The Infinite Jukebox: The Sex Pistols’ ‘Bodies’

Like a lot of people of my generation, even in Manchester, I heard of The Sex Pistols before I heard them. Though I didn’t attend, I saw the posters for the Lesser Free Trade Hall show, surprising me with the band’s name. That was at least neutral, but everything else I heard was negative. The newspaper headlines about the Bill Grundy Show, everything in the Press, and in complete contrast, the rave reviews the band were getting in the New Musical Express all prejudiced me against them.
I only really listened to Radio 1 at weekends, to the Top 30 show, but Piccadilly Records were no more enthused about playing punk than the Beeb. But eventually, towards the end of 1976, I did hear ‘Anarchy in the UK’, on a Sunday afternoon. And I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the sheer directness, the energy, could have been made for me after years of progressive and airbrushed rock. On the other, what was it with that voice?
It was the same story with the rest of punk that I got to hear, here and there. Most of The Clash’s first album in a long-gone Manchester record shop. The energy, the simplicity, the basicness versus the awful singing.
Slowly though, through 1977, I started to hear more and I started to like punk more, and the Sex Pistols taught me an invaluable life message when they released ‘God Save The Queen (No Future)’. It was announced at the start of the Piccadilly Radio news half hour at 1.00pm: Sex Pistols release record insulting the Queen, calling her a moron.
Once they got to the item, I listened carefully as half a dozen Manchester punks all explained, patiently, carefully, reasonably, incontrovertibly, that the song did no such thing, that it used the Queen as the symbol of a system that made the subjects into morons. They were so obviously correct, and the claim so thoroughly refuted that I waited through to the closing headlines to see the lead corrected: Sex Pistols release record insulting the Queen, calling her a moron.
I see, I see. I get the picture.
When it came to understanding and listening to punk rock in more general terms, I found my preferences lying in a slightly different direction, Manchester’s own Buzzcocks, naturally, then the wonderful Undertones. My mate Steve bought the Sex Pistols’ album, Never Mind the (Prominent Word) enthusiastically, but it was never going to be his kind of hard-edged raucous music and he sold it on to me.
Which was where I got to the track that’s the subject of this essay, ‘Bodies’.
I wouldn’t necessarily say I like the song. It’s actually a pretty vile song, as even the most cursory scan of the lyrics will demonstrate. ‘She was a girl from Birmingham,’ Johnny Rotten snarl/sneers, making you feel that that alone is enough in his eyes to reduce her to the level of an animal, but the song’s subject is made manifest in the next line: ‘She’s just had an abortion’.
Now that’s not necessarily the best subject for a set of lyrics in 2020, and this was 1977, so there’s no doubt that this song is being recorded first, foremost and entirely to cause offence. And the Pistols knew how to cause offence. The song is an explosion of disgust and despite everything Lydon has said down the years about it being neither pro- nor anti-abortion, the words on their own are a scream of utter disgust and that’s before you hear the force with which Rotten expresses them.
There’s no need to go into all the details of the lyrics, just two more moments will suffice. One is where Rotten practically screams, ‘Screaming fucking bloody mess’ to conclude a verse about the graphic aspects of illegal abortion, and the other comes out of a momentary break in the wall of sound being produced by Messrs Smith, Jones and Matlock, as Rotten returns to the fore with ‘Fuck this and fuck that, fucking all the fuckers, fucking brat’, before returning to his theme, if you can call it that, with the malevolent line, ‘she don’t want a baby who looks like that’, before confirming that he don’t want a baby who looks like that: is this supposed to be your foetus, Rotten? Then what fucking business is it of yours?
I mean, this isn’t really a song, it’s a two and a half minute expression of pure bile, but it’s something of almost incredible force, a force of nature, red in tooth and claw and stunning for it. I don’t have anything in my music collection, tangible or digital, that’s got a fraction of the sheer drive this record possesses, and that impresses me, against my will. In the old sense, it is awesome.
And that buys it a place on the Infinite Jukebox, to be played only every now and then, under sterile conditions. I’d hate to have anything else infected by it.

The Infinite Jukebox: Neil Young’s ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and ‘Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)’

This time we’ll have a double-header of the same song, by the same artist, only the two songs couldn’t be more different, nor one of them more brilliant.
In 1979, Neil Young was in danger of disappearing. Since the commercial success and reception of Harvest, and hitting the British Top 10 with ‘Heart of Gold’, his albums had grown dark and dense, sales failures with only the odd highlight here and there. Punk and New Wave had threatened the status quo of the ProgRock Gods era, with its short, sharp bursts of intensity and drive and, fairly or not, Young was among those titanic icons we were looking to sweep away.
But Young still had the intensity as well, and the integrity to see Punk as a challenge, a demand to be different, be raw, and personal. He came back with the lengthy ‘Live Rust’ tour, out of which came the mostly live Rust Never Sleeps album, a set split into an acoustic side of Young, a guitar and a harmonica, up there, up front, alone, and an electric side, joined by Crazy Horse.
Young chose one song to start and end the album, to bookend it and to mark the distance travelled between the opening and the closing of the set, with words and small differences to the lyrics to mark how great a gulf lies between the two performances.
In the beginning, it is ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)’. It’s clean, it’s bright. Young picks out the notes with brio, an elemental melody alternating between notes and chords. His voice, that enigmatic cracked falsetto, rises about the music. He sings about the simple power of rock’n’roll. Because the meaningless words of the title are arranged this way, he can sing/repeat that the music is here to stay, drawing into line the essential unity of the music since the beginning.
And that gives him the famous line: it’s better to burn out than to fade away, the one everyone heeds, the one that Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note, so understandable yet so unfitting, from a song whose ethos is life. Young’s out to tie music into everything.
Out of the Blue, though. Not the suddenness of an unexpected change, but rather the leaving of a state of sky-high magnificence. But where does anyone go who has come out of the Blue. Young has a simple answer. They go Into the Black. And they never return.
Young asks if what he sings is the story of a Johnny Rotten, comparing the already crashed-and-burned Sex Pistols with the once equally dangerous Elvis Presley, who became an icon as bloated as everything his youthful energy threatened.
Is this the story of a Johnny Rotten? Young answers himself with a harmonica solo before returning to his theme, only this time it has been reversed. Hey Hey, My My. Rock’n’Roll will never die. But already we’re seeing it in another light, the light of Death.
Seven songs intervene, at least two of them astonishingly brilliant, before Young returns to his leading song. Hey Hey, My My. The simple, acoustic music, with its brightness, its clarity, is insufficient to handle the other side of the coin, to go. Young needs the force of the band, he needs to bury the song in a crushing mountain of sonic fury, in the dirtiest, loudest, deepest and most grungy sound he and they can develop, the blueprint, a decade later, for grunge, for Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who will not fade away.
We’ve passed into some kind of inferno. Young repeats the words that ended the first version, telling us now that there’s more to the picture than meets the eye. He repeats what happens when you go from Blue to Black. A guitar solo replaces the harmonica. Johnny Rotten is introduced but now he is ‘the’ Johnny Rotten, not ‘a’. And that line we remember is itself changed. It’s better to burn out because Rust Never Sleeps. Decay, deterioration, diminution awaits all of us unless we fight it.
For now this is a war, a war for Young to stay what we must all be, difficult, demanding, tearing down what restricts us, what makes us comfortable, self-satisfied. And Crazy Horse surround him like the band for Hell: how can only four men sound so big as this?
Of the two, my heart lies in ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’, for its sheer power, for its determination to look entropy in the eye and spit in it. For all that it is the sound of darkness, and flame everlasting, it is the sound of Life, more so even that its little brother with its openness. Neil Young met the challenge of irrelevance and threw it down.
Would that we all could do that so well.