Short History of the NOW!
exists in the humming now, an all-enveloping bubble
of sound, energy and ecstasy. Like being at the
flashpoint of an atomic explosion. Everything else
has vaporized. It's the nuclear instant and you're
in it. No history, no criticism, no homework, no
past, no future. Within rock's fiery furnace there
is no history—there are no dates inside the
Gates of Eden.
the 50s and 60s rock needed no history. It burned
up time, encapsulated it, made chronology a joke.
The Top Ten was real; World War II was a documentary.
Back in those high, heady days, rock history would
have seemed sheer pedantry. There was no rock criticism
either—no ratings with stars, no consumer
guides. If you liked a song you went out and bought
the single. That was rock criticism.
the 70s it was all over. Rock 'n' roll was a slathering
behemoth in an Afghani jacket begging for change
on St. Marks Place. All the greats were either fat
my children, is what became of "Satisfaction."
Keith's Bar Keys horn riff guitar turned into a
mini-mall in Omaha. "Stairway To Heaven"
a B.J.'s megastore. All that energy and ecstasy
transmuted into real estate. Long-term investment,
annual yields! An obscenity, o my brothers. The
corpse that gets up and does a jig.
those slick blues runs, the million dollar riffs.
That flaky virtuosity, the fastest-guitar-alive
shit. As if the sacred cow of rock could be cornswaddled
Little Richard, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Redding, James
Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran—the
real guys, the Progenitors—recorded whole
albums, mixed and everything and outta
there, in three hours?
groups were taking a year and a half to make an
album! And 32-track studios. How could they ever
expect to harness the Mad Bull of teen paroxysm
in those airless labyrinths? Hundreds of thousands
of dollars mixing, sweetening, perfecting....
Perfecting that which should not be perfect. Madness!
Post-Apocalyptic Bomb-Movie Look
Vicious and Johnny Rotten in Berlin, 1977. Two menacing
aliens from the same hellish planet. Gelled, spiky,
bog-brush hair. Gaunt triangular faces. Sunken eyes
and zombie gaze exuding leave-me-aloneness. Feral
lizardboy delinquents from William Burroughs. Mutants
who have crawled out from the rubble of a metropolis
demolished by nuclear war.
the alpha wolves of the blank generation they epitomize
the psychotaxonomy of punk: the no-future, no-exit,
you're a fashion historian from Alpha Centauri scanning
earth photos you'd have a hard time saying exactly
what era this is. Fifties leather jacket, Rotten's
mock formal wear. Maybe they're actors. This would
be close. Teen fantasy life is a movie, an ongoing
daydream within the adult world.
punk scenario of choice was an atomic wasteland.
A commentary on the barren cultural landscape and
a wry twist on the whole bomb thing. The bomb was
the Big Threat of the post-war period. Global annihilation!
It was gonna blow any day and that would be it.
It was the bomb that started the endless teen party
in the first place. Hey, if it's all going to end,
let's just party on! Hence the emergence of party-till-the-end-of-time
youth cults (beatniks, hippies, punks), and their
blaring sound track—rock 'n' roll.
the time punks came along in the mid-70s the Big
Bad Nuclear Bang was a joke, so punks put an ingenious
new spin on it: let's pretend the nuclear holocaust
has already taken place. The world
is so badly messed up, how much worse would things
be if they had dropped the bomb? The
bomb might actually serve a purpose. It might cleanse
the world of the accumulated debris of the past
that was now clogging up everything, suffocating
its children. Punks even looked like mutations;
they were the radioactive rats who had survived
the first strike.
punk train had shunted off the main line of history
anyway. They'd unplugged. They saw civilization
as a twitching cadaver whose nervous system still
functioned in a depressingly autonomic manner.
was merely a slogan—"Progress is our
most important product"—an absurd gimmick
that only avaricious CEOs and public relations hacks
believed. This stuff about progress sounded suspiciously
like Newspeak propaganda from 1984.
the Terminator, Sid seemed to have crawled out of
future rubble, the ruins of World War III. That's
where he lived under the blown-up gas works, circa
2014. To hell with the magnificent past of Imperial
Britannia! Down with the glorious psychedelic revolution
End of History
rewriting of history was to be Draconian. Under
the punk regime, all tourism would stop. Visits
to the Tower of London, bobbies, Buckingham Palace,
the drippy Royals. Exterminate the wallies! All
those kitsch coronation plates, hideous Prince Charles
mugs with his ears as handles! "Barbie Swan
Coach coming in May"—raus!
Fergie & Andrew, a tawdry, tarty soap opera.
The Prince of Wales a human tampon. Off with their
end of England. Decline and fall of. End of history,
preceded punk was to be wiped off the face of the
earth. A sort of rock 'n' roll version of Freud's
primal scene in which the sons murder the father
and eat him.
public enemy number one: the hippies. Whatever they
did was to be avoided at all costs. No
to astrology, tarot cards, etc. The recent past
was populated by tahini-encrusted, overweight nudists
in ponytails and paisley—your parents! It
conjured up a truly revolting scene, something like
a drugged-out game show, a sort of psychedelic Dating
people were caricatures," says Rotten. "With
their silly scarves thrown over milk crates to make
things look ever so nice. The smell of joss sticks.
They all sat on cushions on the floor."
in the end, look what happened to the hippies. Time
caught up with them. Too successful for their own
good—all those hippie entrepreneurs loping
into record companies with their tie-dyed dreams.
The more successful your revolution, the sooner
you turn into what you set out to destroy. The Great
Beast that had once pulsed with a million neon suns
was now exhausted, a slobbering hulk, its bloated
carcass deposited outside the city of Babylon, rotting
in the sun.
now we know we can warp time. And we've got the
cultural-historical contextualizing stuff out of
the way. Time to customize the definitive rock 'n'
you were going to design the prototype for the ultimate
rock group it would be a stripped-down wall-of-noise
machine with a cool slipstream body. It would deliver
the maximum amount of aggro—and crank like
a purple heart. In other words the Sex Pistols.
the mid-70s the ummah, the tribal
hive, was forming around—what else?—bands.
The enigmatic Viv Albertine said she had one. Well,
could have one. We'll just nip home
and knock one together. The Flowers of Romance they
didn't need a record company, you didn't need to
know how to play your guitar. This was the whole
idea behind punk: do it yourself. DIY. And Sid was
the living proof of rock's DIY credo. The ur
myth of rock has always been: anybody can play.
But previous to punk this remained a figure of speech.
It did not literally mean anybody,
it meant anybody who could play an instrument. But
punks weren't going to settle for an approximation
like this, a smarmy euphemism. No, they would radicalize
what had heretofore been a disingenuous bromide
by taking the myth seriously.
punk anyone could form a band. No experience necessary.
In the December '76 issue of the "Strangler-zine,"
Sideburns, there was do-it-yourself
kit for punk rockers. A chart showing three chords—A,
E & G—and adding "NOW FORM A BAND."
It was that easy.
assembled a demolition derby of sound. Flashy, high
octane wheels. Cocky, strutting, belligerent, sullen.
Like arachnids siphoning off the most noxious strain
from the carcass of rock, they extracted the thin
shrill whine of a cranked-up, overamped, machine,
a metallic scream like the sound of burning liquid
hydrogen. Of a 747 taking off. That noise.
a fruitless business looking for the origins of
the Sex Pistols in the Ramones, in the New York
Dolls as them CBGB wallies would like you to believe.
It's like saying Mort Sahl was Lenny Bruce's predecessor,
innit? Which is why the so-called precursors of
punk are such a joke. As if we owe them anyfing.
Dante in spandex circa 1976, enter the crepuscular
realm of garish, unhinged characters! Disturbing
images! Lydon and the lads taking acid at Louise's—an
exclusive lesbian club on Poland Street in toney
Mayfair. Chrissie Hynde in a corner writing letters
for Penthouse Forum on wet napkins.
Zero for punk was the night the Sex Pistols performed
at the 100 Club. Tuesday the 11th of May, 1976.
Remember that date, children. Where it all began.
freeze frame as the lead singer makes his entrance.
Lydon's penny dreadful poltergeist. Menacing meningitis
eyes looming out. Almost brush up against the surface
of the screen. Twitching alien antennae. Pull back
reflexively. The clip runs. Lydon in motion. Little
bits of London fright legend stitched together and
given breathless life. A full-blown Dickensian demon
of the slums.
seminal emblems of punk are here—safety
pins, spiked hair, gobbing, the pogo. Telepathy
and tension. Note: first recorded incident of pogoing
in the UK. Sid starts jumping up and down on the
spot, cranked-up with excitement and bashing into
escalates as the Sex Pistols fame spreads. Provoking
the audience is integral to their code. At first
it is all very democratic and open—the space
between performer and fan a white hot center where
fans are fanatical (nobody outside themselves and
a handful of others had even heard of the Sex Pistols).
They start out on their crusade with tiny zealous
groups of the elect. Club the size of your average
living room, a stage four feet deep, umbrella strobes.
Thirteen people in the audience, which by a sort
of pop mitosis doubles and triples each time they
first fans are like a newly evolved species tuned
into the frequency of the alpha mutants. Signals
go out—beaming thisisitthiisitthiisit—and
the Knowing Ones, antennae twitching, sense the
pulse, tune in to the beam. In the middle of the
day—hennaing their hair, watching telly, buying
a packet of rubbers—and they'd walk out the
door, get on the tube. The call had gone out.
Your Biggest Fan
was the archetypal fan, the punk zealot incarnate,
the Sex Pistols' #1 fan. Sid Vicious. Inside the
fitful head of Sid. Compulsive thoughts—like
suras in the Koran. Not a theory or an analysis
of the thing, but the flame of belief itself. Martyrs
have died for this.
meself—their biggest fucked-up fan—along
wif Siouxsie, Jordan, Sue Catwoman and the lot,
I ask you, where would they be? Fink abawt it. Innit
the very fervor of us vile fans what has made the
Sex Pistols what they is today? Let's face it, we
is the Sex Pistols fuckin' ray-zen-debt. We is them and
they is us and we are all together.... Fuck, I'm
startin' to sound like the bloody Beatles!
conformed almost uncannily to the profile of the
rock fan/rock star (the distinction is lost on them)
by the Greater London Metropolitan Constabulary.
They have identified 15 stages in the etiology of
the rock fan & rock star thing: fan at home,
listens pathologically to radio, waiting for his
song, the song to come on... becomes
obsessed with lead singer... buys star's records—all
his records... begins slavishly imitating mannerisms
of idol... goes to concerts, hounds star... gets
into clothes, aggro... incipient megalomania...
identifies totally with rock star—he is
him... morphs into embryonic rocker... moves off
in the mirror, air guitar... the decisive moment—buys
guitar... joins/forms a band... involvement with
drugs... becomes famous... kills self (see
suicide/accidental death variants list)... fan at
home listening fanatically to the radio, etc.
the embryonic rock star as fan posing in front of
the mirror. An accomplished clothes horse like Sid
has it down cold. Right then, pose #1. I'll do a
line of sulfate and learn the songs later. Wannit
the great Keef Richards 'imself who said "I
got the moves down in the mirror first"? Awright!
A-one-two-three, "Ain't no cure for the summertime
Pistols Mach II
Sex Pistols caused havoc wherever they went. Tours
were cancelled. Municipalities forbade them to cross
their town lines. The tabloids shouted OFF WITH
THEIR HEADS in 48-point type. Still, something was
wrong. Rotten nailed it: "We was gettin' too
good—we needed Sid." So they fired Glen
Matlock (his biggest sin: he liked Paul McCartney)
and hired Sid as their new bass player and freshly
ultimate star-fan fusion, the perfect punk artifact.
A Gary Panter cartoon playing bass. His leather
jacket bristling with studs like the spines of a
poisonous strain of feral boar. Homicidal psycho
replicant with lairy gaze like a wild, rabid dog.
Not a Saturday morning cartoon like Joey Ramone,
but something menacing—like Spawn.
is an aspect of Rotten which gets loose, secedes
and goes on to take over the script—a now
drastically simplified plot in which the stand-in
ends up stealing the show. And why not? Sid is the
world's leading Sexpistologist. Maybe he knows more
about them, can see the picture more clearly than
they themselves. He's the quintessential rock fan
who can repeat the dialogue word for word, the deranged
visionary hell bent on inserting himself into their
mythology. And, let's face it, they do have serious
third-act problems. Not to worry, Sid'll fix it
(he even knows how it should all end).
it's Sid's gig. You can see right away the equilibrium
of the group has shifted. It's no longer the lone
raving nutter against a backdrop of Cook, Jones
& Matlock. With Sid in the group there's torque.
Sid's pulling the center away from Rotten. Lydon
is tugging it back. A coiled spring.
assumes the position: Legs splayed in spastic Gene
Vincent gammy-leg stance, right arm poised in Townshend
windmill pose—never mind that this scything
gesture makes no sense for a bass player—he's
vogueing. Strike a pose! A compendium of mannerisms
culled from 50s/60s rock icons, comic books, fashion
rags, horror movies, Eddie Cochran being the armature,
the cybermanikin that holds all the flourishes together.
Hey, you're something else, man!
is distorted, slightly out of phase as if some proleptic
vortex were morphing him into the future. Hair,
wind-tunnel face contorted into Clint Eastwood snarl.
Except that this Elvis-mutated-into-spaghetti-Western
sneer—on Sid—doesn't quite stick. Its
slipping, draining off the menace. The kabuki actor
in full make-up and regalia who hasn't quite got
the eye-popping demon thing down yet. More Deputy
Dog than high plains drifter. But this is all part
of his thing—goofiness. Any teenager can do
the menacing look. But menace plus goofy is tricky.
It's never the straight macho with Sid. How could
it be? Just a skinny, weedy kid.
Summer of Hate
Sex Pistols come to power in the crepuscular light
of the last gasp of 60s hedonism. It's the bomb
party all over again, except this time round it
was all done in black light, the actors in drag.
Swinging London had been a fiction wished into being
by any number of young people. The punk apocalypse
is like Mad Max. Twilight's last gleaming. The summer
of 1976 teeters on the cusp of the new reich—Thatcherism.
was as if some fiend had made a list of all the
things your average Brit feared and found repulsive
and had given it life.
they had to put up with! The shawbaties of the Empire
are turning on them, their children have morphed
into hideous mutants and are now threatening them
in broad daylight. You couldn't walk down the High
Street without seeing these geeks vaunting spiked
purple hair, orange mohawks, bare-boobed bints in
see-thru bin liners. This was the menacing horde
of bolshy youth out of your parents' worst nightmares.
This was what they'd been anticipating all along.
Their own paranoia had summoned up these hellspawned
changelings. Hair-raising stuff.
suppurating brain of a decaying empire. Hot house
plants growing freakish mutations in the humid rotting
climate. Degeneration! Enervation! The country's
at its pathetic nadir and along come a bunch of
kinky moronic yobs and jump on its head. Like extras
in some postapocalyptic bomb movie, young boys dressed
as bums, derelicts, alcoholics, old motheaten men
with fantastic stories, shoes without socks, Dickensian
urchins on the prowl. Girls dressed like whores
from hell. Intimating truly degrading acts of humiliation.
Bondage! Masochism! Lick my boots, toilet slave!
stasis, patriotic decay, furiously fetishized in
punk songs. 1984 was going to be the punk jubilee.
Bring on lives of noisy desperation! Postmodern
children of Dickens with their theatricalized poverty.
They could give a toss. They'd just as soon smash
it—Awf wif their fuckin' poncey heads!—put
the stake through its rotten royal heart. The anti-monarchical
railings of the Sex Pistols summoned up the demons
of time. Cromwell. The English Revolution (1649-60),
a strange surreal time when people were excited
beyond all expectation. Moral fervor—just
like the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten was a latter
day ranter himself, like Abiezer Coppe's (circa
1646) inspired ballad "The World Turned Upside
of position in the world had put Britain in a psychotic
position. UK groups with their bohemian arty milieu
knew how to push the buttons. Imagery from The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Pink Flamingos.
A fix from porno magazines. Amputees, bondage, Charlie
Manson, anything that was taboo. Total cultural
revolt. They even got the old peanut planter worked
up. Carter began saying he wanted to stop punk.
Ah, just mix yourself another mint julep, Jimmy,
and slip Eat a Peach on the turntable.
"God Save the Queen" in time for the Queen's
jubilee—a complete co-incidence, I assure
you—is bad enough, but Malcolm has to pour
salt into the wound by hiring a boat on the Thames
called The Queen Elizabeth so he can
put up a huge banner that says (all caps): QUEEN
ELIZABETH, WELCOMES SEX PISTOLS.