The Sex Pistols are back with a bang: Their drug-fueled anarchy scandalized the world. Now the band that defined punk are back in an explosive new TV series by Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle
The residents of Caerphilly were taking no chances. Pubs and cafes locked doors and boarded windows, the local constabulary called in reinforcements and divine protection was sought by a Pentecostal preacher whose tirade outside the cinema could not have been more furious had Satan himself been about to appear.
The four skinny young men scheduled to perform in the Welsh market town on that cold December evening in 1976 were the Sex Pistols, the punk rockers who were to become one of the most notorious bands in rock ‘n’ roll history.
But they met their match in the good folk of Caerphilly. Even before Johnny Rotten could scream ‘I am an anti-Christ’ — from the opening lines of the Pistols’ first single Anarchy In The UK — the hundreds gathered outside were belting out Christmas carols as loudly as they could.
Later it was judged that, while the Pistols had won on decibels, the locals had triumphed on numbers, the audience for the show said to have filled only the first seven rows of the 800-seat cinema.
Pictured: English bassist and singer Sid Vicious with his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in the backstage of the Electric Ballroom in Camden
A very British protest, it reflected the mores of the time and many years later the man who conducted the makeshift choir, Councillor Ray Davies, expressed his regret at having been such a ‘fuddy-duddy’.
‘Who was I to tell young people what they should listen to?’ he said. But surely he was being rather harsh on himself.
Unbelievably, the surviving Pistols have, over the years, come to be regarded as something of a ‘national treasure’, boosted by the appearance of Rotten — real name John Lydon — on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! in 2004.
But a new six-part TV biopic about the band’s rise to notoriety promises to remind us just how outrageous they were.
Due to begin shooting in March, it will be directed by Oscar-winning Danny Boyle, who came to prominence with the 1996 film Trainspotting. That told the story of a group of Scottish heroin addicts, so he will be on familiar ground in exploring the background of poverty and abuse out of which the Sex Pistols grew.
The four skinny young men scheduled to perform in the Welsh market town on that cold December evening in 1976 were the Sex Pistols, the punk rockers who were to become one of the most notorious bands in rock ‘n’ roll history
The series is based on a book called Lonely Boy, the memoirs of the band’s guitarist Steve Jones, the son of a West London boxer who had walked out on the family when Jones was an infant.
Growing up in various grim council properties with his mother and a stepfather who sexually abused him, he turned to petty crime.
Among the things he stole were the instruments on which he learned to play alongside fellow ne’er-do-wells Paul Cook, the drummer, and guitarist Wally Nightingale.
At weekends, they hung out around SEX, the King’s Road boutique which their future manager Malcolm McLaren ran with his then partner Vivienne Westwood. Originally selling Teddy Boy outfits, it later switched to fetish wear and was at one point raided by the Met’s Porn Squad, who seized items of provocative clothing, including T-shirts depicting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs engaged in sex acts.
Having been the manager of U.S. punk group the New York Dolls, McLaren saw an opportunity in the grim reality of life in 1970s Britain, when repeated strikes were bringing industry to a halt, unemployment was above three million and rising, and what was being described as a ‘Blank Generation’ of youngsters, for whom a future was life on the dole, appeared ready to challenge the established order of things. Determined to make ‘cash from chaos’, as he put it, he agreed to take on the group and found them a bassist in Glen Matlock, who worked in the boutique on Saturdays.
Pictured: Lead singer Johnny Rotten on stage with the Sex Pistols in 1977
He also insisted they drop bespectacled Nightingale, whom McLaren thought too nerdish, and recruited as singer one John Lydon, a lorry driver’s son from North London who was soon dubbed Johnny Rotten because of his visibly decaying teeth.
Following the childhood meningitis which had put him in a coma for six months, Lydon had a permanently curved spine which added to his demonic stage persona, described by one newspaper as like a ‘consumptive arthritic — body bent double with arms and knees locked together, contorting himself as if in an asthmatic’s last gasp for air’.
Rotten’s illness had also left him battling a constant build-up of fluid in his throat — the reason he always needed to spit before singing. ‘I only ever spat because of that and I tried to use a handkerchief,’ he explained. But fans thought it was all part of the act and started spitting back.
By November 1976, only nine months after their debut performance at London’s Marquee Club, they were garnering widespread attention, miming Anarchy In The UK on the BBC’s hugely popular Nationwide programme and featuring in an ITV documentary about punks.
They were also about to embark on their first natiowide tour — but that December came the infamous incident in which an inebriated Bill Grundy, the host of Thames Television’s Today show, goaded the equally sozzled Sex Pistols into shocking the tea-time audience with a string of expletives, which included calling him a ‘dirty f***er’.
Making the front page headlines in every newspaper, the Sex Pistols had arrived, shot to fame as anti-heroes — a reputation cemented when nervous town and city councils across the country banned them from venues on their proposed tour.
Only three concerts went ahead — one was that gig in Caerphilly.
The following month EMI cancelled their contract when the Pistols abused Heathrow Airport staff before boarding a flight to Holland. ‘They called us filthy names and insulted everyone in sight,’ a KLM check-in girl told the Daily Mail.
‘One was sick in a corridor leading to the aircraft. While this was going on, the others were spitting on the floor and at each other.’
Their reputation as trouble-makers grew when Matlock was sacked. According to the publicity-savvy McLaren, this was because he had admitted to liking The Beatles.
His replacement was John Ritchie, better known as Sid Vicious. A fixture of the King’s Road punk scene, he could not play a note — his bass reportedly remained unplugged during shows — but he was as foul-mouthed and audacious as Rotten, often stripping down to his underpants to reveal a skinny torso scarred by self-inflicted knife wounds.
This signing earned the band even more valuable Press coverage and two months later they were signed by the A&M label. ‘Their behaviour has never offended me,’ said managing director Derek Green, gung-ho until Vicious trashed his office and threw up over his desk during a party to celebrate the new contract.
Ten days later, A&M announced that they too were parting company with the Pistols, but since they and EMI gave them pay-offs totalling £115,000 — around £600,000 today — McLaren was not unduly worried, especially as they soon signed a deal with Richard Branson at Virgin Records.
Branson was undeterred by stories of the band smashing up recording studios and urinating and vomiting over hotel beds and carpets. He knew the value of provocative publicity stunts.
To launch their single God Save the Queen, which included lines such as ‘She ain’t no human being’, he got the Pistols to b last out the song on a riverboat which sailed past the Houses of Parliament during the week of Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee.
Although the single was banned by the BBC and record shops across the country, it shot to No.1. But even then, WHSmith, Woolworths and other retailers refused to acknowledge the achievement, leaving a blank space at the top of their in-store charts.
That November, their debut LP Never Mind The B*******, Here’s The Sex Pistols enjoyed similar success, going straight to the top of the album charts and earning a gold disc.
But the seeds of the band’s downfall had already been sown. By then, Sid Vicious had been introduced to heroin by his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen. His increasingly erratic behaviour was noted by photographer Dennis Morris who accompanied the band when they performed in Sweden. ‘I met him one day and said, ‘Sid, you’ve got a pen knife stuck in your leg’ and he went, ‘Oh yeah’. He didn’t even notice.’
Such was the Pistols’ reputation that ahead of an American tour planned for January 1978, their record distributor Warner Brothers was reported to have paid the U.S. government a one million dollar bond to guarantee their good behaviour.
As Steve Jones pointed out, this was a brave investment. ‘Betting on the Sex Pistols to keep the peace was like backing a three-legged chihuahua to win the Grand National.’
Almost as soon as they had arrived, Vicious was photographed injecting heroin in a hotel room and throughout the tour he joined Rotten in blowing the contents of their noses over audiences and stirring them into a frenzy by screaming strings of four-letter insults. At one concert, in San Antonio, Texas, the 2,000-strong crowd let off fireworks and threw beer cans and animal entrails at the band.
When Vicious, clad in leather, chains and padlocks, began clubbing one youth with his guitar, sheriffs armed with revolvers and tear gas battled to keep the audience from storming the stage.
At a gig in Dallas he appeared with the words ‘gimme a fix’ carved into his chest with a razor and both he and Rotten were punched in the face by female fans, with Vicious revelling in his bloody nose. ‘Instead of stopping the show, he rubbed blood over his face and chest,’ wrote one British showbiz journalist. ‘He looked like a demented cannibal.’
The more furore they caused, the more people wanted to see and hear them, but the end was in sight even before the death of Vicious, at just 21, from a heroin overdose in February 1979. He was, at the time, on bail after allegedly stabbing Nancy to death five months earlier while the couple were staying at the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York.
By then the band had fallen apart, not least because of arguments with McLaren over royalties. But in the coming years their story would take the most unexpected twist of all.
In 1996, they reunited for what they called their Filthy Lucre tour. This was a move dismissed by McLaren as ‘like dray horses going for a final ride before being put out to pasture’ — but they are thought to have netted around £1 million each for six months of performances across Europe, America and Australasia — and never a God-fearing carol singer in sight.
‘Flying first-class around the world was a bit different to being stuck in the back of a Transit van getting on each other’s nerves,’ said Matlock, and that was not all that had changed.
Their arrival on stage for their final show in London saw them tearing through a paper curtain bearing the most notorious headlines they’d generated in the 1970s. But according to the Mail’s critic Spencer Bright ‘this forty-something group of punks were no more threatening than a Women’s Institute meeting in fancy dress’.
The world had moved on and the Pistols with it.
Matlock and Cook were married with young families and Jones was a successful radio disc jockey living in the exclusive Benedict Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles.
In his autobiography, published in 2016, Jones revealed that the heroin habit he developed after the band’s break-up, had been replaced by an addiction to exercise. At one point he had even become a spin-class instructor.
If the thought of a former punk idol sweating it out on an exercise bike seems incongruous, the metamorphosis of Johnny Rotten, who also has a home in LA, is even more remarkable.
Back in the public eye following that appearance on I’m a Celebrity, he still tours with his band Public Image Ltd, but made the news most recently when he talked touchingly about his wife Nora’s battle with Alzheimer’s.
Now her full-time carer, he has described how they like to wake early and enjoy a cup of tea in bed as they watch re-runs of the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy on TV.
As to whether the band will ever get back together, Cook dismissed the idea as recently as last March but in doing so he cited ‘clashing egos’. Should that little hint of divadom give their fans hope that there’s firepower left in the old Pistols yet?
If so, they could simply adapt the names of their old albums — perhaps Never Mind the Wrinkles… Here’s the Sex Pistols or the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Dwindle.
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