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Sex Pistols: God Save the Queen

“With the Sex Pistols we were hated, absolutely despised. There was no audience there at all to any great extent. We sold a few records in a small banana republic called Britain.”

– John Lydon

John Lydon -- better known as the sneering Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten -- enjoys lying. He says as much in his rambling anecdotal and opinionated autobiography. But he wasn’t lying when he said the Sex Pistols were hated, absolutely despised.

Their timing was impeccable, of course.

There could be few better opportunities to fire a snarling broadside at the monarchy in their hilarious, angry God Save The Queen (“she ain't no human being") than during the Queen’s Jubilee Year of 1977.

Calculated to give maximum offense, the song spewed up out of the lower reaches of the class system and Lydon’s Anglo-Irish resentments just as a nation was embarking on a spending spree snapping up commemorative tea towels, trays, flags and all the other cultural debris that such an occasion generates.

Yet it all seems so long ago.

It is 17 years since punk broke and the Sex Pistols appeared on the Bill Grundy television show to unleash -- at Grundy’s prompting, it must be said -- a landslide of obscenities which rocked the seismograph of popular culture and elevated Lydon into the unenviable position of being the most hated man in Britain.

While the other Sex Pistols took their share of abuse (although their later drug-addled bass player Sid Vicious was mostly too brain-fried to notice it), Lydon was the man who stared manic-eyed out of tabloid pages and television screens.

Within days of God Save The Queen hitting top of the British charts -- despite being banned, unplayed and unacknowledged by radio and television -- Lydon was attacked by a razor wielding pub crowd.

He was equally reviled by the rock culture which spawned him. And he still feels it bitterly if his Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs expletives-included autobiography is to be believed.

Then again, he does say he enjoys lying.

Yet we must be inclined to believe this rambling account which is less a book than a series of tape transcriptions.

Lydon says candidly he doesn't much like writing -- he tried to pen this himself -- so simply sat down with Keith and Kent Zimmerman, two Americans that nobody in the worlds of literature or rock seems to have heard of, and said what he wanted.pistols1

By his own account he's “writing this book because so much rubbish has been written about us [Sex Pistols] that it might be interesting for someone to get the correct perspective on it and see it for what it really was."

And that sentence, delivered halfway through this book which is also entitled grandly The Autobiography, carries the typically sardonic, barbed attitude that infects the 340 pages.

Lydon’s account of his early life and the Sex Pistol period, little more than 18 months in the life of this 38-year-old married California-resident, is littered with tangential information and petty, spiteful opinion which is often colourful, wickedly accurate when dealing to the English class system and often unintentionally hilarious.

It takes considerable effort not to choke with laughter at a chapter which opens, “The press reported a ruckus at London's Heathrow Airport before our flight to Amsterdam. Tales of vomit and drunkenness. Now what are ashtrays for but to spit in?

“You do that, some old woman gets offended and there’s 40 journalists there to blow it out of all proportion. Suddenly you’ve vomited all over the airport.

“Okay, Steve did vomit at Heathrow Airport . . .”

An intelligent reader may well suspect that Lydon, as a professional and astute agent-provocateur in popular culture, knows exactly what he is doing here.

The sense of outrage against the media, the disarming sense of skewed logic (ashtrays, to spit in?) then the delayed punchline . . . It smacks of a keen intelligence at work.

Lydon certainly possesses that.

Quite where it came from is another matter.

There seems little in his upbringing in the beans-on toast, bathing-in-disinfectant-every-six-weeks world which would have set him apart.

His childhood was undeniably grim in the poverty-ridden streets of Finsbury Park, London, where his displaced Irish Catholic parents brought up Lydon and his three younger brothers (one of whom we are somewhat aghast to learn is a real tearaway, worse than the narrator). School meant truancy; food was out of a can.

“Nobody was into healthy food back then -- only whatever was cheap and available. Heinz fed Britain for decades -- must be furious with this salad generation. But if Heinz could cram salad into a can, they certainly would."

Lydon is full of such asides. “Culture is a hokey fraud. Culture was something humans held on to because they were afraid of demons and gods. People used it as a protection from metaphysics. It’s sad that all culture seems to be about old pots and corny old folk songs."

Naturally he is better when dealing with the subject he knows, the nascent punk period in the mid-70s and his stumbling into the band that would make his name.

Yet if he still holds particular hatred for the British monarchy and class system he also holds personal grudges almost two decades alter the event.

He pours poison on the Sex Pistols first bassist Glen Matlock, the only true musician in the group and the one who wrote most of the songs.

Lydon despises Matlock's lack of taste (he liked the Beatles and wanted the band to be like a camp version of the Bay City Rollers) and still wishes he would "drop dead.”

He is no less charitable towards his school friend Sid Vicious whose real name was Simon Ritchie or John Beverly. “Even he wasn't sure. It depended on his mothers's whim at the time. She was just a hippie mother.”

Vicious was brought into the band to replace Matlock despite his inability to play bass. Lydon says he just needed an ally in the band and anyway, “he took lessons and learned quick, actually. He wasn’t too bad at all for three-chord songs.”sid1

“It’s a bass guitar, for God’s sake. Who listens to the bass guitar in a rock'n’roll band? It’s just some kind of boom noise in the background.”

But if Lydon still fires shots at Vicious – who died of a heroin overdose in February 1979 -- he reserves special vitriol for Vicious’ American girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

He says he and his friends cleaned their fingernails with her hypodermic needles in the hope she would “kill herself or whatever. Maybe that’s premeditated murder. I think I did it more out of spite."

And later, Sid "disliked himself so much he did the worst possible thing he could have ever done -- hook up with that beast, Nancy Spungen. There’s nothing vindictive when I say she was a beast. She was a very self-destructive human being who was determined to take as many people as possible down with her.”

Lydon isn‘t alone in his assessment of Spungen -- who died in ’78, Vicious being held for her murder when he overdosed.

What ultimately salvages No Irish, No Blacks No Dogs from being a relentless diatribe of amateur psychology, superb one liners and score-settling is the presence of other voices.

The co-authors interview Lydon’s father, others on the scene at the time such as Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Billy Idol and Lydon’s schoolmates.

It gives breadth to an otherwise thin, shallow and rambling account of one of the great musical and social movements of recent times.

The book is little help in giving easy answers about Lydon’s personality -- although other amateur psychologists may identify his formative year in and out of hospital when he contracted spinal meningitis as being pivotal.

And at least it puts that punk movement back in the spotlight.

There are periods and aspects of rock culture which offer themselves up for easy essays; the death of Kurt Cobain allows pop-psychologists their go at the Grunge Generation, Bob Dylan’s 50th birthday gives editorial writers a chance to flex a little hip analysis.

But punk? The very confrontational nature of its style -- in fashion and music -- has made it impossible to assimilate into mainstream haute couture or the Rock ’n' Roll Halt of Fame.

Lydon notes that David Bowie is “a pompous prat” who had him thrown out of a party. Punk was such that even the culture which allowed for it would not accept it backstage.

This was the culture of confrontation borne of frustration, poverty that is something more grinding and less glamorous than The Eastenders, manipulated by the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, and it came just as complacency was endemic.

In retrospect punk was purgative and in that light it needs to be celebrated. It was also bigger than music, more than sweeping away the Pink Floyd and Genesis clones.

Lydon’s book reminds us that punk was about confronting angrily all that was complacent. In its own way it was as radical as Dada before it and -- if American author Griel Marcus is to be believed -- the French Situationalists, an avantgarde political movement that Pistols manager McLaren saw in action during the 68 riots in Paris.

Lydon, typically, will have none of that academic Situationalist nonsense that Marcus intellectualised about in his largely unreadable book Lipstick Traces about punk and its anarchist antecedents.

According to Marcus, Lydon spits, Michael Jackson is a Situationalist. “Forget it. There’s no master conspiracy in anything, not even governments. Everything is just some kind of vaguely controlled chaos.”

Punk was certainly that. And Lydon, by virtue of innate intelligence, survived it.

Ironically the Sex Pistols broke up for all the usual rock’n’roll reasons. There were musical differences (although none was particularly musical all were certainly different), girlfriends who didn’t fit in and bad drugs.

Equally ironic is Lydon's annoyance with the complete lack of organisation on that final American tour, a fortnight traipsing around America mostly trying to find heroin-addicted Vicious and told with terrifying veracity in 12 Days On the Road With The Sex Pistols by Noel Monk and Jimmy Guterman.

Lydon had had enough and when the others lit out for Brazil and an abortive attempt at further media-assisted outrage by meeting up with Great Train Robber Ronald Biggs, he just called it quits. He had no money . . . but then despite being in one of the most notorious groups rock has ever thrown up, he never did have.

Tellingly then, his autobiography ends with the demise of the band that created him.

However, he transcended the limitations of being the Grand Old Man of Punk at age 21 by reinventing himself. He reverted to his own name leaving Johnny Rotten to encyclopedia writers and formed a new band Public Image Limited which, in a further ironic coda, produced more anarchic and confrontational music than the rowdy pop the Pistols ever managed.

He married and turned his sneer into a career. And there is a wax portrait of him in Madame Tussaud’s Rock Circus in London.lydonworld

He consistently said he hated the Sex Pistols, he'd done his bit. The maniacal stare – which he attributes to having to focus his sight after the meningitis - lost some of its menace or became reduced to parody.

The world moved on and punk became another footnote in rock culture. But its effects are still felt.

Punk was a watershed for attitudes and the do-it-yourself nature of its pervades rock culture -- and now magazine and video language -- today.

But today Pink Floyd have topped the charts again, the band whose T-shirt a young Johnny Rotten adapted by scrawling the words “I hate” on and thus creating a persona, an attitude and a brief culture called punk.

Lydon was always smart enough to recognise the transitory nature of the world he was briefly at the centre of. Ten years ago he could cheerfully offer; "punk changed the business, but only temporarily. English pop music is still about trivia and homosexuals, isn’t it?"

Lydon was always one for a smart line like that . . . and he still is.

He opens and closes his autobiography with the line he delivered at the end of the final Sex Pistols show at their disastrous – and therefore typical -- show at the Winterland in San Francisco. They are words he can use with or without irony. But they will invariably come back to haunt him.

"Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

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