Hide Your Grandmothers, It’s the Sex Pistols!
By John Pecorelli for Alternative Press magazine
It’s just another typical Los Angeles day: sunny, 70 degrees, the Eagles’ “Desperado” playing quietly in a mini-mart next to a nondescript beach motel. Middle-aged bourgeoisie in colorful shorts enjoy a game of volleyball in the sand, sailboats wafting by on the water behind them. It’s all very lazy and serene, but a pall of anxiety hangs over everything. I’m not here to interview Jimmy Buffet, after all. Waiting in that nondescript beach motel are the Sex Pistols.
Never mind that this is a band that existed only two years yet dramatically altered the industry, sound, and scope of rock and roll. They did it with a startling new noise, with combative theatrics, and most of all with words, forcing taboo after taboo down the throats of a docile and unsuspecting English public. They did it despite being banned from the radio, banished from performing in most English counties, and having the top spot in the country’s published record charts left blank when one of their songs occupied it. They did it despite two major labels signing and unceremoniously dumping them almost immediately, and they did it despite record plant workers going on strike, refusing to press the vinyl and sleeves. Most amazingly, the Sex Pistols did it releasing only one LP, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols.
Never mind all that. Mode immediate concerns plague me. This is band whose members “hate each other” (according to their old manager Malcom McLaren), a band that at interview time today hadn’t even rehearsed together in nearly two decades. The press gets on their nerves, one source close to the Pistols had warned me to “watch your Ps and Qs because tensions are running a little high.”
“Aw, you’re all right,” says Johnny Rotten with a grin, plopping down in a plastic lawn chair next to me on the motel patio. “Some of the birds in there fancy ya. ‘Oooh, he’s all right, isn’t he?’ Tell you what—I’ll get their numbers. Hello!”
Stev Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock (the Psitols’ original bassist, whome the late Sid Vicious replaced in early 1977) wander in. No leather jackets, no Doc Martens, no practiced sneers. And why should there be? The Sex Pistols are, after all, the punk rock archetype.
“Bloody glad to hear it,” nods Rotten. “Quite frankly—no seriously—we’ve been gettin’ this a lot now in the last three weeks: people saying what punk is, what punk isn’t, and how could we do this because it’s not punk. We are the first, foremost. We write the laws—others follow them.”
“We write the laws!” Jones counters jokingly, his normally Cockney voice somewhere between John Wayne and Elvis Presley.
“We don’t mean to be corny,” Rotten continues, staring directly at me, “but first there was Jesus Christ…and then there was the Christian movement.”
“We’re the punk-rock icons and we created everything, boy! Jones undercuts again in his Elvis Wayne voice.
Whether they were “first” or not depends on which historian you consult, and historians are a fickle lot. No one knows this better than the Sex Pistols, who’ve been both vilified and deified, respectively, by music and youth culture historians. Ask the band and they’ll tell you that either way it’s dehumanizing. Starting with early mainstream media coverage in England , the Pistols were portrayed as no-talent dole thugs and/or nihilistic seditionaries attempting to, in the words of Parliament member Marcus Lipton, “destroy our established institutions.” The truly self-destructive antics of bassist Vicious and the band’s sudden, violent implosion in 1978 only lent credence to the “live fast, die young” motif—an easy cliché that still plagues the Pistols. Cook dismisses it all with five words.
“We’re still here, ain’t we?”
Rotten is typically more elaborate.
“Did you ever hear any of us say that we wanted to destroy ourselves? No, you didn’t. That’s all rewrites of history, people not dealing with things the way they really were, but wanting to fit their own little personal bit into it, e.g., make a place for themselves in the scheme of things. And this is the trouble with history—it’s constantly being rewritten incorrectly by people who should know better but who, quite frankly, don’t.”
Rotten takes a large breath. “And another thing!” he snorts with a laugh.
“Get on your soapbox over there, Johnny,” Cook chuckles. “Straight off the cuff, that was!”
Rotten’s smile evaporates. “A bunch of things are off the cuff with me. But I’m constantly thinking about this and I don’t like people having the sheer audacity to tell me what punk is or is not. ‘Punk’ was a title given to us by Caroline Coon first off. That’s the first time I ever noticed it, when she called me the ‘king of punk’ in Melody Maker,” he says, uttering the phrase with mock bombast. “Now I took that as a personal offense—because a ‘punk’ was like, um, Mr. Big’s bum boy in jail.”
“What was the question again?” Cook asks.
“Nonsense,” Jones quickly answers.
Were the media accusations of self-destructive behavior…
“No no no no no no!” Rotten interrupts. “As I’ve always said whenever I’ve done anything, right from day one, the idea is to survive. Beat the rest, not get beaten down.”
“Nothing we ever did was contrived,” Cook adds quietly. “Not a lot of thought went into it, you know what I mean?”
“Hello! My survival is quite contrived, I’ll say that,” Rotten counters.
“No, I mean like self-destructive and all that,” Cook continues. “We wouldn’t have contrived all that. That was just a natural reaction for us, against the music biz, the apathy that was around at the time. There was so much shit in 1976.”
Cook has a point, even if you limit his comment to music. The hit machines of 1976 were ghastly: Genesis, ABBA, Peter Frampton, Grand Funk Railroad…
“Actually, I like Grand Funk Railroad!” Rotten cuts me off, laughing.
“Me too,” agrees Jones.
“They were the noisiest, most awful band in the world and everybody hated them!” Rotten exclaims. “But they had two really good singles, and God, I can’t remember the bloody titles…”
“’The Locomotion,’” Cook mumbles.
“’Some Kind of Wonderful,” offers Jones.
“Let’s stop talking about this or they’ll reform,” says Cook, exploiting the irony. “They’ll reform!”
Since we’re on the topic…while almost every punky band from the past 20 years is coming back to reap the rewards of current green-hair trendiness, no one ever suspected the Pistols would. Rotten’s bitter, eight-year legal battle with Pistols manager McClaren (Lydon vs. Glitterbest) notwithstanding, the initial group breakup in January 1978—after a particularly sour gig on the particularly disastrous U.S. tour—was so sudden and brutal that no one even toyed with notion of reformation. The band remembers it well.
“We didn’t know what was happening on that U.S. tour,” Cook says. “It was all fucked up, and that’s why we split up. Because it was a total disaster from start to finish. It wasn’t our fault really, you know.”
“It was a disaster from our point of view,” Jones clarifies. “Maybe not from the people who went and saw it.”
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Rotten asks, reiterating his often-quoted final words to the crowd at the Pistols’ final show in San Francisco. “The crowds loved it anyway. A whole spectacle. But for us as people I definitely felt very upset about it all. It went horribly wrong and we were distanced. Steve and Paul were in a hotel in one place, I was with the road crew, and Sid in another place. Couldn’t get through to anyone because Malcom [McClaren] made sure of that.”
“Sid was off dead on a San Francisco floor somewhere,” Cook mutters.
“Sid was off dead—but getting money from Malcom to keep him that way,” says Rotten bitterly. “No money came my way. I didn’t even have a plane ticket out of America when you all went off to—I didn’t know where you went, I was just told it was Rio and that was it.”
“The manager just let things go, you know,” says Cook quietly.
“We met briefly at your hotel,” Rotten looks at Cook and Jones, “but the animosity at that point was ludicrous. You couldn’t get past it: ‘You’re a cunt.’ ‘No, I’m not.’ ‘Yes, you are.’ That was about it. It was as childish and stupid as that. And that’s the same way we broke up with Glen [Matlock]. And it was Malcom instigating again. ‘He said, she said, duh duh duh.’”
“He was like some old fuckin’ woman,” puts in Jones. “Just had to gossip about something all the time.”
But one persistent myth about the Sex Pistols’ formation is that McClaren “constructed” them as a living, spitting advertisement for his alternative clothing boutique, Sex.
“That’s all bollocks,” Jones states sharply.
Surprise isn’t the only sentiment greeting the Pistols’ reunion, either—a fair amount of dismay exists, as well. They’ve “sold out,” some say—forget that the band always embraced crass materialism, saying “the more the merrier” to talk-show host Bill Grundy in the late ‘70s (shortly before calling him a “fucking rotter” on live, primetime British TV). Others feel the Pistols shouldn’t be allowed to sully their own legend the way Elvis and the Beatles did. There seems to be an almost pathological social need to keep the Pistols frozen in time like James Dean or Brian Jones—or Sid Vicious for that matter—as icons of eternal rebellious youth. Perhaps the heaviest irony of all is that the original icon breakers, who carried the nothing-is-sacred credo to its visceral extreme, have become all-too-sacred themselves.
“Yes,” Rotten agrees. “People have built the Sex Pistols into a church. Like an icon, something sacrosanct, and fuck that. ‘Fuck it all and fuck the fucking brat. Because I don’t wanna baby that looks like that!’” Rotten says, pointing at me. “’Bodies! It’s not an animal, it’s an abortion!’” (One thing is clear about the reunion: Rotten still remembers the lyrics.)
“He’s right though,” Cook says, back to the point. “People think it’s sacrosanct, can’t be touched, so, you know…they’re so precious about it all.”
“And they had nothing to do with it,” mutters Jones.
“Why shouldn’t we?” asks Cook. “They don’t mind everyone else reforming, but as soon as it’s us they’re like, ‘Ooh, horror!’”
“It’s good,” says Jones. “I’m glad they fucking don’t like it.”
“It annoys,” murmurs Rotten.
“Well, not everyone,” says Cook.
“We get questions like this: ‘Oh, is it hard to shock these days?’” Rotten bristles. “Don’t care about shocking.”
“We never tried to shock,” says Jones simply.
“We never, ever did,” Rotten agrees. “Just shit happens and then you live with it. And here we are now, reforming, and whether they like it or not, it’s shocked them. ”
There is a pause. Then Cook adds, “It’s only the people in the media who are shocked. When I was touring with [Edwyn Collins] I was actually asking the fans, the kids coming to the gigs, what they would think of the Pistols, and every one of them loved it.”
“Yeah, but hello?” Rotten butts. “What do we know about the music press? We know that it works for record companies.”
“Exactly,” agrees Cook.
“”In-out,” Rotten mutters tiredly. “They want fads, trends, and they want them disposed of very quickly. They want a high turnover for their dollar. They don’t like anything that looks long-term…”
“Unless it’s safe,” cuts in Jones.
“Unless it’s safe,” sighs Rotten. “You can’t really think of a Kiss song, can you, for instance, that reminds you of a moment in your teen life that really, truly annoyed your parents. I think the only thing your parents ever thought about Kiss was, ‘You’re a prat. Those boys are in lipstick. You’re stupid.’”
“They’re reforming too,” chuckles Cook. “So you got your choice: Kiss or us.”
“Yeah, kiss this, ” quotes Rotten.
“You know what?” Jones suddenly exclaims. “I’m glad people are fuckin’ saying we’re sellin’ out. Good.”
The cavalier attitude proves just how at home the Pistols are with large-scale disapproval. It was never limited to people with sensationalistic agendas (i.e., the tabloid press and politicians); other entertainers, from Rick Wakeman to Karen Carpenter, lodged complaints with A&M when the label briefly signed the Pistols. Even the Rolling Stones—hardly musical virtuosi or establishment darlings in their own day—criticized the Pistols’ musical ability.
In fact, there was such a national effort in England to silence the Pistols that their labeling the motherland a “fascist regime” in “God Save the Queen” seemed deadly accurate. The song reached No. 1 on the national charts in July 1977, just in time for the queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration and outselling Rod Stewart’s long-forgotten chart-topper “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” by a margin of two to one—but sales figures were apparently juggled by the British Market Research Bureau to keep “God Save the Queen” from being listed correctly. Nonetheless, word got out that the Pistols thought the queen “ain’t no human being” and nationalists launched a quick counter offensive—in the form of physical attacks on the band members. In Jon Savage’s wordy book England’s Dreaming (“Excuse me,” Rotten interrupts, “that wasn’t a book. That was a Latin-to-English dictionary with some vague idea of content”), band associate Al Clark is quoted as saying, “Never have I known such national hatred focused on a pop group.”
“We didn’t have no mob to protect us,” Rotten remembers, “and still don’t.”
“We was out there by ourselves,” Cook adds.
“It was terrible! It really was,” Jones mocks, sarcasm sharpening his voice.
“Well, it’s easy laughing about it now,” Cook says.
“You’re a mate that had a car so it was all right for you,” Rotten glares at Jones. “But I had to fucking take the subway.”
“I couldn’t stand it!” Jones says effeminately.
“Oh, okay you bitch,” Rotten chuckles. “I’m going to have to sort him out. But I got razored up, I got scarred, I got stabbed. I’m left-handed and I got a stiletto blade put through here [his left hand, between the thumb and the first finger] and it came out there [his palm] and ruined those two tendons. I’ll never play guitar again, but I never did before,” he smiles, “but that ain’t the point! The opportunity has been denied. And now I want some financial compensation,” he says, affecting McLaren’s nasal brogue. “Not from audiences, but from these cunts!” he howls, pointing at the rest of the band. “They think they’re getting paid! Ah ha ha ha!”
“One time these 20 teddy boys, they gang-banged me!” Jones remembers, smirking. “I said, ‘Okay, the rest of ya now! More, more!’”
“Steve’s led an interesting life,” Rotten says grimly.
Culture’s initial attempts to spit out the Pistols have transformed, over time, to the opposite extreme. The topic of hundreds of scholarly papers in everything from Time magazine to Art Forum, the Pistols have been linked with intellectual movements from Surrealism to Situationism. Word-for-word deconstructions of Rotten’s lyrics have been published, and Greil Marcus’s 500-page tome Lipstick Traces explored in multi-syllabic detail the relationship between the Pistols and the Frankfurt School .
“You know,” Rotten says with a wink, “in some weird way we’re connected with Michael Jackson: we’re all secret Situationists. But it’s such a secret that nobody ever told us!” he yells.
“I’d never even heard of Situationism,” Jones says shortly.
“But I like all that,” Cook smiles. “It makes us sound interesting. If people want to intellectualize about what we did, fair enough, you know, fine. Let ‘em carry on. People are fascinated with the subculture of the U.K. , really. Teddys, mods, rockers, punks and all that stuff—that doesn’t go on as much in other countries. Which is weird, ‘cause it’s such a working class thing, you know.”
“She’s working class, she’s got lobsters up her ass,” Rotten sings, punctuating the tune with a belch and a chuckle.
Joe Strummer and the Clash may have had middle-class educations, but with the exception of Matlock, the Pistols came from Anglo society’s bottom rungs. Jones, barely literate and an admitted kleptomaniac in his late teens, stole most of the band’s equipment early on. ( England’s Dreaming states that microphones and a P.A. were lifted from a Bowie gig, two guitars from Rod Stewart’s mansion, a strobe tuner from a Roxy Music show, and so on.) Cook was from the same neighborhood. Rotten’s family were working-class Irish; one of his earliest jobs, according to his father, John C. Lydon, was to keep rats from climbing into a crane cab—by slashing at them with a hook.
No surprise that the band weren’t schooled Situationists. But more importantly, Rotten believes such social roots mark the single largest difference between them and the early ‘70s New York proto-punk scene, typified by people like Patti Smith and Richard Hell.
“If you know anything at all about the New York scene at that time,” he says, “it was this: they were a bunch of spoiled, upwardly mobile brats . Their parents paid for their condos and apartments and loft spaces, somebody bought their equipment—these boys certainly didn’t have to go out and pilfer guitar leads like what we did just to plug the damn thing into a wall. Did none of that! And rubbished the whole thing by packaging it all in poetry and art and being part of that scene. What the fuck is that? It’s so angst-ridden and ‘ahhhh.’ But hello, when you’ve got no money at all , and no prospects, and you put together a band like this, because quite frankly I think the only money Malcom ever put up was like 20 quid one time…”
Matlock, silent for the bulk of the interview, finally pipes up. “The only difference was that these English guys had a little thing called politics, you know,” he snorts.
“Yes!” Rotten laughs heartily. “That’s exactly right.”
“ America wants to make out like they started everything,” Cook says. “Like anything else. If you watch documentaries on the war, it’s how the Americans won the war. You know what I mean?”
And current American punk fares no better in the Pistols’ ears.
“Rancid!” Rotten howls mockingly. “I don’t mind what they’re doing, but the fact that they look like they’ve just waltzed out of a punk boutique. Even the bondage pants and the tight leather jackets—they all look brand fucking new. They don’t look like they’ve lived in anything. I’d like to see them on a day off…
“What a shame,” Rotten continues. “I don’t mind all the clothes and stuff, even though I think it’s silly and stupid—in L.A. it’s damned difficult to walk around in a studded leather jacket and bondage pants. But where’s the content, boys and girlies? What’s really pissin’ you off? I’m so fed up, and grunge is the same. It just seems to be some bitching session against your parents living in areas like Pasadena . And that’s all well and fine, but don’t call that punk. That ain’t it. Hello, there’s a big world out there. Try getting out of this little suburban daydream that you’re all right closeted into.”
“And Green Day seem like just a living acting lesson or something to me,” adds Cook, “they’re pulling their silly faces and all that.”
“However,” Rotten counters, “I do think the singer, I can’t remember his name, but he has a sense of humor. He did some things on MTV recently that had me and Steve cracked up. We thought, ‘Jesus, yeah. He’s okay, he’s getting it.’ Humor, right? Rather than vindictive dourness.”
“The big thing that every misses,” says Cook, “is that these bands start and people are instantly impressed because it’s trendy. When we started, everyone hated us. There was nothing like us before that.”
Rotten agrees. “We’ve given them their audience, we’ve given them their clubs, we’ve given them their deejays, we’ve given them their spots. Hello? A bit of appreciation would be in order. Not that I expect it.”
“But they do, they do,” jumps in Cook. “Well, they name-drop us. There’s no denying that they’re influenced. What’s strange are these cover versions by heavy metal bands—they can’t even play the songs and they don’t get it anyway. Megadeth, Motley Crue, they’re supposed to be great musicians but they can’t even play our songs!”
And there will be no fodder for bad future covers, either: Pistols have no plans to compose new material at the moment. However, a live CD from the upcoming tour is scheduled for late summer on Virgin Records. Ironically, some of the old problems are already cropping up: For whatever reason, the Pistols are having trouble finding opening acts (even Marilyn Manson balked at the prospect). Booking venues to play, especially in the U.S. , has also been a dilemma for the band. And one Greek promoter has asked Pistols management not to book the band anywhere in Greece, expecting “problems to the extent of riots.”
As for the band members, the novelty of infamy has worn thin; whatever the industry and pundits think, the band just wants to get on with it. Frankly, given all the people it seems to be traumatizing, this tour may be the “punkest” thing the Pistols have done yet.
The final word, of course, belongs to Rotten.
“If you really want to understand punk,” he says, “look no further than the Sex Pistols. We’re working class, we’re all poor. That’s how we started out, and it’s how we’re probably going to end up. And in between, quite frankly, anybody’s money ” —he pauses here, staring hard—“ is our money .”