bull in a china shop while displaying a tightly controlled sense of anarchy, before he leads the band into the next song, "Bodies." Like "No Feelings," which is the next song on the album (and whose chorus makes many of us remember Australian band the Angels and their song "Take a Long Line"), "Liar" is driven by the guitarist's relentless power chording, and the song in addition has a great energetic and economical lead guitar solo. On "God Save the Queen," Jones employs incessant, repetitive, but catchy power-chord riffing, then provides another anarchic yet consistent and tight guitar solo. As studio engineer Bill Proceed said, "Steve Jones was, and still is, about the tightest lead guitarist I've ever heard in my life."

In fact, regardless of the reality that the Pistols poked fun at and rejected the classic rock dinosaurs, they weren't totally immune from borrowing from them. Chris Thomas, the producer of Never Mind the Bollocks, had also worked on the Beatles' 'White Album,' and Jones's introduction to "God Save the Queen" sounds quite a bit like the introduction to "Revolution." "Problems," "Anarchy in the UK," "Pretty Vacant," and "New York" share a similar mode of attack from Jones. The latter's main guitar riff sounds inspired by Pete Townshend and Dave Davies, while also revealing a new way to play and sound.

In fact, very many musicians coming after the Pistols followed Jones's sound and way of playing-sometimes almost verbatim-and many wanted to work with him. To name only a few, Jones's influence can be heard in bands like Discharge, Joy Division, Soundgarden, Green Day, Nirvana, Oasis, the Prodigy, and even Guns N' Roses. When you consider the enormous influence and impact these musicians have had you come to realize how important Jones was, still is, and will always be. Through the Pistols he greatly shaped the sound of so much that came after in popular music, revealing just how important a member of the Pistols he was.

All of this is quite incredible for someone who had taught himself to play only three months before starting the band. Incidentally, Jones began with musical gear he had stolen from the back of a lorry belonging to David Bowie, who was performing at London's Hammersmith Odeon. You could say that through this thievery Jones was maintaining his and the band's connection to classic rock while moving forward.

After the band split up, the talented Jones went on with Pistols' drummer Paul Cook to form the Professionals and also did work with other prominent musicians like Johnny Thunders, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Thin Lizzy, members of Duran Duran, and Guns N' Roses.

Considering his very great influence, it is not surprising that he is considered one of the most important and influential guitarists in popular music. Rolling Stone listed him as one of the 100 best guitarists of all time, and Jones definitely deserves to be there. Based on his memoir, Lonely Boy, which was published in 2016 (with a foreword by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders), a TV series about the legendary Jones and the Pistols is expected to be out in 2022. It will be quite a story to see on our digital screens.

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