TRCH - Mindgames

Never Mind the Court Case - A Look Back at the Sex Pistols' Obscenity Trial in Nottingham

9 November 17 words: Gav Squires

Did you know that Nottingham was at the centre of a court case that saw punk rock standing up to the establishment over freedom of expression and the meaning of a certain word? On the 40th anniversary of the release of the offending album we look back at the case of the state vs Searle, a time when, to paraphrase The Clash, punk fought the law and punk won...

The offending poster

There is always much debate as to when punk rock actually started. Was it in 1960's Detroit with proto punk bands such as The Stooges and the MC5 or was it in the early '70s with Malcolm McLaren managed New York Dolls with their mix of glam and Rolling Stones-esque rock 'n' roll? Punk rock as we know it really kicked off in 1976 with the release of the Ramones eponymous debut album, followed six months later by the first British punk single, New Rose by The Damned.

Of course, the one band that really blew punk up in this country was The Sex Pistols. Releasing their debut single Anarchy In The UK a month after The Damned, they became front page news after appearing on the Bill Grundy show on ITV and being goaded into swearing on live television by the host. The following year would see the Pistols release God Save The Queen to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee celebrations - workers in the record plant refused to press it and it was banned from both Radio 1 and independent radio stations, making it the most heavily censored record in British history.

Following two more singles, Pretty Vacant and Holidays In The Sun, both top 10 hits, it was time for The Sex Pistols to release their debut album, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, and it would be this title that would bring Nottingham into the story. The album was banned by Boots (who sold records at the time), WH Smith and Woolworth's (which still existed at the time) However, it was being sold in Virgin Records and on the 9th of November, the police arrested the manager of the Nottingham branch, then on King Street, for displaying material with the title on in the window.

Virgin Records King Street

7 King Street - The site of the old Virgin Records store

Chris Searle, the manager had been warned to cover up the word "bollocks" but had gone back to displaying the records once the police had left. Hence, the 28-year old was charged with contravening the Indecent Advertisement Act 1889 and found himself in front of three local magistrates on the 24th of November at Nottingham Magistrates' Court. What was essentially a local court found itself in the national limelight over what was a matter relating to a retail outlet in the city.

Richard Branson, owner of both the chain of Virgin Record Stores and also the Virgin Records label that the Pistols were signed to brought in John Mortimer QC to defend. Now probably best known for writing the Rumpole of the Bailey books, Mortimer had also defended Oz magazine in their famous 1971 obscenity trial, which was the longest obscenity trial in British history at the time. His trump card was Professor James Kinsley, head of English at the University of Nottingham. His evidence showed that "bollocks" was in fact an Old English term for "priest" and in the context of the album meant "nonsense".

Mortimer also pointed out that both The Guardian and Evening Standard had both referred to the album's title and neither had been charged. The trial concluded:

Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty of each of the four charges.

The site of the former Flying Horse pub

Having won, Branson took his team to The Flying Horse pub to celebrate and the album would go on to sell more than 2 million copies, which of course was helped by the publicity surrounding the case. Looking back, from forty years in the future, it's probably a little easier to be slightly cynical and think that Branson might have encouraged Searle to defy the police in order to drum up a story. Either way, it worked and Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols was the most successful album of the punk era and its obscenity trial is another reason why Nottingham is on the punk rock map.

Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols was released on the 28th of October 1977, Searle was arrested on the 8th of November and acquitted on the 24th. Why not head down to Foreman's and have a drink in its honour.

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