Oh So Pretty: How Sex Pistols Embodied The Punk Aesthetic

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Sex Pistols photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Punk spearheads Sex Pistols changed the course of rock’n’roll, but, as a gloriously evocative coffee table book, 1977: The Bollocks Diaries, shows, they also led the field when it came to representing their genre aesthetically. Collaborating closely with talented artists, graphic designers and photographers such as Jamie Reid and Ray Stevenson, the band were closely involved in overseeing and producing their own artwork. Collectively, they produced images which captured the subversive nature of punk, and, as The Bollocks Diaries reminds us, the most striking Sex Pistols artwork continues to rank the most iconic images in popular culture.

So, never mind the bollocks… here’s some of the best Pistols punk imagery.

Poster Boys
Used on posters/flyers to advertise the band’s show in Trondheim, Norway, during their Scandinavian tour of July 1977, this popular – and unusually light-hearted – shot of the band being sprayed with beer by John Lydon was taken by photographer Peter Vernon. Frequently repurposed to accompany Sex Pistols articles to this day, it was originally one of EMI’s pre-Bill Grundy promotional shots and it also graced the walls of Glitterbest HQ, manager Malcolm McLaren’s company office in London.

Held To Ransom
First seen by the wider public with the distressed Union Jack flag image adorning Sex Pistols’ classic first 45, ‘Anarchy In The UK’, Jamie Reid’s ransom note-style of lettering became an essential element of Sex Pistols artwork. Here, however, it’s been put to good use in a press advert for the shows on the Never Mind The Bans UK tour of December 1977. Despite the controversy constantly dogging the band, they successfully completed most of these concerts, including a benefit gig for striking firemen in Huddersfield on Christmas Day.

They Meant It, Maaaaaaaaaaaan!
Described by The Observer as “the single most iconic image of the punk era”, Jamie Reid’s legendary adaptation of Cecil Beaton’s Silver Jubilee portrait of Queen Elizabeth II remains instantly recognisable.

Though best known for featuring a torn image of the Queen’s face for the blue-and-silver 7” sleeve for May 1977’s ‘God Save The Queen’ single, the portrait was actually utilised in a number of ways. Here we can see how Jamie Reid built this particular piece of Sex Pistols artwork, initially adding the ransom note lettering and then the safety pin through the lower lip, though at this stage the eyes and mouth were yet to be disfigured.

With the removal of the Queen’s eyes and mouth – and the redeployment of Sex Pistols’ logo and the song title – the ‘God Save The Queen’ image as we know it was complete. As well as adorning the record sleeve, it was also used on a promotional poster, emblazoned on a traditional Union Jack Flag, and also in full-page adverts for the single, published by the NME and Sounds.

Shoplift It While You Can
Inaccurately, the ‘God Save The Queen’ advert stated that the song wouldn’t be on Sex Pistols’ forthcoming album, though the claim “it won’t be out at all for very long” wasn’t so wide of the mark as most of the UK’s high street retailers (WH Smith, Woolworth’s, Boots) and mainstream media outlets (Thames TV, BBC Radio 1) refused to either stock or promote the single or the band’s debut album, Never Mind The Bollocks… Here’s The Sex Pistols.

However, as Virgin Records’ memorable advert in the NME shows, the band did have their supporters, including DJ John Peel, Capital Radio and selected independent record shops. Gleefully celebrating the subversive success of ‘God Save The Queen’ in the summer of 1977, the image has since re-emerged on the sleeve for Sex Pistols’ 3CD interviews box set, More Product.

Road To Nowhere
Somehow subverting the bans, Virgin managed to persuade the BBC to air the video for Sex Pistols’ third single, ‘Pretty Vacant’, on Top Of The Pops. The promotional campaign also extended to a striking, but lesser-known black-and-white ‘Dance To The Sex Pistols’ poster, which depicts proto-selfie, photo-booth style shots of the band’s audience in mid-pogo. (The ‘Pretty Vacant’ single itself was housed in another memorable example of Sex Pistols artwork, featuring a smashed picture frame and – on the rear – Jamie Reid’s classic images of the band’s tour bus with destinations reading ‘Nowhere’ and ‘Boredom’, respectively.)

Cheap Dialogue, Cheap Essential Scenery
Sex Pistols’ fourth single, ‘Holidays In The Sun’, was based on the band’s experiences during a trip to the (then) divided city of Berlin, but its magnificently subversive artwork and its spin-off postcards were inspired by a seemingly innocuous, cartoon-based brochure promoting Belgian family holidays. Having subtly doctored the original to relay Lydon’s lyric about concentration camps and Communist-ruled East Berlin, the band were later sued by a less-than-amused Belgian Tourist Board.

Retail Therapy
Not to be dissuaded by the public vilification – and subsequent obscenity-related court case that sprang from displaying the Never Mind The Bollocks… Here’s The Sex Pistols artwork in Virgin’s Nottingham outlet – Richard Branson and his team proudly replicated the display in London’s Virgin store using an eye-catching collage style pre-dating the craze for street-level graffiti art.

Virgin’s promotional plans for the album also presaged the pre-release/release day exclusives that are features of the music industry in the 21st Century. Declaring 6 November 1977 “Sex Pistols Day”, the label offered fans special vouchers granting a discount on Never Mind The Bollocks’ recommended retail price, but during selected hours at Virgin’s Notting Hill Gate shop for one day only – a Sunday, which at the time potentially contravened laws surrounding UK shop opening hours

An Unlimited Supply
The initial 1977 release of Never Mind The Bollocks… is a saga in itself. Prior to the official UK release date of 4 November 1977, an unofficial French pressing of the album on the Barclay label flooded the UK market. Consequently, Virgin rush-released an initial, 1,000-only 11-track pressing of the album, shorn of the track ‘Submission’ and with a plain black back cover.

In early November ’77, Virgin released the same 11-track album in a shrinkwrapped cover, but with a free one-sided 7” of ‘Submission’ (with the catalogue number SPOTS 001) and a poster. UK fans who days later bought copies of the album’s first official 12-track UK pressing were rewarded with the same striking poster featuring a collage-style mash-up of the band’s four single sleeves and visual depictions of the album’s other eight tracks.

Early US import copies of Never Mind The Bollocks… included the same poster, though the band’s US label, Warner Bros, also pressed up additional promotional posters for the band’s ill-fated North American tour. This especially memorable example of Sex Pistols artwork includes a grainy black-and-white shot of John Lydon accompanied by a quote from the lyrics from ‘God Save The Queen’ and a photograph of the band snapped during their Berlin sojourn in the spring of 1977.

1977: The Bollocks Diaries As Told By The Sex Pistols is published by Cassell Illustrated (£25,, and Sex Pistols’ incendiary debut album, Never Mind The Bollocks… Here’s The Sex Pistols will be given a 40th-anniversary 3CD deluxe reissue on 1 December.

uDiscover Music is selling an exclusive Never Mind The Bollocks… LP bundle with 1977: The Bollocks Diaries. Order the 3CD box set and the vinyl bundle here.


Format: Union Jack flagUK English
1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. cliff

    October 18, 2019 at 11:37 pm

    Fun stuff. Here’s my appreciation of the original album cover:

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