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The Sex Pistols: 90 Days at EMI Paperback – 1 Jan 2007
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About the Author
After 10 years as a journalist, including working for Melody Maker and Disc, Brian Southall joined A&M Records between 1973 and 2003 and worked for EMI Records as a consultant to Warner Music International, HMV Group and the British Phonographic Industry. He has written books including the History of Abbey Road Studios, The A-Z of Record Labels and the Story of the Brit Awards.
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I have been a Pistols fan since I was 12 years old, & am now 34. This book, more than any other, really hammers home how much real outrage & disgust the Sex Pistols provoked when they burst onto the scene in 1976. Of course, the Filth & The Fury alludes to this outrage, but doesn't elaborate. EMI were under tremendous pressure from the media, their own staff, and politically to drop the band from the very first moment they signed them.
The feeding frenzy & the lies that were perpetrated by the national media at the time were outrageous. Sex Pistols 90 Days At EMI is an essential read for any fan.
The Pistols exploded onto the music scene, with their early beginnings in 1973 in a group largely put together by their manager, entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren. John Lydon (Johnnie Rotten) joined in 1975 and by 1976 they had been banned from two clubs and a rock festival and the industry was buzzing about which label would get to sign them. There were, of course, other punk bands – but the Sex Pistols were the Beatles of their era (even if they disapproved of Glen Matlock’s admiration for Paul McCartney…) in that they were the band on everyone’s lips, in every newspaper and eventually, they were denounced at every possible opportunity.
Indeed, the Sex Pistols were THE punk band and when they played in Manchester they had an audience comprising of members (or future members) of the Buzzcocks, the Fall, Joy Division, and the Smiths. It was like skiffle all over again, with something new and original inspiring a whole new generation of musicians. With EMI searching for new talent and Malcolm McLaren gleefully playing off one record label against another, several of those involved at EMI could see the potential of the Pistols. It is fair to say, though, that others were concerned and anticipating trouble. When the disastrous Bill Grundy interview aired live on television (a show I can still remember watching as a child, while my mother was thankfully out of the room!) the media descended gleefully to blame the band for everything and anything. Before long there were reports of them trashing hotels, egged on by the press, and abusing people at airports (they didn’t). When those on the top floor of EMI looked below at outraged staff, escalating complaints and worrying reports, they quickly pulled the bands contract.
If you have any interest in music, this is sure to interest you. As well as telling the story, the author adds lots of humorous quotes; both from the time this is set, and in retrospect. Ironically, the band would end up being represented by EMI in the future, but this is the story of their short lived time at a record company which largely did not only misunderstand them, but seemed to glory in doing so.
Recent years have seen a slew of books being produced on punk and especially the Sex Pistols. With only a few notable exceptions most are poorly researched and written with few new facts or insights - generally they just recycle the same old quotes and supposed facts. Southall has clearly gone back to the source material, much of it previously unpublished, and most importantly used his connections from his time at EMI to write a brief but fascinating guide to the bands time at the label. He also does a good job of putting the whole episode into the perspective of the era.
The music industry in the mid 1970s was a very different business from today with EMI records forming a significant but by no means dominant part of a long established, traditional, global conglomerate with fingers in many pies ranging from Arms to Hotels to Medical Devices. They even owned 50% of Thames Television - the London based station that broadcast live the infamous "Today" show with Bill Grundy and the band on 1st December 1976. It's these background facts that help the reader to understand why the label did what it did after coming under enormous pressure from senior executives in the post Bill Grundy show media fueled circus that wrecked the Anarchy tour and effectively short circuited the chances of the band having a long recording career with EMI.
The book includes some excellent quotes from a fans including those later to be successful music artistes themselves like Steve Strange, Siouxsie, Boy George and Marc Almond as well as others who became successful in very different fields like Jimmy Nail (actor) and Stuart Pearce (footballer).
The story develops on a day by day chronological basis capturing the initial euphoria of the band, their management and the label's A&R team upon signing, through to recording the Anarchy single and the very chancey circumstances of the band effectively substituting for their labelmates Queen on the "Today" show. This resulted in a brief but memorable drink fueled (presenter as well as band and fans) live tv interview that gave the band more newspaper coverage than they could have dreamed of over night but which ultimately brought about their untimely demise.
The final circumstances of the termination of the contract make fascinating reading 30 years on. An early morning call to an Amsterdam hotel room where the band had played the night before with the announcement to the label's tour rep and Malcolm McLaren that EMI were ending the contract with a press release to be issued later that morning, despite nothing having been signed or agreed on regarding the terms of the split. Over 30 years later it seems, by current day standards, incredible that this could happen without a team of lawyers negotiating long and hard over the terms of the break up but it was, in so so many ways, a very different era.
The book concludes with the views at the time of the EMI staff who worked with the band as well as their views now with the benefit of over 30 years of hindsight on the break up. The A&R team especially were worried that no new bands would want to sign with EMI (a worry that turned out to be needless) with the major ironies being both the Rich Kids (Glen Matlock's post Pistols band) signing to EMI later in 1977 and in 1980 Malcolm McLaren's new proteges Bow Wow Wow also appearing on the label.
For anyone interested in the music industry of the 1970s and/or the story of the Sex Pistols this book is an absolute must read.
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