Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Warners Courts The Sex Pistols
Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.
Mo Ostin kept at his job as head of Warner Bros. Records. His job: keep open to emerging acts, no matter how-where-what-which-huh? He’d experienced much. Then, in 1977, he heard the weirdest of all. All the way from London.
Over there, a thrown-together “group” (really just four street lads) got named “The Sex Pistols.” The group kept showing up in the trade papers. They’d get a label contract half-signed, then fully rejected. No real album had so far come out, and no real deal for North America ever existed, either. And the news coverage made the group sound, as they say in Burbank, fairly fart-y.
For instance, the Sex Pistols’ album title was going to be titled “Never Mind the Bollocks.” Well, in Burbank, the word “bollocks” meant nothing. Not so in England.
The Sex Pistols had been assembled and named by a London entrepreneur named Malcolm McLaren, who’d opened a clothing store based on astonishing attitudes. For him, the music meant little, the publicity meant all. “Bollocks” had gotten attention right off.
Bollocks for Sale
(In England, “Bollocks” as a word was eventually taken to court in a lawsuit, England vs. McLaren. During the trial, a language expert noted that the usage of the word “bollocks” could be traced back to the Middle Ages, where it was a synonym for “little balls,” a.k.a. “testicles.” The court judged the Sex Pistols “not guilty” for using “bollocks,” pointing out it was usage like naming a English town city “Maidenhead.” McLaren felt stunned at being not guilty.)
Now: Back to making the album and finding the label.
The first label deal: McLaren had signed the Sex Pistols with England’s EMI Records. That deal went bust when Pistols said “fuck” to Queen Elizabeth with the package of their ugly “God Save the Queen” single, her mouth pinned shut.
So next, the second label deal: McLaren had been able to sign his Pistols to Virgin Records. But not for American distribution. The colonies were still open.
Then, for U.S. distribution, A&M had agreed to sign the group. However, when A&M’s head in London, Derek Green, met with the group in his office, the Pistols reportedly stood and peed on his desk. A&M bailed out of their U.S. distribution deal within a week.
Warner Bros. Records was approached next. To get the label’s eyes and ears to validate this “possible” signing, Mo Ostin sent two of his execs over to London to meet with this born-to-say-fuck group.
On the plane were Bob Krasnow, WBR’s “Executive Without Portfolio,” who’d earlier helmed Loma Records for WBR, and Bob’s Artist Relations pal, Bob Regehr. Both had dealt with “fringe” music for WBR.
And to these two, the Sex Pistols clearly sounded fringe-y fart-y.
The London Audition
Landing in London, the Warner execs limo’d to the address they’d been given, there to meet The Sex Pistols. That street address led them down, below the city surface. Then more steps down. Krasnow mentioned he’d never been this low before which, from him, meant a lot.
Down and down stairs, and Krasnow referred to it as Journey to the Center of the Earth. It smelled.
This would not lead to his kind of a vocal group.
Below, Krasnow and Regehr found a room with torn mattresses, paper everywhere, a few amps, and whacked-out (though not drugged-out) boys. Two had appropriate names; Johnny Rotten (lead voice) and Sid Vicious (bass guitar).
When the Pistols met Regehr and saw his cigar, they spat fast vulgarities. They offered the two Americans slugs from the same bottle they’d been drinking from, a mix of beer and Scotch.
Krasnow noticed the group had “things” in their belly buttons. And they had words scrawled across their chests.
Krasnow asked them to play something. He later recalled, “It was the worst shit I’d ever heard. Horrific. The music was a train wreck. They weren’t even playing the same song.”
It was being recorded:
The Audition Record:
They wanna play “Johnny B. Goode” while you sing “Through My Eyes.”
God! Awright, then.
If you could see … oh God, fuck off …
Ayan Louisiana ya-ya New Orlean
I was a bada baby an’ a little key
Ayiinananananananana Johnny B. Goode!
A-gogogogogogo Johnny B. Goode!
A-gogo, go Johnny, gogogogogo
I don’t know the words!
Ayayayayaya-strah anda banayaya
I wanna wanna bay, yayayaya
Let’s gogo, ago Johnny gogogogo
A-gogo, go go go gogogogogogogogogogogogo
Oh, Johnny, go, go
Go! Johnny B. Goode
Oh, fuck, it’s awful!
Hate songs like that!
Quick! Back to Burbank
For the Warner pair, the audition felt ugly, the music sounded awful, their band’s clothes were uh rotten, and, well, Mo would get whatever he wanted.
Krasnow sorted it out in his head: “They had something. Attitude, that’s it.” But to be honest, he’d have to tell Mo he didn’t like them.
True to form, Mo decided to sign the Pistols. To sign the deal papers, McLaren and the Sex Pistols came to Mo’s office in Burbank. There, no desk pee-ing occurred.
Even after the Sex Pistols went on and on about how they hated record companies so much they’d made those other companies give up their cash advances for the Pistols, Mo showed no sign of repulsion. Although he’d never seen a band so ugly-of-dress, with ripped leather jackets, dangling chains, pants half torn off.
Mo saw the Pistols “public relations man” spit, and also speak spit: “I don’t listen to music,” Rotten told Mo. “I hate all music. The only thing that keeps half the people alive in factories is the fucking radio on all day.”
McLaren had the contract in hand, ready to sign. Mo grabbed his pen and quickly signed. Done. The Sex Pistols had a home in Burbank. Or at least a deal.
On the way out of his office, Mo Ostin asked McLaren, “Hey, if I sign this band, do I have to wear all their gear?”
Mo’s tolerance again paid off. Krasnow and Regehr shrugged; they knew Mo would, kind of.
So did other artists who spoke up about the group: The Stones’ Keith Richards recalled, “The Sex Pistols? It’s a real feeling of déjà vu. They puked at the London airport. We pissed in the filling station.”
And Neil Young: “I’ve never met Johnny Rotten, but I like what he did to people.”