The Epic 2017 Project #275: 171002
The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks (1977)
Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols was their only studio album. It was released just shy of 40 years ago on 28 October 1977 by Virgin Records.
At the time of its release, the band was already extremely controversial, having sworn on live TV, been fired from two record labels, and been banned from playing live in most parts of England. The album’s title added to that controversy, with some people finding the word “bollocks” offensive. Many record stores refused to carry the album and some record charts refused to list the album, showing just a blank space instead.
It was probably the best thing that could have happened as, fuelled by the mounting controversy, advance album sales ensured that the album debuted at No.1 on the UK album charts a week after its release.
Just after its release though London police visited the city’s Virgin record store branches and told them they faced prosecution for indecency as stipulated by the 1899 Indecent Advertisements Act if they continued to display posters of the album cover in their windows. The displays were either toned down or removed. However, on 9 November 1977 the London Evening Standard carried the front page headline “Police Move in on Punk Disc Shops”, and reported how a Virgin Records shop manager in Nottingham was arrested for displaying the record after being warned to cover up the word “bollocks’. Chris Seale, the shop’s manager, “it would appear, willingly set himself up as a target, possibly at Branson’s behest”, as he had apparently been visited by the police on four separate occasions and resumed displaying copies of the record in the store windows after they had left on each occasion.
After Seale’s arrest, Branson announced that he would cover the manager’s legal costs and hired Queen’s Counsel John Mortimer as defence. Meanwhile, advertisements for Never Mind the Bollocks appearing in music papers attempted to politicise the issue, showing newspaper headlines about Sex Pistols controversies that were underlined with the message “THE ALBUM WILL LAST. THE SLEEVE MAY NOT.”
The obscenity case was heard at Nottingham Magistrates’ Court on 24 November. Mortimer presented the case as a matter of police discrimination. During his cross-examination of the arresting officer, he asked why the newspapers The Guardian and Evening Standard (which had referred to the album’s name) had not been charged under the same act. When the overseeing magistrate inquired about his line of questioning, Mortimer stated that a double-standard was apparently at play, and that “bollocks” was only considered obscene when it appeared on the cover of a Sex Pistols album. The prosecutor conducted his cross-examination “as if the album itself, and not its lurid visage, was on trial for indecency”. Mortimer produced expert witnesses who were able to successfully demonstrate that the word “bollocks” was not obscene, and was actually a legitimate Old English term formerly used to refer to a priest, and which, in the context of the title, meant “nonsense”. The chairman of the hearing was forced to conclude:
Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty of each of the four charges