What were the Sex Pistols really like?

(If you’re wondering how I got onto this, I was listening to a mix tape that included “God Save the Queen”. Their version, that is.)

All I know about them, I got from reading interviews with them where they were clearly playing with the press, retrospective mentions in books and magazines that focus more on the impact they had on society and the recording industry than on them as a band (or at least a group…I’m told they really sucked as musicians), and, of course, the movie Sid and Nancy (I never saw the real Pistols documentary).

From these, I get:

—McLaren fancied himself an impresario, and recruited four people who didn’t have to be musicians, but did have to have the looks and attitudes he wanted.

—The Sex Pistols started the punk movement, in society and in music. (Maybe in the UK, they started punk music, but wasn’t it the Ramones over here?)

—They couldn’t play and they knew it, and that was the act.

—Johnny Rotten was ambitious and an innate showman, and would have found his way into the limelight with or without McLaren. I’m told almost nothing about the other two (Steve Jones and Paul Cook?), but either they didn’t have distinct personalities, or they were ordered to remain silent and menacing. Sid Vicious was slightly unbalanced, and McLaren had no qualms about exploiting this.

—(Movie only) McLaren also tried to discourage Vicious’ drug use. The director, Alex Cox, was trying to send an anti-drug message, and that may have influenced the script.

So what was the deal? How did they get along between themselves? How much of it was McLaren and how much them? Is there anything to be told about those other two? Did people care that Vicious was a junkie? Or wasn’t he using while he was still in the band? I know there’s got to be at least one person here who can edify me!

i have a book at home, 12 days on the road with the sex pistols in america (or something like that) written by the road manager and the impression i got from it was that they were young, kind of mean, not overly bright and that sid’s drug use was a big problem, all that being said i think they were perfect for the time, on a side note i saw the reunion tour in ~1995 and lydon (johnny rotten) had said that they had to “dehearse” because when they first started playing together for the tour the songs sounded too “slick”.


Pretty much true - he worked with the New York Dolls before going back to the UK and managing the Sex Pistols

You probably will get nothing but debate over this. Whether “punk” is a movement, or just any genre of music that wasn’t “corporate” rock or “singer/songwriter” - both dominant styles at the time - is the big question. That UK punks took the New York sensibility, and made it much more about politics and class warefare seems reasonable, and that the Sex Pistols put a face on punk with their behavior on UK TV, but not much more than that.

maybe - but the songs, which I believe they wrote (with Glen Matlock on bass, not Vicious, who really couldn’t play) are great songs - they stand the test of time.

Don’t know - can’t comment

Can’t comment

Two books that seem to be the most well-researched:

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

From the Velvets to the Voidoids: a Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World

Both put the Pistols in a much better context and give you more of a sense of where they fit in the punk pantheon…I would also strongly recommend:

Our Band Could Be Your Life

For an insightful look at bands influenced by the Pistols (several have mentions of what it was like touring with John Lydon when he was will PiL - not the most ringing endorsements)

I really recommend “The Filth and the Fury” documentary. Apparently a lot of Rotten’s act was based on Richard III. But keep in mind that Rotten is a revisionist. (He thinks it’s okay for him and Shakespeare to be revisionists, but not Malcolm.)

Generally contradictory people. Smart about certain things regarding the music and their fans, dumb about a lot of others such as drugs and money.

They can play. I have seen them recently for the jubilee celebrations (was it really 25 years ago. Ifeel very old). I am old enough to have seen them the first time but I chickened out of seeing them in Southampton because of the trouble associated with them. I wish I’d gone.

They are a great live act.

I have a tape of the final show at Winterland–broadcast live by KSAN. Rotten’s famous last words-“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated!?”-sum it up nicely. Actually, there were a few moments that sounded great, but the whole point of the Sex Pistols was that they were anti-rock ‘n’ roll. Playing a good set really wasn’t part of their agenda.

The only Sex Pistol I’ve seen interviewed for at length is guitarist Steve Jones… and folks, this guy makes Ozzy Osbourne look like Sir Isaac Newton!

Steve Jones is dumb as dirt. To use a cliche, he couldn’t spell I.Q. if you spotted him the I.

I read John Lydon’s semi-autobiography (Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs)a few years ago, which was really pretty interesting. He’s certainly got a high opinion of himself, but the insights into the Pistols were quite good. Lydon believed it was not a coincidence that Sid was smacked out of his mind in San Francisco shortly after McLaren showed up, after Lydon had babysay Sid throughout the tour to keep him clean.

I also second the recommendation on The Filth and The Fury, which is a really good documentary produced with the band’s cooperation a couple years ago. Listening to Lydon describe Sid’s descent and death left me speechless.

I not only recommend The Filth and the Fury, but The Great Rock n Roll Swindle as well. The reason why I recommend both is that both are directed by Julian Temple twenty years apart, and both portray two versions of the Sex Pistols.

The Swindle is an over the top movie featuring Paul Cook, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, and Malcolm McLaren, and it’s Malcolm telling the story about how he created the Sex Pistols, the great rock n roll swindle. The Filth and the Fury, featuring Johnny Rotten, Jones, Cook and Glen Matlock, is a documentary providing the band’s point of view. The Swindle came out in 1980 and The Filth and the Fury came out in 2000. The former is a really cheesy movie, and the latter is a really good documentary, and both are directed by the same person.

From what I recall, McLaren came up with the idea of having a band form to promote his clothing shop, and he introduced Rotten to Jones and Cook. Rotten never liked McLaren much, but Jones and Cook listened to what McLaren said. Songwriting credits are generally attributed to the four original band members. Matlock never fit in with the band (although he was the only one who knew how to actually play his instrument with any competence) so they kicked him out. Sid was Rotten’s friend, and he knew nothing about playing bass guitar, but McLaren recruited him for the band. Sid then met Nancy, who hooked him onto heroin. By the time the Pistols toured the US (in the deep south, no less), Sid was a mess, and Rotten was sick of McLaren and what the band had come to. He quit the band, while Jones and Cook, still obedient to McLaren, remained with McLaren to make The Swindle. Rotten was not in the film, although he appeared in cartoon form. McLaren, Jones, Cook and Sid were in it, although the film was not released until after Sid’s death.

After the Pistols, Sid shacked up with Nancy in NYC, where he may or may not have killed her while on heroin. He died of an overdose a few months later. Jones grew long hair and played metal, Cook played in a couple bands like the Chiefs of Relief (who?), and Rotten fronted Public Image Limited, proving that he indeed did have some talent.

I highly recommend Johnny Rotten’s autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. It tells about his childhood, his teenage years before the Pistols, the years of the Sex Pistols, and the years following the breakup of the Pistols, from the founding of PIL to the court battle between Rotten and McLaren.

According to “12 Days On the Road: The Sex Pistols and America” (Noel E. Monk and Jimmy Guterman) the roadies and tour managers carefully watched Sid, who was going through withdrawals during the tour. He did manage to escape and obtain heroin a few times. He begged for something to help ease his withdrawals; after the tour ended he was prescribed methadone, on which he OD’d during a flight to New York (he survived that OD and went on to move to New York with Nancy.)

Steve Jones also used heroin; Pamela DesBarres, in “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” mentions him living with her and her husband while trying to detox. He relapsed and pawned her husband’s leather jacket to get money for drugs but finally kicked the habit. For more information on Paul Cook and Steve Jones:


Thanks for the info! I will definitely check out Filth and the Fury.

The ONLY book you need to read is “England’s Dreaming” by John Savage.

“Must we throw this filth at our pop kids?”