Music

Second Listen: “Spunk”

pistols

Every week in Second Listen, Frank Macarthy looks back at lesser-loved albums from well-loved bands’ discographies.

We all know the story. Four punks from England revolutionize the music industry with a few power chords, noisy political messages, boat concerts, and a complete disinterest in the legalities of record contracts. All with a bassist who couldn’t play bass. Just your standard punk band story, right? Kind of. There’s a lot everybody “knows” about the Sex Pistols, so I’ll skip all that. Let’s talk about some stuff you might not already know.

In 1977, the Sex Pistols released their first (and what many believe is the only) professionally recorded and major label-released studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s the Sex Pistols. At the time of this recording, the eternally famous Sid Vicious (yes, we all know about the hamster) was billed as the bassist for the band. “Bassist” is used loosely here. When guitarist Steven Jones wasn’t filling in for Vicious on bass, the original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock plucked away.

Matlock left the band earlier in the year, but not without leaving his mark on the punk world as a member of the Sex Pistols. Not long before the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, a bootlegged album entitled Spunk was popping up in record stores around England. Now, if this is a true Sex Pistols album, it would take them out of contention for best one-album band – a spotlight they seemingly share with bands like Blind Faith, The Exploding Hearts, The Germs, and Zwan (I’m counting them, deal with it). It is rumored that this was a publicity stunt by one of the best alternative artists to ever grace the music scene in Malcolm McLaren (the Sex Pistols were his best work). Not only is this a brilliant marketing technique to prepare the masses for the release of the much more polished Never Mind the Bollocks, but it was also punk as hell. Releasing an album out-of-contract while technically tied to a contract? That’s pretty punk. Releasing an almost identical album to the one being released by the record label in a few months? That’s really punk.

But, Spunk is exactly what it promises: a bootleg. It sounds, acts, and feels like a bootleg. Imagine recording on something somewhere in between that 8-track recorder collecting dust in your basement and a toaster. I remember recording on a portable cassette recorder that was resting on a bar stool (for dynamics, or you know, sound stuff) in the hallway outside of our practice space – my drummer’s bedroom. There was also a single condenser microphone hung above the drum set with a MacGyvered coat hanger contraption (don’t quite remember where that was plugged in, though).  I’m now glad to know that we were taking a page from the Sex Pistols Guide to Recording.

Many of the tracks on Spunk are the same exact tracks that made it to Never Mind the Bollocks. Think of them as the brainstorming meeting before the final draft. Some tracks have the same names (“Liar,” “Submission,” “Problems”), some have different names (“Anarchy in the U.K.” was originally entitled “Nookie,” “God Save the Queen” was “No Future”), and some weren’t released on Never Mind the Bollocks (“Satellite,” “Just Me”). Although McLaren and many die-hard fans praise the album, it was received with little to no praise. Hell, it was barely received.

Other than the mouth farts in “Submission,” the tracks that ended up on Never Mind the Bollocks were barely altered during the transition. They’re not really worth reviewing. Just jam some q-tips in your ears and play Never Mind the Bollocks through a broken speaker and you’ll get the idea. But, tracks like “New York (Looking for a Kiss)” and “Satellite” definitely have that dirty, rambunctious, offensive, very Sex Pistols feel to them. Johnny Rotten hadn’t quite found his guttural punk drawl yet, but his presence is still unarguably massive (albeit seemingly laced with a valium or two).

What Rotten’s voice may lack in energy, the band makes up for in raw and sloppy musicianship. Missed chords, offbeat rhythms, off-key instruments, and wrong notes are all stars of this bootleg. And I’m not talking the occasional subtle mistake. No, I’m talking Rock Band-style clankers. The ones that make you a little uncomfortable between your ears. And it works. I agree with McLaren that Spunk fits better as a true representation of the style and attitude of the band. Without the watchful eye of a record company or the magic of proper recording technology, Spunk was the Sex Pistols in their barest, rawest form. For some that sounds like a dream. Others, a nightmare.

To be honest, I enjoy Spunk. Some of my favorite albums from other bands are their bootleg and demo albums. There is something more personal about those albums. It’s like taking a peek under the fame curtain. Behind all the bells and whistles of the recording studio is a band that recorded their first cover on a portable cassette player. A band that still makes mistakes up at practice. A band that is all too human. Well, maybe not in Sid Vicious’ case.