Monday, February 15, 2010

The Sex Pistols - "Anarchy In The U.K."

On this day in 1977, Sid Vicious joined The Sex Pistols, replacing original bassist Glen Matlock: I’d suggest that it was the beginning of the end for the band.

Why? By all accounts, Sid (born John Simon Ritchie) couldn’t play his instrument; he was simply window-dressing. Sure, he became one of the iconic images of the punk era, and he certainly had the look and attitude down – but that was it. Apparently, Sid did try to learn to play bass (he even asked Motorhead’s Lemmy for help), but legend has it that he got so absorbed in the celebrity and attention the band was getting, he just never followed through on it…not to mention the world of addiction that Nancy Spungeon brought into his life, which further sidetracked any cognitive ability to learn, well, much of anything.

Listen, I’m saying this as someone who was/is a fan of the band, but let’s be realistic about Sid’s contributions: he was style over substance. I’m not saying style and fashion don’t have a place in entertainment, but you gotta bring something more to the table: being a punk Milli Vanilli is not gonna get it done. Was this The Archies or a real rock band? When the guys picked Lydon to front it, he brought a focus and dimension the group needed to create something; Sid’s late arrival, after the band was established with a set of tunes, didn’t help matters, but he didn’t help himself, or anybody, by not being able to play.

Legend has it that roadies often played bass offstage to cover up those nights when Sid was simply too out of it to play anything himself; the whole thing brings to mind the late stages of Syd Barrett’s time with Pink Floyd, when Syd would just stare off into space. At least Barrett was a contributing musician and a songwriter before drugs overran his ability to function; Sid didn’t have the former, but he certainly had the latter.

The origins of the Pistols go back to 1972, when schoolmates Steve Jones (guitar) and Paul Cook (drums) decided to form a band (“The Strand”); Matlock joined later, Malcolm MacLaren signed on as their manager and punk’s UK big bang started to take shape with the arrival of John Lydon (Rotten) in 1975. And even though Lydon had never sung before, he sure found a way to get a message across and in a style all his own: did he invent the sneer?

Before the vital Never Mind The Bullocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols was released in October ’77, the band had already stirred up controversy across England with their first single “Anarchy In The U.K.” (released November 26, 1976), and a tv appearance a week after its release on Thames Television’s Today program (w/host Bill Grundy) that made headlines across the country; their label, EMI, panicked, dropped the band and paid them the full 40,000 pounds (approx. $80,000-$100,000 Cdn), to get out of the original 2-year contract.

Here’s where things get fuzzy, depending on whose side of the story you hear: Matlock was either kicked out or left by mutual agreement. Jones echoed comments by manager MacLaren at the time that suggested Glen was fired because ‘he liked The Beatles too much’; Matlock’s press story was that it was mutual. Years later, with the benefit of hindsight, both Jonny and Glen have gone on record to state that it was really MacLaren that caused the rift and unraveling of the band at the time: Malcolm would tell each of the guys something different about each other (a he said/he said thing) to stir up the pot, and the guys ate it up because they never actually talked it out. On top of all this, MacLaren didn’t think Matlock looked the part – he was too Mod – but Sid had image to go. It seems that MacLaren’s “create chaos” mandate included everything about the band – internally and externally.

Glen Matlock’s contribution to the band cannot be overlooked or understated; he was the main musical songwriter while Rotten brought in lyrics and melody; publicly, all four members (including Glen and not Sid, who joined after the material was written) were credited as songwriters on the one and only studio album they released at the time.

During the period when the band was in the studio recording …Bullocks, Sid was in hospital, but the group did everything they could to keep him away, anyway. Again, more myths surround these sessions: there’s talk that Matlock was brought back in as a session musician (post-dismissal) to help get it done, and there’s also the story that Steve Jones played all the bass tracks on the record…simply by doubling up what he had recorded on guitar. Co-Producer Chris Thomas confirmed, years later, that Steve did play all the bass parts himself…and, that the only thing Sid played on that was used was on “Bodies,” and he was buried in the mix, barely audible behind Steve’s bass playing, anyway. Co-Producer Bill Price confirmed that Matlock played on "Anarchy..." only; this might have been before he left/quit/was fired, since the album was done over a period of time and not recorded all at once.

Regardless of the myths and legends, The Sex Pistols remain an important part of music history: I even did a full hour presentation on the band for my grade 12 History course in the spring of 1981 - the course’s theme was “Revolutions”, and this certainly qualified. And while Sid remains a part of the band’s legacy, let’s remember who really delivered musically for the group that inspired countless others to form bands and start their own revolutions.

The Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols - Anarchy In the U.K. The Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols - Anarchy In the U.K.

The Sex Pistols – Anarchy In The UK (TV broadcast debut)
August 28, 1976
So It Goes - Host: Tony Wilson

The Sex Pistols – Anarchy In The UK (album version)