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A Report on the Sex Pistols

Rock is sick and living in London

October 20, 1977
sex pistols rolling stone cover
Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Bob Gruen; Dennis Morris

Instead of perfume, there will be rottenness.
—Isaiah 3:24

Alittle 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 its 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 softcore 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 Pulitzer 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 tits."

McLaren seizes the opportunity to disappear into the Vortex and is lost to me for the rest of the evening. The dense crowd inside consists of a few curiosity seekers and 400 to 500 cadaverous teenagers dressed in black or gray. Often their hair is dyed shades of industrial pink, green and yellow. Several blacks, also drably dressed and with rainbow stripes dyed into their short Afros, speckle the audience. The music over the loudspeakers is about two-thirds shrieking New Wave singles and one-third reggae tunes, which the kids respond to with almost as much enthusiasm as the punk rock. The dancing is frantic as a band called the Slits sets up. The style is called pogo dancing – jumping up and down and flailing one's arms around. It is as far as one can get from the Hustle, and it is the only way one can dance if one is wearing bondage pants tied together at the knees. Most are pogoing alone. Those with partners (usually of the same sex) grasp each other at the neck or shoulders and act like they are strangling each other. Every four or five minutes, someone gets an elbow in the nose and the ensuing punch-out lasts about thirty seconds amid a swirling mass of tripping bodies.

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Unlike in American punk clubs, which occasionally become as crowded but where most people still try to avoid jostling each other, no one here hesitates to violate another person's physical space. Everyone is fair game for a push. The dance floor is phenomenally stuffed with sweating humans, and getting more stuffed with each new song. Roadies onstage and a few fans hurl beer glasses at each other.

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." 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 midhop 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.

The Slits draw an encore and invite their opening act, Prefix, 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 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 Vivian 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 stood 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 heretofore 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 supper hour, 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.

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