Sid, Johnny, Malcolm & me

She paid Johnny Rotten his weekly wages, clashed with Sid Vicious and was arrested after the Jubilee cruise gig. Sophie Richmond, Malcolm McLaren's former PA, tells Robert Webb about her time as the Sex Pistols' secretary
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The Independent Culture

"They were the only band on earth. The only music worth listening to." I'm sipping Earl Grey in a north London back parlour. Sophie Richmond, fortysomething, courteous, quietly spoken, is telling me about the Sex Pistols. "I first saw them in spring 1976. Then again in the summer." Richmond was a fan, then a friend. By the end of the year she was working for their manager, Malcolm McLaren.

Twenty-four years on, Julien Temple's new documentary, The Filth and The Fury, which brilliantly chronicles the rapid rise and fall of the Sex Pistols, has pricked Richmond's memories of her part in the movement that hijacked rock'n'roll. "I was running a printing press with Jamie Reid, my boyfriend at the time," she tells me. "Jamie had known Malcolm as an art student in the Sixties. When the Pistols started, he invited Jamie to develop the visual side of things."

1976 was the hottest summer on record. Babylon was burning with anxiety and the Sex Pistols - John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock - were getting a reputation.

As Reid got to work with scissors and glue, Richmond became McLaren's assistant, handling the day-to-day running of his management company, Glitterbest, and dishing out the wages ("£25 a week"). So what were the lads themselves like? "Steve and Paul were really easy, nice guys," remembers Richmond fondly. "John was more difficult. I liked him a lot, but he tended to stick with his friends from north London, like Jah Wobble. He kept himself to himself." One of Lydon's friends who didn't go down so well was John Ritchie - Sid Vicious to his mates. "I didn't get on well with Sid," Richmond says. "He seemed very young. We all were, but Sid was particularly immature."

We talk about The Filth and The Fury, in which Richmond, briefly, appears. The movie gets the thumbs up. "It gives a very good picture of the time. Especially the inward-looking aspect of it all," she says. The Pistols and their entourage were something of a cabal. "We were very tight-knit. There was little contact with other people outside our circle, or with other musicians. That's conveyed well in the film." It sounds almost Masonic. "Well, I did seem to spend a lot of time talking to lawyers."

The office was shared with Reid, whose ransom-note lettering, ripped Union Flag and safety-pinned Queen have become part of the codification of 20th-century Britain. Richmond pays due respect. "Jamie was responsible for it all. I do remember helping to cut up song titles for flyers, though. We were both really interested in using slogans and graphics."

Life was sweet, but as summer finally faded, the clouds rolled over. The band signed to EMI, unleashed "Anarchy in the UK" and appeared live on Thames TV's Today programme, where they said "shit" and called their clumsy interviewer Bill Grundy a "fucking rotter", as you do. Thames's switchboard went into meltdown and the press began the offensive: the front page of next morning's Mirror presciently providing the title for Temple's new film. Richmond was amazed at just how easily shocked people could be. "We didn't set out to be 'punks'," she says. "Certainly we tried to provoke and be vaguely political, but I soon learnt that what comes back at you is completely unexpected. It's not always what you want."

These days you're unlikely to be assaulted in the street simply for parting your hair the wrong side, but the Seventies, let's not forget, was a decade of volatile youth factions. "Old rockers on the King's Road would often pick on the band. When John told me about being attacked or gobbed on I thought, that's not what it should be about."

Undeterred, the Pistols embarked on the chaotic and largely cancelled Anarchy Tour. There was, as Richmond wryly puts it, "a certain amount of hotel wrecking. It was expected". Nothing new in the riotous world of rock'n'roll, perhaps, but it was all too much for EMI. The Pistols were fired. "During the months after we left EMI, things got a bit desperate," Richmond says. Glen Matlock was replaced on bass by the distinctly unmusical Vicious - "a coat-hanger to fill an empty space on stage," Lydon later commented.

There was then a much publicised but fruitless week with A&M Records. "They paid a huge advance and, I'm sure I'm right in saying, a lot more to see us leave," says Richmond. Finally Richard Branson opened his cheque book. "I was astonished that Malcolm managed to get a deal at all. But he was good at talking and a quick thinker," Richmond says. "There was a lot of moaning in the office about signing with a bunch of old hippies, in particular from Jamie. Actually we got on quite well with some of the people at Virgin."

In June, with "God Save the Queen" assaulting the charts, Virgin invited a few journalists and record executives to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee in an evening's cruise up the Thames. The band belted out the new single as they glided past Westminster. "The boat trip was great. It was really nice to be on the river," recalls Richmond, making it sound more like an afternoon at Henley than anarchy's last stand. Then someone complained to the police and arrests were made, Richmond and Reid included. "Again, I was really surprised at the strength of the reaction to it," she says. "But Malcolm was great in such circumstances. He could always quickly come up with a response; something that made sense of it." MacLaren understood how to manipulate situations to his advantage. What refused to be manipulated was the band itself.

"It all came to an end during the 1978 American tour," says Richmond. "I joined them at Baton Rouge, a really lovely gig, supported by a Cajun band." Hang on. This is the first time I've heard a Pistols' gig described as "lovely", and - mon dieu - a Cajun band? "Dallas on the other hand was horrible. The audience were hard. Sid was completely out of it." That's more like it.

"From there we flew to San Francisco. I remember sitting in a bar, people coming up to us wanting tickets for the Winterland gig, which was the last ever." Lydon left the band that evening. "Once John had gone, it was a great effort to get things done," says Richmond. "Malcolm wasn't a conventional manager. At this point he was only interested in working on his movie."

By the end of the decade the Pistols had broken up, McLaren's movie The Great Rock and Roll Swindle was released and Glitterbest went into receivership. In the Eighties Richmond moved into publishing and now edits anthropology books.

"You know, at the end I actually got terribly fond of the receivers," says Richmond. "We used to go and watch the movie together, over and over, them saying to me 'can we make any money out of this?'" They wouldn't have been the first, or the last, to turn chaos into cash.

'The Filth and The Fury' is out on Friday