We're Pretty, Oh So Pretty
It sits around sounds in a two inch wall
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!
Holiday in the Sun, The Sex Pistols
“If people bought the records for the music,” Malcolm McLaren, punk-impresario-cum-Prince-of-Darkness, once told the London Times in late 1977, “this thing would have died a death long ago.” The jury is still out on whether he was speaking of his brightest and briefest candle, the Sex Pistols, or rock-and-roll itself, but he had a point.
By any reckoning, the Sex Pistols were a magnificent failure. Their career spanned roughly two years, during which they released only four singles, cut only one album—though the number of bootleg variations out there is staggering—and played fewer than a hundred gigs. They fired their bassist then rehired him as a session player because his replacement couldn’t play his instrument. They had barely landed in America when they fell apart in spectacular fashion, capped off with the tragic deaths of Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen and then Sid himself. And yet twenty-five years later, the Pistols remain the Patron Saints of Punk, their relatively short playlist as revered as holy writ. They didn’t invent the genre—credit the Ramones and Patti Smith with that. Nor did they do it best—credit the Buzzcocks and Elvis Costello with that. But nobody put on the insolent swagger, spit the ironic gob, or wore the face of punk better than Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and poor doomed Sid Vicious.
At the tender age of eighteen, Dennis Morris landed the job of preserving that face as the Pistols’ official photographer, his work captured in the book Destroy: Sex Pistols 1977, newly rereleased to coincide with Punk’s Silver Jubilee and exhibitions of Morris’s photographs in the UK and New York. Having documented the rise of Bob Marley and the Wailers for the UK magazines Melody Maker and Time Out while ditching school, Morris had a fan in reggae enthusiast Rotten, who gave Morris unlimited access to the band at the height of their powers—the 1977 tour, the video shoots for “Pretty Vacant” and “God Save the Queen,” and the boat cruise on the Thames that was arguably the ballsiest public display in punk history. While many people photographed the Sex Pistols during their brief career, Morris’s shots are generally considered the single best documentary of the band, going beyond the press-preferred surface trappings of Johnny’s sneer (which was genuine) and Sid’s dumb-ox violence (which was not). More importantly, Morris’s lens gives much needed exposure to guitarist Jones and drummer Cook, who were busy playing the music while the other two were grabbing the headlines.
Unlike most coffee-table photography books that encourage random flipping and browsing, Destroy should be read cover-to-cover. Except for an interview with Morris by music journalist Alan Parker, text is at a minimum, yet Morris is definitely telling a story here. The book opens with a number of shots of the individual Pistols: Steve hanging tough in his black leathers and posing with a banana at his crotch (a gag he repeats in later photos); Paul with the smile of a kid just happy to be there; Johnny in fallen-aristocrat drag and in one shot lit from below and leering like the devil himself, perhaps auditioning for Malcolm’s job; and many shots of Sid flexing his biceps with a lucid grin, unscarred and relatively healthy-looking. This dramatis personae is followed by The Adventures of the Sex Pistols in chapters. During “The Boat Trip” we see shots of the typically distant McLaren, hanging with his boutique partner Vivienne Westwood and schmoozing with Richard Branson, head of the Pistols’ label Virgin Records, looking very out of place—the Pistols were fond of referring to Virgin as “bloody hippies”—as well as the throngs of club kids fighting to get on the boat. Morris captures that day’s short-lived Pistols gig but not the police raid where everyone except the band was hauled off for disturbing the peace, an omission that reinforces the Pistols’ image as Kings of the Moment.
The sequence of photos from the video shoot for “Pretty Vacant,” a gig in which the Pistols played live over a playback of the song and chaos ensued, is magnificent, perhaps the best document extant of the band in high gear: Johnny rails and thrashes, Paul thunders, Steve executes guitar heroics, Sid looks like he can actually play. Next is a set of shots from their brief tour of Sweden, where Morris illustrates the band’s ability to work up a crowd in claustrophobic surroundings. What is notable about this sequence is a shot of a shirtless Sid with an unmarked chest, the last such view in the book as Sid begins to succumb to his dependencies on drugs and Nancy. The latter addictive agent was not allowed on the tour and Sid’s response, as Morris abruptly shows us in the next chapter, was to take his frustrations out on his hotel rooms and his own skin. From here on out are increasing shots of Sid sporting deep gouges in his flesh and frequently on the nod. When Nancy does make an unbidden appearance, backstage at Brunel University, the tension between the two of them is palpable.
The tour appears to have weighed heavily on the rest of the band as well. For as brief a tour as 1977 was, the strain of maintaining high-energy shows for audiences who are within spitting distance and ravenous for chaos shows on the faces and bodies of the Pistols, the Kings of the Moment losing their momentum. Johnny is exhausted, taking frequent naps wherever he can—by the final show he is visibly sick—and neither Steve’s swagger nor Paul’s exuberance are as much in evidence. One can’t help but wonder how these guys expected to pull off their ill-fated U.S. tour, as Morris shows us the road already eating them alive.
As a still-life documentary, Destroy traces the beginning of the end of the Pistols, individually and as a group, but also gives us glimpses into the future. Not only do we see in Morris’s sequences the growing rift between Johnny and Sid and the distance at which Malcolm McLaren held his lumbering creation, but at the end we’re apprised of their destinations: a revealing sequence in a dining room where Johnny sits with his future Public Image Ltd. bandmate Jah Wobble while Sid slides deep into a smack fugue and the others just look on.
The Sex Pistols staged a reunion in 1996 that met with mixed reviews and are scheduled to reform this summer. Both comebacks have prompted the question “How can you do a Sex Pistols show without Sid Vicious?” The answer depends entirely on what we consider the Pistols to be. Were they simply a band? If so, then they’re actually better off without Sid, whose function was never really to be the bass player but rather as Thug-in-Residence, to be wound up and let loose to cause the kind of chaos Johnny was too smart and the others too busy to wreak. Or were the Pistols meant to be punk’s catalyst, a battering ram against the cultural battlements that shattered but got the doors open for everyone else to charge through? If that’s the case, then it’s a bad idea to reform, to try to revive that moment in a world that has changed so much. Punk was and remains too immediate for the nostalgic thrashings of middle-aged men, but it retains its power in its original undistilled form. The album. Dennis Morris’s book. Never mind the bollocks, there’s the Sex Pistols.