By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
January 9, 1978
I recently spent nine days pursuing punk rock in England without once trying to contact the Sex Pistols. I just didn't have the time. The Sex Pistols are superstars, at least momentarily, and contacting superstars is more trouble than it's worth even when nothing else is happening, which was hardly the problem in London and the other English cities I visited. Anyway, second-hand contact with the Pistols was as inescapable as tales of the Weathermen used to around the Movement in 1970.
Many informed sources offered tidbits about drugs and sex, said to interest the Pistols more than they pretended, and about record producers and movie directorsCambridge rock avant-gardist Fred Firth, a hero of Johnny Rotten's, was in contention for the first job, while Hollywood decadent Russ Meyer, who had wanted to set Sid Vicious to fucking his (screen) mother, was on his way out of the other. But one theme overshadowed the gossip: failure. Again and again the fear was expressed that the Pistols had blown it. Having replaced bassist Glen Matlock with nonmusician Vicious in February, I was told, Rotten had deprived the band of its most gifted composer, and now a Rotten-Vicious faction was feuding with a Jones-Cook faction and with manager Malcolm McLaren. The Pistols' long-awaited album would include only three songs written since Matlock's departure and cost as much to produce as a Richard Perry extravaganza. It was even reported that the Pistols' deal with American Warners had been finalized only because McLaren and his minions had already gone through the 150,000 quid advanced them by EMI, A&M, and Virgin in England. The original strategy had been to postpone the assault on the U.S.A. Now, suddenly, it was sink-or-swim time, for the Pistols and maybe for everybody.
It's only natural for so much of the paranoid backbiting that afflicts English punk to be aimed at the Sex Pistols, who began the movement and who symbolize it not only to the outside world but to the punks themselves. Notorious antistars, dole-queue kids awash in record-biz money, nihilists who have made something of themselves, the Pistols are everything punks are supposed to be, and morethey live out the contradictions most punk musicians have barely begun to dream about. No wonder they're resented: If we are to believe that punk's future is up to the Pistolsand that is definitely the conventional wisdomthen their fall could well precipitate everyone else's. But at least the Pistols, unlike almost everyone else, have someplace to fall from. What will be left for the others? Their picture in the papers, a self-produced record or two, perhaps a brief contract with a treacherous major, and the chance to watch a few posers make a career out of a defunct fad that once promised life.
What makes this scenario more bitter is that it proceeds from the star system punk challenges so belligerently. The English punks, with their proud, vitalizing concentration on the surface of things, rebel against rock royalty on the obvious ground that a pop elite cannot represent the populace. But they miss a subtler paradox: the apparent inability of most rebels to do without heroic images. When an idea turns into a movement as fast as punk did, chances are that some leadership figure is out there symbolizing away, and that if the symbol should fade or crumble the movement will find itself at a loss.
The loss would be a big one. Only 10 of the 20 bands I managed to catch in my nine days played genuine punkvocals shouted over raw, high-speed guitar chords and an inflexible beat. But within that tiny sample, three or four bandsthe Clash, X-Ray Spex, the Killjoys, and perhaps the Cortinasput on hotter shows than any I've seen from the year's newcomers at CBGB, where the infusions of energy have been provided by born-again old-timers like John Cale and Alex Chilton or improved vintage-1975 stars like Blondie and Richard Hell. What's more, punk was clearly making itself felt in the other music I saw. Weirdos like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric do not sell out Birmingham Town Hall when the pop environment is stable. All-female French blues-rock bands like the Lous do not open major concerts if some Wardour Street money man controls the bill. Bluegrassers turned pub-rockers turned hit journeymen like the Kursaal Flyers do not dirty up their guitar sound and smash television sets on a suburban stage just because the fancy strikes them.
But if punk were to do a quick fizzle because of the Pistols, it would be more than unfortunate. It would be unfair. Johnny Rotten is an inspiration and a media focus out of a flair for self-dramatization that is coextensive with his extremism. He is typical of nothing. No matter how much he is imitated (and he was imitated by a fast-moving cult well before Glen Matlock said fuck on television and started the avalanche), he will never be a punk prototypenot because he is monumentally talented, which is beside the point, but because he comes a lot closer to genuine nihilism than often happens in the world. If he should fail, his nihilism will be at the root of his failure. It will have turned people off the Sex Pistols, and hence (in our paranoid backbiters' scenario) off punk in general. Yet no matter what you've seen on Weekend, most punks are not nihilists. Bored, cynical, destructive? Well, perhaps, at least in part. But all that's been blown out of proportion, as well, and nihilism is a lot further on down the road.