In what some describe as punk mythology, early Sex Pistols concerts hold an appeal that tends towards the legendary. For some would-be pop stars turned off by glam’s glittery falsehoods and left cold by the noodlings of prog rockers, the influence of the band—more or less the earliest punk rock band to hail from the UK, formed in Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Sex fashion shop on London’s King’s Road in late 1975—approached the Damascene in magnitude.
To laud the Pistols’ first appearances is to assert their grimy hegemony over the musical landscape of the mid-‘70s; to claim to have been present at one of them is to weave oneself into the tapestry of punk. Some accounts of those first concerts are demonstrably true; others are not. It is said of the True Cross that if you gathered all the purported pieces of it together, you would have enough wood to make a forest. The number of claimed attendees of those gigs in the spring of 1976 would have made fire hazards of every venue.
Such goings-on merely serve to underline the truism that the stories of rock bands are contested. Of course they are; not only do the multiple viewpoints of the major players—the musicians, the hangers-on, the groupies, the fans, the journos, all of whom have different expectations and agendas—tend to contradict each other more or less by default, but the chaotic and unevenly chronicled life of a band on tour, or even in the studio, is not conducive to the production of reliable histories. Where the Sex Pistols are concerned, the lay of the land is particularly difficult to discern, because they have signified many different things to many constituencies over the years.
In the early months of their existence—from 1975 to, say, the evening of 2 December 1976—they were an edgy, confrontational punk rock band, infused by manager McLaren with slightly arty (and ultimately illusory) Situationist overtones. Then came their infamous teatime appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today show, during which an audience of millions saw a fan of the band—who just happened to be Siouxsie Sioux—get propositioned by a half-cut Grundy before a similarly drunk lead guitarist Steve Jones repeatedly dropped the f-bomb, after which the band were social pariahs to the British establishment.
By June of the following year, the band was, in an amorphous, inchoate sort of way, politicised. Never a ‘social realist’ group of the type epitomised by fellow Londoners Sham 69, the release of ‘God Save the Queen’ during the monarch’s Silver Jubilee celebrations suddenly, improbably, became a kind of totem of protest against the bullshit jingoism in vogue that summer, a sentiment that failed to speak to large swathes of disenfranchised British youth. McLaren organized a gig on a Thames riverboat opposite Big Ben, which was promptly shut down by the police. Members of the band were attacked in the street, and the record was kept off the number one spot by a compliant recording industry.
Then came the band’s slow death. Even as the strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ rattled the windowpanes of the Houses of Parliament, the wheels were already coming off. The replacement of Glen Matlock, the band’s bassist, and most able musician, in favour of Sid Vicious—good at looking outrageous, but inept at playing a musical instrument—ripped the heart out of the band; the only reason the band’s debut album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977) sounds as good as it does is because Matlock supposedly cut his former bandmates a break and came back into the studio to lay down his bass lines for a session musician’s fee (though your mileage may vary; Jones opines that Matlock contributed only one performance to the album).
This period naturally divides into two, with the band’s wretched American tour in early 1978 serving as the dividing line between the Sex Pistols as bona fide rock stars—they played to an audience of 5,000 during their final gig in San Francisco’s Winterland ballroom—and the Sex Pistols as send-ups of themselves, transparently out to game the system, as they so obviously did on their second and final album, the risible The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1979). After that came the long retirement, and on the academic front, the first wave of punk histories by the likes of Jon Savage, whose England’s Dreaming (1993) remains a key text.
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But if punk did indeed die the day the Clash signed to CBS, what were Rotten, Jones, Paul Cook, and even Glen Matlock doing reforming the Sex Pistols in 1996? ‘Putting a fucking full stop on it’, according to Rotten (now reusing his surname Lydon).
The timing was as good as it got. Britpop was on its last legs in the summer of 1996, but there was still enough go left in it for one final hurrah. The UK continued to be run by Tories, but on sufferance, as it were. John Major’s ministry was imploding in a haze of scandal, but it was a gentle failure, thanks to the recovery of the British economy after the recession of the early ‘90s, and the fact that the Labour party was patently waiting in the wings to assume the reins of power, which it did in 1997 with a landslide victory under a youthful Tony Blair, his reputation yet to be stained with Iraqi blood. Tracey Emin, Damien Hurst, and the Young British Artists were ripping it up in galleries far and wide; the British film industry rose from the dead to fill cinemas with box office hits; even the famously erratic England national football team got in on the act, improbably reaching the semi-finals of the European Championships.
Britain—or England, in any case—felt sufficiently good about itself to indulge in a spot of playful nostalgia, which probably helps explain, at least in part, Britpop’s popularity. It may well have been a rehash of the previous 30 years of British pop, or even in some cases, rehashes of rehashes (Menswear’s Smiths-esque landfill indie, or Oasis’ jauntier songs, which owe more to ‘70s glam rock imitations of the Who or the Rolling Stones than the exemplars themselves, spring to mind). But as everyone knew that at the time it became possible to listen to it unapologetically as a sort of guilty pleasure (older listeners apprehended it as a self-evident fact, and teenagers more instinctively by dint of their parents’ and older siblings’ record collections). There was some good music behind it all. For every Oasis, Blur, or Pulp, less vaunted but equally talented groups such as Echobelly, Cast, and Gene bubbled under; and when the evening started to flag, DJs could swap the pop for dance: the chart success of the Prodigy, Underworld, the Chemical Brothers, and Leftfield spoke to the eclecticism of British music fans.
Lydon, Jones, Cook and Matlock were welcome guests at the party. The reappearance of the Sex Pistols was not merely tolerated as one would a reunion by a band of the swinging ‘60s by aging fuddy-duddies who should know better. There was something kosher about the Sex Pistols’ reunion, something beyond parody. Something, perhaps, authentic. And so the band played on.
Enough books have been published about the five original members of the band to fill a bookshelf. The first member to get in on the act was bassist Glen Matlock; his I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol (1990) is erudite and illuminating. Vicious, on bail for murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, died in a New York apartment in February 1979, and therefore left no written account of his time with the band; of the handful of largely sensationalist books about his frenetic life, the best is Alan Parker and Keith Bateson’s Sid’s Way: The Life and Death of Sid Vicious (1991). Lydon followed with Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1994), a strangely elegiac autobiography that has been lauded as one of the better works in the genre.
Now the perspective of guitarist Steve Jones has emerged in memoir form. Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol is a sprawling autobiography that recalls his days growing up in London in the late ‘60s, to his present-day life as a DJ in California. The style is demotic to a fault; the number of f-words easily tops the average Scorsese film. (Literally. I stopped counting after reaching three figures.) But at least it lends the book a certain authenticity that’s sometimes lost with other ghost-written autobiographies—anyone who has seen Julien Temple’s excellent The Filth and the Fury (1999) will know that Jones’s speech is studded with expletives like diamonds on a Faberge egg.
Like Lydon and Vicious, Jones’s was a deprived childhood, and the recollections of neglect—and two episodes of sexual abuse at the hands of two different men—are frequently harrowing. Jones reacted by bedding every woman he laid hands on and by becoming a ‘one-man crime wave’, nabbing whatever he could get his hands on and running foul of the police in the process. Sometimes he got caught, and served time; sometimes he didn’t: ‘Putting one over on the Old Bill was the ultimate excitement’, he avers in reverential tones many erstwhile juvenile delinquents would recognise. A few legitimate jobs followed, including washing taxis and working as a plumber’s mate, none of which paid or lasted.
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