Behind the Band Name: The Sex Pistols

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Videos by American Songwriter

Delightfully angry and deliciously offensive, early British punk pioneers, the Sex Pistols, were revolutionaries. In their short career, they rocked the status quo, becoming public enemies to the masses, but heroes to the disenfranchised few.

Before they started a political movement, soundtracked by sneering vocals and thrashing noise, they were just four pent-up and pissed-off teenagers, products of growing up working-class in post-war London.

Before they became the “God Save the Queen” nihilists, they were school friends, Steve Jones, and Paul Cook. The two formed a band called The Strand, and later The Swankers. Bassist Glen Matlock – who would later be replaced by Sid Vicious—joined in to round out the rhythm. However, it wasn’t until John Lydon’s (Johnny Rotten) arrival in 1975 that the band became the angst-fueled, anarchy-minded revolutionaries they were always meant to be.

But how did the Sex Pistols become the Sex Pistols?

Behind the Band Name

First off what is a “sex pistol?” While there is no definitive definition of the phrase, where the Sex Pistols are involved, you can bet the meaning is going to be a touch inappropriate.

In the 2000 documentary, The Filth and the Fury, the band’s (mis)manager, as they liked to call him, Malcolm McLaren, explained the word “pistol” was a double entendre. He said “Pistol meaning a gun and the pistol meaning a kind of penis.”

That makes sense, but because the question of who gave the band its name has been long-debated, McLaren’s explanation can’t be heralded as truth. Everyone within the Sex Pistols’ origin story likes to say they invented the Sex Pistols and the most infamous name claim comes from McLaren, himself.

McLaren co-owned a clothing shop on King’s Road with his then-partner, designer Vivienne Westwood. A centerpiece of the punk movement and a kind of headquarters for the band, this shop was unlike any other at the time. Simply named SEX, it was a shock-and-awe clothing boutique of the latest fetish “anti-fashions” – chains, whips, rips, rubber wear, and all.

In The Filth and the Fury documentary, McLaren explained he gave the band its name, wanting to form a group that seemed dangerous, but alluring. Probably a lot like his store. He explained, “[I] launched the idea in the form of a band of kids who could be perceived as being bad.” He said he chose the name to invoke an image of “sexy young assassins.”

However, McLaren’s version of events hasn’t always been corroborated. Matlock explained in his autobiography that the band had already chosen the Sex Pistols as their calling card while their manager was away in America. Matlock claimed they were trying the name on for size.

Whoever gave the group its name, the band has been the true definer of “sex pistol,” a phrase now used to describe the embodiment of the punk spirit.

Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

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