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Flogging A Dead Horse
A look at Virgin's 1980 Compilation

Flogging A Dead Horse

14 Great Hits From Those Loveable Spikey Tops

Side One. Anarchy In The UK / I Wanna Be Me / God Save The Queen / Did You No Wrong / Pretty Vacant / No Fun / Holidays In The Sun
Side Two. No One Is Innocent / My Way / Something Else / Silly Thing / C'mon Everybody / (I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone / The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle

Virgin's first ever Pistols compilation arrived in February 1980, but it wasn't actually the first to hit the shelves. The Japanese had beat them to it by two months releasing 'The Very Best Of...' on Nippon Columbia at the tail end of 1979. The Japanese LP was heavily imported into the UK and could been found in display racks at Virgin Megastores. The album had a rather random selection of tracks including two unreleased Cook and Jones songs recorded for 'The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle' soundtrack, 'Black Leather' and 'Here We Go Again'. It came in a striking cover, a green day-glo reworking of 'Never Mind The Bollocks'. For many fans, myself included, it was a must have purchase in the run up to Christmas, despite its price tag of £7.99.

Planning for a UK greatest hits LP had begun in summer 1979. Originally pencilled in for October, it would sit on the back burner while the focus switched to 'Sid Sings', a Christmas cash-in profiting from the best selling posthumous Sid Vicious led singles 'Something Else' and 'C'mon Everybody'. With the help of notes and sketches made by Sex Pistols graphic designer Jamie Reid, it's fascinating to see how Virgin set about the 'Flogging A Dead Horse' project in their usual mischievous way. The band may no longer have existed in the proper sense since January 1978, but the Swindle singles sold by the lorry load and the success of the 'Some Product' LP (number 6 in the UK giving Virgin their 3rd top ten Pistols LP), showed the demand for more was still huge.

"Sex Pistols Greatest Hits Becomes Flogging A Dead Horse" state Jamie's notes, and the album title wasn't lost on anybody. Virgin seemed determined to have fun with the brickbats that were coming their way. Garry Bushell fell straight into the trap ranting in Sounds, "it's totally worthless, all the tracks included are still readily available elsewhere, Pistols fans will have them already." He missed the point, his assertion applies to every greatest hits LP, ever.

The evolution of the cover is intriguing in itself. Initially the idea was to scrawl 'Flogging A Dead Horse' across the front covers of 'Never Mind The Bollocks' and 'The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle' albums and use these as the front and rear sleeve. As straight forward as that. Test sleeves were printed before the idea was rejected by Virgin. It was for the best, as well as being unimaginative, it had the potential to cause confusion in the record racks, and this compilation deserved an identity of its own.

Flogging A Dead HorseFlogging A Dead Horse

Flogging A Dead Horse

Flogging A Dead Horse

What they came up with next was far more inspired, a pastiche of the 'Top Of The Pops' LPs which has been a staple of the UK throughout the 1970s. For those not familiar, 'Top of the Pops' was the name of a series of records issued by Hallmark Records, which contained anonymous cover versions of recent and current hit singles. They were cheap and they sold in vast numbers. The majority of UK households had at least one of these lurking in a corner. They were synonymous with naff, the cover versions often hilariously bad. 'Pretty Vacant' didn't escape the 'Top Of The Pops' treatment either in 1977. However, they were just as famous for their sleeves, an attractive young girl (often scantily clad) adorning one half, with the songs listed in a box on the other side underneath the 'Top Of The Pops' logo. (These records had nothing to do with the BBC TV programme of the same name).

Jamie's notes show this is what the thinking now was, with a "smiling nude woman" planned for the left of the Pistols album, the song titles in a box on the right with the album title above, making it instantly reminiscent of a 'Top Of The Pops' LP. It would develop into having the girl (now clothed and holding an ice cream) centre with the tracks listed either side. I feel this was unfortunate as the obvious inspiration was diluted. Perhaps there was concern that the album might actually be viewed by the public as a 'Top Of The Pops' release, with the added issue of possible copyright infringement. It wouldn't be the first time Jamie's Sex Pistols sleeve design work had strayed into this minefield with both 'Holidays In The Sun' and recent American Express 'Swindle' single violations still fresh in the memory.

Maintaining the cover's deliberately tacky feel, the edges of the 'set' the model is posing on can be seen on both sides of the sleeve. Jamie later remarked about his pleasure in this detail.

Flogging A Dead Horse

At this stage the proposed rear sleeve would remain relatively faithful to the finished product - a gold record with a turd on it. The notes say the turd should be real, although it looks plastic on the finished sleeve. I'd rather not know! Originally a picture of a dead horse was to adorn the record's label, with the sleeve declaring "fresh from the Virgin stable". The final decision to use a gold disc of 'Never Mind The Bollocks' tied in with 'The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle' film - which hadn't yet been released - where Steve Jones is filmed having a dump on a 'NMTB' gold disc.

Flogging A Dead Horse

A cannabis swastika was to be used as the Virgin logo, an idea carried over from the initial 'scrawl' idea, but this was also dropped.

Content wise, unlike the Japanese 'Best Of', 'Flogging A Dead Horse' was an altogether more straight forward chronological affair, side one compiling the first three Johnny Rotten singles and respective b-sides plus 'Holidays In The Sun'. 'Holidays' was incorrectly credited to 'Jones/Cook/Rotten/Matlock' on all pressings regardless of territory - Vicious having replaced Matlock. Side two comprised of all the singles from 'The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle' soundtrack double album, however there are couple of things to flag up. 'Silly Thing' was the album version, not the expected more punchy single cut - this is likely to be tied into Andy Allen's dispute with Virgin over non payment for his bass playing on the single. 'Stepping Stone' wouldn't be released as a single until summer 1980 (to coincide with the release of the 'Swindle' film), so its inclusion as the penultimate track seemed odd at the time of release. It should also be mentioned that the sleeve lists side two track one as 'The Biggest Blow' while the label states 'No One Is Innocent'. These are the same song, the former the title on the 12" single pressing.

Aside from the music itself, the finished album is noticeable for the cash register sound effect which closes side two, a witty nod to the whole 'Flogging A Dead Horse' idea. This effect was omitted from European pressings, it's missing from my own Scandinavian copy. Perhaps this varies across different territories? Jamie's notes indicate side one was going to lead in with the sound of a safe being opened, but this particular sound effect didn't make the final product.

'Flogging A Dead Horse' was eventually released in Japan in 1983 by Virgin, with a cover unique to the territory. The new cover took none of the elements of the UK sleeve and had more in common with the original Japanese 'Very Best Of...', both using a manipulated image of Johnny Rotten. The album's contents were identical to the UK edition including the closing cash register sound effect. This record effectively replaced the previous Japanese 'Very Best Of...' which would never be heard of again and consequently never enjoyed a re-issue in CD.

The Very Best OfFlogging A Dead Horse

As a footnote, when 'Flogging A Dead Horse' was first released on CD in Japan (1999), the sleeve reverted to the UK design and in the process lost its uniqueness. Sadly, the Japanese Sex Pistols catalogue now mirrored the UK, losing all those anomalies and differences which had made the earlier Nippon Columbia pressings so fascinating.

Outside of Japan, the most interesting release came in Argentina under the title 'Castigando Un Caballo Muerto'. It kept the UK design but translated all the song titles into Spanish on the cover. The back cover retained the dog turd, but the label was changed to the Argentinian 'NMTB' label. Very impressive attention to detail.

On its 1980 release in the UK, adverts were placed in the music papers. These were a reworking of the album sleeve but also incorporated A and B side single sleeves - not all songs depicted are on the LP. An alternative design substituted the 'NMTB' and 'Swindle' LP covers, along with the 'Flogging A Dead Horse' front and rear, for the single sleeves.

Flogging A Dead HorseFlogging A Dead Horse

Sales for the album were not great. It reached number 23 in the UK charts and shifted 23,000 copies, well down on the 56,000 'Some Product' managed the previous year. Surprisingly it was also well beaten by 'Sid Sings' which returned a healthy 43,000. There was still a Pistols buying public who were willing to splash their cash; 42,000 bought the single LP version of 'The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle' which was released the following June, and that album was totally unncessary. I suspect the irony of the cheesy sleeve and the self-deprecating title were partly to blame. Maybe on this occassion Jamie and co. had been a bit too clever. It would be his last Sex Pistols design work.

So, was it worth having a close look at Flogging A Dead Horse? Yes, without doubt. There's been subsequent compilations of varying merit but none were curated by those within the original Virgin Records / Pistols camp. Jamie Reid in particular was still brimming with subversive ideas. The album itself is a great listen. There's a Rotten side and a Swindle side, both with songs that shook up the charts back in the day, and back in the day is what this artefact is all about. It's got that certain something, an authenticity that a modern day repackaging couldn't hope to emulate.

Perhaps it's the nostalgia, but it will always remain my favourite Pistols compilation. I'll stick by that.

Written by Phil Singleton (May 2024)

Further information on
Japanese releases
The Very Best Of The Sex Pistols LP 1979 >
Flogging A Dead Horse LP 1983 >
Flogging A Dead Horse CD 1999 >
Flogging A Dead Horse CD 2007 >
Argentinian release
Flogging A Dead Horse 'Castigando Un Caballo Muerto' LP 1980 >

©Phil Singleton / 2024
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