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.
Ever Get the Feeling…
Jones’ route into music was, like so many punks, through the counterculture of the late ’60s. The distance between punk and its far-out predecessor is a lot shorter than it appears, and it comes as no surprise to read of Jones’ pleading with a neighbour to play his Jimi Hendrix record for the umpteenth time. Before long, he was keeping company with future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, as well as a handful of other soon-to-be punks, including bandmates Paul Cook and Glen Matlock.
Jones wastes no time in pointing out the ways in which many other punks divested themselves of their glam, prog, or psychedelic trappings when they saw the nascent Sex Pistols in 1975 and early 1976, the subtext being, of course, that the Pistols did it first. That’s largely true, in the context of the London music scene at any rate; but it does rather tend to ignore the fact that the influences that were acting on the band were also acting on any number of other embryonic punk groups at the same time.
This section of the book is entertaining. By consensus among the band’s surviving members, the happiest time for the band was the earliest period of its existence, before they had achieved notoriety. However, Jones’ fixation on the ’60s and early career of the band results in disparities elsewhere, including in the one aspect of his career that’s most likely to excite interest among his readership: the 14 frenetic months from the notorious December 1976 interview with Bill Grundy to the band’s ‘final gig’ in Los Angeles’ Winterland Ballroom, during which Sex Pistols were bona fide, honest-to-God rock stars.
The cursory treatment of the Sex Pistols at the height of their fame is a curious, disappointing omission. The gap it leaves is probably best illustrated by Jones’ treatment of the Winterland gig. The concert — the largest the band ever played, until their mid-’90s reunion, at any rate — was the subject of a lengthy bromide by Lydon in No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs that accounted for Lydon’s disconsolate demeanour on stage that night. It was all up for the Sex Pistols by then, Lydon relates: Vicious’ bass guitar was unplugged, the American audiences didn’t get it, McLaren’s heavies — ostensibly ‘bodyguards’ — were souring relations between the band’s members. All this is meant to contextualise Lydon’s famous cry, ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’, which in his imagining stands for the band as a whole: for him, what the band might have achieved was more important than the grimy zenith they actually achieved at the Winterland.
The gig gets less than a page here, however, and that’s mostly devoted to recalling how out of tune Jones’ guitars were and the number of groupies he had sex with later that night. Perhaps the omission was deliberate. The Winterland gig was Lydon’s night, really; the frontman set the funereal tone from start to finish, and it’s possibly Jones’ continuing enmity for Lydon — laid bare across the book, as much in the back-handed compliments of Lydon’s vocal talents to the warts-and-all reporting of his erratic behaviour — that prevents him from giving the night its due.
What’s true for the Winterland gig is true for late 1976 and the Jubilee summer of 1977 more generally. Over half of the book’s length is spent on Jones’ upbringing and the band’s early period, but the year or so of media notoriety that culminated in the Winterland gig takes up just 26 pages of a 300-page book. The remaining four decades of Jones’ life get similarly scant attention. Jones’ denial early on that he ever made an honest living cleaning windows — a lie found in early interviews inspired, only half tongue-in-cheek, by Confessions of a Window Cleaner — demonstrates a willingness to set the record straight on events from the pre-stardom period of Jones’ career, but on many of the pivotal moments that went on to define the band, he’s maddeningly silent.
For instance, it would have been fascinating to hear the behind-the-scenes story of The Professionals, Jones’ most important band in the years immediately following the Sex Pistols’ demise. With former bandmate Paul Cook on board, the band recorded two albums and five singles from 1979 to 1982, and were sufficiently well thought of to be offered a supporting slot on The Clash’s enormously successful tour of America to promote Combat Rock; the band’s biggest hit, ‘1-2-3’, just missed the Top 40, but shows the quartet to have been a competent second-wave punk band. However, Jones’ priorities again lie elsewhere — this three-year period is dispensed with in just six pages. In Jones’ defence, it may be that too few memories remained to tell the tale: by his own admission, “Where can I get some dope from?’ was the only question in his mind during this period.
After, there was America, and a gig as ‘LA’s best-loved rock ‘n’ roll punk radio personality’, as Jones describes his current status. It’s an interesting pivot. The ease with which Jones settled into a self-proclaimed position as an elder statesman of punk is leavened by his identification with that most nebulous of concepts, the ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ aesthetic. Jones has very definite opinions on this, as the idiosyncratic appendix to the book, a list of ‘things that are not rock ‘n’ roll’, demonstrates. ‘All Access laminates’, ‘click tracks’, ‘white people with dreads’, ‘selfies’, and ‘cunts who get your signature on stuff then sell it on eBay’ all get a mention, which makes you wonder what is rock ‘n’ roll.
In the end, the problem with Lonely Boy is right there: it doesn’t tell the reader what isn’t known or couldn’t be guessed about what it’s like to be a rock star. It isn’t hard to work out that it’s nice to have sex with whoever you want, whenever you want it, but that ceaseless one-night stands get a bit samey after a while, or that taking drugs turns out to be a bad move once you come down, or that nice cars turn heads. Having this mixture drummed into you for page after page is less enlightening than it is deadening.
There’s one fleeting exception to this formula. Having never known his real father, Jones met with him a few years ago, and the pair reconciled at a gig. For a moment, you forget about the relentless self-aggrandisement and the tiresome one-upmanship with former band members, and the lonely boy of the title is revealed: Jones makes peace with the man who abandoned him in a matter-of-fact, no-bullshit kind of way and comes out of it in good shape.
But then the moment ends, and it’s back to tedious anecdotes about ‘shagging girls’ in Battersea Park. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?