Live Fast, Die Young, or Get Off the Stage

“I am an antichrist. I am an anarchist.”

John Lydon haltingly spits out the incendiary opening lyrics of his magnum opus, the Sex Pistols’ 1977 single, “Anarchy in the U.K.” What can only be described as a long, loose rugby shirt affixed with a bustle disguises Lydon’s now ample torso as he gyrates obscenely on the Tonight Show stage. I cringe, watching the bustle sway when he shakes his ass. “When you gonna leave Iraq?” he taunts the crowd between verses.

Later, he forsakes the microphone and invites the audience to sing, cupping his hand to his ear and swiveling his hips as though performing a mimed “I’m a Little Teapot”. Once in a while, he freezes in place and his eyes lose their focus. When it’s all over, he shakes hands with not only Jay Leno but also Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. We find out that the band has gotten back together to re-record the song for a new videogame, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

Just like that, on Halloween night 2007, no less, punk rock’s ultimate nightmare became its bleak reality. Not because the Sex Pistols sold out; they did that years ago, even going so far as to release an album of rarities called The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. And it is, of course, anachronistic to preach a 30-year-old British anarchy fantasy to contemporary America, to say nothing of the hypocrisy involved in using a high-priced videogame as the medium for this message.

But politics aren’t and never were the point. I can still happily scream along to the Sex Pistols song “Bodies”, fully aware that its antiabortion rhetoric in lyrics like “She was a no one who killed her baby” is diametrically opposed to my own beliefs. When all is said and done, the Sex Pistols are a rock band like any other, and theirs is a cultural rather than political failure.

The night after his Leno appearance, Lydon showed up on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson proudly proclaiming, “We don’t give a damn if you don’t like our body size, frame, weight, attitude. What we do and say is 100 percent accurate and does actually help you.” It’s clear he’s retained the petulance he had in his 20s, but his statement reveals that he fundamentally misunderstands the Sex Pistols’ appeal.

No one really cares about their message, which is as ill-defined in 2007 as it was in 1977. What makes the band’s latest iteration so pathetic, as well as the reappearance of countless similar ’70s and ’80s groups, is the way it destroys the two elements that actually made punk attractive: sex appeal and impermanence.

Wait, punk sexy? Wasn’t punk supposed to be the antithesis of all that is sexy? Music critics in the ’70s talked about punk bands as if their members were dreadfully deformed. The unique promise of punk was supposed to be that, as Greil Marcus argued in the introduction to his book In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music 1977-1992, “If an ugly, hunched-over 20-year-old could stand up, name himself an antichrist, and make you wonder if it wasn’t true, then anything was possible.”

But Lydon’s erstwhile alter ego, Johnny Rotten, was not so different from rock ‘n’ roll’s definitive sex symbol, Mick Jagger: both were skinny, pale, English boys with well-defined cheekbones and a flair for working-class affect. Lydon and Jagger were also secretly avid readers and omnivorous connoisseurs of music, and each was better educated than he let on. The Sex Pistols simply added studs and safety pins to the Rolling Stones’ leather jackets, tore holes in their tight jeans, and replaced Jagger’s moody pucker with an angry sneer.

Critics like Marcus and his followers have developed a fondness for lionizing punk as a seismic shift in the paradigms of popular music. It certainly sounded different from what came before, but like its forerunners, its prime appeal was its combination of sex and danger. Punk bands that vocally opposed the ego-driven cults of personality that formed around mainstream rock idols soon found themselves surrounded by a strikingly similar flock of followers.

In concert videos shot during the height of the Sex Pistols’ fame, the audience of canoodling couples resemble nothing more than the crowds of hippies practicing free love in the fields of San Francisco 10 years earlier. The screaming girls, pierced and unwashed though they were, could have been ripped straight from footage of the Beatles in their teen idol years. Punk music and the people who created it were always better at inspiring sexual abandon than it was at inciting political fervor.

The Sex Pistols’ version of sexy, contrived by their manager and ringleader, Malcolm McLaren (who was also the owner of a fetish fashion store called Sex) was a tarted-up version of the ’60s rock standard. By the mid-’70s, the Rolling Stones had become an institution, and their shtick had been done to death. In their white undershirts and tight jeans, the Stones looked like urban tough guys. While this had once lent the band an air of danger, the perennial hallmark of rock ‘n’ sexuality, the style had, by 1977, become so pervasive as to be banal. The Rolling Stones’ style was all about sexual innuendo; the Sex Pistols’ version was nothing more than a shockingly literal translation.

Like connoisseurs of pornography, rock fans periodically need a higher dose of perversion to get them worked into the same, old frenzy. In order to get a reaction, punk sexuality had to be even more extreme. Enter Johnny Rotten, in leather bondage gear topped with a moth-eaten sweater and Sid Vicious, the band’s late bassist, conspicuously exposing his scarred, naked torso. If the Rolling Stones had just come from a street fight, the Sex Pistols and bands of their ilk had surely been holed up for a month in a tenement apartment in a bad neighborhood, having weird, violent sex and mainlining all kinds of drugs. One need look no further than Vicious’ obvious predecessor, Keith Richards, to trace the roots of that aesthetic.

This sexy sense of danger only highlighted the band’s fundamental impermanence. They were never built to last. Like the Sex Pistols’ enthusiasm for hard drugs and self-mutilation, their rhetoric could not sustain itself for more than the few years that made up the band’s original incarnation. The beliefs they espoused, a vague mélange of apocalyptic pseudo-anarchism and a pure, idiot love of the controversial, revealed nothing more than their youth. But their youth was precisely what audiences craved; they could take or leave the band’s ideas. There were just two options for the Sex Pistols: to grow up and abandon the band or, as the Who sang a generation earlier, to die before they got old.

Vicious did his part, overdosing on heroin less than a year after the group broke up. And for a while, it seemed that Rotten had accepted the necessity of moving on. In the late ’70s, he reclaimed his birth name, Lydon, and fronted Public Image Limited (PiL), a band whose music and politics were more sophisticated than those of the Sex Pistols. PiL drew inspiration from Jamaican reggae and dub, infusing into those genres the critique of consumer culture that the Sex Pistols never quite managed. As Simon Reynolds wrote in Rip It Up and Start Again: Post punk 1978-1984, PiL was a business as well as a band, and “money making was a potentially subversive strategy of working from within, a stealth campaign that was less spectacular than the Pistols’ revolt but more insidious.”

But as PiL never achieved the widespread popularity that the Sex Pistols enjoyed, it must have been the spectacle that was attractive all along. What made punk’s particular mixture of sex and danger so exciting was that potency, that sheer combustibility. The inevitable explosion — that is, the breakup of the Sex Pistols and the death of Sid Vicious — should have been the end. And though we may claim selling out, buying in, or other instances of hypocrisy as the reasons for our distaste with punk rock reunions, we are really upset that Lydon and others like him are violating the essential dictates of the rock ‘n’ roll genre as a whole: If rockers were supposed to live fast and die young, we expected punks to up the ante by living faster and dying younger.

Shortly after the Sex Pistols’ abrupt dissolution in the midst of their 1978 US tour, Marcus composed a sort of eulogy for band in Rolling Stone. “We will see nothing like [Johnny Rotten] again,” he wrote. But here he is in 2007, finally achieving the unattractiveness that was erroneously assigned to him 30 years ago and spouting the kind of political platitudes that we hear every day. The man who once told us to “get pissed, destroy” and prophesied, “there is no future, in England’s dreaming,” is now wondering, like my mother and grandmother also wonder, “When you gonna leave Iraq?”

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.