The Sex Pistols Make a Scandalous Appearance on the Bill Grundy Show & Introduce Punk Rock to the Startled Masses (1976)

The brain­less­ness and hypocrisy of tele­vi­sion has long been a source of fun and social com­men­tary in punk rock—from Black Flag’s “TV Par­ty” (“I don’t even both­er to use my brain any­more”) to the Dead Kennedys’ “M.T.V. –Get Off the Air” (“… feed­ing you end­less dos­es / of sug­ar-coat­ed mind­less garbage”). It’s fit­ting then that one of the sem­i­nal moments in punk his­to­ry hap­pened on tele­vi­sion, orches­trat­ed by Sex Pis­tols man­ag­er and arch provo­ca­teur Mal­colm McLaren, who knew as well as any­one how to manip­u­late the media. The noto­ri­ous Bill Grundy inter­view, which you can watch—likely not for the first or even sec­ond time—above, rock­et­ed the Sex Pis­tols to nation­al infamy overnight, sim­ply because of a few swear words and some slight­ly rude behav­ior.

Though the U.S. does its damn­d­est to keep up these days, no one in 1976 could match the out­rage machin­ery of the UK press. As rock pho­tog­ra­ph­er and man­ag­er Leee Black Childers put it in the oral his­to­ry of punk, Please Kill Me, the tabloids “can work the pop­u­lace into a fren­zy.” McLaren goes on record to say, “I knew the Bill Grundy show was going to cre­ate a huge scan­dal. I gen­uine­ly believed it would be his­to­ry in the mak­ing.” We might expect him to take cred­it after the fact, but in any case, it worked: the day after the band’s appear­ance on the Grundy-host­ed Today show on Thames Tele­vi­sion, every tabloid paper fea­tured them on the front page. The Dai­ly Mir­ror pro­vid­ed the title of Julien Temple’s 2000 doc­u­men­tary with their clever head­line, “The Filth and the Fury.”

Even in 2008, a sur­vey showed the Grundy inter­view as the most request­ed clip in UK tele­vi­sion his­to­ry. With all this hype, you might be dis­ap­point­ed if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it. Though f‑bombs on TV can still cause a minor stir, a few mum­bled curse words will hard­ly gar­ner the kind of pub­lic­i­ty they did forty years ago. McLaren claims punk rock began that day on the Today show, and that’s true, at least, for the view­ing pub­lic who would have been treat­ed to an appear­ance from Queen if Fred­die Mer­cury hadn’t devel­oped a crip­pling toothache. Instead, they were intro­duced to Paul Cook in a Vivi­enne West­wood naked breasts t‑shirt, and Glen Mat­lock, Steve Jones, and John­ny Rot­ten toss­ing insults at Grundy, who egged them on, hit on the teenage Siouxsie Sioux, part of the band’s entourage, and may have been drunk, though he denied it.

It may be one of the least wit­ty exchanges in tele­vi­sion his­to­ry, and that’s say­ing a lot. But for all the pearl-clutch­ing over the band’s cru­di­ty, it’s maybe Grundy who comes off look­ing the worse. More inter­est­ing than the inter­view itself is the hyper­bol­ic fall­out, as well as what hap­pened imme­di­ate­ly after­ward. The sta­tion was flood­ed with com­plaints, and for some rea­son, its tele­phone sys­tem rerout­ed unan­swered calls to the green room, where the band and their fol­low­ers had decamped. “A pro­duc­er on the pro­gramme ignored instruc­tions to remain in the room,” notes Jon Ben­nett at Team Rock. “The result? The group start­ed answer­ing the phones and dish­ing out even more abuse. How this evad­ed the press at the time remains a mys­tery.” Indeed. It’s doubt­ful McLaren could have planned it, but the image evokes the sneer of every punk who has ever spit on the pious insis­tence that TV spoon­feed its view­ers mid­dle-class deco­rum with their adver­tis­ing, sports, wish-ful­fill­ing fan­tasies, and info­tain­ment.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Sex Pis­tols’ Very Last Con­cert (San Fran­cis­co, 1978)

The Sex Pis­tols’ 1976 Man­ches­ter “Gig That Changed the World,” and the Day the Punk Era Began

The Sex Pis­tols Play in Dal­las’ Long­horn Ball­room; Next Show Is Mer­le Hag­gard (1978)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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