Looking back at punk’s most controversial icon
That seems to be the universal first reaction whenever you mention the late Sex Pistols bassist.
Or maybe he’d be better identified as the band’s Co-Figurehead or The Public’s Cheap ‘n’ Easy Symbol of Punk Attitude. Sid Vicious, singer Johnny Rotten/John Lydon’s friend, certainly had the definitive spikey-haired and sneering punk look of the day; a little catch was that he wasn’t much of a bassist.
“Sid was a coat hanger from start to finish,” Rotten told me in 1996. succinctly summing up Sid’s talent and role. “Amazing. He’s the most popular coat hanger in this history of bad music. . . Old Sid. That man never played.”
“It was kind of a mistake getting him in the band,” guitarist Steve Jones told me the same year. “It was mainly ’cause he looked the part and he’d come to all our shows and John knew him. But he couldn’t play, and when he joined the whole chemistry just went out the window.”
From what I’ve pieced together over the years from those who knew him, before he grasped punk rock by the throat – and vice-versa – he was a pretty sweet, good-natured kid. His public image was not that. And he fell into the bad boy rocker/junkie trap laid by Johnny Thunders and many more before him.
Vicious – born John Simon Ritchie – was thrust into the Sex Pistols in early 1977 when founding bassist-songwriter Glen Matlock exited the band. (Allegedly fired for liking Paul McCartney’s music, so the legend goes.) Had he lived, Sid would have turned 65 May 10. Go figure.
I had one encounter with Sid. I was on line outside the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta, Georgia on Jan. 5, 1978 for the Pistols’ debut. I was a rock columnist for Bangor (Maine) Daily News, but I was on no guest list. I got my tickets the old-fashioned way, buying two from a kid who preferred $80 to seeing the Pistols rant and rave at this club at the apex of a shopping mall. Sid entered the venue from the front, passing the line. I said “Hi, Sid.” He said, “Hi.” That was it.
Then came the show, and while Sid was not what I’d call “good,” he was a presence. And and the show was a blast – righteous anger, curdling snarls, super-charged, searing guitar riffs that connected with an audience that welcomed the expression and the release. It was conventional rock ‘n’ roll in a way, and, yet, radical as hell. The shambolic, yet riveting, Rotten was the kind of frontman I’d never seen. Sid carried himself like the punk anti-hero he fashioned himself as. All curled lip and snarl.
When the Pistols crashed and burned after their San Francisco date – “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” was Rotten’s parting shot – everyone took to the highway. Vicious took the highway to hell.
Jones and drummer Paul Cook headed to South America to make a farcical Sex Pistols mockumentary with band Svengali/would-be puppeteer, the wily Malcolm McLaren. They would later resurface as half of the Professionals.
Rotten went off to reinvent himself, using his given surname, with the post-punk band Public image, Ltd. and moved into some serious punk/skronk/prog territory. Vicious moved to New York with his abrasive, nails-on-chalkboard junkie girlfriend Nancy Spungen. He was accused of stabbing her to death in late ’78 and arrested. Out on bail in early ’79, Vicious overdosed on heroin and died. (His ashes were allegedly scattered upon her grave.)
“It’s very difficult once people go down that [junkie] road to steer them off,” Rotten told me. “It’s just impossible. I obviously failed with Sid.”
Various myths, large and small, have been built up around Sid and the Pistols over time. We’re all curious to see what FX brings us May 31 when Danny Boyle unleashes the first episode of Pistol, the Sex Pistols mini-series. Lydon/Rotten is in well-documented snit about it, fulminating wherever he can. It is based on Jones’s memoir, not his, so, presumably, the tales of rock ‘n’ debauchery, thievery, drug abuse, triumph and tragedy are filtered through Jonesy’s eyes and Boyle’s choices. A young actor named Louis Partridge plays Sid. (My main hope is that the actors don’t come off as awkward and wrong as in the CBGB movie.)
I talked to Jones when his memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistols, came out in 2017. He wanted to knock down a few myths. One that lingered had been the been the allegation that session guitarist Chris Spedding played most of the guitar on the album.
VIDEO: Sid on the street
“Well, I definitely played all the guitar on Never Mind the Bollocks,” Jones said, adding he also played bass on the entire album, save “Anarchy in the UK.” Vicious, he said, was not on it at all except “low in the mix on ‘Bodies.’”
“I think Sid actually had a good musical ear,” Jones continued. “But it was like saying to a baby, ‘Here’s a bass, learn how to play it in a week.’ You just can’t do it. I started showing him where to put his fingers and that’s the last thing I wanted to be doing. I had my own issues. It was a crazy time, a whirlwind of shit that wouldn’t stop whirling around.”
So, who did what?
“Glen always claims he wrote ‘God Save the Queen’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and ‘Pretty Vacant,’” said Jones. “John wrote the lyrics; Glen would come up with the tunes and I’d sodomize his way of playing to make it sound the way it did. After Glen left the band – or got the boot, whatever way you want to look at it, I’m not quite sure what happened myself – I co-wrote ‘Bodies,’ “EMI’ ‘Holidays in the Sun,’ ‘No Feelings’ and ‘Lazy Sod’ [aka ‘Seventeen’]. I never get credit for that. They’re minor details, but I just want to get my two cents out there. That was not entirely why I did the book, but it was part of the drive that made me want to do it.”
What threw the band off its track, permanently said Jones, was the blowup that happened on the English TV show hosted by Bill Grundy, Today, on Dec. 1u, 1976. Clearly contemptuous, Grundy goaded the not-entirely-sober Pistols into cursing on live TV. The next day’s Daily Mirror emblazoned the Pistols on the Page 1 proclaiming, “The Filth and the Fury.”
“The Bill Grundy thing and Sid joining was definitely the beginning of the end to me,” Jones said. “It was an overnight sensation – household name all over England – but because of that it wasn’t about [the music any longer]. Inside of the band, we just couldn’t really write any songs. It totally wasn’t about music. We had no time to rehearse; it was just about what the next headline was going to be.”
Then, there was McLaren’s role. He was the owner of an outrageous London clothing store, first called Let It Rock, later called Sex. That’s where the guys who’d become the Pistols met. According to Malc, the whole thing was his idea.
“How can I create such poisonous and virile frenzy?” McLaren told me over drinks at a Boston bar in 1985. recalling the band’s formative months. “The chemistry was perfect. The concept was brilliant, just brilliant! I had all the ideas, with Rotten picking up on them. And I had the best soldiers possible, all of them hating each other. We were bound together: We all hated everything that came before.”
VIDEO: Sex Pistols “Holidays in the Sun”
What Sid is probably most noted for – aside from the aforementioned notoriety – is his upending of Paul Anka’s “My Way.” I talked to Anka about it a few years back. Anka, of course, wrote more than a few enduring classics of pre-British invasion pop world – and after. In fact, it became one of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs and a comeback hit for him in 1969. It had been covered by many over the years, but when a member of one of the world’s most infamous punk rock bands covered that song – woefully off-key and with revamped lyrics (“Today, I killed a cat”)– well, I asked he thought.
Anka said when he first heard it, he was “destabilized – for a moment.”
“Once I settled down and investigated it, I could see the guy was sincere. He went to Paris to do it, and it meant a lot to him and that was his only capability. He sang a certain way and that was it. By then I’d heard eclectic versions of it, but nothing like that! After I studied it, I thought “Everybody’s entitled to do their own thing, man.”
Was he trashing it or was it a tribute? Or maybe both?
“It might have been both,” admitted Anka, “but I also think it was an anthem for him. He was doing things his way. I don’t think it was an out-and-out trash at all.”
The video of that song – with Sid brandishing a pistol and strafing the audience with bullets – was one of the highlights of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, a mockumentary intended to reconstruct the Sex Pistols’ myth so as to paint McLaren as a Svengali. I suppose that aspect of the Pistols will be debated for years – Rotten certainly disagrees and McLaren is dead – and I’m certain some truth and some fantasy lie in both camps.
McLaren thought Swindle was messed up in many ways, sighing “It was my fantasy … Trying to blow your ego up to ridiculous proportions, going further beyond anything Fleet Street had conjured up. … I cherish some of the moments – especially Sid singing ‘My Way.’ “