The Sex Pistols’ Secret Weapon Turns 65

Sid Vicious was their most famous bassist, but Glen Matlock was the one who could play

Glen Matlock with the Sex Pistols (Art: Ron Hart)

Sid Vicious was the Sex Pistols’ most famous bassist, but Glen Matlock was the one who could play. And he was also the one who walked away. 

Or was told to take a figurative long walk off a short peer. Fired in February of 1977 for liking Paul McCartney and his silly love songs? So that myth goes, a line propagated by the late Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren. 

Matlock did not look as punk rock as the guy who OD’d and died, and, unfortunately Sid, in death, has become an icon of the times. Matlock is the forgotten guy, but the guy – it has been said – who was responsible for much of the melody that powered Johnny Rotten’s scathing and super-smart lyrics. 

He’s also currently one of the three – the others being guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook – who are in favor of Danny Boyle’s in-the-works biopic series, Pistol, the petulant holdout being, of course, Rotten. The series is based on Jones’ highly entertaining, celebratory and, yet harshly self-critical memoir. Rotten is petulant and probably pissed off because evidently the series doesn’t center around him – hey, he wrote a memoir, too! – and he feels the legend will be tarnished by TV or there’s not enough filthy lucre going his way. Possibly a combo pack. Contentiousness is built into Rotten’s DNA.

I’ve spoken with Matlock, who turns 65 on Aug. 27, a few times, the first being the 1996 Pistols 20th anniversary reunion tour where the newspaper for which I worked, the Boston Globe, sent me to the Washington, D.C. area for a full-fledged band profile. Young punk upstarts after two decades: Who’da thunk it? And why would it work?

 

VIDEO: Sex Pistols Filthy Lucre in Japan 1996

Let’s flash back a decade prior, to June 1986, a full eight years after the Sex Pistols disintegrated following their only US tour. (I saw the debut in Atlanta’s Great Southeast Music Hall. “You can stop staring at us,” said Rotten. “We’re all ugly and we know it.”)

But here we are post-Pistols with Rotten, going by his given surname of Lydon, singing with Public image Ltd. He’s backstage at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, employing his usual glare — intimidation flag playfully raised to its normal position, Rotten button switched on. The notion of a Sex Pistols 10th-anniversary reunion tour had been floating about, so, of course, the topic is raised.

“That’s one of Malcolm’s ideas,” he snorted derisively, referring to former manager McLaren. “Ha ha ha. It’d be fun to try and get Sid back up onstage, wouldn’t it?”

Well, I said what about Matlock? He’s the original bassist.

“He’s a born-again Christian,” caws Lydon/Rotten. “And that’s worse ‘n drugs.” (For the record, Rotten had nothing good to say about Sid, his one-time friend, as a musician: “He was just a coat-hanger.”)

So, at that point any thought of seeing the Sex Pistols was dead.

Now it’s 1996 and I’m at the Fairfax, Virginia gig, an hour-long show before 3,500 fans at George Mason University. It’s pretty much a copy of the Pistols’ just-released Filthy Lucre Live album, Rotten was up to his old tricks. He was baiting the crowd — calling those seated in the loge “sissies” — and dropping his trousers. His eyes still bulged when he glared. “Enjoy or die!” he admonished the crowd. He still cussed like a pirate. He crowed from the stage that he and his boys, the Sex Pistols, are “fat, 40 and back.”

Backstage, post-show, Matlock – who penned his autobiography, I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol in 1990, receives a compliment from a fan: “Good to have you back in the band.” 

Matlock passively nods. 

What exactly do you say to that? I ask him. Does it feel weird?

“What? You mean being so old and all?” asks Matlock, who is actually the youngest-looking of the bunch. “No. It feels right. It feels natural.”

What I meant, really, was him replacing Sid who’d replaced him. That while he was a key cog in the creation of the music, in some ways he was written out of the Sex Pistols tattered legacy or certainly diminished in the telling. But I couldn’t quite get all that out.

 

VIDEO: Rich Kids on Top of the Pops 1978

Matlock’s life hasn’t been all-Pistols. After he exited the band, Matlock formed the new wave-y Rich Kids, and went on to work with a variety of artists ranging from Iggy Pop, fellow original School of ’76 Brit Punk Rockers, The Damned (yes, he was one of the thousands) and neo-rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, whilst pursuing his own brand of melodic rock. 

Matlock released an album, Born Running, in 2011. and once he took up the bassist spot in the Faces. In the spring of that year, it was announced that three members of the Faces – Ronnie Wood, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones – were to reform, with Mick Hucknall on vocals, and with Glen taking Ronnie Lane’s spot. The Faces were one of the bands he loved as a kid. Who didn’t? He was also a fan of the Kinks, The Who and David Bowie. 

And now we go to 2012, where Matlock was doing a US acoustic tour. (He also had played some dates in England with the Philistines, but bringing a band over and dragging them around … too much money.) I had a phone chat with Glen who was sitting on a park bench in Miami and on his cell phone.

 

Why an acoustic tour?

I’ve done a few over the past few years and it somehow struck a chord with people. When I’m with the Philistines, it’s a good rock band, but with a band you’re plugging the next album, and acoustic I can do all the things I’ve done [over my career]. all the songs I’ve written and co-written and had a hand in has started out on acoustic guitar. So, it’s bare bones. I’m not Johnny Rotten, and I don’t try to be. I just try to get the songs across. People have said they can actually hear the songs better not covered up with up all that noise. I’m not the best guitarist in the world, but I’m a good provider of simple things done well. It’s almost like Richie Havens. I went to see Ray Davies play [his Songwriter solo tour]. I think watching his show, I felt on the same page as him. It was a re-affirmation of what I’m doing. I think Ray Davies is one of the greatest English songwriters.

 

No argument there. OK, how many Sex Pistols songs do you play?

I do two songs. Get this clear: I don’t do an acoustic version of Never Mind the Bollocks. What you’ll find, is I always jokingly say, is the same old shit: My songs, whatever period, they all fit hand in glove with each other.

 

Which songs are you playing?

(The phone connection breaks up and Matlock’s London accent is tough to begin with but he basically said to reveal them would be to reveal the punch line of a joke.)

 

VIDEO: The Sex Pistols perform “Pretty Vacant” at the Brixton Academy 2007

 

My impression was in the Pistols you were the guy who brought the melody. True?

Kind of. “Pretty Vacant,” as far as I’m concerned, that’s my song. The only one we did together was “Submission,” where we traded line by line. I worked out the chords, shouted to the other guys.

 

How do you view the arc of your career?

It’s up and down. I’ve never seen myself as a rock star. I’m just a guy who plays music. 

 

Back to seeing Ray Davies, do you use that storyteller format, songs and tales?

It all depends. I like to get ’em singing along. I have rough set list. Playing solo, the buck stops with you. You haven’t got the other guys to hide behind.

 

You’re getting people in their 50s, I’m sure, original Sex Pistols fans, coming to see you. Are you getting younger people as well?

Yeah. I haven’t got millions of people coming. But it seems to be building. I’ve got my bumps. It’s tough being in the Sex Pistols and then getting on with what you want to do now. It is hard. You have to find a way with dealing with that. But I’m quite happy to do this. I’ll make another record with my guys in England. I’ve got half the songs written as I’ve been traveling around the States. I slot the a few new ones in.    

 

     

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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