At the SIR Studio in West Hollywood Monday night, a panel discussion of punk-rock icons devolved into filth and fury — what better way to honor the Epix network’s new docuseries, Punk, which premieres on March 11th? At the heart of the disruption was John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten). The Sex Pistol sparred with Marky Ramone and Henry Rollins while the genre’s other icons watched with smirks and wide eyes.
The conversation took place after a screening, and the Justice League of punk trailblazers aligned in front of the screen. Henry Rollins, Duff McKagan, Lydon, Punk producer John Varvatos, Ramone and L7’s Donita Sparks convened ostensibly to answer some questions about the genre’s legacy (I served as the moderator) but once the conversation got going, it took on a life of its own.
First, things got heated between Lydon and Rollins. “Henry, we ain’t never met before, have we?” Lydon said, as seen in a clip. “You’ve said silly things but excellently good things, too.”
“And you called Black Flag a bunch of suburban rich kids and we wanted to tear your ears off,” Rollins said.
“Yes, I did, but I didn’t like the fucking music,” Lydon said. “It was boring.”
And then Lydon went on to assert that a big difference between the Pistols and Black Flag was that Lydon sang clearer. “Don’t talk Black Flag, Pink Flag, White Flag,” he said.
Later, in the panel, Lydon and Marky Ramone came to blows, reviving a rivalry that has lasted decades. After the drummer spoke to how the Ramones blazed a trail for punk in New York and took that to London, Lydon said that he was “not even an original Ramone.” “But I did the Blank Generation album with Richard Hell, and you took his image,” Ramone replied. “All you guys took Richard Hell’s image. That’s all you did.”
“And you’re still covering your fucking ears,” Lydon said, grimacing that he’d gotten a rise out of the drummer.
“And Sid Vicious was the star,” Ramone said, prompting Lydon to smile and stick his tongue out. “That’s right, he was,” Lydon replied. “He was the star for asshole fake idiots like you. Enjoy your drugs and fuckin’ have a happy death.”
Lydon then continued his attack on the drummer. “Punk music for me was positive, proof positive, that we could change our lifes by music, meaning what we said, attack the political systems,” he said. “This daft cunt is into fucking drugs.”
“You talk the talk, but you didn’t do the walk, just like the MC5,” Ramone said. Lydon then stood up and danced around, “Hello, Johnny Rotten never did the walk?” Then as Ramone continued, Lydon looked at him and said, “Look at you, you look like a heavy-metal fucking reject.”
“Sit the fuck down,” Ramone said.
“This is fucking punk rock right here,” L7’s Sparks then offered. “Unpolished, unrehearsed, off the fucking rails.”
In a moment of positivity and scene unity, Sparks said she’d drawn inspiration from both the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. “I just want to say that I knew about the Ramones and the Sex Pistols before I knew about Iggy and the MC5,” she said. “As a teenager, those were the two bands that were my youthquake, earthquake.” Lydon attempted to interrupt her, and she said, “Hang on, tiger. Take it easy, tiger. Let the broad speak for a second. … What was cool when I discovered these bands was there was such horrible, horrible music on the radio. It was god awful. It was the mid to late Seventies and it was boring, over-30s music. It was just terrible. And then when I heard the Ramones, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is, like, for teenagers. Oh, it’s speaking to me. It’s teenage, it’s fun, I want to dance to it.’ And then when I heard the Sex Pistols, I was like, ‘I am fucking terrified of this band, and I love it.”