Remembering Sid Vicious – long gone, but not forgotten
Sid Vicious died from a drug overdose in a New York hotel on 2 February 1979. He was one of a long list of rock musicians who died in the years 1977 to 1980, including Elvis Presley, Marc Bolan, three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd (killed in an air crash), Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention), Keith Moon (The Who), Lowell George (Little Feat), Bon Scott (AC/DC), John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) and John Lennon.
Sid Vicious was born Simon John Ritchie in south-east London in 1957. He met John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) at Hackney Technical College and made various attempts to join bands associated with the emerging punk rock scene in the mid-1970s. He acquired the name Sid Vicious (allegedly) after being bitten by Lydon’s pet hamster Sid – which was in turn named after Pink Floyd’s first lead singer and songwriter, Syd Barrett.
In early 1977, the Sex Pistols were on the look-out for a new bass player after their first bassist, Glen Matlock, left the band. Sid Vicious was co-opted as the replacement, even though he had no real experience playing the instrument and struggled to master it. In fact, there is only one Sex Pistols album track where Vicious is credited as the bass player. Glen Matlock and guitarist Steve Jones were credited on the others.
The year 1977 was when the Sex Pistols burst onto the national stage and punk rock came of age. At the end of 1976, the band had been interviewed by Bill Grundy on Thames Television. It became a national news story, as the band members used swear-words liberally throughout the interview. The nation was horrified, but the Sex Pistols were now national celebrities.
At the time, the band had recorded just one single – “Anarchy in the UK”. Anarchy in the UK was not a bad description of what had been happening in Britain in the mid-1970s. Unemployment and inflation had shot up; the pound had plummeted. The Labour government was struggling to maintain the support of its own party and had a wafer-thin parliamentary majority. The International Monetary Fund had to be called in to help sort out the economic crisis.
Against this background, the Sex Pistols were on a roll – deriding the establishment. Their next target was the monarchy. The Queen was celebrating her Silver Jubilee in 1977. So out came “God Save the Queen”, describing her government as a “fascist regime” and England as a country with “no future”
At that time, I was 18 and about to go to university. Over the summer of 1977 I was working in a record shop near Victoria Station called Recordsville, which was a centre of the local pub-rock and punk scene. There was a massive display in the window promoting “God Save the Queen”, which caused shock and outrage from a middle-aged lady called Betty working in the office upstairs.
The Sex Pistols produced one more memorable single in July 1977 – “Pretty Vacant”. Their only studio album, Never Mind the Bo***cks, Here’s the Sex Pistols was released a few months later in October. This album drew heavily on the band’s back catalogue of singles. Guitarist Steve Jones contributed most of the bass-playing, because Vicious was in hospital recovering from hepatitis contracted through intravenous drug use.
The Sex Pistols lit up the music scene in 1977, shocked and energised us, but by 1978 the band had run its course. Johnny Rotten quit, though Malcolm McLaren, the manager, pressed on with the production of a tongue-in-cheek film about the band – The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. Sid Vicious was featured in the film, but he did not live to see its release.
Vicious led a troubled life, and had problems with drug abuse which ultimately led to the end of his life. Despite that, he is the best known member of the Sex Pistols after “Johnny Rotten”. Forty years on from his death, what lessons might we draw from the explosion and the brief success of the Sex Pistols?
The Sex Pistols and other punk bands were disrupters in the world of rock music, which had become stale and predictable. But the disrupters are not necessarily the long-term beneficiaries of a disruption. They create a chain reaction by which others respond and adapt. The punk revolutionaries shook up many traditional bands, and created many other new ones. Johnny Rotten used to wear a T-shirt boasting “I hate Pink Floyd”. Yet in 1979, Pink Floyd had their first number one single emulating the cynicism and despair in the songs of the Sex Pistols – “Another Brick in the Wall”.
In politics today, there are echoes of the political tensions and weak leadership of the UK in the late 1970s. But the political reaction to the turmoil of the 1970s was not shaped by punk. It was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 which changed the direction of the UK in the 1980s and beyond – not something the anti-establishment punk rockers were looking for.
Brexit, like punk rock, is a challenge to the status quo. But Brexiteers, like punk rockers, cannot dictate the future. It may not be “No Future”, as proclaimed by Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols. But it may be a very different future from the one the Brexiteers have envisaged and wished for.
Andrew Sentance is an economist, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and a part-time rock musician