Rotten to the core Essay: The Sex Pistols are back, not to prove they were a great band, but to annoy people -- and to make money. It worked in the '70s

it'll work again. You'll pay.

August 06, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Probably the smartest thing the Sex Pistols ever did was break up.

It happened on Jan. 14, 1978, immediately after a fractious, chaotic performance at Winterland in San Francisco. Johnny Rotten, fed up with the media circus that had trailed the band through its seven-city American tour, decided he'd had enough and announced that he was leaving and that the band was, for all intents and purposes, over.

Or so we thought. But early last year, Rotten appeared at a press conference with his old band mates -- guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and original bassist Glen Matlock -- to announce that the Sex Pistols were planning a summer-long reunion tour. When asked what had prompted this get-back-together, Rotten answered, "Your money."

"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

Those were the last words Rotten said before leaving the stage at Winterland 18 years ago. At the time, it seemed the ideal exit line, not only taunting the Winterland crowd for having paid for such a pathetic performance, but laughing at a whole world of fans foolish enough to expect the band to have lived up to its promise.

It was the perfect punk kiss-off -- rude, snotty and utterly on-target.

Now, however, those who applauded that gesture are beginning to feel, well, cheated. It's bad enough that the Sex Pistols have gone the way of all fleshy, aging rock stars (Hello, KISS! Nice to see ya, Eagles!) and hit the reunion trail; making matters worse is the fact that Rotten and company have nothing to gain from this tour but money.

As more than one commentator has observed, the only thing the Sex Pistols could possibly do to their reputation at this point is diminish it.

Think about it

But that's the point. Because if you think about it, the Sex Pistols never wanted to be "rock legends." The band's very existence was a gob of spit in the face of rock and roll propriety. So why on earth would anyone imagine these four would want to be deified?

When the Sex Pistols first appeared on the scene, in late 1975, the world was full of Rock Gods. Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, Bad Company, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd -- these were the acts that defined rock stardom, and all of them did their best to make it seem larger than life. They were more talented, more beautiful, more creative than mere fans could ever be -- and as such lived a life the rest of us could only view from the cheap seats.

Bollocks to that! was the Sex Pistols' response. As far as they were concerned, the stage belonged to anybody who had the nerve to get up there and make some noise. It didn't matter whether you could play or sing properly; to some degree, it was better if you couldn't. As for fandom, Rotten summed up his position with the Pink Floyd T-shirt he made wearable by scrawling "I Hate" at the top.

Granted, the Sex Pistols didn't invent punk; credit for that lies on this side of the Atlantic, where bands as diverse as Blondie, Television and the Ramones were playing punk rock long before young John Lydon turned Rotten. But none of those bands seemed to epitomize punk the way the Pistols did, nor did any of them possess the sort of world-changing ambition Rotten took as a matter of course.

"Rock and roll is over, don't you understand?" Rotten said a few years after the Pistols broke up. "It's gone on for 25 years, and it's got to be canceled. The Pistols finished rock and roll; they were the last rock and roll band."

Rock renewed

He couldn't have been more wrong. For millions of musicians and fans, the Pistols did not kill off rock and roll but reinvigorated it. And not just punk rockers, either; metalheads from Motley Crue to Metallica listed the Sex Pistols among their influences. Even poor, pathetic Sid Vicious -- the clueless semi-musician who replaced Matlock and ended up dying a junkie's death in Manhattan a year after Rotten's San Francisco farewell -- became an idol of sorts, spawning a whole generation of spike-haired fashion victims.

Punk, ironically enough, not only endured but prospered, becoming such an accepted part of the rock mainstream that a certain percentage of any Green Day or Rancid audience will likely consist of parents shepherding their pre-teens through yet another punk show.

And is there a shopping mall anywhere in America that doesn't have at least a couple of Mohawked mini-rebels hanging around, desperately trying to look like extras in "Sid and Nancy"?

Against that kind of cultural backdrop, it's hard to imagine a gesture more completely punk than the Sex Pistols' unapologetic return. "Fat, 40 and back!" was the way Rotten gloatingly described his band at Finsbury Park in London, the third stop on the "Filthy Lucre" tour and the site for its cash-in concert recording, "Filthy Lucre Live" (Virgin 41926).

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