Behind the Filth and the Fury: Rarely Seen Sex Pistols Photos

Photographer Dennis Morris chronicled the U.K. punks amidst the chaos of 1977

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Photographer Dennis Morris first captured the attention of the Sex Pistols when Johnny Rotten saw some of the work he’d done with Bob Marley. The punk singer, a huge reggae fan, quickly brought Morris into the fold when the Pistols signed with Virgin in May 1977, and for the next seven months the photographer was constantly by their side, capturing incredibly intimate natural images during the absolute peak of their career. It was a time of madness, drug addiction, infighting and constantly canceled gigs, and Morris caught it all on film. The Bollocks, an exhibition of his work, opened at the Known Gallery in Los Angeles on August 9th and runs through the 23rd. 

Mr. Vicious: “I remember shooting this when we pulled the tour bus into a petrol station,” says Morris. “They had to make a phone call to find out about the next gig. Johnny kind of walked out of the shot. If you look at Sid’s jacket, it’s slightly open and you can see where he was cutting himself. He did that quite a lot.”

Sid & Nancy “This is from Brunel University,” says Morris. “It was the last gig they did on the SPOTS tour. I remember when they arrived they were excited since it was a massive venue, maybe 3,000 people. It was finally a chance to play a big gig and prove to people they were a great live band. Well, the show started and, to their horror, they realized it was a backline sound system. It sounded horrible and was possibly they worst gig they ever did. They were devastated. I took this shot of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen after the show. You can see where Courtney Love got her image from, and you can see who the boss was with the two of them. She was a very strong character. I remember her saying, ‘You could have done this! You could have done that!’ Sid would just mumble a response.”

The Great Rock and Roll Swindler “This is the only shot I ever got of [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren,” says Morris. “He just detested getting his photo taken. I think this was taken in the lift of Brunel University. I just sneaked in a shot. I love how the sign says, ‘Load not to exceed 3,000 pounds.’ That was right in so many ways. You know, he thought it would be best if the band was never allowed to play. He wanted the shows to be shut down after a few songs so mayhem would break out and they’d get press attention. Nearly every place he booked them in was too small. Sometimes there was no stage and they’d play on the floor. One place I was at ran a rope in front of the stage. A rope! Everyone dove onto the stage, of course. It was chaos, which is just what Malcolm wanted.”

Pretty Vacant:  “This was shot backstage at the Marquee Club,” says Morris. “That’s where everyone played, including the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones… everybody. We were there for the video shoot for ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘God Save the Queen.’ The band decided they wanted to do a live gig, so they invited an audience in. The filmmaker wanted to do a playback, but the band refused and played live. If you look at the videos carefully you can see that they are out of sync. As usual, the show was utter chaos. This photo was taken backstage before or after they played.”

God Save the Queen’s Jubilee: “I shot this photo of Sid on the jubilee boat trip,” says Morris. “It’s one of my favorite shots of him. I love that it looks like he’s just sweeping through. We were all on this ferry going up and down the Thames, playing music really loudly during the Queen’s Jubilee. We were creating mayhem and eventually police boats pulled up to us. The band kept saying, ‘Fuck off! Fuck off!’ We were eventually pulled over onto the docks and God knows how many police were waiting for us. Malcolm made sure he got arrested and he made his statement about the oppression of the society and God knows what else.”

Pissed Off:  “These are fans in the bathroom of the Vortex, which was one of the main clubs in England where the Sex Pistols played,” says Morris. “One of the guys was having a piss in the toilet and another guy is pissing on him. That sort of sums it up. Most people don’t realize that fans back then didn’t have Mohicans. That came after the demise of the Pistols, around 1979. In 1976 and 1977 nobody had them. The main thing about punk back then was self creation. It was about buying an old jacket, writing words on it or whatever and making it your own. People used to show up at the clubs with plastic bags. They’d disappear into the toilet and come out looking glorious. They knew they couldn’t leave their homes like that.”

Paul Cook: “To me, the band would not have existed without Paul,” says Morris. “He was a brilliant, brilliant drummer. The same goes for Steve Jones on guitar. The sadness for these two is that their abilities have gone so unrecognized. They really crafted the sound of the band. John’s voice is on top of them, but all the sound is coming from them.”

Roxy Pistols:  “This was taken backstage in Sweden,” says Morris. “As you can see, Johnny was constantly changing his look. He was very into Brian Ferry, and I call this his Brian Ferry stage with the white jacket and tie. With Sid, he’s usually wearing the same thing in most of my photos. He basically just woke up, ran his fingers through his hair, put on a jacket, with or without a shirt, put on that chain and he looked amazing. John, however, really worked it.”

Wink: “Even though this looks like it was taken in a photo studio, I actually just snapped it one day in Sweden,” says Morris. “One morning I just decided to take some portrait shots. We opened the curtain, moved away some furniture and that was it. This shot with Sid winking is one of the most bootlegged shots of mine. It’s been ripped off so many times. It’s just unbelievable. People often tell me they thought it was public domain or they come up with some other excuse. One guy actually told me he had no memory of bootlegging it because he had Bird Flu! I had no sympathy for him. These people will come up with any excuse they can think of.”

Disco Punk:  “This was taken backstage at a club in Sweden,” says Morris. “It was another example of complete chaos. It was a disco club and they had to play on the floor. Again, there was no division between the crowd and the band. Just a rope. The gig was pulled after a few songs, just complete chaos. It was exactly what Malcolm wanted.”

The Rise of Sid:  “When you look at this image, which I think I took at the Marquee, you get a sense of life in the band,” says Morris. “Like in other bands, a time comes when one member becomes more of a focus than another. When I look at this picture, I see Sid becoming stronger within his presence in the band. John was an amazing frontman, one of the best I’ve ever seen, but Sid had huge potential. He just didn’t know what he had, but he slowly figured it out. You can see Sid coming forward in this photo and John kind of lurking back.”

Virgin Boys:  “This was taken right after they signed a contact with Virgin,” says Morris. “They were known as a hippie label at the time. Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield was their best-selling album. Richard [Branson] had a real vision, and after they were dumped by a bunch of labels, he knew signing them was the best way to break out of the hippie thing. It was a very brave move, and it caused Virgin to just go through the roof. It allowed them to sign Human League, Culture Club and many others. Signing the Sex Pistols was the best move he ever made.”

Sid’s Fall:  “I shot this at the side of the stage during a gig in Penzance,” says Morris. “It was one of the best gigs they ever did. They had a proper stage and a functioning PA. The crowd was really up for it. Sid suffered from real stage fright. The adulation and hysteria was becoming too much for him. In that photo, he’s yelling ‘Shut up!’ John is looking at him like, ‘Oh shit.’ That was really Sid’s downfall, when he sank more into drugs.”