Johnny Rotten, 1976
7 NOVEMBER 1975, Central School of Art and Design. On stage, the Sex Pistols blazed. It was their third gig. Johnny Rotten had a ripped Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words "I hate" superimposed on it; Steve Jones (guitar) wore a black shirt and black lace-up shoes; Glen Matlock (bass) had paint-spattered trousers and a woman's pink leather top; and, behind the drum kit, mod-like Paul Cook thrashed out a storm. The band were tight, like a revolt. No protracted solos. They played in short bursts: "Substitute", "Watcha Gonna Do About It?", "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone". Johnny was spitting out words, screaming, then drawling, affecting a bored, glazed glare at the audience, laughing, then sneering - it was a riveting performance.
In the audience Vivienne Westwood and punk muse Jordan danced among a gang with a new style and attitude. What marked them out was cropped hair, dyed blonde and/or black (colour came later), masses of eye make- up, mauve lips, high heels, boots, leather jackets, studs, chains, fish- net tights - an elision of sci-fi alien and Soho sex burlesque. "Out" was wafting, hippie faux-rusticism: sandals, flared jeans, faded embroidery. "In" was urban-sharp, ripped, body-tight vinyl or rubber: clothes zipped and decorated with safety pins. Not patchouli oil and flowers, but razor blades and blood.
"My life changed the moment I saw the Sex Pistols," said Howard Devoto, later of the Buzzcocks. The day after Adam Ant saw their first gig he left Bazooka Joe, the group he was in at the time: "I just wanted to form my own band." Joe Strummer, realising that the kind of pub R&B played by his band, the 101'ers, was dead, told me: "Yesterday I was a crud. Then I saw the Sex Pistols and I became a king and I decided to move into the future." Days later he bumped into Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in Ladbroke Grove. When they asked him to join them to form The Clash, Strummer didn't hesitate.
All through autumn 1975, for a fast-growing network of people who had been wanting and waiting, seeing the Sex Pistols was like instant recognition.
THE YEARS leading up to 1975 I remember as a time of dereliction, squatting, massed riot police protecting National Front rallies, IRA bombings, darkness and strange silence, like after an explosion, when everything blown into the air is falling to earth. The Swinging Sixties party was over. People were reeling in shock. Some were regrouping. Some were watching, wondering what would survive once the debris had settled.
Street life was nailed down. The spirit of Britain seemed punishing and mean, strung out between two extremes: puritanical Left militancy and loutish Right nationalism. White musicians who had created the hippie soundtrack - those still alive - had traded rebellion for Establishment. Mega-rich, chummy-with-royalty rock stars were disdainfully out of touch with teenagers. Few resented their making millions, but what they did with the profits mattered. Where was any sense of hippie altruism and community? It was as if white rock'n' roll had changed sides.
Even football had turned mundane. While rock fans were wondering what to do, football fans were reacting to the generally ruthless, drab and repetitive game - a mirror of society - with violence. Football "hooligans" in the early 1970s were the first group of teenagers angry enough to come out fighting. In October 1974, in the Loft terrace at Queen's Park Rangers, teenagers Peter and Brian (Marc Bolan fans) told me: "You've got to do something more than just watch the match to get excitement and satisfaction. After the match we'll throw bricks at the away-team coaches, and knock on some ol' granny's door and chuck mud! Terrific!" But QPR fans were pussycats compared to the Arsenal gangs up Finsbury Park way, John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon's manor.
"While I tried," said Johnny, "to stay away from football violence, at the same time I'd still be part of that 'Home Game, No One's Going to Take Our End' stuff. I loved the shambolic nightmare of it all. True anarchy was happening in football." "When I was 16," Mick Jones of The Clash told me in 1976, "I thought I had two choices - football or rock'n'roll." Why did he choose rock? "I thought it was less limiting. And more exciting."
As Johnny and Mick were planning their escapes, from poor Irish-Catholic conformity in Finsbury Park and a broken home in Brixton respectively, Susan "Siouxsie" Ballion was running from suburban Bromley to Soho. "I hated the street we lived in," said Siouxsie in July 1977, "bordering on middle class. More puritanical than proper middle class in a way, almost spiteful. My sister was a go-go dancer; that was one of my routes for getting out. I used to go with her on her dates to Soho, to the Gilded Cage, the Trafalgar, the Valbonne. Some of the pubs would be half-gay and half-straight. I'd bring my own record collection and dance to it. It was Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Letts, Brass Construction, 'Hard Work' by John Hardy, Bowie and Roxy Music; Barry White was huge."
Increasingly contemptuous of the gone-straight rock'n'roll businessmen, 1970s teenagers loved David Bowie, Brian Eno, Mark Bolan and Freddie Mercury - musicians inspired by the glamour and glitz of black funkadelia, who still carried the torch of 1960s sexual rebellion and gender blur. But while Bowie, Bolan, Mercury and Eno might have been seen staggering out of Soho strip-clubs, they still weren't young enough, or angry enough.
Then there was the sex thing. Hippie men had refused to change; the 1960s dream of unisex life had turned into a Men Only porn-fest. In The Female Eunuch (1970), Germaine Greer warned us, "Women don't realise how much men hate them". In 1975, the Rolling Stones recorded songs of degraded peace-and-love sexuality, with photography to match, salivating over women apparently beaten Black and Blue.
Pioneering music-writer Penny Valentine remembers: "In the 1960s I worked for Boyfriend. The Stones and the Beatles had just started, and I met them very much on the same level. But by the 1970s the atmosphere had changed, it stopped being fun. The music got heavier, it became much more macho-defined. People started dealing with me in a very different way and that was when I started to find it really hard to navigate my way being a woman."
So the radical language of women's liberation developed, and I readjusted my position on pacifism. It felt good, being more militant. I reached for a leather motorbike jacket to wear with the five-inch stiletto heels I bought from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's shop, Sex, on the King's Road.
Late one night in 1975, trying to hail a taxi home, I steeled myself as three men lurched towards me, being verbally and physically abusive. Usually you'd have to move politely across the road, afraid and inconvenienced. Suddenly emboldened by my black armour-like leather, I held my ground, and smashed the nearest man across the face. It worked! Three stunned drunks just faded away.
A few months later, I moved into the Portobello Hotel. Behind the bar a tall youth with a dyed-blond crop was wearing a tight, ripped T-shirt covered with blood and chicken bones. Allan "leather'n'chains" Jones, whose day job was at Sex, asked me whether I wanted to go with him to see Malcolm McLaren's new band. "They're called the Sex Pistols. What do you think?" Yes! I thought the name Sex Pistols was inspired, prescient, spot-on.
SIOUXSIE heard about the Sex Pistols because she also shopped at Sex. Along with her Bromley contingent - including Billy Idol (Generation X) and Steve Havoc (the Banshees) - she became part of the group which formed around the Pistols; she introduced them to Madame Louise's lesbian club in Soho, which soon became their retreat from the furore caused by punk's sudden infamy. Because the Sex Pistols and their audience were the same age, creating the scene together, the barrier between musicians and fans no longer existed. A punk underground of fashion, fanzines, independent record labels and clubs sprang up, as stark as the hippie underground had been psychedelic.
At the start - since punks had yet to record their own music - what they played for their own pleasure was reggae. Film-maker Don Letts became punk's official DJ, playing the latest dub at punk clubs and gigs. Peace- loving Bob Marley was shocked when Letts told him how crucial reggae bass lines and protest were to punk. Marley thought punk "nasty". Then, lying low in London after he was shot, Marley changed his mind and recorded "Punky Reggae Party" (1977).
Like the hippie movement's early years, the first year of punk did feel like a spectacular private party. But very soon punk's playfully anarchic theatre became all too real. Punk gigs were crashed by adult thugs. At the 100 Club's Punk Rock Festival in September 1976, a glass lobbed at the stage smashed and a friend of The Damned's Dave Vanian lost her eye. As hippies had to fend off the "protection" of the Hell's Angels, so punks had to cope with an enthusiastic National Front. Punks wore swastikas to shock, but when the press started printing stories about the National Front recruiting punks, an angry Johnny Rotten complained to me: "The National Front are wet. All my friends are black or gay or outcasts of one kind or another." Too late: the negativity that punk mania had unleashed was uncontrollable.
By June 1977, the month that "God Save the Queen" reached No 1 in the charts, Rotten couldn't escape. Easily recognised on the streets, he was attacked and wounded several times. In the face of such opposition, it's not surprising that punk turned in on itself. When you have nothing to lose, violence and anarchy, in words and deeds, becomes a thrilling option; punk was an all-encompassing, heartfelt, self-destructive scream, but not a solution. And that was the point.
Johnny Rotten expressed it well: for the likes of him, there was "No Future". Slashing their bodies with razor blades, fans came to punk gigs with blood trickling down their faces - a classic reaction to distress.
I interviewed Joe Strummer during that early period, and he tried to explain: "The hippie movement failed. The hippies around now just represent apathy. There's a million reasons why the thing failed. But I'm not interested in why. Because the only thing we've got to live with is that it failed."
And then Strummer stood up slowly, relishing the drama, and turned his back on me to reveal, written across the shoulders of his gunmetal-grey boiler-suit, the peace and love negative: HATE AND WAR.
! 'Arena: Punk and the Pistols' is on BBC2 at 9.30pm on Saturday.Reuse content