When Freddie Mercury found himself in so much pain that he overcame his lifelong fear of dentists in early December 1976, the band’s record label had to respond quickly. Queen were scheduled to appear on that evening’s edition of the London-area magazine show Tonight. EMI couldn’t have known what it was about to start when it offered Thames TV its new signing Sex Pistols as a replacement.
If the recent release of the Pistols’ debut single “Anarchy in the U.K.” was notable, the resulting two-minute live interview with establishment figure Bill Grundy was even more so. In a misguided attempt – as he noted later – to illustrate just how unpleasant the band and its entourage were, the host encouraged the band’s members to behave controversially.
Asked about their rumored $50,000 EMI signing fee, guitarist Steve Jones replied: “We’ve fucking spent it, ain’t we?” On the subject of people being “turned on” by classical musicians, singer Johnny Rotten said: “That’s just their tough shit.” After Grundy’s failed attempt to flirt with Siouxsie Sioux, a member of the Pistols’ entourage, Jones called him a “dirty bastard, a “dirty fucker” and, finally, “a fucking rotter.” Grundy closed the show by telling the audience: “I’ll be seeing you soon,” then telling the band, “I hope I’m not seeing you again.”
Grundy wasn’t going to be seen for much longer – in the aftermath of the broadcast he was forced to apologize, was censured by British TV authorities and quickly lost his place in the limelight. Some of the national tabloid press, led at the time by the Daily Mirror, had covered the story in their early editions soon after the show had aired. By the next morning, Dec. 2, 1976, the coverage had been massively expanded and The Mirror’s front page carried the now-historic headline “The Filth and the Fury.”
“A pop group shocked millions of viewers last night with the filthiest language heard on British television,” the paper’s splash began. “The Sex Pistols, leaders of the new ‘punk rock’ cult, hurled a string of four-letter obscenities at interviewer Bill Grundy on Thames TV’s family teatime program ‘Today.’” Inside, the paper reported: “They wear torn and ragged clothes held together with safety pins. They are boorish, ill-mannered, foulmouthed, dirty, obnoxious and arrogant. They like to be disliked.”
Whereas “Anarchy in the U.K.” was only a relatively minor hit, the national press assured the Pistols’ massive profile. And that, some of the band felt, was when it all started to go wrong. While the attention exploded, it led to canceled tour dates, being dropped EMI (and later signed to Virgin) and the guarantee that everything they said or did went under the establishment microscope. The Sex Pistols became icons, but it became almost impossible for them to be a band.
Manager Malcolm McLaren described the Tonight interview as a “pivotal moment” while revealing that his charges didn’t actually want to take part. “The band were not in a great mood. They never were,” he told The Guardian in 2007. “They hated each other.” Bassist Glen Matlock confirmed that “we very nearly didn’t do it,” telling Classic Rock in 2015 that “this big limousine turned up outside this place. [Being] punk rockers we were like, ‘We’re not getting in that thing.’ Then this phone call came through from Malcolm McLaren saying, ‘If you don’t do it, your wages will be stopped this week.’ We were all in the car like a shot.”
Watch Bill Grundy’s ‘Sex Pistols’ Interview
Recalling that he and the Pistols “drank themselves stupid” in the green room before their appearance, McLaren told of being summoned to the office of EMI boss Leslie Hill the next morning: “The morning’s papers were strewn across his desk. What was I going to say? he asked. ‘Simply, boys will be boys,’ I replied. ‘Good! I think I might say that, too.’ Perfect, I thought. The press are going to have a field day. I knew the moment the autocue lady threw up her hands and her bag, her makeup cascading through the air, that we had smashed the deception.”
Far beneath the headlines there was some acknowledgement that, perhaps, there was a reason why the Pistols seemed to be so antiestablishment. “Unemployment and a deep sense of disenchantment created the climate for punk rock,” one commentator wrote. “It was a feeling of being deserted by their heroes – the pop superstars with private jets and country mansions – which led to kids making their own music.” Revered DJ John Peel commented: “I have every sympathy with them. The big groups are predictable and boring. I’m rather grateful for the appearance of punk rock and glad to see a little energy coming back.” McLaren argued: “Kids want something that can change their whole way of life. It’s the biggest thing to happen in years and no one can stop it now. People don’t like it because they feel threatened by it.”
Studio producer Mike Housego revealed how he tried to keep the situation under control. “They were only allotted 90 seconds, and I thought, ‘Well, not much can go wrong,’” he said in 1992. ““I could talk to Bill through his earpiece and tell him to cut the interview right there and then, and we could actually get into a film very quickly. But it still takes 30 seconds to get a film rolling, so you’ve still got 30 seconds of abuse to listen to. And then you’ve got to rely on the guys on the studio floor to get the person out of the studio, which could lead to even more trouble than the interview was to start with. So, as this was the last story on the program, I let it go.”
Classic Rock discovered long after the broadcast that the band returned to the green room after the show and continued drinking. As the Thames switchboard was overcome with calls from angry viewers (one claiming he’d furiously smashed his new color TV, which cost him $500), it automatically directed unanswered calls to the green room line – meaning the Pistols themselves got to speak to the people they had upset.
Despite the Independent Broadcasting Authority finally accepting that the situation was impossible to control, Grundy’s career never recovered. After a two-week suspension, and the cancellation of Today six weeks later, he lost his prime-time position and became a Sunday-morning host before succumbing to alcohol issues. He died in 1993 at 69.
His son, Tim Grundy, also a TV host, later suggested he’d been victimized “They were primed, I think, to shock,” he said. “To shock the nation then, an easy way to do it would be to pin down someone like my dad and get yourself on every single national newspaper in the country.”
Jones later asserted that the incident also marked the beginning of the end for the band, writing in his 2017 memoir Lonely Boy that the “Sex Pistols were born to crash and burn, and that’s exactly what we did.” He told Rolling Stone: “It was apparent after the Bill Grundy show … it just didn’t look like it was going to last much longer. It all got dark and weird. Plus, we were all very young. We had no coping skills. I didn’t for sure. I don’t think any of us knew what was going on.”