By late 1976, Queen and the Sex Pistols were occupying opposing corners of the music spectrum.
Set to introduce their fifth studio album, A Day at the Races, the world-famous members of Queen had recently performed before 150,000 fans at London's Hyde Park and released a single infused with their patented intricate arrangements and harmonies titled, "Somebody to Love."
Meanwhile, the Sex Pistols were playing in small clubs to disaffected youth and curious onlookers as leaders of the underground punk rock movement, their anger and aggression captured in their thrasher of a debut single, "Anarchy in the U.K."
But for all their differences, the bands shared a common bond as labelmates of EMI Records, and when Queen abruptly canceled a scheduled December 1 appearance on Today, hosted by Bill Grundy, for what was reported to be vocalist Freddie Mercury's first visit to the dentist in 15 years, EMI offered up the Pistols as replacement guests.
Grundy kept pushing the band's buttons and they engaged in a curse-filled argument on live TV
According to the recollections of then-bassist Glen Matlock and frontman Johnny Rotten, the Pistols were pulled from rehearsal and ordered into a limo that would take them to the set of Today, a live, early evening program broadcast in the greater London area with the 53-year-old Grundy at the helm.
After helping themselves to drinks during the ride and again in the waiting room, the Pistols sauntered onto the set at the tail end of the broadcast with their entourage, the Bromley Contingent.
Following an introduction in which Grundy deemed the Pistols "as drunk as I am" and showed a clip of the band in action, the host got the ball rolling by asking whether the £40,000 advance they received from EMI ran counter to their "anti-materialistic" views.
Guitarist Steve Jones let slip an f-bomb during one portion of the response, though it seemingly went unnoticed, and the interview wobbled on uneasy ground for a few more seconds until Rotten muttered "s**t" under his breath, and complied when Grundy urged him to repeat it.
The host then began flirting with a young Siouxsie Sioux, hovering behind the punk rockers with the Bromley Contingent, prompting a disgusted Jones to call him a "dirty old man" and a war of expletives ensued.
The Sex Pistols reveled in the publicity from their TV appearance
Grundy quickly wrapped up the show, but the damage from swearing on live TV – reportedly only the third such incident in British broadcasting history – was done. Viewers flooded the station's phone lines to complain, with the amped-up Pistols fielding several calls themselves from the waiting room, and the following day's Daily Mirror fanned the flames of the debacle with a headline that screamed, "THE FILTH AND THE FURY!"
The Pistols didn't emerge from the confrontation unscathed. Most of their gigs on December's Anarchy Tour were canceled by offended organizers, and EMI dropped them from the label the following month.
On the other hand, the incident generated an avalanche of publicity and certified the bad-boy reputation they'd been cultivating with their spiky hair, safety-pinned clothing and provocative lyrics. Following a lineup change that brought Sid Vicious on board as bassist, the band signed with Richard Branson’s Virgin Records and rode their notoriety to new heights with a second controversial single, "God Save the Queen," and their seminal album, Never Mind the Bollocks, in 1977.
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Queen drew inspiration from the Sex Pistols' music
Their rapid rise also threatened the reign of the band who unwittingly gave them a platform to shock the nation, with Queen's lavish productions now seeming bloated and overdone in comparison to the raw, explosive material coming from the punk rock upstarts.
The enmity between the new and old camps reached a head when both Queen and the Pistols were recording at London's Wessex Studios in 1977: After Vicious barged in on Mercury and asked if he'd succeeded in bringing ballet to the masses yet, the sassy frontman mocked him as "Simon Ferocious" and asked whether he'd cut himself properly in the mirror that day.
Posturing aside, Mercury and his bandmates clearly took notice of the Pistols' seismic impact. Their next album, 1977's News of the World, featured more of a stripped-down sound than previous efforts – as well as the one-two punch of "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" – and is credited with reviving their fortunes at a time when commercial success was seemingly bringing them to the doorstep of complacency.