Sex Pistols - Biography
“Actually we’re not into music,” guitarist Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols told Neil Spencer of England’s New Musical Express in February 1976, during the first flush of the band’s notoriety. “We’re into chaos.”
The chaos that bred the group in mid-‘70s London — a miasma of skyrocketing youth unemployment, renascent fascism, and civic disorder — would lead The Sex Pistols to become the premier exponents of a musical explosion, UK punk rock, that would consume itself almost as quickly as it spread. During the brief, eventful two-and-a-half years they spent at the center of a self-made storm, in which they crafted four incendiary singles and one archetypal album, The Pistols became the face of punk, imitated on the street and coveted by the music industry, reviled in the media and the chambers of Parliament. They exploded in a supernova blast of glory and infamy, and they would not survive the revolution, and the chaos, that they germinated.
The Pistols had their genesis in mid-1975, in a clothing store at 430 King’s Road in London. The shop was operated by Malcolm McLaren, a onetime art student enamored of France’s provocative Situationist movement, and his professional and personal partner, designer Vivienne Westwood. First known as Let It Rock, the shop initially catered to “Teddy boys” — style-worshipping fans of early rock ‘n’ roll -- who favored the extravagant Edwardian drapes sold by McLaren and Westwood. By the mid-‘70s, the operation had been renamed Sex, and sold rough-looking studded gear, bas-couture t-shirts bearing inflammatory imagery, and bondage and fetish wear.
As a retailer in the youth trade, McLaren had become increasingly obsessed with the discordant energy of popular culture and rock music; He envisioned himself as a new-look version of manager Larry Parnes, Svengali for such early ‘60s English pop acts as Billy Fury and Duffy Power. In 1974-75, McLaren would spend six months in New York City, where he served as the New York Dolls’ de facto manager and witnessed the first thrashings of the New York punk scene at CBGBs.
At around the same time that McLaren was beginning to mull the fulfillment of his musical fantasies, some of the teens who hung out at Sex were striving to form their own rock band. Two of them were mates from London’s working-class Shepherds Bush area: guitarist Steve Jones, a thief who supplied himself with top-flight gear by pilfering it from established rock stars like David Bowie and Rod Stewart, and drummer Paul Cook. These two fans of the glitter rock of Bowie and Roxy Music and the lad-rock of the Faces were woodshedding as The Strand (a handle lifted from a Roxy song) with vocalist Wally Nightingale. Sex shop assistant and budding bassist Glen Matlock, a middle-class boy enamored with the Beatles, the Kinks, and other pop groups, was thrust upon The Strand by McLaren in the spring of 1975. A t-shirt sold at Sex had already conjured a new name for the nascent band: “Kutie Jones and his SEX PISTOLS.”
The missing link in the young band — which no longer included Nightingale, already expelled by McLaren -- was supplied by one of a group of boys, known as “the Johns” thanks to their shared given name, who had begun hanging around Sex. John Lydon was the son of Irish immigrant parents; after suffering a bout of meningitis at the age of 8, he was left with weak vision and a wide-eyed, penetrating stare. A smart but unenthusiastic student, he met his friend John Simon Ritchie at Hackney Technical College.
McLaren was intrigued by Lydon’s intelligence, sharp edges, and charismatic presence, and no doubt was impressed by his dyed hair and seemingly improvised wardrobe — tattered, safety-pinned clothing, the product of post-collegiate poverty — so similar to that of Television bassist Richard Hell, whom the clothier had unsuccessfully tried to lure to England from New York.
McLaren invited Lydon to try out as the vocalist for the band. Singing along with Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” on a pub jukebox, with a shower head simulating a microphone, he passed his “audition,” despite immediate antagonism towards his prospective bandmates. The new singer, whose sharp tongue and contorted stage antics conjured recollections of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, was soon dubbed “Johnny Rotten” by Jones, in honor of his deficient dental hygiene; his pal John Ritchie, who became one of The Sex Pistols’ first camp followers, took the name “Sid Vicious” from Lydon’s pet hamster.
Beginning with a date at St. Martin’s School of Art in London on Nov. 6, 1975, The Sex Pistols established themselves with a series of college performances. Though many of these gigs were shambolic and under-rehearsed, they showed off a group whose sound, which melded elements of glam and hardcore ‘60s Detroit rock, was defiantly at odds with the prevailing English sounds of pub rock and twee, anticeptic pop. Their image was immediately seductive as well. With those first shows, The Pistols began to attract a group of fans — some of them Sex habitués, some hailing from the suburb of Bromley — who affected the band’s tattered, made-from-scratch look. Many from what became known as the “Bromley contingent” would shortly form their own bands: Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie & the Banshees, Billy Idol of Generation X, Adam Ant of Adam & the Ants.
By the spring of 1976, attention for The Pistols’ aggressive music and outré garb was taking them into established music venues like the Marquee and the Nashville; their natural intransigence, and increasing hostility from the musical establishment’s powers-that-be, led to off-the-wall shows at the former strip club El Paradise, the new punk venue the 100 Club, and the cinema Screen On the Green. A reputation for violence — usually instigated by the group’s associates — began to dog the band. At one April gig at the Nashville, a scuffle with a patron incited by Vivienne Westwood turned into a full-blown melee, with the band members participating. At a June 100 Club show, Sid Vicious beat music writer Nick Kent with a bike chain. New visual provocations were unveiled by Siouxsie and Vicious, who took to wearing swastika armbands and t-shirts to some gigs. The scene was increasingly fueled by the profligate use of amphetamines.
Despite the gathering, uncomprehending scorn of the media, The Sex Pistols were being primed for a major label contract; by the summer of 1976, The Pistols and the groups that had sprung up in their wake like the Clash (managed by former McLaren associate Bernard Rhodes) were being actively scouted. Armed with a brace of stinging, bile-filled songs — “Anarchy in the UK,” “Seventeen,” “Pretty Vacant,” “Problems” — that were hammered home by lyricist Rotten’s sharp, sneering vocals and the punishing backing of Jones, Cook, and Matlock, the band became the object of growing label interest.
In early October, The Sex Pistols were signed to EMI, England’s largest record label and the former home of The Beatles, for a large advance. Their caustic anthem “Anarchy in the UK,” a bold challenge to the national status quo, was released on Nov. 26. And then, as the band’s wave appeared to be approaching its crest, everything crashed down.
On Dec. 1, 1976, The Pistols were summoned at the last minute to replace Queen, no less, at a live interview on Thames Broadcasting’s evening talk show Today. Waiting to go on the air in the green room, the group members imbibed heavily, and then sat down to face host Bill Grundy, also drunk and combative that day. Surrounded by members of the Bromley contingent and visibly hammered to the eyes, the musicians were goaded mercilessly by Grundy; Rotten responded to one question with a sotto voce obscenity, which Jones followed with a torrent of profanity aimed at their host.
Overnight, The Sex Pistols became national pariahs, pilloried by the conservative Fleet Street press; the London Daily Mirror’s headline screamed, “THE FILTH AND THE FURY!” Two days after the Grundy incident, the band embarked on its month-long “Anarchy Tour” of England. The jaunt lived up to its name: Out of 24 dates booked, The Pistols played only six, with the rest cancelled in the wake of the public outcry. On Jan. 5, 1977, EMI announced that The Sex Pistols’ contract had been “mutually terminated.” In the words of critic Jon Savage, the band would henceforth be “flies in the amber of notoriety.”
A three-month impasse followed December’s fiascos. Tensions between Rotten and Matlock, who handled much of the heavy songwriting lifting for the band, came to a head, and the bassist was ousted. Matlock was immediately replaced by Sid Vicious; though a non-musician, he was a familiar “face” on the punk scene and a virtual embodiment of its most extreme, self-negating ethos. Fatefully, Nancy Spungen arrived on the scene. A runaway product of the Philadelphia suburbs, Spungen was a notorious New York groupie and heroin addict who had come to London to get involved in the punk action and score a Sex Pistol. Spurned with disgust by Rotten, her initial target, she soon held Vicious in thrall.
Despite the disorder that was rapidly enveloping the band, McLaren succeeded in securing a new contract with A&M Records. “God Save the Queen” — a furious excoriation of a bleak English future, and a backhand at the impending June celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee honoring her 25-year reign — was earmarked as the next single. However, on March 10, following a contract signing media event in front of Buckingham Palace, The Pistols drunkenly rampaged through A&M’s New King’s Road offices. Within a week, The Pistols had been dropped by the label, and their single was withdrawn and destroyed.
Anxious to get “God Save the Queen” back into the market before the Jubilee and desperate for a deal, McLaren turned to a previous suitor, Virgin Records. Run by entrepreneur Richard Branson, who had made his fortune with Mike Oldfield’s progressive rock opus Tubular Bells (1973), Virgin was a full-service operation comprising a label and a chain of retail stores.
Virgin released “God Save the Queen” on May 27, 1977, in a royal blue sleeve by artist-agitator Jamie Reid bearing Elizabeth II’s image with a safety pin through her lip. The single sold in huge numbers, but was immediately banned by major broadcast outlets and kept out of the No. 1 slot through chicanery by the British Market Research Bureau’s official chart compilers. A June 7 promotional event — a Jubilee-eve Pistols performance while cruising the Thames on a small boat called the Queen Elizabeth — ended, predictably, with the arrest of McLaren and his entire staff.
The Pistols were no longer merely outcasts in their home country — they were targets. Rotten, Cook, and artist Reid were all attacked on the street. Penniless and filled with fear, the band retreated on a Scandinavian tour. When they returned to England in August, they were forced to tour the country incognito: The “SPOTS” (Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly) trek found them billed under such monikers as “Tax Exiles,” “Acne Rabble,” and “The Hamsters.”
Two more singles, “Pretty Vacant” and “Holidays in the Sun,” were released without great event during the summer. In October — shortly after an attempt to begin a Sex Pistols film with American T&A director Russ Meyer came to an abrupt halt — Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977), the group’s only studio album, was released by Virgin. (An obscenity prosecution, spurred the album title, was quickly overturned in court.) Produced by veteran Chris Thomas, containing the The Pistols’ singles and other brazen original songs, the album was, despite its manicured sound, one of the defining statements of punk rock — furious, bitter, desperate. It was also the only real testament by an embattled group whose dissolution was nigh.
After year-ending tours of Holland and the UK, The Pistols, near the end of their tether, began their first American tour under the aegis of their new US label, Warner Bros. Records. Disaster succeeded disaster as the group careened through secondary markets across the country — Atlanta, Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Tulsa — where they were greeted by audiences with little understanding of or interest in anything but the most sensational aspects of The Pistols’ music. Rotten grew increasingly estranged and angry; Vicious, now a committed heroin addict, was utterly out of control, hitting an audience member over the head with his instrument in San Antonio and engaging in onstage sex with a woman in Baton Rouge. The last stand came on Jan. 14, 1978, at San Francisco’s Winterland, where, under a rain of objects thrown from the crowd, The Sex Pistols came apart before everyone’s eyes in a final spent performance.
In New York on Jan. 18, Rotten announced that The Sex Pistols were finished.
Well, not entirely: The Pistols, despite enmity on all sides, had a protracted afterlife. Cook and Jones would continue to briefly record under the Pistols name, with such fill-in singers as fugitive train robber Ronnie Biggs. In 1979 — not long after John Lydon had instituted a suit against McLaren’s management company — Julien Temple’s film The Great Rock & Roll Swindle would recount the band’s saga from its erstwhile manager’s point of view. (After the surviving members of the group wrested the rights to their name and music from McLaren in a 1986 court decision, a second Temple film, The Filth & the Fury , retold the saga from the band’s perspective.) After various post-Pistols endeavors — Lydon’s Public Image Ltd., Matlock’s Rich Kids, Jones and Cook’s Chequered Past — wound down, the four original members patched up their differences for reunion tours in 1996, 2003, and 2007. “Cash from chaos,” indeed. The Pistols declined their 2005 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The fate of Sid Vicious encapsulates the darkest aspect of the punk insurgency. After Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in their room at New York’s Chelsea Hotel on Oct. 12, 1978, he was charged with second degree murder. After a suicide attempt and commitment to Bellevue Hospital, he died from a drug overdose on Feb. 2, 1979, in his new girlfriend’s Greenwich Village apartment. He was 21.