Culture

How the Sex Pistols Made History by Lying About It

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“…the stage where Johnny Rotten unveiled his baleful stare has given way to a Harry Potter section.”

The venerable St. Martins School of Art having moved to a new campus, another esteemed institution took over its old building this year:

Foyles, one of the many beloved book merchants that line London’s Charing Cross Road.

Traditionalists grumbled that this new Foyles was altogether too slick, nowhere near as dusty and quaint as the original store.

But when discussing this doubly-historic move, the one talking point almost everyone settled on was revealing.

St. Martins School has, over the course of 150 years, produced a number of distinguished graduates.

Its sculpture department was once called “the most famous in the world.”

Yet headlines trumpeting the famous building’s transformation from respected art school to glossy media megashop were almost all variations on a single theme:

“Foyles to open new flagship bookstore on site of Sex Pistols’ first gig”

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Not to be confused with the following June’s “gig that changed the world,” the Sex Pistols’ first performance took place 39 years ago this week, on November 6, 1975.

The photo above is the only known one taken at the event.

No poster survives, at least that I could find.

Certainly no recording either.

Fittingly, the official-looking blue commemorative plaque that was mounted in the St. Martins reception area in honor of the concert’s 30th anniversary was decidedly not authorized by English Heritage.

Even better:

The plaque was commissioned by Jeremy Diggle, the man who, as Student Union President at St Martins in 1975, unplugged the Pistols first gig.

Well, so he says.

Over the years, various individuals have claimed the dubious distinction as “the guy who pulled the plug” 20 minutes into the band’s anarchic “performance,” one that relied upon equipment stolen from outside David Bowie’s farewell turn as “Ziggy Stardust,” and which ended in a brawl.

This story, for instance, names Stuart Gordon, lead singer of the band Bazooka Joe, which the Pistols were opening for that night — for no other reason than that The Pistols’ then-bass player, Glen Matlock, was a St. Martins student who’d talked their way onto the roster.

However, Gordon realized almost immediately (possibly while the electrical cord was still warm in his hand) that that aborted, shambolic, comic-yet-scary opening act — and not his own cookie-cutter pub rock group — represented music’s new sound and style.

So today he’s better known as Adam Ant.

The Sex Pistols had that effect on people:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jfIjAoZ_3o

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That line from the Independent about Harry Potter shoving Johnny Rotten off the stage irresistibly invites some “culture-critical” noodling.

How fitting, for instance, that one fictional young wizard should inherit another’s place.

For “Johnny Rotten” was almost as much an imaginary character as “Harry Potter.” Or  “Ziggy Stardust.”

Or the “Artful Dodger,” with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren having appointed himself flesh and blood “Fagin” in this homemade, low-budget Dickensian drama called “punk.”

“Rotten’s” closest rival, “Joe Strummer,” was not a real person, either, of course.

When he joined The Clash, he was on name #3. A few years were shaved off his age, a class level or two off his accent — his privileged background briefly remained an embarrassing secret until he cleverly spun it into a selling point.

(That’s Joseph Mellor, above, in uniform and passed out, with a boarding school “house”-mate. Unfortunately for that photograph’s potential awesomeness factor, they don’t wear academic gowns at Freeman’s.)

That the Sex Pistols were about as “real” as The Monkees was something we tried to ignore at the time, if we even realized it at all.

(This is the perfect juncture to point you to my colleague Ed Driscoll’s “How Davy Jones Changed the World.”)

As I got older, though, that paradox became a feature rather than a bug.

How eye-wateringly audacious:

McLaren & Co. “topping from below,” selling a “fake” group to not one but two all-powerful, shamelessly greedy and colossally stupid record companies, rather than the other way around.

It was The Sting — a blockbuster film of the time — with guitars.

And the joke, it turned out, was even on the group itself:

The Sex Pistols accidentally recorded one of the greatest albums ever put to vinyl.

Over the years, the surviving members of the band have told us, each other and themselves contradictory myths about the Pistols:

They were just in it for the money, the drugs and/or the girls.

Broke, bored and uneducated, they had nothing better to do anyhow.

They’d wanted to get rock and roll off life support.

No: they’d wanted to pull the plug.

One myth they’ve all stuck with over close to four decades, however, is a particularly toxic one, because blatantly lying about history is a dangerous and deadly thing.

In every video I’ve included here, veteran punks correctly point out that life in England circa 1975 was basically Poland with better TV.

(It’s a manner of “living” I doubt many Americans who lived during the same era can truly appreciate unless they had relatives in the UK. When my Scottish grandmother’s sister came to visit her humble house in Hamilton, Ontario, around that time, the woman was gobsmacked that my grandmother had her very own washing machine. Which looked like this.)

In England, youth unemployment was in the mid double digits.

Inflation was gnawing away at the already basement-level standard of living like a colony of termites.

Strikes became, weirdly, like full time jobs and extended holidays for the workers involved, and another miserable fact of life for everyone else.

Add to that England’s pernicious class system, in which the way you pronounced certain letters of the alphabet determined your fate (see, “Strummer, Joe,” above), plus the lingering physical and psychosocial after-affects of post-war rationing, and you do indeed have all the ingredients to build a (metaphorical) bomb.

Except to this day, very few veteran punks will admit the unavoidably obvious fact that these conditions flourished under the political party they did, and mostly still do, support unconditionally:

Labour.

Punk too often tells its own story using jangly montages of (now) cliched images of police with truncheons and that “evil” Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Except:

Thatcher was elected, by a landslide, after The Sex Pistols broke up.

Her election concludes the Clash movie Rude Boy, it doesn’t open it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYG5M83zUn4

In recent interviews to promote the latest volume of his memoirs, “Rotten” (having long since reverted to “Lydon”) is his usual lovably exasperating and obnoxious self. He claims as he always has that his only interest is the naked, honest, painful truth. And he makes some deliciously accurate observations, particularly that Russell Brand’s variety of “revolution” would “have you all living in cardboard boxes down by the river.”

That “baleful stare” retains some of its power to unman.

But John Lydon still blames the Conservatives for his family’s misery, and for creating the dirty, lawless, grimy “no future” England he felt obliged to turn inside out.

Anyhow, I tried and failed to find out what happened to that blue commemorative plaque that once hung in St Martins’ lobby.

By rights, though, it should have been a hologram of sorts, so that, the moment you figured you had it in focus, it would mischievously wink into a blur.