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Legal Bollocks – The Infamous Sex Pistols Indecency Prosecution.

Legal Bollocks – The Infamous Sex Pistols Indecency Prosecution.

Above Photo: The Scales of Justice above the Old Bailey in London.

Readers of my Punk and New Wave memoir, Bombed Out! will know that Punk and Law frequently cross paths in weird and wonderful ways in the book. So it was with interest that I recently researched the indecency prosecution brought against a Virgin Records shop manager back in 1977.

The Sex Pistols released their seminal album, Never Mind The Bollocks, in October of that year. A couple of weeks later, policewoman Julie Storey peered into the window of a Virgin Record store in Nottingham and was shocked – shocked I tell you – when she saw the album in a sale display. The display consisted of three large posters with album sleeves fitted around the posters with the word ‘bollocks’ displayed prominently.

Richard Branson (in loafers even in 1977) promotes the Sex Pistols album.

Richard Branson (in loafers even in 1977) promotes the Sex Pistols album.

She went inside, confiscated a couple of albums and told shop manager Christopher Seale that the appearance of the word “bollocks” in the display violated the 1899 Indecent Advertising Act. Then she arrested him.

Naturally all of this had the effect of adding to the Sex Pistols’ reputation as the most controversial band in Britain, but it also impacted sales, because now nobody could risk openly selling the album. Record shops were forced to sell it under the counter until the outcome of the trial.

Turning Rebellion Into Money: The Sex Pistols with a GBP 75,000 cheque after being sacked by A&M records.

Turning Rebellion Into Money: The Sex Pistols with a GBP 75,000 cheque after being sacked by A&M records.

When the case did come to trial, it obviously centred on the word ‘bollocks’. Unquestionably vulgar, the prosecution had to prove something else – that it was indecent as well.

John Mortimer, a famous British barrister, appeared for the defence. He seemed to enjoy throwing a few spanners in the works too, and asked why Seale was being prosecuted for displaying the album sleeve while newspapers that used the same image as an illustration were not. He said he wished to call Professor James Kingsley to give evidence as to the meaning of the word ‘bollocks’.

John Mortimer QC with actor Leo McKern, who portrayed Rumpole of the Bailey (which Mortimer wrote).

John Mortimer QC with actor Leo McKern, who portrayed Rumpole of the Bailey (which Mortimer wrote).

Mr. Ritchie, for the prosecution, objected to the witness being called. However, the Chairman of the Magistrates, probably not relishing his role in this legal spat, said ”Let’s get it over with”, and the witness was called.

He told the court he was the Reverend James Kingsley, professor of English studies at Nottingham University. He was also a former Anglican priest, so he was an ideal witness for the defence.

Under questioning from Mortimer, Kingsley went into the derivation of the word bollocks, tracing it back to the year 1000 and said in Anglo Saxon times it meant a’ small ball’.

My copy of a Never Mind The Bollocks promotional sticker.

My copy of a battered Never Mind The Bollocks promotional sticker.

He said the 1961 publication of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang, hadn’t taken into account the use of the word bollocks in the Middle Ages. He said it appears in Medieval translations of the bible and veterinary books. In the bible it was used to describe small things of an appropriate shape. He said that the word also appears in place names without stirring any sensual desires in the local communities.

Mortimer mischievously suggested this would be similar to a city being called ‘Maidenhead’ which didn’t seem to cause the locals in the vicinity of that (real) British city any problems.

The Sex Pistols in another great promotional photo opportunity.

The Sex Pistols in another great promotional photo opportunity.

Mr Kingsley said bollocks remained in colloquial use down through the centuries and was also used to denote a clergyman in the last century. ”The word has been used as a nickname for clergymen, who are known to talk a good deal of rubbish and so the word later developed the meaning of nonsense,” he said. ”They became known for talking a great deal of bollocks”. (I’d love to know what the Prosecution made of this, if anything, in relation to this former clergyman’s testimony!).

For the prosecution, Mr Ritchie asked Kingsley if he was just an expert on the word ‘bollocks’, to which Kingsley replied that he was an expert on the English language who felt he could speak with authority on the derivation of a word such as bollocks.

Christopher Seale - accused of violating the 1899 Indecent Advertising Act.

Press photo of Christopher Seale – accused of violating the 1899 Indecent Advertising Act.

The prosecutor then asked Kingsley a question that must rank in the annals of British legal history for having so many swear words in such a short sentence, uttered by a lawyer who wasn’t quoting from reported speech. He asked if the words fuck, cunt and shit also appeared in the Dictionary of Slang from which he had quoted. Kingsley replied ”if the word fuck does not appear in the dictionary it should.”

Mr. Mortimer, in summing up the case for the defence, said: “What sort of country are we living in if a politician comes to Nottingham and speaks here to a group of people in the city centre and during his speech a heckler replies ‘bollocks’. Are we to expect this person to be incarcerated, or do we live in a country where we are proud of our Anglo Saxon language? Do we wish our language to be virile and strong or watered down and weak?”

Press photo of Johnny Rotten leaving Nottingham Magistrates Court after the verdict.

Taking the pith: Press photo of Johnny Rotten in hat leaving Nottingham Magistrates Court after the verdict.

The defence also suggested that the prosecution and the Establishment were not interested in the decency or otherwise of the word ‘bollocks’ but instead were waging war against the Sex Pistols themselves.

The Magistrates then adjourned and deliberated for twenty minutes, before coming back to dismiss all charges against Seale.

Press release of the 'not guilty' verdict under the 1899 Indecent Advertising Act.

Press release of the ‘not guilty’ verdict under the 1899 Indecent Advertising Act.

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

The Sex Pistols’ cover was therefore ruled as “decent” and set a precedent that would protect other shop owners who displayed the cover in the future.

Buy a signed copy of Bombed Out! here: http://www.bombedoutpunk.com/buybook.php

See also: http://www.bombedoutpunk.com/bombed-out/general/to-fuck-or-to-fck-when-is-a-swear-word-not-a-swear-word-philosophers-let-rip-in-oxford/

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 www.bombedoutpunk.com © Peter Alan Lloyd

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