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Off the Beaten Tracks – the Sex Pistols before they were infamous

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A FEW months before a foul-mouthed 1976 TV interview propelled them on to the Fleet Street front pages, the Sex Pistols were performing (I hesitate to use the word ‘playing’) in the back room of a Lancashire pub.

I was there with a colleague and my initial reaction was laughter because they were so bad. I tried to keep a straight face, however, because Johnny Rotten was no more than six feet away from me. There was amphetamine rage in his eyes and, for all I knew, a flick knife in the pocket of his safety-pinned tartan trousers.

It was the worst attempt at music I had ever seen and I was so convinced that the Pistols would not be heard of again that I did not even bother writing a review for the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. I guess you could say foresight is not my strong point.

The group that would shock the world was formed in London in 1975, based at the S&M fashion shop Sex in the King’s Road, run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. McLaren had recently been in Manhattan, where he embraced the growing punk scene and briefly managed the New York Dolls.

On his return he played Svengali to a band called the Strand, featuring Steve Jones, 20, on guitar with 19-year-olds Paul Cook on drums and Glen Matlock on bass. They needed a vocalist who would fit in with their anti-hippie approach. According to Matlock, ‘Everyone had long hair then, even the milkman, so if someone had short hair we would stop them in the street and ask them if they fancied themselves as a singer.’

Eventually McLaren’s friend Bernard Rhodes, who oversaw the band’s rehearsals, spotted a 19-year-old named John Lydon in the King’s Road, wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the handwritten words I Hate above the band’s name. He was persuaded to meet Jones and Cook in a Chelsea pub. ‘He came in with green hair,’ said Jones. ‘I thought he had a really interesting face. I liked his look. He had his “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt on, and it was held together with safety pins. John had something special, but when he started talking he was a real arsehole – but smart.’

Back at Sex after the boozer closed, Lydon gave an impromptu audition singing along to I’m Eighteen by Alice Cooper on the shop’s jukebox. The others sniggered at his performance but McLaren persuaded them that this was their singer. He was named Johnny Rotten by Jones because of the state of his teeth.

Unhappy with the name the Strand, with its echoes of Roxy Music, the band decided they would be known as the Sex Pistols. Their first public performance was at St Martin’s College of Art, where Matlock was still a student, in November 1975. They were supporting a pub-rock combo named Bazooka Joe, who agreed to let them use their amplifiers and drums. There was an onstage fight when BJ took exception for some reason to the Pistols vandalising their gear.

Events took a similar turn the following February when the band supported Eddie and the Hot Rods at the Marquee club. Rotten started throwing chairs around and trying to destroy the other band’s equipment. This succeeded in attracting the attention of the rock press, with Jones telling the NME: ‘Actually we’re not into music, we’re into chaos.’

In June the Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, laying the groundwork for a punk rock boom in the city. And on August 18 they arrived at the Lodestar, a pub in Ribchester, near Blackburn. Having spotted a tiny advert for the gig in our paper, and read about the Pistols’ antics in the NME, a fellow sub-editor and I decided to go and investigate.

Despite there being no admission charge, attendance was sparse on that steamy night during the Long Hot Summer of ’76. There can’t have been more than 30 people in the room, and that included the band and their hangers-on. There was no stage so the Pistols were playing within spitting distance of the audience who were sitting at tables supping ale. My colleague Howard Foy and I were right at the front; he with shoulder-length hair and me wearing a Keef Richards T-shirt. You can imagine how well that went down with Rotten, whose look of contempt soon intensified into one of sheer hatred. I held firm to my pint glass in case he had the idea of pushing it into my face.

It is hard to convey quite how rubbish they were that night. Although Matlock could clearly play, the rest were out of it; Jones ending every song with the same clumsy lick. He hardly looked the part either, being too chubby to play a convincing punk. Rotten shouted his way through every number, all of which sounded the same. I’m pretty sure they played the Stooges’ No Fun and the Monkees’ I’m Not Your Stepping Stone but there was no way of knowing for sure. Maybe the clean Lancashire air went to their heads, although illegal substances are a likelier explanation for their shambolic performance. The band’s fee for the evening was £60, and the Lodestar must have made a loss given the sparseness of the crowd, although it carried on with live music for several more years. In 1977 it was the venue for the Boomtown Rats’ first British performance and they stayed at the Victoria Hotel in Clitheroe. During the gig, Bob Geldof took the opportunity to describe the Ribble Valley market town as ‘a right sh**hole’, which shows how much his opinions are worth. But I digress.

It was a huge surprise to me when the Pistols were signed by EMI for a reported £40,000 advance and, in November, released their first single Anarchy in the UK

 It was  powerful and dramatic, made for the jukebox, with Rotten’s sneering vocals announcing: ‘I am an antichrist; I am an anarchist.’ Quite how producer Chris Thomas got such a professional sound out of the band is beyond me.

The incident which turned the Sex Pistols into a household name came on December 1 when they were invited on to Thames TV’s early-evening Today programme to replace Queen, who cried off because Freddie Mercury had to go to the dentist. The band and their entourage, including number one fan Siouxsie Sioux, availed themselves heartily of the alcohol available in the green room, as did Bill Grundy, the host. During an interview shown live on air, Jones and Rotten, clearly on a McLaren-choreographed mission to offend, both used obscene language, a smirking Rotten looking like a naughty schoolboy. Grundy then mildly flirted with Siouxsie, prompting the following juvenile exchange:

Jones: You dirty sod. You dirty old man.

Grundy: Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on. You’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous!

Jones: You dirty bastard.

Grundy: Go on, again.

Jones: You dirty f***er.

Grundy: What a clever boy!

Jones: What a f***ing rotter.

Hardly the Algonquin Round Table, was it? But enough to jam the switchboard with complaints and spark a flurry of newspaper headlines, the most celebrated of which was the Daily Mirror’s ‘The FILTH and the FURY!’ McLaren must have been rubbing his hands with glee, pound signs in his eyes. Grundy was suspended and the incident finished his long career.

Such was the furore that most of the gigs on a planned UK tour with the Clash and the Heartbreakers were cancelled. Workers at the EMI plant refused to handle the Anarchy single. A Tory member of Greater London Council, Bernard Brook-Partridge, huffed: ‘Most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death. The worst of the punk rock groups I suppose currently are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating. They are the antithesis of humankind. I would like to see somebody dig a very, very large, exceedingly deep hole and drop the whole bloody lot down it.’

By January 1977 a spooked EMI had cancelled its contract with the Pistols, issuing a statement saying it felt ‘unable to promote this group’s records in view of the adverse publicity generated over the past two months’. In February McLaren announced that Glen Matlock had been kicked out of the band because he liked the Beatles too much. Jones would later say: ‘He was a good writer but he didn’t look like a Sex Pistol and he was always washing his feet. His mum didn’t like the songs.’

Matlock’s replacement was John Beverley, who went by the name of Sid Vicious. His qualifications were that he was a friend of Rotten, had the right look, was one of the Pistols’ most fervent fans, introduced pogo dancing to their concerts and once attacked the band’s sworn enemy, journalist Nick Kent, with a bicycle chain. My future missus, then a researcher at London Weekend TV, once recruited him for a programme about punk and found him a thoroughly nasty piece of work. The problem for the band was that he could not play the bass guitar to save his life. He practised frantically but developed only rudimentary skills.

On March 10, the band signed to A&M Records. On March 16 the contract was cancelled after Vicious smashed a toilet bowl at the company’s offices, cutting his foot and leaving a trail of blood around the building. Meanwhile Rotten verbally abused staff while Jones misbehaved in the ladies’ lavatories.

In May, Virgin Records became the third label to risk life at Pistolpoint. They released the single God Save The Queenhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqrAPOZxgzU timed to coincide with the Silver Jubilee celebrations. Its offensive sleeve art and deliberately provocative lyrics – ‘God save the Queen, she ain’t no human being’ caused the required outrage and it was banned by every radio station in the land, guaranteeing huge sales. It reached number two in the charts despite being the best-selling record of the time – official pressure kept it out of the number one slot.

The band were busy in the recording studio, meanwhile, working on their first LP. Jones said: ‘Sid wanted to come down and play on the album, and we tried as hard as possible not to let him anywhere near the studio. Luckily he had hepatitis at the time.’ Jones himself played most of the bass parts. The sessions produced two more hit singles, Pretty Vacant and Holidays in the SunThey, Anarchy in the UK and God Save The Queen were all included on the LP, Never Mind The Bollocks, leading to accusations that fans were having to buy the same songs twice. Nevertheless the album, released in October 1977, shot to number one despite, or because of, being banned by Boots, Woolworth’s and WH Smith.

In January 1978 the band began a US tour of mainly redneck bars in the Deep South because McLaren knew the audiences would be hostile. Sure enough there were several brawls featuring Vicious, by now hopelessly addicted to heroin. The final gig, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, ended with Rotten facing the audience and declaring: ‘Ah-ha-ha. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night.’ He tossed away his microphone and stalked off the stage. And that was that. Rotten flew to New York and gave a newspaper interview saying the Sex Pistols were no more.

On October 12 1978, Vicious’s girlfriend and fellow addict Nancy Spungen was found dead in their New York hotel room. She had been stabbed in the stomach. Vicious was charged with her murder but allowed out on bail, only to be rearrested after smashing a beer mug into the face of Patti Smith’s brother Todd. After 55 days in Rikers Island jail he was released on February 1 and within hours died of a heroin overdose. He was all of twenty-one.

‘Poor Sid,’ said Rotten in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. ‘The only way he could live up to what he wanted everyone to believe about him was to die.’

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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