Monday 7 April 2008

The Sex Pistols First Interview

The Sex Pistols are four months old, so tuned in to the present that it's hard to find a place to play. Yet they already have a large, fanatical following. So their manager, who runs a rubber and leather shop called Sex, hired a strip club where the two sides could meet

By Jonh Ingham
Sounds. April 24, 1976

THE SMALL, sleazoid El Paradise Club in Soho is not one of the more obvious places for English rock to finally get to grips with the Seventies, but when you're trying to create the atmosphere of anarchy, rebellion and exclusiveness that's necessary as a breeding ground, what better place? Name one kid who will tell their parents they'll be home really late this Sunday because they're going to a strip club to see the Sex Pistols.

The shop front is the customary facade of garish, fluorescent lit plastic and enticing tit pix, gold-flocked wallpaper and a life-size gold framed lovely beckoning you within. Conditioning expects one to go down a hall or some stairs but the minute you turn the corner you're there. A small room 20 to 30 feet long, bare concrete floor, a bar at one end, three and a half rows of broken down cinema seats. The other rows seem to have been bodily ripped out. It's an unexpected, shocking sight at first, but after it gets comfortable the thought occurs that perhaps it's not sleazy enough. It needs more black paint peeling from the sweating walls, a stickier floor . . .

With luck the second gathering occurred there last Sunday (the Maltese landlords can be a little difficult to unearth). The first such gathering accumulated entirely by word of mouth, and by midnight the joint was jumping.

Flared jeans were out. Leather helped. All black was better. Folks in their late twenties, chopped and channelled teenagers, people who frequent Sex, King's Road avant leather, rubber and bondage clothing shop. People sick of nostalgia. People wanting forward motion. People wanting rock and roll that is relevant to 1976.

At the moment, that criteria is best embodied in the Sex Pistols. They fill the miniscule, mirror-backed stage, barely able to move in front of their amps. They are loud. They are fast. They are energetic. They are great.

Coming on like a Lockheed Starfighter is more important to them than virtuosity and sounding immaculate. This quartet has no time for a pretty song with a nice melody. Guitarist Steve Jones doesn't bother much with solos, preferring to just pick another chord and power on through. ("There's two reasons for that - I can't play solos and I hate them anyway." As he said that, 'I'm Mandy, Fly Me' came on the juke box and we agreed the only good thing in it was the solo.)

But imitating the roar of the Industrial Age doesn't mean they're sloppy. Although earlier reports reckoned their time keeping somewhat off, to the point of cultivating an ethic of them being so bad they were good, Glen Matlock (bass) and Paul Cook (drums) seem to have the beast on the rails and in this stripped down form the beat is where it's at. One also has to remember that the Sex Pistols has only existed professionally since Christmas and that Steve has only played guitar for five months.

With inaudible lyrics the music is very similar from song to song but a cranial trigger says, that song is great (applaud) but that one is just okay (don't applaud). Everyone else seems to think similarly. Which annoys singer John Rotten endlessly. "Clap you fuckers. Because I m wasting my time not hearing myself." He begins a slow handclap; about three people join in.

John is a man who likes to confront his audience, not to mention the rest of the band. It's this Stooges-like aura of complete unpredictability and violence that gives the Sex Pistols that extra edge. Paul reckons the broken glass attitude will only disappear when they get as old as Pete Townsend and just do it for the money.

The Pistols' roots lie with Paul and Steve who left school with a healthy desire to avoid work. The obvious alternative was rock even though neither could play an instrument. Their musical models were the Stones and the Who and the early Small Faces, which doesn't say much for Seventies rock, and was a reason for starting a band.

Out of the last six years, Steve rates the Stooges. Paul admits to being fooled by Roxy Music for three albums. Later he added Todd Rundgren. "Yeah, there's what acid does to you," retorted Steve, adding proudly, "There's no drugs in this group."

Glen joined and they staggered on for a year, learning a Who/Small Faces repertoire ("but that didn't get us anywhere"), buying their threads from Sex and bugging Malcolm, the owner, to manage them. Having already spent seven months in New York handling the New York Dolls he wasn't too interested but he helped them a bit and they kept bugging and, well, London could do with a Seventies rock band.

Malcolm decided that Steve was hopeless as a singer, got him to learn guitar and the search was on. Into Sex walks John, who couldn't sing but looked the part. They tried to audition in the conventional manner, but finally settled on standing him in front of the shop's jukebox, telling him to pretend he was on stage.

John had never even considered joining a band.

We're sitting in a tacky pub in Charing Cross Road. Until now John has been sitting politely, looking a bit bored while I talk to the others. He's wearing the ripped up red sweater he wears on stage, a safety pin dangles from a thin gold ring in his right ear lobe. So how come you're doing it John?

The intensity level immediately leaps about 300 percent. He looks manic. "I hate shit. I hate hippies and what they stand for. I hate long hair. I hate pub bands. I want to change it so there are rock bands like us."

This is delivered at full tirade, with a sneer to match the voice. He clocks my earring, the five weeks laziness straggling across my cheeks and chin and the sneer and the direct-eye blitz never stops. I'm inadvertently thinking 'Gosh, I'm not a hippie now - that was a childhood error,' and I never was one in the first place. The kid's got style. You know what end of a switchblade he would have been on in 1956. I'd love to be present when the middle-aged boogers who pass for rock critics on the national papers finally confront him.

But John's just warming up.

"I'm against people who just complain about Top Of The Pops and don't do anything. I want people to go out and start something, to see us and start something, or else I'm just wasting my time."

This last phrase is a favourite. He says it with just the right amount of studied boredom.

The Pistols found their first public by gatecrashing gigs, pulling up and posing as the support band. At the North East London Poly they succeeded in emptying the room, the same stylish feat being Shep Gordon's reason for signing up Alice Cooper. At St. Albans, where they supposedly played one of their worst gigs, they were asked back again.

In London they rapidly depleted themselves of potential venues. For a start they wouldn't play pubs.

Malcolm: "The trouble with pubs is that they're bigger than the bands. They're all full of people playing what a crowd wants rather than what they want because they can make a reasonable living from it. If you want to change things you can't play pubs. You don't have the freedom."

Paul: "The trouble with pubs is you have to please everybody If we wanted to please everybody we'd end up sounding like the Beatles."

That left the Marquee, 100 Club, and the Nashville. Eddie and the Hot Rods asked them to support at the Marquee. It was the first time they had ever used monitors and hearing themselves caused a slight o.d., John leaping into the audience and the others kicking the monitors about.

In the light of what the Pistols consider the Hot Rods' over-reaction to the incident, the group insist they did little damage to anything that wasn't theirs. They've also written a song on the matter.

I think the photos speak for the particular violence of the 100 Club gig, but the band and the Nashville seemed to enjoy each other. Allan Jones of the Melody Maker described it:

'Their dreadfully inept attempts to zero in on the kind of viciously blank intensity previously epitomised by the Stooges was rather endearing at first... The guitarist, another surrogate punk suffering from a surfeit of Sterling Morrison, played with a determined disregard for taste and intelligence.'

Taste. Intelligence.

"Who's Sterling Morrison?" asked Steve.

When last heard of he was a university professor in Santa Fe.

"Oh. That's alright then. What's 'surrogate' mean?"

They’re going to play the Nashville again, but their problem, apart from finding it impossible to find a band they're compatible with musically, is that it's still not the right environment.

Malcolm decided early on that France would understand much better and envisioned a couple of weeks in Paris. The French promoter saw the Marquee gig, and fired with visions of Gene Vincent and Vince Taylor has booked them across France and Switzerland for May. Meanwhile, El Paradise...If things work out, Malcolm will obtain the old UFO premises.

Apart from the difficulty of finding the El Paradise landlords, the police arrived about 2 a.m. the first night, what with the noise of the steel rolling door going up and down all the time as people left. And it's not really the right thing to have a minor pop band like Arrows spread-eagled against the wall being frisked as a nightcap to the evening's frivolities.

Basically, what Malcolm wants is a rumbling, anarchic, noisy energetic rock scene, the likes of which haven't been seen in this country since the mid 1960s. Any comparisons with New York rock/club scene are briskly brushed aside.

"Maybe it's because they're so close to the media, but they're all so scared by them. I used to talk to [journalist] Lisa Robinson and David Johanssen would pull me into the toilet and say, 'Don't you know who you're talking to? Don't say those things!' My God, if you worry about what you say to her...

"The trouble with the Dolls was that their hype was so much bigger than they were. They really had an opportunity to change it all around, but instead of ignoring all that bullshit about signing up with a company and a big advance, they got sucked in.

"They get dazzled by the process. Every time The Ramones have a picture of them published it lessens their mystique. There's no mystery about the New York scene. Pretty soon Richard Hell is going to leave the Heartbreakers and Sire Records will dangle a contract in front of him and he knows it won't help and won't do any good but he'll sign it because it's what's expected of him.

"The thing to do is just ignore all that. No-one came to sign up the Stones, no-one wanted to know. But when they saw a lot of bands sounding like that with a huge following they had to sign them. Create a scene and a lot of bands - because people want to hear it - and they'll have to sign them even though they don't understand it.

"The trouble with the pubs is that they’re free, and people come for that reason. If you're at a Sex Pistols gig you wanted to go, because you spent money to get in. I opened the shop because I wanted people to make a certain statement and they wore my clothes. The Sex Pistols are another extension of that."

As for what the band think of comparisons...

"The New York scene has absolutely nothing to do with us," sneers John. "It's a total waste of time. All anyone talks about is the image. No-one's ever mentioned the music."

But there's a remote connection with the aesthetic and they seem to be trying to get on with the future.

“I like that word, 'remote'” he says real blankly.

(Is he always like this? "No. He was rather polite tonight.")

Steve and Paul deliver the fatal blows.

"They're not like us. They all have long hair."

"Yeah, Anglophiles with Brian Jones mop heads."

So there they sit, waiting for a scene to build up around them, for the appearance of bands they can play with. They look rather glum at the prospect and, when you consider it, we can at least go and see the Sex Pistols.

"Yeah," sighs Steve. "I wish I could see us."


chris morrell said...

I would have definitely read this at the time John ..Phew,where do i start?
Probably best to come right up to date. I find that over time i have been able to retrospectively stitch some other parts of the International jigsaw of the rock scene together. Only very recently has my then "take" on things become really clear. I realise i was really much more into the "NewYork" scene.."Talking Heads" "Television" with,at first only committing totally to "The Jam" "at home"...
I just saw that "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" doc,that pulls quite a few things together ( Rodney Bingenheimer/Kim Fowley)..and just the other evening BBC four or two had a good film about Detroit (Motor City Burning?,something like that?) ..covering the MC5,Stooges,George Clinton heyday..Like i said,it's only recently that i can get a better handle on the "scene" i was reading about ,as conveyed by people like you and Paul Morley. Images by Pennie Smith and Anton Corbjin. I must put together a couple of "Mog" posts covering this.Get the American perspective on the time when music geeks used to pour over big flappy sheaves of paper each week.

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I consequently checked out 'I'm Mandy, Fly Me' - i didn't like it.

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ToneLeMoan said...

Wow, comments still work on blogger? Great read John.

Out of pedantic curiosity, which pub did you do the interview in?