Sod Awf!
Being ruminations on the Sex Pistols, punkgeist, rock theology and Sid the Id
By David Dalton

From Gadfly February 1998


A Short History of the NOW!
Rock 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.

In 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.

By 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 or dead.

This, 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.

All 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 with arpeggios.

Hadn't 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?

Now 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! Delusion!

The Post-Apocalyptic Bomb-Movie Look
Sid 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.

As the alpha wolves of the blank generation they epitomize the psychotaxonomy of punk: the no-future, no-exit, end-of-everything look.

If 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.

The 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.

By 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.

The 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.

Progress 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.

Like 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 of Hippiedom!

The End of History
Punk's 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 heads!

The end of England. Decline and fall of. End of history, why not?

Whatever 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.

Punk 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 Game.

"These 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."

And, 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.

Okay, 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' roll machine.

If 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.

By 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 called it.

You 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.

In 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.

Punks 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.

It's 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. Sod awf!

You, 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.

Ground 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.

Momentary 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.

The 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 people.

Aggravation 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 everything melts.

Their 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 appear.

The 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.

Enter Sid Vicious.

I'm Your Biggest Fan
Here 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.

Wifout 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!

Sid 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.

Sid, 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 blues." Yeah!

Sex Pistols Mach II
The 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 minted demon.

Sid—the 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.

Sid 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).

Now 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.

Sid 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!

Everything 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.

The Summer of Hate
The 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.

It 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.

This! 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.

The 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!

England's 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 Down."

Loss 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.

Releasing "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.

God save the Queen—And the fascist regime
It made you a moron—A potential H bomb

They do "Anarchy in the UK " going past the Houses of Parliament and "God Save the Queen" going past the Tower of London. There's a scuffle on the boat. A minor skirmish involving a photographer but—out of the blue!—police are boarding the vessel. Giving rise to the excellent bon mot: "I didn't know pigs could swim."

Retribution comes swiftly and terribly. Soon Jamie Reid, Sex Pistols propagandist and designer, gets his leg and nose broken by patriotic morons. What did do you expect when you stick a safety pin through the Queen's mouth? The following Sunday Johnny Rotten is attacked in the car park of the Pegasus pub by a gang of knife-wielding thugs. Two tendons in his hand severed, a machete chop cut right through his leather trousers. Oi, wot's a machete doin' in fuckin' Highbury, then?

The Chaos Machine Zaps the USA
Less than a year in the band and punk's Exhibit A has just about taken over. El Sid is a fantasy-fueled engine whose deranged authority presides over the last kamikaze phase as the Sex Pistols crash and burn.

January 1978. The American tour catapults the Sex Pistols into legend. It also destroys them. Almost nobody who wants to see them gets a chance to. They play to rednecks, hippies and Mexican farm workers. They play some of their worst gigs. Sid becomes more and more unhinged. Tensions reach critical mass.

They self-destruct, but they leave indelible images. Little red flecks of blood splatter the faces of the Punkettes, eager for benediction. Self-laceration nightly! You will actually see the blood of Holy Martyr Saint Vicious dripping from his chest! Splash it on you, smear it on your face as a talisman against the evil eye. Take home a vial as a souvenir from our reliquary shop. No pig's blood or Revlon movie goop substitutes employed. Only authentic Vicious Plasma used.

In the end they do what comes naturally, they fuck up. Rotten, as usual, manages to turn the tables by critiquing the audience: "Tell us what it's like to have bad taste." His parting shot as he leaves the stage (and ends his book) is: "Ever get the feelin' you've been cheated?"

Backstage is haunted. Cue the spectral voice of Lord Jim intoning "The End." Freeze frame, but no pictures, please. Annie Liebowitz arriving like Van Dyke to paint their portrait is given short shrift.

After the show Sid disappears with the Punkettes who've followed him from Dallas and Ods in a shooting gallery in the Haight-Ashbury (a bit of irony here somewhere). Cook and Jones find him almost lifeless turning blue on a mattress, a needle dangling from his arm. They walk him around. Take him to an acupuncturist. Sid proceeds to demolish the good doctor's house.

And that, folks, was that—the official end of the Sex Pistols (and for all intents and purposes of punk rock). Just as well, the Sex Pistols are at the end of their charge anyway. A parody of their former selves for over a year now. Quitting was the only decent thing to do—"even if they didn't do it for all the reasons we could have wished they did it" (as Roberta Bayley put it).

Nevermind. Their kamikaze plunge only adds to the legend. Not for them the long drawn-out "career" along with the humiliating comebacks (well, awright, one comeback tour after 18 years is acceptable). But even then you run the risk of petty humiliations like the New York Post describing the Sex Pistols 1996 as "Green Day on Geritol."

What could be more compromising than the pathetic attempts of most groups who outlive their welcome to keep the thing going at any cost, tottering through another album (Procul Harum made seventeen), another tour. The strain of keeping up with the latest thing (we've got to have a disco/reggae/rap number on our new album).

Have some decency, sirs, go out with a bit of pride in tact. Find yourself an Abyssinia! To degrade, to compromise that original flash of the spirit is an abomination to man and god. In the end all will be called into question. Do you want to end up like the Grateful Dead?

Not the Sex Pistols. They go down in glorious flames. The very model of a punk band as a paradigm of rock flash-urge-spurt. Flashpoint and vanish should be the prototype for all rock groups.

The Sex Pistols comet, fragmenting as it entered the earth's atmosphere, disintegrated on impact with the USA. As if the demons contained in rock's wayward energy had been exposed to the light and fastforwarded into history. The Sex Pistols vanish as quickly as a three-minute song. By the time most people hear of them, they're history.

As the last shards of the Sex Pistols war wagon goes up in flames there is great lamentation and gnashing of teeth, the ululations of the tenaxed ones rising up in dingy clubs, sickness-unto-death spreading through suburban rec rooms. Great Pan is dead!

Here they are the most famous band in the world and the deviant little buggers have to go and blow the bloody thing up. They blame each other, give contradictory stories to the press. But Lydon, McLaren and Sid wanted to bring the House of Usher down upon their heads. Each for his own scaly reasons. And if their original inspiration had been to smash the established order, equally seductive was the peevish fascination of self-annihilation.

Megalomaniacs all! Hell-bent on: Self-immolation! Petulant paroxysm! The frenzy of renown! Crash and burn!

To achieve a truly magnificent catastrophe, however, you must first create an edifice worthy of your powers of devastation. Like children who through a long summer afternoon patiently build an elaborate sand castle with turrets and drawbridges and flags made of twigs and seaweed only to smash it to smithereens with ferocious glee and dance on the lumpy ruins.

The Sex Pistols and their clamorous svengali courted chaos on an operatic scale. Stuffing the Royals, terrorizing the land, turning the air blue!  For their finale no commoner-garden variety disaster would do—it had to be of biblical proportions. McLaren's trick had been to make them seem to be the standard bearers of their generation. They had attained such dark eminence that their own demise, for all intents and purposes, signaled the swan song of punk rock as well. Winterland was the last fuck you and the Sex Pistols were the living embodiment of that fuck you. Which is why it made everybody so mad.

Punk barely a year old, in its most public phase, and dead in its tracks. Aprés nous le deluge!—or New Wave.

What could be more willful, more spiteful than to destroy your prize creation—a whole proto-civilization in miniature, really—to show it's nothing to you. A joke, man, a bloody piss-take is all it was. Even better, insist that it had been a big swindle all along. Far more impressive than just carrying on as if it were some frowzy little business.

Consequently the need—at least on the part of Lydon and McLaren—to dismiss their creations. You've been had, mate. We leave Sid out of this. He had no wish to knock it; Sid was a true believer.

Lydon had been well bored with the charade for over a year now. He had become sullen and sour. The petulent narcissism of the prima donna had replaced the righteous anger of the dissenter.

Even his apocalyptic pronouncements—"I want to just destroy everything!"—had taken on a tiresome predictability. He was bored. You wouldn't want Johnny to be bored now, would you? What would God do? He'd zim zum off into another universe. Probably become a noise structuralist.

What Was That?
The Sex Pistols have somehow fulfilled our expectations of what a rock 'n' roll band should be—a sort of moral hedonism machine that defines the yearnings and obsessions out of which rock 'n' roll arose.

The elevation of the Sex Pistols to rock apotheosis is an ideological assertion—the ultimate conceptual rock band whose style and sound defines rock 'n' roll's sonic assault, urge and edge. To claim such preeminence for a band on such theoretical grounds demonstrates the theological status rock 'n' roll has taken in our lives.

Like the wave/particle controversies of subatomic physics, images of the Sex Pistols shuttle manically between irreconcilable states. Aesthetics, put-on, metaphysics and flash. From the beginning it was almost impossible to separate the hype from the revolution. Rotten and McLaren only added to the confusion by insisting it was a put-on all along.

Depending on who you listen to the Sex Pistols are: The definitive punk band. A bunch of wankers hired to hustle ripped T-shirts. A seething mass of existential ferocity. Pure commercial hoopla and hype. Messiahs of teenage rage and angst who saved rock 'n' roll. A bloody joke. Pathetic poseurs—your typical flash Brit export. The immaculate conception of rock. PR puppets who ripped off the Ramones sound, Richard Hell's hair and safety pins and repackaged it in a slick new box.

They see-saw endlessly in the mind. On some level all these statements are true. It's like being confronted with a raving manic depressive who's alternately shouting: "It's all hopeless!" and "This is great!"

The very fact that so many contradictory things can be said about them makes the Sex Pistols the quintessential Pop group. Pop in the Andy Warhol sense. The wedding of art and hype. Two mutually exclusive entities living happily ever after—by bashing each other's brains in. They oscillate perpetually between the sublime and the buffoonish. And that's their genius.