God Save the Queen…
I’m not going to pretend The Sex Pistols had a tremendous influence on my life, but neither will I dispute that maybe in a way they did, unconsciously.
I still see images of them flailing around a stage singing “Anarchy in the U.K.” on my television screen. I was 7 or 8 at the time and had no idea what in the fuck I was watching, but I knew, “me like”.
To say much has been written and said about The Sex Pistols is an understatement. Love them or hate them, anyone who knows music knows The Sex Pistols. They were “Punk”. At least they were for a short time.
John Lydon aka “Johnny Rotten”, is an “icon” not only among “punk rockers”, but within mainstream culture as well. And as I found out earlier today, he’s still around, pushing, screaming, pulling, railing.
“I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist. Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it.”
When I first stumbled upon John Lydon’s website, I felt a sense of nostalgia. Here was a man many of us in our late 30’s early 40’s grew up “admiring”. (Maybe that’s not the right word). Johnny Rotten represented the disenchanted, the socially inept, those who were either fed up with or who didn’t fit into the “mainstream”, the losers.
John Lydon grew up in a poor working class family in Finsbury Estate, North London. He wasn’t a graduate from Art School or some bored rich kid raging against his oppressive upper class upbringing. The words he wrote were true to what he knew. A “sod’s” view of the world.
The Sex Pistols officially formed in 1975, but the incarnation most are familiar with didn’t come together until 1977, and the world was not at all prepared.
“That’s trouble, evil coming in the back door, you be looking out the front, get it right in the back“
The music scene in the 70’s was excessive and bloated. Big “Arena Rock”, Disco, Glam, Hippie leftovers etc. But beginning with bands like The Who, rock music began returning to simpler times. (3 chord progressions, driving rhythm etc) By the middle of the decade, rock was being deconstructed and rearranged by bands like Television, or made even more basic, The Ramones. Around this same time frame a band from London was preparing to literally turn the music world upside down, albeit for only a moment.
“God save the Queen, The fascist regime, It made you a moron, A potential H-bomb“
The Sex Pistols were loud, obnoxious, flamboyant, self-destructive, and a tad pretentious, but underneath they were much more, and unfortunately many never saw beyond the “show” to understand.
Critics blistered The Sex Pistols calling them “talentless”, “amateur”, and wholly dependent on their, at times, “contrived persona”. But the critics, as critics often do, failed to see past their own “contrived persona’s”.
I always wondered, if critics know so much about art, music, film etc. why are they not masters within those mediums themselves? Critics are a lot like “sports writers”.
The Sex Pistols were the result of the displeasure many urban, white youth felt not just with music, but with life and what was going in the world. Much of their anger, awkwardness, and alienation was embodied in the music and insane antics of The Sex Pistols.
When you read the lyrics to The Sex Pistol’s songs you see immediately they weren’t screaming about killing their mommy or doing drugs. They were screaming about social issues; war, poverty, prejudice, hypocrisy. In other words, they had something to say, and they were saying it in a way no one had ever heard.
“The boy with the thorn in his side, behind the hatred there lies a murderous desire for, love“
On Lydon’s website, one of the writers claims there is a distinction between “Punk” and “Punk Rock”. And I wholeheartedly agree.
Until Punk arrived with its guitars blazing, music was rarely overtly political. Notwithstanding the “Hippies”, who more often than not camouflaged their politics with silly metaphors and drug induced noodling. (By the time the 15 minute guitar solo is over, no one remembers what the damn song is about. You know who your noodley asses are). Even when they did come out and say it, it was never “in your face” like Punk. (The lyrics above are a great example).
Punk smashed people in the face with its message, sometimes literally. The songs were often too short to build extended metaphors, it was “fuck you”, and just in case you didn’t understand, “FUCK YOU!”
But the “fuck yous” were not adolescent, not most anyway, they were directed at injustices in the world. They were declarations of pain and dissatisfaction, “We don’t like what you’re doing or what’s going on, and we’re going to tell you about it. And we’re not going to beat around the bush or talk about ‘Horses in the Desert’.”
Punk was also art. The music in the early days, in my opinion, is some of the greatest music ever recorded and stands up to any music produced today. (Most of which is drivel). People don’t realize how experimental and “avante garde” Punk was at the beginning. If you sat down and listened to say, The Avengers, The Clash, Talking Heads and Television in succession you may not realize all existed simultaneously, in one form or another, and all stemmed essentially from the same place.
“Dead end…Highway, my friends are there, on a dead end… Glass Highway“
There is much disagreement about who birthed “Punk Rock”. Was it the underground scene at CBGB’s in New York City? (Television, Richard Hell, The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads. Patti Smith etc) or was it The Sex Pistols? Personally, I always thought, “Who gives a fuck?” This, to me, is one of the fatal flaws, among countless, of what people label “Punk Rock”.
Despite it’s reputation as being “anti-commercial”, “no limits or labels”, Punk Rock at times was very commercial, and limited, even to the point of being exclusionary. “Punk Rock” became a derivative of itself, and in the process much of the original meaning in “Punk” was lost or bastardized.
“Punk Rockers” are what killed Punk. They became caricatures in $200 Doc Martins with blue Mohawks. And in the process they turned Punk into a caricature as well.
Punk wasn’t a “uniform” or a certain hairstyle. Hell, some of the craziest “Punks” I ever met wear suits and have a wife and kids at home. Punk stretched the boundaries, and challenged the status quo. But the “Punk Rockers” tried to turn it into something “cool”.
I can’t count the times I went to shows and more than half the crowd was doing nothing but standing there. It wasn’t about the music, it was about “being seen”. If you went to “so and so’s Show” it meant you were “Punk Rock”. But of course you acted like you didn’t really want to be there, at least not too much. Assholes.
“Punk Rockers” made Punk an “insider’s game”, and totally fucked it up. “Hey, man you going to ‘such and such’s’ party? Everyone’s going.” “You mean the guy that drove here in his dad’s Mercedes? Nah man, fuck that dude.”
I knew Punk was officially dead and buried the day I saw a Dead Kennedy’s video on MTV.
“I am the world’s forgotten boy, the one who Searches and Destroys“
In today’s world of “Nothings Shocking”, the Punks seem tame and boring. (Kind of like those old horror movies my dad loves. “Yeah dad that rubber monster is terrifying.”) But back in “the day”, bands like The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Stooges, San Francisco’s The Avengers, and others were not only considered ground breaking, but also disturbing by “mainstream” culture’s standards.
The Sex Pistols often found themselves in the middle of this controversy be it by their own hand, or because that’s what the “People” wanted. One of the most notorious moments was their appearance on the “Today” show in 1976.
Originally Queen was scheduled for the show, but at the last second they backed out. Somehow the producers decided to go from quasi-operatic, over the top glam rock band to choosing The Sex Pistols.
The host was Bill Grundy, a famous drunk, and this particular show ended up being a life altering experience for everyone involved.
After Grundy prodded members of the band (because he didn’t want them on the show) and then started to hit on Siouxsie Sioux (A member of the entourage. Later of Siouxsie and the Banshees fame), Steve Jones (the guitar player) called him a “dirty old man”. Grundy not to be outdone retorted, “Go on, you’ve only five seconds left, say something outrageous.” And they were happy to oblige. (Grundy got himself suspended for two weeks only to watch the show canceled for good not long after returning). But Punk was on the map.
Not long after, The Sex Pistols were in the news again. This time in regard to their release of the single, “God Save the Queen”. The single came out just in time for England’s Silver Anniversary Celebration for the Queen. (“God save the Queen, she ain’t no human being”).
During this time, it was unheard of to speak about the Queen with anything other than complete reverence. (Unlike today where the “Royals” are the butt of many a joke). Some members of the English Parliament were so upset they asked for the entire band to be hanged. The end was coming.
“Cause I’d rather stay here with all the Madmen, than perish with the Sad-men roaming free“
Later in ’77, the band released their only album, “Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s The Sex Pistols“. Again controversy followed. Police were upset about the word “Bollocks” because in slang it meant “testicles”. They were charged under an obscure English law, and had to go to court to prove that the word referred to “clergymen” and could also mean “nonsense”.
Vindicated they set out for a US tour in 1978. But for whatever reason they decided to only play shows in the South. Needless to say the tour was not a big success. However, it hardly mattered as the band was crumbling anyway. Management problems, personality conflicts, and Sid’s heroin addiction were tearing the band apart.
In early 1979, Sid Vicious fatally overdosed while out on bail for the murder of his girlfriend, and fellow junkie, Nancy Spungen. The Sex Pistols were through after only two years.
“I know that my life make you nervous, but I tell you that I can’t live in service“
John Lydon has never gotten out from under the long shadow cast by The Sex Pistols. He’s been in several other bands since those days including Public image Ltd.(PiL), who in the opinion of many, including mine, sucked. But like the majority of famous people he’s remembered for his crowning achievement.
So, when I found his website today, I thought how sad he seemed. He’s still angry about being “ripped off”, and being “used” by the record companies, and his manager. I thought, “Come on Johnny, Punk Rock is dead. Move on, and stop playing the rebel. You’re 50 years old for God’s Sake.” But then I read more.
Old Johnny is a busy and diverse man. For example, he’s done several shows for the Discovery channel and appears on talks shows with some regularity. And of course there is always the music including a reunion of the original Sex Pistols, with more shows as a “possibility”. And unbeknownst to me he’s a “devoted” husband and “family man”.
The more I thought, the more I realized people are too harsh in their judgment of “Johnny Rotten”. (Including myself). Sure he’s over 5o years old, and “Punk Rock” is long dead, but maybe “Punk” is still alive. After all, what we’re doing here at Jonestown is all over the place and at times insane. Maybe not everyone gets us, but that’s not the point is it?
By the time I finished looking at his site, I felt better about old John. In the end, we are who we are no matter how old we get. And the truth is people like Johnny Rotten are fucked no matter what they do. If he moves on he’s a “sell out” and if stays put “he’s a poser”. I prefer to think otherwise. Who puts parameters on art?
Is Punk Rock dead? In a world where Blink 182 is considered “Punk Rock”, without a fucking doubt. But I think Punk lives on in various forms. I know I’ll never forget that night 30 years ago when I first saw The Sex Pistols telling the world to “Fuck Off”.
And who knows, maybe that “stodgy, Republican looking guy”, sitting next to you at the stoplight, is wearing a Scratch Acid tee-shirt beneath his coat and tie.