(REPRINTED FROM ROLLING STONE OCTOBER 20TH 1977)
ROCK IS SICK AND LIVING IN LONDON
A Report on the SEX PISTOLS By Charles M. Young
A little before midnight, my taxi arrives at a club called the Vortex. The weather is atypically dry,
and the neighborhood, like the rest of London, is a shopping district with it's eye on the tourist
trade. Half a block away ten or twelve teenage boys dressed like horror-movie morticians jump
up and down and hit each other. Their hair is short, either greased back or combed to stick
straight out with a pomade of Vaseline and talcum powder. Periodically, one chases another out of the
pack, grabs the other's arm and twists it until he screams with pain. Then they rush back laughing and
leap about some more. Sitting oblivious against a building, a man dressed in a burlap bag nods gently
as a large puddle of urine forms between his legs.
Shouting epithets at themselves in a thick proletarian accent, the boys finally bob down the street as
another cab pulls up to the entrance. A man with curly, moderately long, red hair, a pale face and an
apelike black sweater gets out. It is Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, the world's most
notorious punk band who I have flown from New York to meet and see perform. McLaren has been
avoiding me for two days. I introduce myself and suggest we get together soon. He changes the subject
by introducing me to Russ Meyer, the soft core porn king of Supervixens and Beyond the Valley of the
Dolls fame, who is directing the Sex Pistols' movie. "You're a journalist?" asks Meyer. "Do you know
Roger Ebert? He won the Pufitzer Prize for film criticism and he's writing the movie with me. You
should talk to him. At the Chicago Sun-Times, he's Dr. Jekyll. With me, he's Mr. Hyde. He's really into
The Slits turn out to be an all-female teenage aggregation whose efforts almost any current American
rock audience would reward with a shower of bottles. The guitarist stops in the middle of the fourth
song to announce, "Fuckin' shit! Listen to this!" and plays an ungodly out-of-tune chord that no one else
had even noticed in the cacophony. The singer, apparently the only one with pitch, has to tune the guitar
for her. "Fuckin' shit!" explains the singer, plucking the strings. "We never said we were musicians."
The Slits draw an encore and invite their opening act, Prefects, a male group who shave their
marble white bodies in emulation of Iggy Pop, to jam on "Louie Louie." The audience likes it so
much that several of them storm the stage and nearly succeed in toppling the eight-foot stacks of PA
speakers before the security men beat them into submission. Heading for the exit, I recognize the
Sex Pistols' drummer, Paul Cook, also weaving his way outside. Unaccompanied, he is wearing a
sleeveless T-shirt, straight-legged blue jeans and dilapidated sneakers.
The nose is wide, the skin pallid. Conditioned by six
months of reports about the Sex Pistols' proclivity for violence, I half expect him to assault me.
But his hand is limp as we shake and his eyes do not meet mine when I introduce myself. He is,
of all things, shy.
"It's just a laugh, not really that violent," he says when I ask about their dancing. "You can take
it which way you want: some laugh, some get paranoid. They want to prove they aren't posing."
"A lot of people have missed the satire," I say. "Some of the press are even trying to link you
with the fascists."
"I can't be bothered with that shit," he replies. "It's just what they want to read into it. When we
first started playing, before all the articles came out, people would come up and say they'd
never seen anything so funny in their lives."
The next afternoon I spend reading clips in the Sex Pistols' office, two dingy gray rooms on
the top floor of a small office building a few blocks from Piccadilly Circus. McLaren's
assistants are also dingy and gray and do not introduce me to anyone. When they say hello,
they do not shake hands or give a peck on the cheek; they choke each other. The three-foot
clip file reflects a band so clouded in mythology that the truth is impossible to discern. This
appears to be in everyone's interest, the press prints anything they can think up, the people are
titillated in the midst of excruciatingly dull economic stories by reports that the younger
When the audience becomes restless, she calls them "wankers" (masturbators) and launches into a
tune called, "You're My Number One Enemy." The crowd loves it, dancing with even greater
abandon, with the exception of one pogo stick who stops in mid hop at the sight of my notebook and
demands to know what paper I'm from. I say I'm American, not one of the wanking English press.
"Well, maybe you're all right," he snorts in a barely understandable brogue. "At least you're not
takin' fuckin' pictures. The newspapers all sensationalize it. We aren't fightin'. We're 'avin' fun."
So what about all the reports of teddy boys (1957-style greasers) fighting punks on King's Road?
"The scene has been going on long enough to attract the idiots who believe the papers," he shouts in
my ear. "They're just tryin' to live up to their image. Regular violence is a lie!" Perfectly on cue, the
kid is slammed into my chest as another scuffle erupts on the dance floor." 'ere it comes again," he
says, happily jumping back into the fray.
generation is renaming itself Johnny Rotten and throwing up on old ladies, and the Sex Pistols' image as Forbidden Fruit is enhanced. This
summer, however, the Pistols have been careening into overexposure in their homeland. The four major music weeklies - Melody Maker,
New Musical Express, Record Mirror and Sounds have mentioned them on the cover of almost every issue for months. Taking punk lyrics at
their literal word, the dailies regularly proclaim the movement the end of Western Civilization. McLaren has since denounced them for
"killing" the New Wave, which may have something to do with why he is letting me languish in my hotel room waiting for his phone calls
rather than talk to the band. All this for a group that has released three singles? In the history of rock & roll, there is no stranger tale: in late
1971, Malcolm McLaren, then a 24-year-old art student, and his wife Vivienne Westwood, who was either teaching or working for Social
Security (she doesn't remember which), opened a boutique for teddy boys called Let It Rock. They started with little money, but the shop
proved an enormous success because of their shrewd buying of vintage rock records in discount bins and unused stocks of old clothes. The
teds' rigid conservatism proved boring, however, so McLaren and Westwood changed the name of their store to Too Fast to Live, Too
Young to Die and catered to the rockers, another cultural fragment that favored chains, black leather and motorcycles.
McLaren was not, he says, at all interested in contemporary rock music, but was greatly impressed by the swagger of the New York Dolls
when they visited Too Fast one afternoon in 1974. He followed them to a Paris performance and, from November 1974 to June 1975, tried
to manage them when their old management and record company were mired in feuds. Burying their old image as trendy transvestites,
McLaren dressed them in red leather, draped their amplifiers with hammer and sickle flags and asked the question in their advertising, "What
are the politics of boredom?" This proved less than a hit with both public and critics. The Dolls hung it up forever in the middle of a gig in
Florida, and McLaren flew back to England a sadder but wiser rock & roll manager.
Meanwhile Westwood had changed the name of the boutique to Sex and was selling bondage clothes
and T-shirts decorated with large rips and grotesque pornography (the government actually prosecuted
them for their pictures). It became a hangout for budding punks who listened to the jukebox and stole
the clothes. Among them were four proletarian kids -Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock and
another guitar player - who wanted to start a band. McLaren suggested the name Sex Pistols. Jones
began as the singer (Cook played drums, Matlock bass) but didn't know what to do with his hands, so
they gave him a guitar, which he learned to play proficiently in two months. The other musician was
given the boot, leaving an opening for a singer. One of the regulars at Sex was a kid named John Lydon,
who was distinguished on three counts: 1) his face had the pallor of death; 2) he went around spitting
on poseurs he passed on the street; and 3) he was the first to understand the democratic implications of
punk rather than pay ten pounds for an ugly T-shirt with holes in it, he took a Pink Floyd T-shirt,
scratched holes in the eyes and wrote I HATE over the logo. McLaren stoood him in front of the
Jukebox, had him mouth Alice Cooper's 'I'm Eighteen' and declared him their new lead singer.
Jones noticed the mung on Lydon's never brushed teeth and christened him Johnny Rotten.
From the beginning, the Sex Pistols had trouble finding venues for their chaotic performances. But
Rotten, blessed with demented anger here before unseen outside a war zone, proved to be the spark
that set off the forest fire of punk bands now raging through Britain. EMI, the largest and most
prestigious English record company, signed them and released the Pistols' first single, "Anarchy in the
U.K.," in November 1976.
In a tune similar to the Who's "I Can See for Miles," Johnny Rotten declared himself an anti-Christ who wanted to destroy everything. The
BBC was not amused and gave it no airplay. "Anarchy" was not even in the charts by December 1st, when the Sex Pistols became
household epithets in one night.
Appearing live on the British Today show at the tea time, the Pistols responded to
interviewer Bill Grundy's command, "Say something outrageous," by calling him a "dirty
fucker" and a "fucking rotter." The newspapers put them on the front page for a week
with screaming headlines like TV FURY OVER ROCK CULT FILTH and PUNK? CALL
IT FILTHY LUCRE. Members of Parliament denounced them. "Anarchy" entered the
charts at Number 43, but record company workers refused to handle it and EMI was fast
buckling under the public pressure.
The Pistols added to the outrage by refusing to apologize and by doing long interviews in
which they denounced the star system and sacred luminaries like Mick Jagger and Rod
Stewart for being old and rich. They went on tour, traveling around the country in a bus,
arriving at gigs only to discover that they had been banned in the township. Out of
twenty-one scheduled dates, the Sex Pistols played three.
On January 4th of this year they flew to Amsterdam for a club date and got involved in an incident at Heathrow Airport. One witness
claimed the Sex Pistols were doing something so disgusting that she could not repeat it for publication. Steve Jones claimed he had a simple
case of indigestion, but the papers had a field day, and it became generally believed Jones had been vomiting on old ladies in the pre-flight
lounge. EMI dropped them at a cost of £50,000 pounds and 5000 copies of "Anarchy" to break the contract.
Glen Matlock also left about this time, charging that the group was so manipulated by McLaren that they had become like the Monkees.
The group charged Matlock with being into old farts like Paul McCartney. Sid Vicious, an old school chum of Rotten's, inventor of pogo
dancing, reputed mean hand with a bicycle chain and totally inexperienced hand with a bass guitar, was the replacement.
On March 10th, A&M signed the Sex Pistols, advancing them £50,000 pounds, and dropped them a week later for another £25,000
pounds. In between, the Pistols were apparently involved in incidents of vandalism at the company's headquarters and in a pub fight with
the head of programming for the BBC. It is also thought that A&M was the target of heavy pressure brought by disc jockeys, distributors
and its own employees.
This summer they signed with Virgin for British distribution and released "God Save the Queen," a raunchy denunciation of the monarchy,
just in time for the Queen's Silver Jubilee. The song quickly went to Number One on the New Musical Express charts. They followed up
with a two-sided hit, "Pretty Vacant," an original about not caring for anything, and "No Fun," an Iggy Pop cover that Rotten starts as a
sociology lecture and ends as a sort of hymn to the general worthlessness of the universe. They have just completed a much anticipated
album. 'Never Mind The Bollocks Heres The Sex Pistols', due out in Britain between this writing and publication time. Though competition
is thought to be hot, McLaren still has not signed an American deal.
In the meantime, the Sex Pistols are concentrating their efforts on a feature movie to take their message directly to the audience and bypass
the journalists, record companies and disc jockeys. The boutique has been renamed Seditionaries to accommodate the new political mood
and its line of T-shirts now includes swastikas. Both Rotten and Cook were assaulted this summer by "patriots" who sent them to the
Fuckin' 'ell! They were unlucky, that was all, "says Steve Jones, who has arrived
in the office to look at some pictures. Jones is by far the healthiest-looking Sex Pistol,
with an I'm-a-stud-from-the-coal-mines look about him, though his handshake proves
as limp as Cook's. "It ain't hard to suss it out if a geezer's going to beat you up."
I mention the recent Swedish tour of small clubs and the gangs of "ragarre" -
youthful thugs who drive big American cars and assault immigrants who disrupted
some concerts by ripping the safety pins out of the cheeks of some of the Sex Pistols'
"Yeah, they like the music, they just don't like the safety pins, that's wot a Swedish
bloke told me. They're just fuckin' idiots," says Jones. "I wanted to go outside and
smack' em, but the bouncers wouldn't let us. They think we're the crown jewels."
The phone rings and it is McLaren. I fall on my knees before his assistant and write
"PLEASE!!" on my notepad. She has mercy and lets me talk to him for a moment.
To my great surprise, he invites me to his apartment late that evening. I express my heartfelt thanks and take off with Jones to the studio,
where the Sex Pistols are doing the final overdubs on the album. At the curb, Jones pats a passing woman on the behind, much to the
distress off the woman and a roadie who is worried what I'll write. "I don't care!" exclaims Jones. "I ike slappin' birds' arses!" A Chinese
man grabs the cab he'd been motioning and Jones shouts, "Fuckin little slit eye got it! Oy! Oy! You cunt!"
In the taxi, I ask his impression of Russ Meyer. "Seems like a nice bloke," he says. "Very aware of everything. There's going to be plenty of
sex in this film, lots of birds with big tits."
One off the things that strikes me about the punk movement, I say, is that it seems antisex, kids making themselves so ugly and mutilated
that no physical attraction is possible. Sid Vicious described himself in one article as a "sexless monster," totally bored with the whole
subject. "Sid said that?" says Jones, '"e was puttin' you on."
"I felt like a sexless monster because at the time my head was shaved and I was wearing this vile
tuxedo that was four sizes too big. I had no money to buy clothes, and people would run away when
I walked down the street. It was a right laugh," says Sid Vicious in the lounge off the recording
studio. Queen is recording at the same time, and Freddie Mercury's high-pitched howls waft through
the not-quite-soundproofed door. "I didn't like fuckin' then, and I still don't. It's dull."
Vicious' voice has a tone of goofy absurdity, something like Ringo Starr's (though he'd hate the
analogy), that elevates almost everything he says to high humor. Pencil thin, he is dressed in a black
leather jacket with no shirt underneath and enormous black combat boots. His teeth appear not to
have been brushed in several years. His hair is about two inches long and sticks straight out at odd
angles. Several bright red scars highlight his solar plexus.
"One night nobody was payin' any attention to me, so I thought I'd commit suicide," he explains,
belching loudly. "So I went in the bathroom, broke a glass and slashed my chest with it. It's a really
good way to get attention. I'm going to do it again particularly since it doesn't work. They all said I
didn't cut myself enough to be realistic and ignored me. "Vicious laughs at the non sequitur, adding,
"You better not make a fool of me in this article."
Vicious went to college, the English equivalent of American high school, with Johnny Rotten. "We
were right thick cunts, we were," he says." 'e was the vilest geezer I ever met, all misshapen, no
'air, 'unchback, flat feet. Everybody 'ated 'im. Everybody 'ated me. We 'ated each other, too, but
nobody else would talk to us, so we'd just get drunk and criticize each other, 'e used to tell people 'e
had to cut his piles off with a razor blade because they were 'anging out 'is pants, and they'd believe
'im. 'e used to tell them that niggers 'ad 'air on the roofs of their mouths. They believed that too."
Vicious dropped out of school after somehow finagling a scholarship ("I didn't know about the dole
yet") which he used to start some sort of illicit business that he declined to specify. He first touched
immortality when attending the early Sex Pistols' concerts. "They were the only group I ever
wanted to see," he says. "I didn't know how to dance, so I just jumped up and down and bashed
people. Then everybody else started doin' it, but they didn't get it right, so I quit."
"Did you really get into all those fights attributed to you?" "Don't believe everything you read in the press. If somebody starts with me, I
try to mess them up, but I don't look for trouble." "When did you first pick up the bass?"
"I never played seriously until I joined the group. Learned quite fast, I suppose. Before I started playing, I never really noticed the bass,
couldn't tell it from a piano. I heard records as just a wall of sound. I'd have to think before I could pick anything out."
I say how surprised I was the other night to see teenage punks responding so enthusiastically to reggae music. "Yeah, I like reggae," he
says. "But I don't know what it is. I never quite find out what things are."
"It's true you hate the traditional rock stars who've made big names for themselves?"
"I absolutely despise those turds. The Stones should have quit in 1965. You never see any of those cunts walkin' down the street. If it gets
so you can't see us that way, I don't want it."
"But the entire American music industry is poised to turn you into the next big thing. They'll suck out any integrity the band has."
"But how can they? I only know one way to live. That's like now. In Sweden, they wouldn't let us out the door. Those fat cunts, they said
the crowds would tear us apart, but nothin' 'appened. I won't be filled with that shit."
"Will you have anything to sing about when you're rich?"
"I don't think we'll ever be millionaires. I don't really think about the future. I 'aven't got a clue."
Two groupies, dressed like That Cosmo Cadaver, interrupt. "Can we stay with you tonight?" they ask. "John wouldn't let us." "Of course
not," says Vicious. "You're not worth anythin' to me. There's nothin' you 'ave that I want. And I can't stand the sound of your friend's
voice. I'm very mercenary about these things."
"So I see."
When she doesn't respond in kind, Vicious immediately changes his tune. "No, it's just that I don't 'ave a place to stay meself. Every time
I 'ave a place, I get bored in a week. I sleep where I can."
"With all the money you make, you 'aven't got your own flat?"
"I 'aven't seen any of it."
Vicious pulls out his pockets. One coin falls to the floor." Look, I don't even get paid till Friday, and then it's all gone by Monday. I 'aven't
seen any of the money."
|ROCK IS SICK AND LIVING IN LONDON PART TWO