The Sex Pistols and the Beating of an Exceptionally Dead Horse
Sometimes the best thing about a book is its cover.
Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine is a new biography of an old story, which puts it at no particular advantage: as happy as Pistols fans might be to read multiple iterations of the same brief narrative, their choices are virtually limitless. Steve Jones’ autobiography, released this past November, certainly makes for stiff competition, and it’s just one of the many.
John Scanlan has taken a Malcolm McLaren-focused approach to the story of the Pistols, spending nearly the entire first half of the book exploring his artistic endeavors with Vivienne Westwood and their ever-rebranding shop on King’s Road. His research -- showcased in nearly 20 pages of citations -- is extensive, yet for the most part he fails to synthesize this mass of knowledge into anything deeper.
He’s willing to go into some detail about McLaren’s philosophical influences and penchant for situationist literature, but Scanlan seems unsure of how he wants to position McLaren in the broader Sex Pistols narrative: is he the artistic visionary, the unsung architect of punk? Is he an opportunist preying on the charisma of the aesthetic but unmotivated teenagers who hung around his shop? Scanlan half-heartedly presents both sides, failing to be convincing with either.
The writing is dry, factual, and serviceable. It lacks any of the immediacy of the music it describes. Poison in the Machine seems to unintentionally speak to the way the history of punk is often neutered by academia, glossing over many of the well-known unsavory stories of the Pistols in an attempt to… What? Make them seem respectable? Isn’t that missing the mark entirely? Scanlan obviously distances himself from Sid Vicious, and while it may be a smart decision -- there’s nothing new under the sun to say about Vicious’s brief tenure in the Pistols -- it would have worked better if there had been another point of emphasis.
In his afterward, Scanlan writes: “Even as early as 1978 their story was so familiar and had been put to work so often that the New Musical Express writer who played his own part in their development, Nick Kent, felt able to say ‘it almost groans when set to print.’” This self-awareness is bizarre. Scanlan has offered nothing in the previous 200 pages to justify his own beating of this exceptionally dead horse. He has rendered the facts in chronological order; he has not written an exceptional biography.
A story worth knowing is not the same as a story worth telling. Anyone can research the facts, but it’s an author’s job to tease out the true narrative thread, to lend their particular recitation some meaning, some humanity. Scanlan’s book sets out to explore the unique conditions in which the Pistols were constructed, flourished, and fell apart, yet the breadth of his story is its ultimate undoing. The summer of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, a potent political climate that deserves careful study as it relates to the Pistols’ ascension, is given almost equal weight to Malcolm McLaren’s schoolboy attempts at experimental film. Authorial focus is simply not present.
I doubt Poison in the Machine is better or worse than the dozens of other Pistols biographies out in the world. Maybe pick up a copy of Tony Fletcher’s A Light that Never Goes Out while you’re at the bookstore, if you’re interested in seeing what a rock biography with a broad scope looks like when executed successfully.