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"Actually we’re not into music. We’re into chaos.” So said Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones to NME journalist Neil Spencer at one of the punk band’s first concerts in February 1976. Forty-five years on, chaos still reigns in the Pistols’ world, as anyone following current proceedings at the High Court in London will have gathered.
Jones and Paul Cook, the band’s former drummer, are suing the band’s former singer John Lydon – aka Johnny Rotten – to allow Pistols songs to be used in a forthcoming TV biopic series about the group. Currently in production, the six-part drama called Pistol is being directed by Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle. Lydon argues that licences to use the music can’t be granted without his permission.
But Jones and Cook say that under the terms of a 1998 band agreement, decisions regarding licencing requests should be determined on a “majority rules basis”. The pair claim their position is supported by Glen Matlock, the Pistols’ original bass player, and the estate of John Ritchie, the musician better known as Sid Vicious who replaced Matlock on bass in 1977 and died from a heroin overdose two years later.
Things took a typically Pistols turn last week when Jones, giving evidence from California, confirmed the assertion in his 2016 autobiography Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol that he thought Lydon was a “total dick”. Further, when Mark Cunningham QC, representing Lydon, asked Jones whether he disliked the singer and thought he was (again quoting from the book) an “annoying little brat”, Jones replied: “I guess so, yes.”
Lydon famously sang that “anger is an energy” in the song Rise with his post-Pistols band Public Image Ltd. But just why, when they’re in their comfortable mid-60s, do the band appear to hate each other so much?
To state the obvious, they’re the Sex Pistols. Dysfunctionality has trailed in their wake since their first sneering, gob-flecked day together in 1975. Their short career saw them release just one proper studio album. But the Pistols’ raw jolt shocked the monocultural mainstream.
By the time they broke up in early 1978, they’d caused coast-to-coast outrage by swearing repeatedly on a live TV show hosted by Bill Grundy, been dropped by two record labels, banned by the BBC and had tours cancelled. Then there were the fights, arrests and "screw you" publicity stunts such as signing an (aborted) record deal outside Buckingham Palace to promote their anti-monarchy single God Save The Queen in the summer of the Silver Jubilee. Headlines talked of ‘The Filth and the Fury’.
The Pistols were angry, arrogant, and aggressive. Vicious and Rotten by name and nature. Their disenchantment with the elite and the establishment was rooted in a sense of betrayal. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that one of their number is against a glossy TV version of their history directed by an Oscar-winner, co-written by the man who wrote Strictly Ballroom (Craig Pearce), and funded by a Disney-owned American streaming company.
But there’s more to this than a mere continuation of the punk attitude. Divisions have always existed within the band. When Jones said in court that “there’s a lot of bands who resent each other”, he was talking from bitter experience.
Inter-band harmony was never high on the agenda. Record historian Greg Shaw, quoted in In Their Own Write, an oral history of the music press, said of Lydon: “From the beginning, his agenda was that he hated rock stars, he hated the whole rock culture.” Jones writes in Lonely Boy that there was “a bit of antagonism between me and [Lydon] from the off”. Jones was annoyed, for example, when Lydon didn’t make an effort when he sang. But taking the piss, he wrote, is “Rotten in a nutshell”. The guitarist said that no one in the band except he and Cook really got on that well.
In 2008, the reformed Sex Pistols embarked on a three-month world tour. Jones says in his book that he only agreed to do the tour on the basis that he and Lydon wouldn’t travel together, and that he wouldn’t have to see the singer between shows. But it didn’t work out like that. They saw each other a lot, and Jones said that dealing with Lydon could be “a nightmare”. He cited one flight when the singer went “absolutely ballistic” when he was told he couldn’t smoke. Jones became so disillusioned so quickly with the tour that he considered faking a spinal injury onstage at the Isle of Wight Festival – right at the beginning of the jaunt – to get out of the rest of it. Lydon, Jones writes, is always “on”.
Numerous early writers suggested that Lydon’s antipathetic stance was affected, that his constant ‘f––– you’ to the world was part of his spiky hair ‘n’ safety pins shtick. As journalist Caroline Coon put it in the Melody Maker feature of August 1976 in which she first used the word “punk” in a British context, even Lydon’s clothes were a study in “calculated disarray”. Music writer Charles Shaar Murray said something similar. He went to see the Pistols in Stockholm in the summer of 1977, and said: “What stood out was how much effort John Lydon put into being a curmudgeon. It wasn’t him being him; it was a persona thing, and he was working on it really hard.”
But whether affected or not, Lydon is Lydon. And if being a curmudgeon is a persona, then he’s been pretty consistent (as well as extremely entertaining) in applying it.
The singer’s aversion to Boyle’s Pistol seems to be about control, in part at least. And this goes to the heart of historic band tensions. The TV show is based on the Lonely Boy book. It’s the Sex Pistols story as told through Jones’s eyes. The guitarist is an executive producer on the series. It’s his rodeo. Speaking to The Sunday Times earlier this year, Lydon said that a script was written and an actor selected to play him (Anson Boon, who appeared in the film 1917) without his participation or consent. Lydon was incandescent. He described publicity shots of actors playing the band as “the most disrespectful s–––” he’s ever had to endure.
Lydon said: “Sorry, you think you can do this, like walk all over me – it isn’t going to happened. Not without a huge, enormous f–––––– fight.” He branded the situation “a disgrace” and claimed that the producers had been “secret squirrel” about the show. “I fronted this band. I’m the man who wrote the words. I supplied the image and direction,” Lydon said. “If you put me in a corner like a rat, I’m going to go for your throat. I’m up against some corporations here that just want to take over. Poor old Johnny Rotten is the victim of Mickey Mouse.”
(A spokesman for Pistol said at the time that Boyle had written to Lydon via his management company but that direct contact was declined. Ironically, Lydon has dealt with Boyle before when the director used some Pistols music in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. The singer told Q magazine that year that he’d granted permission because Boyle’s ceremony focused on the NHS.)
Top dog status has always been an issue within the group. Jones saw the Pistols as his band. He was, he says in Lonely Boy, a member before Lydon. Yet the singer’s comments about being the front man and supplying the image and direction show that he clearly disagrees.
Jones describes the power dynamic as having played out thus: Lydon, he says, was possibly a bit intimidated by him being physically stronger. So to compensate he’d “use his intellect” to put Jones down. “He still does that now,” Jones wrote in 2016. He also wrote that Lydon has become more controlling with age. In a witness statement to court, drummer Cook said that Lydon “can be a difficult character and always likes to feel in control”. Power struggles have fractured many bands over the decades, from The Beatles and Pink Floyd to Oasis and the Spice Girls. The Pistols are no different.
But Lydon also sees himself as a guardian of the band’s history. He told the High Court this week how he’d refused to let the makers of Netflix’s The Crown use Pistols music because they were “rewriting” history in their portrayal of the jubilee. Turning the band’s history into a “lie” is not something he could be party to. “I cannot compromise in selling my integrity,” he said.
These comments may raise eyebrows. Lydon is, after all, the man who fronted a Country Life butter ad campaign in 2008 (sales nearly doubled). He also appeared on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in 2004 (true to form Lydon stormed off the show in the middle of the night, but not after he’d branded the audience “f–––––– c––––” for not voting him off). He later told ITV bosses he was “bored” and “wanted some chocolate”.
Whatever happens, Cook said this week that the Pistols are probably “gone for good” due to the court case. Which is a shame. Because beneath the churning chaos lurks a suggestion of – whisper it – respect. Towards the end of Lonely Boy, Jones sums up his frustration with his bandmate (it’s the same passage that was quoted in court). The guitarist describes how, in a brilliant act of punk defiance, Lydon cancelled the band’s appearance at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2006 at the last minute. Instead, he sent a letter to organisers calling the ceremony “urine in wine”.
“That’s the tricky part with John,” writes Jones. “If he was a total dick all the time, you could write him off, but every now and again he does something you have to commend him for just to keep us on our toes. The shame of it is that he doesn’t need to be so insecure.”
“No one questions John’s contribution to the band,” says Jones, demonstrating just the faintest whiff of brotherly love. “Everyone knows he was one of the greatest lead singers of all time.”