Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?
Johnny Rotten – Winterland, San Francisco – 14th January, 1978.
With those words, Punk died. In the 26 months between the Sex Pistol’s live birth at St Martin’s College Of Art in November 1975 & their public death at the Winterland in January 1978, many of those involved in Punk Rock in any capacity whatsoever could rightly claim to have been cheated in some way or another. Punk Rock: The Movement, had failed spectacularly in many of its original aims - & the fallout from this failure would haunt the future of rock’n’roll for years to come.
If the Sex Pistols came to destroy rock’n’roll – in many ways they succeeded. Their deconstruction of the genre was so efficient & so coruscating that by the early months of 1978 there really wasn’t anywhere else left to go. As a strap line, “Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated”, was the kiss rock’n’roll had been looking for since The New York Dolls first ruffled the feather boas of the music business elite at the birth of the decade.
Rotten felt cheated: any connection that had existed had been now been irreparably broken. No one was going to control him - & no one knew this all too well. Vicious felt cheated: he phoned Rotten to make exactly that point before pledging to strike out on his own. No one was going to out-Punk him - & no one knew what kind of shit was about to go down. The audience at the Winterland (or at least the 600 or 700 strong Punk contingent present) felt cheated: the Sex Pistol’s performance that night was nowhere near as incendiary as they’d been led to believe it would be. It was bitter, spiteful & hollow – with the emphasis on burnt out. Punk rockers the world over subsequently felt cheated: was this really the end?
As Cook & Jones flew down to Rio for their imminent rendezvous with Ronnie Biggs they were so relieved to be moving on that any thoughts of being cheated on their part would have to wait for a later court date. The one man who definitely didn’t feel cheated was simply bored.
When Rotten arrived in New York City on the 18th of January 1978, tired, angry & skint, he immediately told the world he & the Sex Pistols were over in an exclusive interview with The New York Post: “I’m sick of working with the Sex Pistols”. By January the 19th The Sun enhanced their serialisation of Fred & Judy Vermorel’s memoires with the front-page news that the Sex Pistols were two members short of a group: “I’m so glad I’m out of that group”, Vicious later told Chris Salewicz. “I won’t work with any of them again & that’s no great pity”, Rotten soon confided in Caroline Coon.
There had been little evidence of the impending mayhem that would reach its illogical conclusion so explosively on stage at the Winterland in January 1978 when Kris Needs spoke to the Sex Pistols for Zigzag in June of 1977. Published under the banner, “Silver Jubilation”, the interview provides a fascinating snapshot of the (relative) calm before the storm - but also flags up many of the concerns that would tear the group asunder a mere seven months down the line:
Before you read this interview - Kris Needs would like to respectfully point out that he wrote the following on the back of several fag packets, in biro, by hand, after stopping up all night, again, speeding his nuts off on cheap sulphate, cos that’s what you did, back then, on the front line, when today’s cheap thrill was tomorrow’s headlines & Punk Rock was still in the throws of infancy:
By the time you read this, the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ could be occupying the Number 1 spot in the charts. As I write it’s just crashed in at Number 11 after only a few days on release. It looks all set to be the Jubilee Week chart topper.
The conspiracy against the Pistols to shove them under the carpet where they can inflict no harm has failed. If anything, it’s helped the single along, ‘cos now there’s nothing the kids want to see more than the Pistols at the top of the chart, 2 fingers pointed at the TV, radio, printing firms & council officials who’ve tried to stifle them.
Every way they turn the Pistols have been troubled with censorship, bullshitting, hypocrisy, rudeness, posers, & the scumbags who want to sensationalise their activities to make them more hated/feared than before. You could forgive for wanting to pack it up & get office jobs, or grow their hair & play nice boogie music.
But they’ve stuck with it. Fought the pressures & disappointments & finally come out on top. The Pistols are here to stay – at least till Johnny Rotten gets bored – but that’s unlikely at the moment, ‘cos there’s a lot to fight for. Sounds like an army film dunnit? But no group has had to put up with so much opposition in so short a time, just for being themselves.
The Pistols long-awaited debut is out soon & a tour follows. The group which started it all are finally coming through after many thought they’d been martyred so about 3,000 groups with half a chord & less brains between them could make records. The Pistols should find themselves out of the frustrating position of having their efforts reward others & smother themselves!
It must be a great feeling – authority in all shapes & sizes tries to stifle you & shove you under the carpet for a solid year & a half. It takes that long for a readily available single to come out on a label which (so far) means what it says. Then the single, the success of which finally rests in the hands of the same kids that the media & the authorities are trying to protect, leaps into the charts at Number 11.
If it hadn’t sold, the faceless ones would have won, having successfully brainwashed their children that the Sex Pistols were not to be touched – dangerous – nasty! But the kids are with the Pistols, proving that you don’t have to be Noel Edmunds’ record of the week to stand a chance. I’d have liked to see them on Top Of The Pops though. I jus watched this week’s edition & all they showed was a measly photo in the chart countdown. The biggest chart jump for centuries & they ignore it. Show the usual rubbish – ban the Pistols. Pathetic. The best single for years & they try & stop us hearing it. They won’t though. It’s so good I can’t stop playing it (& don’t want to either). It captures the Pistols at their best – raw, driving, vital & topped with the most compelling voice in rock.
After a long silence, the group have started doing interviews again. Mine fell on the Tuesday the heard about the single, so they were in pretty high spirits when we met at their offices off Oxofrd Street.
Johnny Rotten was the first to arrive, complaining of a nagging cough: “I’m not going to the doctor, I’d rather die”. Then came Paul Cook & Steve Jones. No-one knew where Sid Vicious was, although he had been due to appear in court in the morning.
We trooped off to a Wimpy Bar a little way up Oxford Street, found a seat, ordered &, ready to do battle with the canned supermarket muzak, on went the tape recorder:
Paul Cook: “Pretty good, the single going in at Number 11, isn’t it? It’s got to the stage where the BBC don’t rule everything. We’ve broken that barrier. We’ve proved it. You don’t have to have a record played day in, day out to get in the charts.”
Johnny Rotten: “Fuckin’ good, n’all. They’ve been doing too much for too long, the fucking BBC. Fucking bullshit. They’re just cunts.”
Steve Jones: “The Stranglers were on Top Of The Pops last week & they only came in at Number 27. We come straight in at Number 11 & they won’t let us go on there. I think it’ll be funny if it gets to Number 1. I’d like to see what they do.”
Steve had his answer the nest day when the Daily Mirror front page blurted that ‘God Save The Queen’ had been banned by BBC radio & television ‘cos it was in ‘gross bad taste’. Hee hee.
Contrary to what a lot of people think, ‘God Save The Queen’ is not a Jubilee record. It was first performed at a gig in Hendon & then on the Anarchy Tour 6 months ago.
Paul Cook: “We didn’t think of the Jubilee. We didn’t even know it was coming. We didn’t bring it out specially for this shit, but it’s good it’s come out now, ‘cos the Jubilee is a load of bollocks, I think.”
Johnny Rotten: “The single is nothing personal against the Queen. It’s what she stands for – symbol.
The Sex Pistols are now on their third record company. You all know how EMI & A&M signed them amidst much publicity & pictures of grinning record company execs, who boasted how they would bring the next rock sensations to the world. Then hours later they turned round & gave the group the push, offering feeble, scanty & paying the Pistols off handsomely. Why? No-one – least of all the Pistols – knows. Internal pressures?
What makes them think Virgin (whose press officer has taken to marking writers’ articles like homework & sending them back) are any better?
Johnny Rotten: Well, they’re the best we’ve had so far. At least they don’t overwhelm us with political bullshit.”
Paul Cook: “They let us get on with what we’re doing. The other ones started off on the wrong foot straight away. They wanted to tell us which single to bring out.”
Johnny Rotten: “Which was not on. No-one tries to tell us what to bring out.”
So you’ve got the freedom to do what you want?
Johnny Rotten: “We wouldn’t have signed otherwise.”
Why do you think A&M did an about face so quick?
Johnny Rotten: “Absolutely no idea. A lot of internal bullshit. Someone was definitely putting the boot in up top for us. They still are.”
The Pistols are convinced that there is some great conspiracy going on to silence them by the media, councillors – you know them. Even other artists:
Johnny Rotten: “Christ, they all complained. I thought: ‘you snobs’. Crass fucking idiots. Rick Wakeman (on A&M) sends a telegram about us. How pompous. I mean, there’s the most important reason in the world to survive. The fact that an arsehole like him has got the nerve to criticise another form of music. Maybe it’s not to his taste but tough shit. We enjoy doing it & people enjoy listening to it, & surely that’s all that counts.”
Do the group feel their detractors are trying to make an example of them, presumably in the hope that others won’t follow?
Johnny Rotten: “Definitely, but like we’re winning. Whereas in the past any group that has stuck its neck out has always backed down, we haven’t. Never will. That’s the difference. Just as soon as it gets boring is when I’m going to fucking stop.”
It’ll be good to see the Pistols live again. Bearing in mind the blind mutilation of the Anarchy tour by councils who were shocked when a few seconds of everyday language followed Bill Grundy’s baiting, I wondered about the possibility of the forthcoming tour running into similar problems.
It will – the Pistols are banned by about every local council in the country. Dates are being fixed at the moment. It seems down to privately owned venues and/or councils who won’t be sucked in by the national’s newspaper-selling techniques.
The Sex Pistols have had gig problems from the start. They got their early support spots at colleges by turning up & announcing they were going to play. This was in late ’75 when Johnny had just joined. The Pistols were 4 London kids who formed a group out of ‘complete & absolute boredom’.
They were so uncompromisingly different from what was going on at the time – chaotic, threatening, painfully real – that promoters winced, but there were still a lot of gigs, & not just in London.
Johnny Rotten: “It’s worse now. It’s much harder for us to get a gig now. It’s like insurances, health risks, obscenity charges – it’s up the wall. In London the only ones we can play now are all-nighters (The Pistols have been banned from every major venue – they’ve played just two unadvertised gigs this year). You have to keep totally underground. You can’t publicise them – you just get raided & God knows what. It’s taking off – all those other groups are coming through. They’re mainly being allowed to play most of the places, but as soon as they hear our name I think they’re gonna try & stop us again. We’re gonna make sure beforehand that it ain’t gonna be like the Anarchy tour again. It’s hard to plan it in advance because people are very unpredictable. What we’ll do is get as many gigs as we can, & then look at the places & see if it’s worth it.”
The Pistols don’t want just Punks at their gigs.
Johnny Rotten: “We get just about everybody, all different kinds, which is how it should be. That’s why we started. We’ve had Hells Angels turning up at out gigs, & all they do is dance at the back.”
Do you find that there’s more prejudice among Punks to people who aren’t into it than the other way around?
Johnny Rotten: “Yeah! They’re probably worse. They’re more condescending in their attitude, which is what pisses me off. They think you have to turn up in certain gear. They don’t realise how stupid & juvenile they are. It’s not about clothes. It’s not about what you wear, it’s what you are that counts. Fucking hell, the other week I decided to go around as a Teddy Boy & did. The amount of people who were shocked that I’d sold out – fucking pathetic. It’s ridiculous. The idea would be like for all sections to just join up in one big fucking huge mob, & understand it as music & not just as a fucking gang warfare weapon – the great separation technique.”
I’ve found it’s the hippies, the peace-&-love preachers who have a lot of hostility (judging by the letters I got when I tried to wake Zigzag up, anyway).
Johnny Rotten: “Yeah, they’ve kept it in now for years & years. Everybody’s got aggression in them. It’s like all human beings’ natural stance, you can’t avoid it. People do feel passionate about some things.”
In the six months since the Anarchy tour, the movement the Pistols started has really taken off in a big way. Small, hostile or apathetic crowds were often the story at gigs in the early days, yet when The Clash toured last month they played to packed crowds who went bananas from the start. It’s the big craze, sure, but it will have a deeper, more lasting effect than the usual fads.
Of course there are the trendies. Last year’s Brian Ferry impersonators have got in the picture.
Johnny Rotten: “Sure, now it’s us, which is ridiculous. The whole idea of our band was not o have 30,000 imitations, but 30,000 different attitudes in music.”
How about the way it’s caught on?
Johnny Rotten: “About fucking time. I’m surprised that we even had to begin for people to realise what was happening to them. Half the new groups are no better than the old groups, really, in their attitude. Nothing’s really changed that much, which is bad.”
The Pistols don’t really rate too many of the new groups, especially the ones who sing about ‘how terrible it is to be on the dole’.
Johnny Rotten: “It’s complete crap. Nonsense. It’s not terrible to be on the dole – it’s jolly good fun being paid for doing nothing.”
He doesn’t think The Clash will break outside of England ‘cos of their words.
Johnny Rotten: “I don’t understand what they’re trying to achieve. Their appeal is only limited to England.”
They seem to be going down alright in Europe & with Americans who’ve heard the LP, purely on the strength of their music!
Johnny Rotten: “Their attitudes are really confusing. A lot of people have fun going to see them – that’s what it’s all about.”
John dismisses The Damned as being like ‘a very dirty version of The Bay City Rollers’ or Eddie & The Hot Rods with make-up. Eddie & The Hot Rods?
Johnny Rotten: “Not a group ‘cos they don’t have their own material, just rewrites of other people’s songs.”
Who does he like then?
Johnny Rotten: “The Slits I like a lot (yeah!). I like The Adverts – Buzzcocks are great.”
John says he listens to records all the time.
Johnny Rotten: “I have thousands of records. It’s my – uh – hobby. I’ve just about everything. I love all music, full stop. Shakin’ Stevens & The Sunsets, I saw them the other night. They were great. Fuckin’ good singer. That was Teddy Boys night but no-one touched me.”
Paul Cook: “I don’t listen to fuck all.”
The record I’m looking forward to most at the moment is the Pistols forthcoming LP. John says it’s ‘fantastic’ & I believe him. It has all the early songs the group used to do live – ‘Pretty Vacant’, ‘Problems’, ‘No Feelings, ‘Submission’ - & ‘Anarchy In The UK’ ‘cos it was stopped as a single. ‘God save The Queen’ won’t be on it – “How many LPs have you bought with five tracks released as singles?” John says there won’t be any non-originals on the LP, “just our own far-out, brilliant stuff.”
The group said the recent recording sessions worked out much better than the 1st go at doing ‘Anarchy’.
Johnny Rotten: “We understood it more this time. When we done ‘Anarchy’ it took fucking weeks.”
Paul Cook: “We spent a fortune. EMI went fucking mad. They gave us an allowance of £500, & it took about £5,000 – we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing.
Johnny Rotten: “We didn’t know what we wanted. We each had a different idea of what it should sound like, so we just had to work it out.”
Chris Thomas of Roxy Music fame produced ‘Anarchy’ & ‘Vacant’.
Johnny Rotten: “At the start he didn’t know what the hell we meant. We said, ‘cut out all the Roxy Music bullshit. It’s not what we like’.”
Bill Price, who’s worked with Mott The Hoople & is highly respected in recording circles, produced the other tracks.
Johnny Rotten: “He understands straight away what you mean, which is what we want.”
The group were elusive about the sleeve, although it will be ‘nothing flashy’, there’s no group picture (“What do they want another one for?”) & certainly no ‘paper bags & custard pies’.
On the Chris Thomas produced tracks, Glenn Matlock plays bass. He’s since been replaced by John’s mate Sid Vicious. Glen, who is rehearsing with his group The Rich Kids, was kicked out.
Johnny Rotten: “It just got a bit too much in the end. He hated our guts with a passion, really hated us. I can carry on working with someone who hates me so long as there’s some kind of respect for musical ideas. He hated everything that we had ever done, thought it was too strong, heavy like. He wanted it to be watered down, like The Beatles. When ‘Anarchy’ came out he hated it. We can’t carry on with an arsehole like that. Sid is fitting in very well – you see – he ain’t so bloody serious about it. Music’s meant to be fun, not like some crass music machine – that’s what Glenn wanted.”
Paul Cook: “Everyone playing the right note is so boring.”
Johnny Rotten: “That’s not what we care about at all. We care a damn lot about music but, like, so what if you fuck up a couple of chords. Big deal. The point is you’ve tried, & that’s what counts.”
I wondered what John really hated most & wanted to change.
Johnny Rotten: “The way it’s all business manipulated. Like the way a record company literally buys a group & then tells them what to do, & the silly arseholes do it & the public don’t even bother to question it. That – factory fodder.”
You want people to question things?
Johnny Rotten: “Yeah. When we started everybody questioned us. They thought we were a big hype. There was a rumour going around we were already signed to EMI before we started. That was great. At least we got people questioning, that’s what counts. Whether they come to the wrong conclusion or not is their business. I don’t really care, ‘cos I know what’s either right or wrong, my point of view. But at least you should try. You don’t need a music degree or twenty A-levels or a far-out musical university – that’s not what it’s all about.”
What’ll you do if you make a lot of money?
Johnny Rotten: “Everybody seems to think it’s inevitable we’ll end up with Rolls Royces & mansions in the country, but like if you look back on your rock history (said in an academic voice), one one generation has done that (the mid/late 60s superstars). They managed to live quite successfully before, even though half of them killed themselves one way or another. But I mean, so what, they had some fun. It’s no way near us, the 60s. We’re nothing to do with them. They had it easy – they were brought up to think that was what it was all about. In that respect we’ve learnt a hell of a lot of those groups – how not to be, how not to do it. It’s not about that at all. Yeah, we’ve gone around in a limousine once or twice, but fucking hell, I couldn’t tell you the difference between that & a Mini Cooper – apart from the size & feeling like a big cunt. I just don’t like those big cars at all. I think they’re dreadful – like houses. I wanna open a club, an all-nighter. Why isn’t there any all-night clubs in London?”
The Roxy Club in Covent Garden tried to fill that gap for a while (at least until 3 am), but John thinks it got spoiled by the wrong people after a good start. By the time it closed for financial reasons it was ‘disgusting’, he says. It was bursting with record company people, tourists, posers, pop stars & ‘local gangsters’ by the end.
Johnny Rotten: “In the end I’d just go down there to cause trouble. I just couldn’t bear it. Just to be a fucking bastard to the lot of ‘em. Marc Bolan was having his party down there – ain’t that a cheek? Well, they’re entitled to go down there, but not in the way they do – ‘Here I am’. When Robert Plant wnet down he had about five heavies with him, half the group & others – there were about twenty of them. They like took a corner, posing & hurling abuse at people that walked by as if they were something special. Now if I go somewhere I either go on my own or with a couple of mates. I don’t need all that heavy stuff. If the geezer’s frightened of getting beaten up – well, how pathetic. He’s about four times my size. People shouldn’t worship stars like Robert Plant. He’s no better or worse than anybody else, he’s just doing a different job.”
Paul Cook: “Fans of Led Zeppelin & Rod Stewart are too scared to talk to them if they meet them. They’ve been brought up like they’re gods. They can come up to all these new groups & talk to them.”
Johnny Rotten: “These superstars are totally detached from reality. I’ve no doubt it’s very difficult to keep in touch with reality once you get to that stage, but you should at least try. They don’t seem to try at all. They let it overtake them.”
What about those people who say they’re too old to appreciate what you play?
Johnny Rotten: “I think it’s ridiculous. What kind of attitude is that? That’s a cop-out. It’s not how old you are, anyway. It really means they’ve given up thinking, which is – absolutely obscene.”
People who’ve given up thinking seem to plague the Pistols. They often come in the form of newspaper reporters, who exaggerate & distort the minor incidents or anything they can dredge up or create into sensational breakfast reading for the ones who’ve never thought in the first place, so they can go to work & have something to be shocked at. The Pistols are like a godsend for the national press, who in their concerned warning reports have succeeded in making them a household name. John condemns the press & believing British public with cold contempt.
Johnny Rotten: “I have never believed the national press & I’m surprised a lot of people did. The gullibility of the British public is excessive. They’re just ridiculous. They make me sick. I can’t believe people are so naïve.”
Paul Cook: “The papers don’t know what the fuck they’re on about. They’re jus after sensation.”
The rock press don’t escape either.
Johnny Rotten: “I think they’re worse parasites than the nationals. They’re scandal seekers. They love to build people up & then destroy them. They take out all their paranoia on groups. It’s ridiculous. Ever since we started there’s always been a cynical bastard in the press going ‘no, no – it can never really take off – you need the press, blah, blah’. We’ve proved them all wrong. They didn’t want to change! They liked it easy – their free LPs & tickets to New York to see some group. We’re not going to do all that.”
What about the Sex Pistols future?
Johnny Rotten: “Dunno. We never plan our future. Never. That really is a negative thing to do ten years in advance. The songs we write change all the time, like attitudes change. Not permanently. I mean, I might completely change my mind tomorrow – hate everything or like everything. That’s the way you should live.”
Do you think the group & you have changed much in the last year?
Johnny Rotten: “Not really, no – funnily enough. I think we’ve got harder. At the start we didn’t know what the hell was happening.”
What do you think is needed now?
Johnny Rotten: “For a start it goes back to the fucking schools – all that shit where they deliberately drive out any individuality that you have. They make you like everyone else. They take it away. They didn’t take it away from me, though, ‘cos I fucking hung onto it.” (John went to a Catholic school in Caledonian Road – “a right shit hole”.)
Do you think the Pistols are getting through to the school kids?
Johnny Rotten: “I think we are. They seem to understand things a lot better than many adults.”
Paul Cook: “They didn’t have the experience of having to watch Led Zeppelin, or groups like that. We’re new to them, it’s like the first thing they’ve heard.”
The day after I talked to the Pistols – who incidentally are really good blokes – I was walking down the Kings Road when I bumped into Steve Jones. “Have you seen the Daily Mirror?” he asked. I hadn’t, but got one, & sure enough there on the front page was the story about the BBC officially banning ‘God Save The Queen’ because it was ‘gross bad taste’. Thanks DM, now it’s a sure fire Number 1.
We chatted for a few minutes, & then I walked on. About five minutes alter I’d got up near World’s End when the venomously spat words ‘piss off’ interrupted my thoughts/stupor. Looking round I saw a bloke in his mid-thirties standing there looking at me with utter contempt. He stared at my ‘God Save The Queen’ t-shirt (same as the advert) & shouted, “Bastard”. He didn’t look like one of those loonies either. Patriotism lives. I just told him to fuck off. God save the Pistols.
The ‘Zigzag Fab Thirty’ chart from the same issue this interview was culled from (Needs would later be appointed editor in due course) gives some idea of the sweeping yet to be undertaken by rock’s new broom: Neil Young, Roy Harper, Television, Amazing Rhythm Aces, Elliot Murphy, Wreckless Eric, The Band, The Jam, Little Feat, Maniacs In The 4th Division, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, Dr Feelgood, Tyla Gang, John Cale, The Charlatans, The Beau Brummels, Spowith Camel, Jack Fischer, Kraftwerk, Asleep At The Wheel, Alex Chilton, Roky Ericson, The Searchers, The Kinks, Spirit, Pete Brown & Piblokto, Stoneground, Steve Miller Band & The Velvet Underground. The establishment, like the song, remained very much the same. 1976 was ‘year zero’ - 1977 faced the realisation of the size of the task in hand - but it would take all the eclecticism & latent anger that 1978 could muster to truly break down the walls of heartache & do some serious damage.
As a document of the times, the interview perfectly illustrates many of the characteristics we would eventually come to regard as Rottenisms – nee Lydonsims: total self belief, a healthy mistrust of all things ‘music business’, a hatred of the excessive nature of the (then) ruling dinosaur elite, a fervent dislike for conventional thought processes - & above all – the fierce commitment to the creed of individualism that would clearly define his future.
Jean Encoule/Kris Needs – tMx 21 – 09/05