THE SEX PISTOLS
No Future UK (DVD Audio)
UK release date: May 2002
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People said we couldn’t play / they called us foulmouthed yobs / But the only notes that really count / are the ones that come in wads.
—The Sex Pistols, “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle”
As the story goes, in December of 1976, a few months after an intolerable heat wave during which the familiar sights of London were curiously interrupted by the peculiar appearance of spike-haired, bizarre-looking youths, Malcolm McLaren—manager of the Sex Pistols and owner of “Sex”, the Kings Road clothes shop—booked his group for an appearance on a local TV show, and as a direct result of the disaster which ensued, gave Punk rock its first glimpse of fame.
Booked as a replacement for Queen (who had canceled last minute), the Pistols engaged TV host Bill Grundy in a war of expletives. The impact of the self-assured, cocky musicians blatantly swearing on British TV was devastating. The avalanche that the “foul-mouthed yobs” as one paper described them, started that day was thanks more to the ruffled sensibilities of an outraged media than to the Sex Pistols’ bad manners. Simply by giving Grundy and everybody else a piece of their profane minds, a few poorly trained musicians established themselves and punk rock as a serious force to be reckoned with.
Twenty-five years after disrupting Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee by belting their banned hit, “God Save the Queen”, while floating down the Thames in a boat (practically everybody was arrested afterwards), the Pistols are planning another reunion, which coincides with the Queen’s golden jubilee summer. Shaken by the recent deaths of Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother, the Windsor reign is already suffering from a weakening foundation. So it seems only fitting that the Pistols should reappear to honor (so to speak) the woman who inspired their greatest hit, and remind the monarchy and the rest of the world of Punk’s former powers-that-be.
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), the Pistols’ charismatic front-man and self-proclaimed spokesman officially announced that the group will be performing a one-time show on July 27 in Crystal Palace. Tickets have gone on sale for a whopping £32 (around $45-50 U.S.), Virgin Records has re-released “God Save the Queen” and is preparing to sell a special Pistols’ box set, and the British media is strolling down memory lane with their favorite former bad boys.
“Cash from chaos” all over again, eh Johnny? Asked whether “filthy lucre” is yet again the reason for the reunion in a recent interview with the Guardian, Lydon defiantly replied: “Why not? I’ve never said I’m a communist.”
To say the least. The brash young thing who established himself and his band mates as the annoying thorns in the backside of the Establishment has mellowed considerably and permitted his nationalistic sentiments to replace his previous anti-Establishment ethos. As Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock (the original bassist who was kicked out and replaced with the now deceased Sid Vicious) prepare to relive their brief but momentous Pistols’ glory, an important question remains: Where is McLaren?
In 1996, 20 years after McLaren’s much touted dream of bringing together four kids who couldn’t play in order to “swindle our way to the top of the rock and roll industry,” 30,000 nostalgic onlookers doled out £25 each to watch the older, portlier Pistols—sans McLaren—hit the stage in London (the second stop on the ‘96 Filthy Lucre reunion tour) much to McLaren’s dismay. Though McLaren reportedly damned the ‘96 reunion, probably miffed for being excluded from the millions-pounds-plus deal, the unimpressed British press neither praised nor damned the show, but merely shrugged it off—a far cry from years ago when Lydon and the boys provided many a journalist with page after page of jaw-dropping antics.
McLaren, the original inspiration and driving force behind the group, has so far remained silent on the Pistols’ current plans to perform again. However, in a recent article in the British Observer, he waxed nostalgic about Punk and what the movement really meant: “Punk rock’s musical revolution was open to everyone. . . . For a moment everyone was an artist. . . . It was a blow against the commodification and the pop brands that purported to have control of the culture.” As the Pistols re-enact their well-known antics, McLaren, the granddaddy of Punk, will be watching from a distance.
The Pistols’ reunion show this summer will probably start with a bang, and drown with a fizzle. The audience, after all, will be witnessing a remake of the original, replete with characters who are now caricatures of their original selves. Despite the presence of the occasional older, nostalgic fan, the venue will inevitably be filled with MTV youths born in the ‘80s, sporting “Green Day” T-shirts whose politically correct, meat-is-murder beliefs stand in direct contradiction of Lydon’s (who has described Green Day’s music as “poppy”, and meat as “delicious”).
The 40-something Pistols now look a little awkward in their colorful getups, and the notoriously foul-mouthed Lydon and Jones no longer come across as brash young things, but a couple of aging guys whose four-letter-word preferences are growing a tad tiresome. Yet Lydon will inevitably swear and the crowd will cheer; over-priced T-shirts and Pepsis will be sold, and the joke once again will be on us.
The great rock and roll swindle? Perhaps—but, so what? McLaren’s band—once employed to advertise trousers for his Kings Road shop—managed to wreak havoc on the ‘70s music industry and boggle the minds of critics and theorists (such as Jon Savage, Simon Frith, Dick Hebdige and Greil Marcus who have admirably and painstakingly documented and praised the merits of Punk). Their arguments still continue today: Punk as a cultural revolution of working-class means that forever altered the course of music, versus practically everybody else who dismiss its “proletarian politics” as yet another gimmick devised by art students like McLaren who milked the “cash from chaos” theory for all it was worth.
McLaren’s shrewd marketing and publicity savvy ironically paved the way for a slew of more clean-cut, polished, cookie-cutter boy bands who have successfully carved a niche for themselves as a result of a few music industry entrepreneurs who have cleverly formulated and sold the “brand,” rather than the artist.
McLaren’s glorified accomplishments were, essentially, the simple marketing of the sort of rowdiness and roughshod antics, which are available for a few pounds to any spectator at an English football match. In its initial stages, though, punk was neither an exclusive money-making tool, nor for that matter, the bastion of musical genius. It was, according to most social theorists, a curious experiment for its participants and a rare visual treat for onlookers who were fortunate enough to be in Europe at the time. (With all due respect to the American scene—in particular, Punk’s foremost pioneer, Iggy Pop, and the New York Dolls whom McLaren briefly managed—Punk’s circus theatrics were predominantly an English event.) In order to attract the undivided attention of the English, a friend once advised, one must instill a little fear in them. Punk’s sheer gall to be downright don’t-mind-if-I-do ugly both in sight and sound, was its success in arousing the necessary suspicion, thereby making it a continual source of either attack or praise for every publication of every possible political leaning that read too much into its appearance and not enough in to its noise.
But the rest is only the rest. Punk never began nor did it end with the Sex Pistols (according to most accounts, it started in the States and died a natural death). Yet to the average layman, the definition of Punk—away from the cerebral theses and obscure reviews—is still synonymous with the Pistols and the heroin-happy Sid and Nancy cliché. Somewhere between the time of their fateful appearance on the Today show and becoming Investor’s Review‘s “Young Businessmen of the Year”, the Sex Pistols gave punk rock, which was virtually unknown at the time, and its “do it yourself” ethic international recognition, thereby paving the way for more “serious” artists (such as the Clash and the Buzzcocks), not the mention the newer slew of punk pupils (Sonic Youth, Green Day, Rancid) who have reaped far greater benefits than their masters.
After the Pistols play Crystal Palace, Jones will continue his longstanding profession as a former Pistol, Matlock and Cook will continue experimenting musically without making a lot of noise, and Lydon will hop around the US on newfound wealth, gratified that the unfinished business of the Pistols has been finalized. A couple of new biographies may follow (Lydon and Matlock have already ventured down this road, and rumors are circulating that Lydon’s biography is going to be adapted for the screen), and once in a while, an ex-Pistol sighting may make the papers.
But the effect of music is finally measured not by the personal gains or losses of the musician, but by the reaction the music provokes, and subsequently, the mark it leaves on its audience. With apologies to aficionados who still hail Punk as the right of the English, to most of its fans, Punk rock, like all music, is in the end, a personal affair.
As the Pistols geared up for the release of “God Save the Queen”, scores of youths, scattered around Europe and elsewhere, sensed the imminent revolution: They dismissed David Bowie and Gary Glitter as bourgeois, listened to “Anarchy in the UK”, and as the last act of defiance, wore safety pins on their school uniforms, which they quickly removed when teachers pointed out that there were safety pins on their uniforms. But youth is nothing if not resilient. Unlike their mentors, many were neither English, nor working-class, nor on the dole—but the specifics were irrelevant. As a wise man once asked, who gives a toss?