Zhou Enlai, when asked in 1971 by Henry Kissinger about the French Revolution, reportedly said, "It's too early to tell." The same is true of Sex Pistols, a tiny culture-quake with massive aftershocks, which haven't stopped coming.
To Greil Marcus, in his masterpiece Lipstick Traces, Johnny Rotten is the heir to centuries of dissenters. To Julie Burchill, he is a figurehead of chav. To the British public, he's gone from public enemy No 1 to much-loved battler of emus on I'm a Celebrity.... To Rotten himself, in Julien Temple's The Filth and the Fury, he is Richard III meets Arthur Askey meets Ken Dodd.
To me? Johnny Rotten is the ultimate working-class intellectual, and there is no finer thing to be. If only "anarchist" rhymed with "autodidact", he'd have screamed it himself.
Rotten and the Pistols, and by extension punk as a whole, while superficially simple and brutal, are incredibly complex. I tend to fixate on the word "punk" itself, originally an American slang term denoting a skinny little jerk. Punk was the revenge of the runts.
While we're all figuring this out, Rotten is back to rake some filthy lucre from the legend. In his lime-green day-glo PiL vest and tartan pyjama trews, Rotten is, strangely, looking more like himself as a kid, with his back hunched and brain wiped by meningitis. Guitarist Steve Jones looks his age, a tubby fiftysomething from down the pub. Glen Matlock is the blow-dried smoothie he always was. Paul Cook, the wiry drummer, is the least withered by age.
If they don't look like the Sex Pistols, they definitely sound like them: the muscle memory of three decades ensures that they replicate the satisfying sound of the recently reissued Never Mind the Bollocks.... For all the chaotic amateurism of punk, the Pistols were always a big, solid ROCK proposition. And, for all the gobbing and pogo-ing, Rotten was always a poet; "When there's no future/ How can there be sin/ We're the flowers in the dustbin/ We're the poison in the human machine" is Shelley with a snarl.
He may cajole the generation of 2007 for being spineless pussies. ("You're scared to smoke a cigarette in a pub!") He may once have written "There will always be hate in the English because they are a hateful nation", but Lydon loves this country. Tonight's intro tape is "There'll Always Be an England"; its outro is "The White Cliffs of Dover". A yearning for what England was, and for what it could be, albeit a doomed one, is what drives him.
Plus, of course, the desire to upset and overturn. Is "God Save the Queen" a relevant critique 30 years on? Elizabeth Windsor is still on the throne and Britain even more in thrall to the inane culture of celebrity.
After a hair-bristling encore of the vile "Bodies", the fruit of his teenage Catholic guilt, he asks, "After looking at me, are you pro or anti-abortion?" Then it's the inevitable "Anarchy" finale, at the end of which he howls, "The last time... get pissed... destroy." With a petulant grin, he tosses the microphone over his shoulder with a clunk, possibly for ever.Reuse content