Retrospective: Sex Pistols Indecency Trial, Nottingham, 24 November 1977

Never mind Black Friday – here’s The Sex Pistols Indecency Trial! When I did some investigative work earlier this year and discovered that 24 November 1977 was a very special date in Nottingham’s music history, I knew we had to celebrate it here on The Rockhaq Community. A special shout out to Nottingham Libraries for having this brilliant archive material to hand. And it’s all free, dammit.

While every man and his mutt have heard of the Sex Pistols, few will know that the artwork on their debut album cover Never Mind The Bollocks resulted in the arrest and trial of a record store manager in Nottingham. Even fewer will know the actual dates that these events happened – or be geeky enough to find out and place it all on ‘da net’ for posterity.

So why all the fuss? If you really need to learn what the Sex Pistols achieved in their short but explosive music career, then check out our Retrospective on God Save The Queen. This single was so controversial on its release in May 1977 that it was banned from being broadcast or promoted absolutely everywhere in the UK. By this time, the Sex Pistols were on the Richard Branson fronted Virgin Records, their third new label in about six months. Equally young and ballsy in their approach to music and marketing, Virgin was exactly the right home for the Sex Pistols, and on 28 October 1977, the band released their now iconic debut album.

“Professor James Kinsley, Head of English at Nottingham University and an Anglican priest, told the court the origins of the offending word. He said that during the word’s history, it had meant a small ball, a type of orchid and a nickname for a clergyman. According to Kinsley: “Clergymen are known to talk a good deal of rubbish and so the word later developed the meaning of nonsense.”

Chris Seale, manager of the Virgin record store in King Street, placed a large poster in their shop window, advertising the release. He was warned four times by Nottingham police to take the offensive posters down, before finally being arrested and charged under the Indecent Advertisements Act. On 24 November 1977, the Sex Pistols themselves came to the Nottingham Guildhall Magistrates Court to hear the verdict. Richard Branson also came along for the ride and testified in court.

David Ritchie, prosecuting, said it was not the word “bollocks” which was indecent, but the printed material as a whole which offended “the necessary standards of propriety delicacy.” Seale, who had been manager of the shop for two years up until that point, said they had sold upto 700 copies of the record since its release and had not received any complaints from the public.

Richard Branson said the record had soared to number one in the charts the day after release. It was on sale in all 25 branches of Virgin and 300 other shops across the country and none had received a complaint about the cover.

Professor James Kinsley, Head of English at Nottingham University and an Anglican priest, told the court the origins of the offending word. He said that during the word’s history, it had meant a small ball, a type of orchid and a nickname for a clergyman. According to Kinsley: “Clergymen are known to talk a good deal of rubbish and so the word later developed the meaning of nonsense.” Kinsley ended by stating that the understanding of the word today (in 1977) was to mean “nonsense.”

These final words from the Head of English at Nottingham University saved Chris Seale from prison. When the magistrates retired to discuss their verdict, Johnny Rotten lit a cigarette and was promptly told to leave the court. Clearing Seale, Chairman of the Bench Mr D W Betts said: “Although we wholly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instance by you, we have to find you not guilty.”

Chris Seale, Richard Branson and the Sex Pistols walked out of court and celebrated with a pub crawl in the city. And this legendary episode in the band’s history faded, even more so in Nottingham, where there are no record stores on King Street anymore. None of this erases the immense impact the Sex Pistols had on British music though. We recommend you finish by reading Sam Brookes’ review of God Save The Queen to hear how their legacy has continued to shape modern music.

“If there’s not a rebellious youth culture, there’s no culture at all. It’s absolutely essential. It is the future. This is what we’re supposed to do as a species, is advance ideas.”
– John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten