Lester Bangs called the live version of the Sex Pistols’ “Belsen Was a Gas,” from 1979’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle soundtrack album, “one of the most frightening things I’ve ever heard.” A recently unearthed demo version of the Holocaust-themed punk-rock provocation might help put such fears to rest.
The only “Belsen Was a Gas” studio version released to date, from the same soundtrack LP, featured notorious English criminal Ronnie Biggs on vocals. But the Sex Pistols’ upcoming 35th-anniversary box set reissue of Never Mind the Bollocks (due out on September 24 in the UK) includes a recently unearthed four-track demo of the song with Pistols and Public Image Ltd. frontman John Lydon — then of course known as Johnny Rotten — singing the lead part. (Lydon has since been quoted as saying of the song, “It was a very nasty, silly little thing that should have ended up on the cutting room floor.”)
Classic Rock Magazine has now posted that Lydon-led demo, and it’s a curio, but an intriguing one at that. The muddy recording quality means it’s tough to tell whether Lydon even sings the words that so scared the late critic Bangs — “Kill yourself!” — but it’s a piece of punk-rock history regardless. Sid Vicious, who originally wrote the song, plays bass on the demo, which the band reportedly set to tape at their rehearsal room on London’s famed Denmark Street.
The box set’s producers put it best: “The controversial subject matter and dark humour of the song was designed to upset and provoke, and is certainly an interesting footnote to the Sex Pistols’ finite catalogue of songs.” It’s tough to be scared of a footnote, particularly in an age when Nazi-based humor has long since gone Broadway in the form of Mel Brooks’ hugely successful Producers. But the demo still sheds some light on the punk sensibility’s ongoing, market-friendly tradition of upsetting sensible grown-ups at all costs.