- 04 Aug 22
With a successful TV show and a new compilation, The Sex Pistols haven’t been in the news this much since the two sevens clashed. In separate interviews, Pat Carty spoke to both frontman John Lydon and guitarist Steve Jones about their differing views on how the band’s legacy is being handled, and their joint pride in what they achieved.
Forty-five years ago, in 1977, Rock N’ Roll was changed, some might even say saved, by a debut release that threw the rule book out the window, but that’s enough about the first issue of Hot Press. Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols unleashed a well-aimed boot into the face of prog and the easy-listening and novelty records that were clogging up the charts. A howl of working-class protest? A reclamation of the music from the out-of-touch stars who then dominated? A back-to-basics rallying call? It was all these things but we wouldn’t still be talking about it if it wasn’t simply one of the greatest rock n’ roll records ever cut.
These are strange times. As I write this, Elvis is in the cinema, ABBA – or their ABBAtars – are the gig to see, Bruce Springsteen’s return has just put a large dent in the Irish economy, The Stones are on tour, McCartney’s headlining Glastonbury, and the Sex Pistols and Kate Bush have both hit the top of the charts. There's no future, for you.
Pistols At Dawn
By now, you’ve surely seen the Disney +, Danny Boyle-directed Pistol docudrama series. It is a fascinating - and very entertaining - slice of rock ‘n’ roll history, told from the point of view of someone other than the story’s long-perceived main man. It is also highly controversial. According to BBC News, drummer Paul Cook and Steve Jones took John Lydon to court after he tried to veto the use of Sex Pistols music in the mini-series, based on Jones’ 2017 memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales From A Sex Pistol. Jones and Cook maintained that decisions about the use of the music – which is credited to all four members of the band – could be taken on a majority rule basis, Lydon felt such things must be unanimous. Lydon lost the case.
I was fortunate enough to speak, separately, to both John Lydon (about PiL) and Steve Jones (about a new Pistols compilation) recently. Although the show wasn’t why we were talking, it of course came up. And John Lydon remained trenchant in his opposition to the project “Out, Demons, Out,” he hollered, when the question was raised.
“They were putting together a film behind my back about 'The Pistols' which, of course, they denied,” Lydon began, laying out his side of the story. “They said it was just about Steve Jones and his, eh, ‘novel’, and we find out that's not really the case, because they've been using my name and images of me and Nora [Lydon’s wife] to promote it, and yet don't want my involvement. The result of a court case was that unanimous doesn't count, it has to be by majority, so I'm out voted now on everything.”
In his ruling, Sir Anthony Mann found for Jones and Cook, saying they were entitled to invoke majority voting rules under the terms of a band member agreement made in 1988.
“That means I have really no contribution to that band, or the business at all,” Lydon continued. “It's now just all about making cheap money, cheap product, flog everything, repackage it, don't care about quality or style, all of that's gone. A very serious pity.”
Going across the floor, and I should point out in the interest of fairness that neither I nor Lydon had any idea I would eventually get to speak to the other side, Jones offered his reasons for taking the action.
“We didn't have any choice,” said a weary-sounding Steve. “We weren't gonna back down because this was too much of a big deal. We've always had the majority rules but we’ve never used it before, because nothing was important enough, but this was important enough to stand our ground; you've got no show if you ain't got the music. There's nothing worse than these two-bob documentaries on someone like Jimi Hendrix and they can't have the music. You’re bored in two minutes.”
Lydon went on to stake his claim.
“I fucking wrote all them songs. I am the lead singer. I am the main man. I put the artwork together. I put the image together. That’s irrelevant to them. And, therefore, that product is irrelevant to me, and anyone with half a brain.”
I wasn’t there, but the credits on the record tell a slightly different story, as does Jones.
“Complete bollocks,” Steve stated. “He wrote the lyrics. He didn't write the music. Me and Glen, we shared writing the tunes. Jamie Reid definitely did the art work. It wasn't John. I'm not saying he didn't contribute a hell of a lot. He was the face for sure. We never would have made it without John, and that’s in the series, but he wants to take credit for everything. I remember I went to the Hard Rock Hotel when it first opened in Las Vegas and there was a sign saying, ‘The only notes that count are the ones that come in wads - John Lydon’. I know for a fucking fact I said that, but it is what it is. When you're a narcissist, you’ve got no room for other people, you want to take all credit. Also, he's a front man, a singer. They're all the same, all egomaniacs.”
Again, to be fair to Lydon, we only had the trailer to go on when we spoke so it was hard to know what tone the series would strike.
“I have no idea,” Lydon said at the time. “I've not been allowed to see any script or any footage at all, right up to this present point, I have no concept of what the content of that work is, other than it's excluded me 100%. I mean, I'm still very much alive. I couldn’t see a Beatles film without John Lennon. Where you goin', folks?!?”
It's an incredible story though. You could see why it got the green light.
“Yeah, I'd be gagging at the bit to do it, but I would involve the main protagonist,” Lydon replied. “I would at least have the common sense to do that. I can't imagine how you would want to deal with that story or that history and all the things that were going on in the world around it by ignoring the man that really actually put it all together. Bizarre.”
As you might expect, seeing as how it tells the story from his point of view, Jones had a different take.
“I’m pleased with it,” he reckoned. “You're never gonna get it 100% how you want it but when you got Danny Boyle steering the ship, I thought it best to just let him get on with it. There was a few things that I did have an issue with, which actually did get changed, but overall, I think it's brilliant.”
Were he disappointed with Lydon's reaction?
“Disappointed? Yes. Was I surprised? No.”
As an impartial viewer, I thought he came out of it very well.
“You know John, he makes it all about himself, so he probably thought we were gonna make him look stupid. That wasn't the plan. The plan was to look at it from my point of view, and he comes out looking great. I hope he watches it.”
Flogging A Dead Horse
As I was waiting to speak to Lydon, an email arrived from Universal with news of the new compilation Sex Pistols: The Original Recordings, which brings together tracks from Bollocks, worthy B-sides like ‘Satellite’ and ‘Did You No Wrong’, and the best cuts - like the Jones-sung 'Silly Thing' - from the regrettable soundtrack to Julien Temple’s 1980 fictionalised account of the band’s rise and fall, as told from the point of view of manager Malcolm McLaren, The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle. Lydon wasn’t crazy about this either, and he may have had a point.
“I've never, ever agreed to put Sex Pistols songs with the trash that came off The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, and here they are again. It's a con, you can get all those tracks anywhere else, you don't need to be doing this. I've never viewed The Pistols as a commercial prospect in that way. I value quality over content and to keep reselling the same tracks, just with a different package, is fucking... audacious.”
Jones, even though the interview had been set up to promote this release, charmingly didn’t give a monkey’s.
“I didn't have a lot to do with it. I put two cents in here and there, but I don't really care about all that to be honest. I only like Never Mind The Bollocks as a proper album, although I do like the Filthy Lucre live album [recorded at Finsbury Park in 1996] too.”
I put it to Lydon that the compilation might bring the music to a new audience. He wasn’t having it.
“How so? You're reaching the wrong audience for a start, if you don't value the man who wrote the fucking things. What is it that this new audience is looking for?”
To hear, maybe for the first time, that immortal music?
“What, the genius of those three? Fucking laughable, man! I'm not being even arrogant about this. Those blokes did fuck all until I came along, and they've done fuck all ever since. They've just not got it. We've got Never Mind The Bollocks. There it is. Still available.”
The Dog’s Bollocks
I adore what the Sex Pistols did as much as anyone, and I feel the same way about The Clash, but I’ve never bought into punk’s year zero mentality, where nothing before it was seen to be worth a damn. By all means, as they did in one of the best scenes in the TV show, throw the television that’s playing Rick Wakeman and his King Arthur nonsense out the window, but both the Pistols and The Clash were firmly plugged into the tradition. Once Jones started talking music, this becomes even more apparent.
“I've always been a nut for music from a very early age, watching Top Of The Pops, with ‘Silver Machine’, with Roxy Music, Otis Redding, ‘Dance To The Music’, ‘Purple Haze’. It was eclectic. It wasn't about any kind of scene for me, it was just whatever resonated in my ears.”
He witnessed the early Thin Lizzy in The Greyhound in Fulham
“Saw a lot of great bands there, Be-Bop Deluxe, Heavy Metal Kids, Lizzy. I think that was with Mr. Bell on guitar.”
Jones and Cook did collaborate with Philo in The Greedy Bastards supergroup - including an impromptu appearance at an infamous Hot Press party in McGonagles, in December 1978 - but the memory is bittersweet.
“It was fun,” he remembered. “I was not in a good place, just drunk and doing smack, not the best time looking back at it, but I did like Phil.”
He’s never subscribed to that year zero philosophy either.
“No, not at all. I was obsessed with Rod Stewart and The Faces. I loved Humble Pie, Free, Mott The Hoople. I was a rock glam guy. I loved the first Queen record.”
A closet classic rock fan?
“I'm not in the closet about that at all!”
But at the time, did you have to hide it?
“I was stretching it a bit with Journey and Boston, that I had to keep quiet. I still loved them albums.”
There's two Eddie Cochran songs on the compilation, and there’s a story that Rory Gallagher – who finally met the man they called Johnny Rotten on the way to a Hot Press Readers’ Poll Awards event in Macroom – was in the crowd at the final gig in San Francisco and loved how it reminded him of early rock'n'roll like Cochran.
“I can see that, I can see that we had that spirit,” Jones nodded. “I was obsessed with all the early stuff; Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard. I think my mum used to go down Hammersmith Palais jiving with my real dad. It was in my blood. Just like Lemmy, he was a 50s nut too.”
Standing Over By The Record Machine…
It was another classic rock stable that started the Pistols' ball rolling when Lydon performed Alice Cooper’s ‘I’m Eighteen’ in front of Malcom McLaren’s jukebox.
“I didn't realise that he'd never done anything before, just like we hadn't,” Jones recalled. “I literally thought, ‘Who is this clown, he's just taking the piss, he ain't serious’. But in hindsight, it was genius the way he reacted.”
Aside from the monumental power of Lydon’s lyrics, and his crucial approach to singing, the song-writing came from both original bassist Glen Matlock – the Beatles and Small Faces fan – and Jones himself.
“In the beginning, Glen was working with John more than I was. I started getting more into writing when Glen left - someone had to - and that's when I came up with ‘Bodies’, ‘Holiday In The Sun’, ‘EMI’, ‘No Feelings’. But, prior to that, Glen was doing it; ‘Anarchy’, ‘God Save The Queen, ‘Pretty Vacant’.
Was Matlock’s departure a serious misstep?
“It's irrelevant now, he did leave,” he said. “I think it was going to be short lived, whatever way you looked at it. It was more of a pain in the arse when Sid joined, even though he looked brilliant. It was a pain in the arse for me trying to teach him where to put his fingers.”
Lydon feels a sense of guilt at pushing Sid Vicious, or John Beverley as he knew him, into the spotlight.
“Oh yeah, I've said so in me books and stories over the years that he was too inexperienced and he couldn't cope with the pressure,” Lydon ruefully remembered. “The Sex Pistols were already kind of well-oiled and able to cope with the outside pressures of these ridiculous headlines, etc. but he dived in and he dived into drugs. It was downhill from there. I was trying to tell him, 'Sid, just be yourself.' He wanted this rock and roll stance. He thought that the image mattered more than the substance"
“And also, as we found out very quickly, he was tone deaf and had no ability whatsoever. Lemmy was trying to give him guitar lessons and he just said, 'Look, John, he's got no fucking hope!'”
The comic image of Sid, Lydon’s childhood mate, had taken over.
“People think that's the real Sid, that fake imagery he was projecting, to cover up his fears and inadequacies. And as I kept trying to tell him, those fears and inadequacies are the essence of you. They are great tools. He didn't grasp it, the poor thing. I will forever, until we hopefully meet again in another life, feel bad. He felt terribly isolated, and the main reason I brought him into the band was because I felt isolated.”
Of the other pairing in the group, Paul Cook still doesn’t get the credit he deserves as one of the great rock n’ roll drummers.
“Cookie’s definitely underrated,” Jones agreed. “It's like Charlie Watts and Keith Richards. Separately, it's not the same, but when they play together, something happens. That's what it's like with me and Cookie, something happens and I can't really put my finger on it.”
Jones stated in his book that the studio was “the best part of being in the Pistols”, helped in no small way by the contributions of producer Chris Thomas, who had worked with Jones’ beloved Roxy Music, and engineer/coproducer Bill Price, who would go on to work with The Clash and Guns N’ Roses.
“Massive contribution,” said Jones. “Chris spent a lot of time with me, always telling me to tune up right after every take, he drove me nuts. But we experimented a lot. People think, punk records, you just go in and go crash, bang, wallop, and it's done, but that's definitely not the case with the Sex Pistols. There's little bits that you don't really hear that are there. Chris and Bill Price were brilliant, it was a perfect combination.”
“I loved the Damned's Damned, Damned, Damned, and I liked The Clash, but they did their first album with the sound guy they were on the road with [Mickey Foote], and it sounds like that, not great. That was the difference. I don't know where the philosophy comes from where you shouldn't make any money or you shouldn't do things right, although we did open the door for a lot of kids to say anyone could do this, which is absolutely true. Anyone could, it wasn't complicated music. I'd only been playing a little while.”
His limitations were a strength, helping to keep it direct and powerful.
“Absolutely. I couldn't play a Beatle chord if my life depended on it back then.”
If he had to pick favourites, Jones chose ‘Bodies’, ‘No Feelings’, ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’, and ‘God Save The Queen’, although he laughed at the notion that The Pistols and Kate Bush both recently hit the top spot.
“I loved it when ‘God Save The Queen’ was a blank spot at number one. That was the best part about it. It's great that’s it’s there again, but does it mean anything to me? Not really. It was only there for 10 minutes!”
The Last Word(s)
Whatever about TV shows and compilations and differing viewpoints, the Sex Pistols will always be deservedly remembered for Never Mind The Bollocks. One record is enough, when it’s a record that still jumps from the speakers and dares the listener to ignore it. On this, at least, John and Steve agree.
“I think it's fucking excellent,” Lydon said, with understandable pride. “It's a masterpiece. Accidentally, but it is, and I would never deny that. It was fucking hard work at the time, deadly serious songs about deadly serious subjects about a deadly serious time in our history. Britain was on the cusp of something very, very disastrous at that time, there was civil unrest all over the place. It's not every day you get called up in the Houses of Parliament under the Traitors And Treasons Act! In many ways there, I completely took on the establishment, and won, and that should not be denigrated. That should be accoladed!”
The last word goes to Steve Jones, guitar hero.
“I love it. It's a great time capsule, even the artwork is brilliant. It's just one of them things that every now and again happens, people make magic in a bottle, and then it's gone.”