The Sex Pistols

 The Sex Pistols

 Johnny Rotten – circa 1977

“Right!  Here we go now…a sociology lecture, with a bit of psychology, a bit of neurology, a bit of f***ology…” – Johnny Rotten’s preamble to The Sex Pistols’ version of ‘No Fun’

On 18 June 1977 the British singles chart shows a blank space in the no. 1 position.  How can this be?  Is it an error?  No.  The song is banned from the British Broadcasting Corporation’s charts.  The BBC also places a ban on radio airplay for the track.  Yet, in spite of such a media blackout, the single still sells sufficient copies to reach the top.  This is incredible.  Something unprecedented is happening here.  Some act has recorded an unidentified song that has – somehow! – defied an embargo from the authorities to connect with consumers in such vast numbers as to be the week’s best-selling single.  The song is ‘God Save The Queen’ by The Sex Pistols.

The man who is the public face of The Sex Pistols is Johnny Rotten.  He is born John Joseph Lydon on 31 January 1956.  His place of birth is officially given as Holloway, London, England, but it is possible he was actually born in County Galway, Ireland, before his parents – John Cristopher Lydon and Eileen Lydon (nee Barry) – moved to England.  John has three younger brothers: Jimmy, Bobby and Martin.  “Us growing up in London [in the Finsbury Park area] was no fun,” he recalls.  “It was serious hardcore…We’re tough lads, us.”  John adds, “I had an Irish Catholic education.  Horrible nuns, vindictive and cruel.”  When he is 7, John Lydon suffers from spinal meningitis.  It is quite serious, putting him in a temporary coma and leading to lengthy hospital stays.  “I was a very sickly boy when I was young,” he confirms.  Returning to his Catholic school, John finds the academic work very difficult, at least partly because of all the time he’s missed from class.  He glumly observes, “You learn to expect nothing.  You get nothing.  You start off in school and they take your soul away.”  John Lydon is expelled from school when he is 15.  He does ‘as little of anything as possible.’  John Lydon spends some time at Hackney & Stoke Newington College for Further Education.  It is here he meets John Simon Ritchie who will re-enter this story at a later point.  John Lydon moves out and recalls the parting with his father: “We never ever spoke, really, seriously at all until the day I left home.”

Although John Lydon (as Johnny Rotten) may be the catalyst for The Sex Pistols’ eventual emergence, in another way, their story begins with their guitarist.

Steve Jones is born Stephen Philip Jones on 3 September 1955 in London, England.  His father, Don Jarvis, is an amateur boxer and abandons the family when Steve is 2.  Steve’s mother, Mary, is a hairdresser.  She soon finds a new partner who becomes Steve’s step-father.  After living for a time with Steve’s grandparents, the three of them move into a single bedroom flat in Shepherd’s Bush.  It is an unhappy childhood.  Steve feels his mother hates him.  By 1968, Steve Jones has a criminal record and spends eighteen months in reform school.  When he gets out, Steve leaves school, though he is virtually illiterate.  His step-father tosses the boy out when he is 16.  Uninterested in getting a job, Steve Jones half-heartedly works as a window-cleaner.  In 1972 he forms a band called Q.T. Jones And The Sex Pistols.  Steve Jones is the vocalist, not the guitarist, in this group.  By the time he is 18, Steve Jones’ criminal past threatens to land him in jail and he realises that music is the only way out of the situation.

One of Steve Jones’ bandmates is Paul Cook, a drummer.  Paul Thomas Cook is born 20 July 1956 in Hammersmith, London.  He attends Christopher Wren School in White City Estate, Shepherd’s Bush.  It is here that Paul Cook meets Steve Jones.  With school friend Wally Nightingale, the three boys form a group called The Strand – named after a 1973 song called ‘Do The Strand’ by British glam rock act Roxy Music.  This means The Strand replaces Q.T. Jones And The Sex Pistols (formed in 1972).  While playing drums in the group, Paul Cook works as an electrician’s apprentice.  It is a post he retains for much of his time in The Sex Pistols, only quitting after the band is a success.

The other member of the embryonic Sex Pistols is bass player Glen Matlock, born 27 August 1956 in Paddington, London.  Glen may be the quietest and ‘nicest’ of the group but, perhaps for that reason, he is not very well liked by the others.

By the mid-1970s, Wally Nightingale has been dropped and the group are called The Swankers.  Glen Matlock is working at a clothing boutique owned by Malcolm McLaren and McLaren’s wife, Vivienne Westwood.  The other boys hang about there in lieu of anything better to do.

Malcolm McLaren will become the manager of The Sex Pistols.  Started in 1971, the King’s Road shop he owns with Vivienne Westwood is known as ‘Let It Rock’.  In August 1973, along with several other stores in the area, they are invited to exhibit their wares in New York, U.S.A.  They don’t do very well with their line of apparel but, during the trip, McLaren’s attention is claimed by a band called The New York Dolls.  A kind of American version of glam rock, the members of The New York Dolls are attired in gaudy fabrics, platform boots, and the all-male line-up is heavily smeared with make-up.  McLaren follows them about and sees the group ‘taunting audiences, making Nazi jokes, vomiting in front of the press.’  While some (most?) would find this off-putting, McLaren is entranced by the business of outrage.  Late in 1974, The New York Dolls lose their recording contract and Malcolm McLaren briefly relocates to New York, becoming the group’s manager in their dying days.

Returning to the U.K., Malcom McLaren’s mind is still preoccupied with his taste for rock, fame and sensationalism.  His boutique goes through a number of name changes from ‘Let It Rock’ to ‘Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die’ to ‘Sex’ to ‘Seditionaries’.  As mentioned, Glen Matlock is one of the shop’s employees.  McLaren is aware that Glen has a band.  However, McLaren thinks they would be better served with a new vocalist.  He has in mind another youth hanging about his shop.  His name is John Lydon.

Before joining the band, John Lydon is described as a ‘sickly, quiet, bookish type’.  Yet he is also brash, insolent and irreverent, the very qualities that Malcolm McLaren thinks will make him an ideal frontman for the band he envisions.  John Lydon is given the new sobriquet Johnny Rotten.  This may be because of his ‘cheesy, crud-caked incisors’ or it may be because of his habit of saying, “You’re rotten, you are!”  He auditions by singing American shock rocker Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’.  It’s debatable how much Johnny Rotten is just John Lydon unleashed and how much it is an invented character he plays.  Reputedly, he bases the Johnny Rotten persona on Laurence Olivier’s performance of the hunchbacked title character in the film ‘Richard III’ (1955).  Paul Cook recalls, “We thought, he’s got what we want.  Bit of a lunatic.  A frontman.  That’s what we was after: a frontman who had definite ideas about what he wanted to do and he’d definitely got them.  And we knew straight away.  Even though he couldn’t sing.  We wasn’t really interested in that ‘cos we were still learning to play at the time.”

Steve Jones is convinced to step aside in favour of Johnny Rotten as vocalist.  Jones becomes the group’s guitarist and first plays live on stage with the band after only playing guitar for three months.  Malcolm McLaren takes credit for both rechristening Johnny Rotten and renaming The Swankers as The Sex Pistols.  The latter claim at least seems doubtful since, back in 1972, Steve Jones was leading Q.T. Jones And The Sex Pistols.  The Sex Pistols is a name suggestive of male genitalia.  In any case, The Sex Pistols are officially founded in August 1975 with the line-up of: Johnny Rotten (vocals), Steve Jones (guitar), Glen Matlock (bass) and Paul Cook (drums).

The Sex Pistols are a punk rock band.  America’s Iggy Pop And The Stooges had been playing a sort of proto-punk rock since 1968.  The New York Dolls antics certainly informed Malcolm McLaren’s vision.  The Ramones, another American act, were perhaps the first punk band in 1974.  Johnny Rotten snarls that there is “a lot of talk about that New York started the punk scene and we ripped them off or some bulls***.  People think we were influenced by it.  We weren’t.”  If The Sex Pistols are not the first punk band, they become the definitive punk rock band.

Punk rock strips away the artificiality accumulated by rock music in the many years since its birth in the mid-1950s.  Even obviously fake names like Johnny Rotten are throwbacks to first generation rockers who adopted blatantly false stage-names like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde and Johnny Gentle.  Punk’s nearest cousins are glam rock and heavy metal.  It borrows the crunchy pop sound of glam, but not the look.  Similarly, the devastating ultra-loud guitars of heavy metal are repurposed by punk, but metal’s long hair and fantasy images are ditched.  Punk thumbs its nose at the pretensions of art rock and the cult of personality around musical skills.  Punk has no guitar heroes.  It glories in the basic, rudimentary sound and almost inept musicianship.  When asked about his lack of musical ability, Steve Jones proclaims, “We’re not into music.  We’re into chaos.”  Punk is not about studying at a conservatory; it’s about angry young people making themselves heard.  A lost generation of unemployed youths with (at best) limited prospects for the future give the world an earful of their discontent.  Its fashion is anti-fashion.  “I made ugly beautiful,” boasts Rotten.

The Sex Pistols songwriting is credited jointly to the four members of the band.  The level of participation of various individuals varies from song to song.  “We didn’t work on songs like for ages.  They came about very quickly,” suggests Paul Cook.  Johnny Rotten points out, “I had very little at all to do with The Pistols’ music.  I knew nothing about music.  While they’d be fiddling about, I’d be in the corner writing.  I’d just shout out if I liked certain bits and I had lyrics to fit in…You don’t need to be technically proficient at your art to write songs.”  Rotten concludes, “We credited the band with songwriting…Once you start separating people when it comes to copyright on publishing, you’re not a band anymore.”

The Sex Pistols claim they want “more bands like us.”  They get them.  England explodes with a proliferation of punk rock bands: The Damned, The Buzzcocks, The Clash (The Pistols’ biggest rivals – though Johnny Rotten insists, “[We had] none of the deadpan, dreary political opinions like The Clash wallowed in.”), The Jam, The Stranglers, Sham ’69, Stiff Little Fingers and Siouxsie And The Banshees amongst others.  However, history tends to inflate the legend of Britain’s punk rock revolution.  “[Punk] wasn’t big at all.  It was very small,” says Johnny Rotten in clarification.  It’s true – but the music’s cultural impact and subsequent influence is disproportionately many times greater than its commercial success at the time.

The Sex Pistols first gig is at Saint Martin’s College of Art in London on 6 November 1975.  Four and a half months later they play to an audience of fifty people at London’s 100 Club on 30 March 1976.  In June they begin a weekly residency at the same venue.  A lot of the early audience consists of what Johnny Rotten describes as “Malcolm McLaren’s friends.”  He suggests, “It was just a clothes horse display by that lot.  None of the band wanted to be part of that.”  The group begins playing gigs in Milton Keynes, St Albans, Welwyn Garden City and what Rotten says are “all those godforsaken new towns.”  Paul Cook insists, “It was a chance for us to get away from the bulls*** of London.”  “They had nothin’ [else] at all,” leers Rotten.  “That’s what built The Sex Pistols’ crowd.”  The punk fans become known as ‘the Bromley Contingent’.  Their number includes Rotten’s old school friend, John Simon Ritchie, and Siouxsie Sioux, later of Siouxsie And The Banshees.  A show at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall by The Sex Pistols on 20 July 1976 acts as inspiration for both the future members of The Buzzcocks and post punk outfit Joy Division.

Although many of the new breed of punk rock acts appear on do-it-yourself independent record labels, on 10 October 1976 The Sex Pistols sign up with a major label, EMI, for forty thousand pounds.  EMI outbid Polydor to secure the deal.  A debut single, ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ is scheduled to be released on 3 December.

On 1 December 1976 The Sex Pistols appear on ‘The Today Show’, a television program on Britain’s ITV Network.  They are a last minute replacement for British glam rock group Queen.  The host, Bill Grundy, taunts The Sex Pistols about their ‘nasty’ reputation.  Although most of the band seem to swear under their breaths and are generally inaudible, Glen Matlock reputedly says “f***”.  Actually, Steve Jones is a lot more voluble, uttering, “You dirty b*****d, you dirty f***er, f***in’ rotter.”  Since this is broadcast at 6.15 P.M., it causes a furore.  The next day, the ‘filthy’ Sex Pistols are splashed across newspaper headlines.

Although EMI ‘squirms in embarrassment’, ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ (UK no. 38) duly appears on 3 December 1976.  Paul Cook reports that, “It was Glen [Matlock’s] riff originally, and Steve [Jones] beefed it up.”  Johnny Rotten chips in: “When I finally finished the words, Glen was completely furious.”  Cook concurs that, “Glen felt a little precious about it being his song.”  Rotten adds, “He thought it was appalling and a silly idea for a song.”  For his part, Glen Matlock claims, “I had this idea for a sort of ‘theme tune’…John came up these amazing lyrics a half hour later.”  “I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist,” howls Rotten in this sonic hand grenade of punk fury.  “Anarchy for the U.K. / It’s coming some time may be,” warns the lyric.  Anarchy is a political state without formal rules, a condition of chaos and disorder.

With this single in the marketplace, The Sex Pistols embark on a national tour.  However their tabloid press infamy results in them being banned from ninety per cent of the towns on the itinerary.  The Sex Pistols only play in five cities, one of them being Manchester.  EMI are dismayed.  In January 1977 Steve Jones is accused of vomiting on an old woman in a lounge at Heathrow Airport.  This is the last straw and EMI ends their contract with The Sex Pistols on 6 January 1977.  ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ is withdrawn from circulation.  EMI’s press release cites The Sex Pistols’ ‘disgraceful aggressive behaviour’ and EMI’s obligation to ‘encourage restraint.’

The Sex Pistols begin work on recording their first album even though they are currently without a recording contract.  The work exacerbates tensions within the band.  On 15 February 1977 bassist Glen Matlock quits – or is kicked out.  Matlock wearily explains, “There was no working relationship” anymore between him and the group.  He is “sick of all the bulls***.”  An appalled Johnny Rotten complains that Matlock “wanted to make us fun, like The Beatles,” the loveable 1960s British pop group.  Glen Matlock is replaced in The Sex Pistols by Rotten’s friend, John Simon Ritchie, now known as Sid Vicious.

Sid Vicious (10 May 1957 – 2 February 1979) is born John Simon Ritchie a.k.a. John Beverley in London, England.  He is the child of John Simon Ritchie, senior, a grenadier guard in the British army, who leaves shortly after the child’s birth, never to return.  Sid’s mother, Anne, marries Christopher Beverley, who becomes Sid’s stepfather.  Christopher Beverley dies six months later.  Anne Beverley is a heroin user – and sometimes also sells the drug – during Sid’s childhood.  After the end of her marriage, she goes to Ibiza in Spain.  They return to England in 1965.  Sid meets Johnny Rotten in 1974 at Hackney & Stoke Newington College for Further Education.

The name Sid Vicious is bestowed on John Simon Ritchie as a joke.  “Sid couldn’t punch his way out of a bag of crisps,” mocks Johnny Rotten.  Contradicting this are tales of Sid ‘chain-swinging’, ‘beating a rock writer with a chain’, ‘beating up other members of the audience’ and ‘spitting and spraying beer into the audience.’  He first becomes known as part of the Bromley Contingent, the hard core Sex Pistols fans.  He then has a brief stint in September 1976 as the drummer in Siouxsie And The Banshees, the band formed by fellow Bromley Contingent identity Siouxsie Sioux.  “I was getting my own group together, The Flowers Of Romance,” Sid recounts.  Sid is the lead vocalist in the combo.  He abandons such plans to join The Sex Pistols.  Sid is credited with inventing the pogo, the ‘dance’ move associated with punk.  Given the music’s frenetic energy, pogoing involves just bouncing up and down in place.  Sid is also noted for wearing a Nazi swastika t-shirt, though Steve Jones is also seen in a similar garment.  The Sex Pistols are not really Nazis; they just like to be outrageous.  If wearing a swastika provokes a response, so be it, as long as people are shaken from their numb lethargy.  Sid Vicious suggests that EMI dropped The Sex Pistols because, “We weren’t nice boys.  We were nasty little b*****ds.”

The Sex Pistols have some doubts about the newcomer.  “I kinda regret [Glen Matlock’s] leaving,” says Steve Jones, “because Sid [Vicious] couldn’t play a f***in’ note.”  Indeed, Matlock is asked – grudgingly – to temporarily return to help with the recording of The Sex Pistols’ debut album because Sid is so staggeringly inept on the bass.

On 10 March 1977 A & M Records give The Sex Pistols one hundred and fifty thousand pounds to sign a recording contract with them.  A & M boasts they can handle the notorious act.  The signing takes place on a trestle table set up in the street in front of Buckingham Palace.  Nine days later, A & M fires The Sex Pistols, giving them a seventy-five thousand pound pay-off, without issuing any music by the group.  Publicly, the decision of A & M to change their mind is said to be due to ‘the reputation for violence’ accompanying the act.  Less officially, ‘acts the Pistols reportedly committed in the A & M offices’, including ‘obscenities members of the group have been hurling at A & M executives at business meetings’, are thought to be responsible for the rift.

Once again without a recording contract, The Sex Pistols are virtually unable to play any gigs.  Such is their infamy that no venue is willing to risk allowing them on stage.  They may be ‘the hottest act in Britain’, but they are also in limbo.

Virgin Records, founded by the entrepreneur Richard Branson, is the next company to offer a contract to The Sex Pistols.  The deal in May 1977 earns the band another fifty thousand pounds.  The Sex Pistols’ second single, ‘God Save The Queen’ (U.K. no. 1), is released on 27 May 1977.  Although it shares the same title, this is not the British national anthem every schoolboy is taught to sing.  Paul Cook remembers that, “It started with Glen [Matlock’s] bass riff.  Then [guitarist] Steve [Jones] got hold of it, then I started playing.  Suddenly, John came up with ‘God Save The Queen’.  We thought, ‘What’s this?’”  Johnny Rotten explains, “I had the lyrics ready.  I wrote them a while back, but never used them.  The words didn’t fit in with any of the other tunes…It was more like a big tirade.”  “God save the Queen” barks Rotten in the lyrics, “The fascist regime / That made you a moron / Potential H-bomb [hydrogen bomb].”  The singer denounces the British monarch (“She ain’t no human being”) over buzzsaw guitars.  The song ends with the repeated refrain of “no future.”  It could be the monarchy that has ‘no future’, but it could just as easily be the country’s dead-end youth who have been handed ‘no future.’  Despite a ban on airplay because of its ‘treasonous sentiments’, the song sails to the top of the charts in a triumph of the power of the group’s fans.  The scurrilous effect of the song would be felt at any time, but with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee celebrations set to begin in June 1977, the impact is even greater.  “It wasn’t written specifically for the Queen’s anniversary Jubilee,” protests Paul Cook.  “We weren’t even aware of it at the time.  It wasn’t a contrived effort to go out and shock everyone.  No way.  It didn’t even click that there was a Jubilee coming up.”  The video for ‘God Save The Queen’ is Sid Vicious’ introduction to the general public.  ‘God Save The Queen’ is a cracking, muscular effort, but due to its attack on repressive society and its simultaneous heroic triumph over that authority, this is The Sex Pistols’ best song.

On 18 June 1977 Johnny Rotten is slashed on the face and hands by knife-wielding hoodlums offended by the anti-monarchist sentiments of ‘God Save The Queen’.  On 19 June 1977 Paul Cook is bashed with an iron pipe by thugs motivated by the same Royalist impulse.

The Sex Pistols’ third single, ‘Pretty Vacant’ (UK no. 6), is released in July 1977.  A pulsing guitar rises into a rallying cry and the band kick over the barricades, taking flight.  The lyric is fairly meaningless and just seems to exist to give Johnny Rotten an excuse to reach the chorus.  He wilfully pronounces the title “Pretty…Vay-C***-Ah!” as though the middle syllable of the latter half is the swear word for a part of the female anatomy.  “I love to play with words,” Rotten later chortles.  “They didn’t mind it on the radio because they didn’t know.”  The B side of the single is a cover version of ‘No Fun’, a Stooges’ song from 1969.

“We had to get out of London,” Paul Cook says.  “[Manager] Malcolm [McLaren] wanted us to leave for a while because we were causing too much trouble at the time…We went down to [the Isle of] Jersey, then had quite a good time in Berlin [in Germany] for a couple of weeks’ holiday.”  Johnny Rotten adds, “Berlin and its decadence was a good idea.  The song came about from that.”  ‘The song’ is ‘Holidays In The Sun’ (UK no. 8), the next Sex Pistols single.  “I don’t wanna holiday in the sun / I wanna go to the new Belsen,” it begins.  Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp during World War Two.  In 1977 Germany was still divided by the Berlin Wall into communist East Germany and the German Democratic Republic in the west.  The wall is demolished in 1990 and the country unified as a democracy.  However in 1977, Johnny Rotten was singing, “Well, I was waiting for the communist call / I didn’t ask for sunshine / And I got World War Three / I’m looking over the wall and they’re looking at me!”  In a harrowing crescendo, Rotten babbles about going over or under the Berlin Wall and repeatedly cries, “I don’t understand this bit at all!!”  Steve Jones concludes that this berserk, foaming-at-the-mouth rant “pretty well sums up the trip.”

The Sex Pistols’ debut album, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols’ (1977) (UK no. 1, US no. 106), arrives in October.  ‘Bollocks’ is an English slang term for testicles.  However, it is also used colloquially in a variety of ways.  One of these is to describe something as rubbish (e.g. ‘That’s total bollocks”).  The album title uses the same context, urging listeners to discard imitations and punk wannabes in favour of the real thing – The Sex Pistols.  The album cover is in eye-gouging fluoro colours with the group’s name formed from a stencil of ill-matched letters like a terrorist threat pasted together from letters cut out of newspapers.  “If the sessions had gone the way I wanted, it would have been unlistenable for most people,” says Johnny Rotten.  “I guess it’s the nature of music: if you want people to listen, you’re going to have to compromise.”  Chris Thomas and Bill Price produce this actually very uncompromising disc.  It includes ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’, ‘God Save The Queen’, ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Holidays In The Sun’.  Rotten gibbers, sneers, howls and rants all over a blasted sonic landscape of rubble and ruin, demolished by a band whose instruments have been set for maximum destruction.  Aside from the stunning singles, the album has many other dark delights.  ‘Bodies’ is an astonishing anti-abortion assault.  “She was an animal / She was a f***ing disgrace,” is how Rotten describes “a girl from Birmingham / She just had an abortion.”  He works himself into a lather, screaming, “F*** this and f*** that / F*** it all and f*** a f***ing brat!”  Who is the subject of the niggling and nervy ‘Liar’?  “John announced this as being about [former U.K. Prime Minister] Harold Wilson,” reports Glen Matlock.  “I was pretty relieved as I thought he was having a poke at me.”  Rotten contradicts this, saying that ‘Liar’ is “self-explanatory really…considering the manager [Malcolm McLaren] we were working with.”  ‘Seventeen’ is a punk era teen anthem with its “I’m a lazy sod” chorus.  “That was around the time Steve Jones was learning to read and write…everything was misspelled,” comments Rotten.  He continues, “It was about being young [and] having nothing to do.”  The album closes with the legend-building exercise ‘EMI (Unlimited Edition)’, a tart rejoinder to their former record company.  Somehow, what should sound petty instead turns grandiose.  “The material is glorious.  It’s one of my fave of the lot,” insists Rotten.  The song (and the album) ends with the words, “Hello EMI / Goodbye!…A & M.” and then a raspberry is blown.  This is ‘one of the classic rock records’ and The Sex Pistols’ peak.

The next stop for The Sex Pistols is a tour of the United States.  When they first apply for visas in December 1977 they are rejected.  Johnny Rotten is denied entry because of an indictment for possession of one illegal amphetamine; Steve Jones is taken to task because of lack of information about his criminal record; and Sid Vicious and Paul Cook are both accused of ‘moral turpitude.’

After smoothing things over with the authorities, The Sex Pistols U.S. tour opens in Atlanta, Georgia on 5 January 1978 and closes in San Francisco, California, on 18 January 1978.  Perversely, the band avoids cities like New York and Los Angeles where there are greater concentrations of punk rock fans in favour of southern and Midwestern cities.  Sid Vicious is involved with Nancy Spungen, ‘a Philadelphia runaway turned groupie.’  The two are using heroin and ‘everybody but Sid finds her totally objectionable.’  Johnny Rotten observes that, “I could take on England but I couldn’t take on one heroin user.”  Relations within the band are poor.

On 18 January 1978, during The Sex Pistols show in San Francisco, Johnny Rotten despairs aloud, “Oh bollocks, why should I carry on?”  He laughs, “Ha ha ha.  Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and quits The Sex Pistols the next day.  He tells the press that, “We had gone as far as we could go.  Everyone was trying to turn us into a big group, and I hated that.”  Rotten sagely comments, “The day The Sex Pistols ceased to exist was the day they became important and relevant.”  In other words, their legend has a greater cultural impact than their physical existence.  In many ways, The Sex Pistols finish on 18 January 1978 with Johnny Rotten’s departure…except that, zombie-like, they stagger on for some time.

On 19 January 1978 (the same date Johnny Rotten announces his exit), as the band prepares to leave America, there is an emergency involving Sid Vicious.  He is removed from the plane at Kennedy Airport in New York.  Taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, Sid is treated for an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol.  “John’s just jealous because I’m the brains of the group,” he boasts in a swipe at Johnny Rotten.

While Sid Vicious is in hospital, Malcolm McLaren sends Steve Jones and Paul Cook to Rio De Janiero to meet with Ronnie Biggs.  A fugitive from British justice, Biggs committed the so-called Great Train Robbery in 1963.  Together with The Sex Pistols, he records vocals for two songs, ‘No One Is Innocent’ and ‘Belsen Was A Gas’.

On 22 February 1978 Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen are arrested by the police in a room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York.  The couple are charged with drug possession.  “I don’t want to be a junkie for the rest of my life,” says Sid.  “I don’t want to be a junkie at all.”

In 1978 The Sex Pistols release the single ‘No One Is Innocent’ backed with ‘My Way’ (UK no. 7).  The latter is a cover version of the song made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1969.  Sid Vicious provides the oddball lead vocal, but can’t remember all the lyrics so he makes up some lines.  Paul Cook does not play drums on ‘My Way’, but Steve Jones tries to make it work anyway.

The next Sex Pistols single for 1978 is ‘Somethin’ Else’ b/w ‘Friggin’ In The Riggin’’ (UK no. 3).  Sid Vicious sings the former, a cover version of the 1959 song by rockabilly singer Eddie Cochran.  Steve Jones sings ‘Friggin’ In The Riggin’’.

On 13 October 1978 Nancy Spungen is found dead in the Chelsea Hotel room she shares with Sid Vicious.  The death is due to abdominal knife wounds.  Sid Vicious is arrested for her murder.  He is ‘nearly unconscious due to the effects of several different drugs, including heroin, barbiturates and alcohol.’  Sid confesses to the murder but, according to his statement, it appears Nancy Spungen encouraged him to kill her.

‘Silly Thing’ (UK no. 6) is the last Sex Pistols single for 1978.  Paul Cook: “’Silly Thing’ was a thing Steve [Jones] and I put together.  It was originally called ‘Silly C***’.  It was about Sid [Vicious] or it could have been about Malcolm [McLaren].”  Steve Jones’ literary skills have improved to the point where he writes the lyrics for this song – which is better than it has any right to be.  ‘Silly Thing’ is the best work from the post-Johnny Rotten Sex Pistols.

Sid Vicious attempts suicide on 22 October 1978 at New York’s Bellevue Hospital.  He uses a smashed light bulb to slash his wrists.  He survives.

Released on bail, on 6 December 1978 Sid Vicious is involved in an altercation at Hurrah, a New York nightclub.  He smashes glass in the face of Todd Smith, the brother of American punk singer, Patti Smith.

The trial of Sid Vicious for the murder of Nancy Spungen begins on 2 January 1979.

On 2 February 1979 Sid Vicious is found dead of a heroin overdose in the Greenwich Village apartment of his new girlfriend, Michelle Robinson.  The death is ruled accidental.  Apparently, Sid Vicious had detoxified himself to the point where a shot of heroin was too much for him and proved fatal.  Some contend the overdose was deliberate.  The murder case against Sid Vicious is left unresolved.  He was 21.  In 1996, Sid’s mother, Anne Beverley, commits suicide.

‘The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle’ (1979) (UK no. 7) is released on 24 February.  This is the soundtrack to the film of the same name, ‘a series of “lessons” in rock subversion by Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.’  The movie is directed by Julien Temple.  As well as the Johnny Rotten era hits, the album includes all the 1978 singles and their final singles from 1979 and 1980: (i) ‘C’mon Everybody’ (UK no. 3), another Eddie Cochran cover sung by Sid Vicious; (ii) ‘The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle’ (UK no. 21) with guest vocals by Edward Tudor-Pole a.k.a. Ten Pole Tudor; and (iii) 1980’s ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’ (UK no. 21), a previously unreleased Johnny Rotten led version of The Monkees’ 1966 pop hit.

On 26 February 1979 a London court hears a case in which Malcolm McLaren and the surviving Sex Pistols argue over the division of the band’s money.  Although they earned eight hundred thousand pounds, only thirty thousand is left.

‘Some Product: Carri On Sex Pistols’ (1979) (UK no. 6) in August is a collection of spoken word interviews and radio spots.  ‘Flogging A Dead Horse’ (1980) (UK no. 23) in February is a greatest hits set.  It comprises the A sides of the four 1977 singles, the B sides of three of those singles, the six A sides from 1978 to 1980, plus ‘My Way’.

Johnny Rotten reverts to his birth name of John Lydon and leads Public Image Limited (or P.I.L.) which is ‘not a group, but a wide-ranging corporation.’  He marries Nora Foster, a publishing heiress from Germany.  This also makes him the step-father of Ari Up from the female punk trio, The Slits.

Glen Matlock works with The Rich Kids (September 1977 to November 1978), then Spectre.

Paul Cook marries, and he and his wife, Jenni, have a daughter named Hollie.

The Sex Pistols – Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook – reunite in 1996 for the ‘Filthy Lucre’ international tour.  The group reconvenes again in 2007-2008.

Despite a BBC ban, The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ topped the U.K. singles chart on 18 June 1977.  Such an achievement indicates the depth and loyalty of The Sex Pistols’ fanbase.  How did they win them over?  Malcolm McLaren grasped the concept that alienating the parents wins the devotion of their rebellious kids.  The same principle partially accounts for the success of Elvis Presley in the 1950s and The Rolling Stones in the 1960s.  “They can control The Stones, they can’t control us,” boasted Paul Cook in 1977.  Unlike their predecessors, The Sex Pistols were not celebrating rock ‘n’ roll as a new hope; they were ‘wreckers.’  “Rock ‘n’ roll is over, don’t you understand?” asked Johnny Rotten in February 1980.  “It’s gone on for twenty-five years and it’s got to be cancelled.  The Pistols finished rock ‘n’ roll; they were the last rock ‘n’ roll band.”  Perhaps they should have called a halt after Rotten’s departure in January 1978.  Paul Cook noted that, “A lot of stuff came out under The Sex Pistols’ name after John left because Malcolm was trying to get the film [‘The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle’] together.  He was desperate and Virgin [Records] was giving him money to finish it.  Using the name Sex Pistols was the only way to raise cash.”  In that phase, The Sex Pistols were acting just as would the old school rock ‘dinosaurs’ they had railed against.  It’s hard to fault the reunions from the 1990s onwards that helped give the members of the band some financial support, but – again – it seems contrary to the reckless spirit of 1977.  What made The Sex Pistols significant was not what made them the same as other acts, but what set them apart: a brave attempt to draw a line under rock ‘n’ roll and say, ‘it ends here.’  The Sex Pistols’ ‘total effect was to make rock ‘n’ roll dangerous again, to restore its unpredictability.’  ‘They changed the face of popular music through their raw, nihilistic singles and violent performances.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 248, 254, 261, 263, 266, 267, 268, 270, 271, 272, 275, 277, 280, 281, 289, 291, 294, 295
  2. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ by Greil Marcus (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 594, 596, 597, 598, 599, 601, 605, 606, 607
  3. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 6 December 2013
  4. Internet movie database imdb.com as at 6 March 2014
  5. ‘Late Late Show’ (U.S. television program, CBS Network) – Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones interview conducted by Craig Ferguson (3 November 2007)
  6. ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 214, 218, 219
  7. brainyquote.com as at 7 March 2014
  8. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 42, 68
  9. wikipedia.org as at 6 December 2013
  10. allmusic.com, ‘The Sex Pistols’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 2 April 2002
  11. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 110, 111, 112, 116
  12. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 9, 46, 108, 175, 191, 257
  13. ‘Kiss This’ – Sleeve notes by Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook (Virgin Records Ltd., 1992) p. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16
  14. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 56, 208
  15. ‘The Today Show’ (U.K. television program, ITV Network) – Sex Pistols interview conducted by Bill Grundy (1 December 1976)
  16. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.187
  17. watchmojo.com – ‘History of the Sex Pistols’ (15 January 2013)
  18. azlyrics.com as at 5 March 2014
  19. 1977 interview with The Sex Pistols in Denmark Street, London (Australian interview, ABC Network?)

Song lyrics copyright Stephen Philip Jones / Warner Chappell Music Ltd / Rotten Music Ltd.

Last revised 25 March 2014

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