BOOK REVIEW: John Lydon Rotten - No Blacks No Irish No Dogs
- Tim Kennedy
This is the long-awaited autobiography of the Sex Pistols' singer and lyricist. It is mainly written by him with frequent and sometimes lengthy contributions from people Lydon trusts of those days - Chrissie Hynde, Cook, Jones, Steve Severin of the Banshees, Billy Idol, Nora who John eventually married, his Dad and even Richard Branson.
Lydon/Rotten begins with his poverty-stricken childhood, and of his terrible illness as a boy. Much emphasis is laid on his Irish roots being a factor and although he squashes all militant Republican arguments, he dwells on the prejudice he felt as a boy in London. He shows regret at the insurmountable distance (emotional as much as cultural) that lies between him and his parents' homeland but quickly dispels this by categorically describing himself as British despite his scorn for that country and his self-imposed exile.
Lydon's family evidently supported him totally in his career and he is depicted as extremely close to his mother. His father contributes much to the book and the bond between them is obviously still solid. Lydon tacitly admits that his initial lack of interest in relationships had a lot to do with his closeness to his mother (who died in 1980). Steve Jones' description of his childhood is still more heartening than Lydon's.
Typically John has little that is charitable to say about anyone. He has made peace with Steve Jones and Paul Cook (guitar/drums) but he is more snide than ever about Matlock (original bassist and co-writer). He gleefully describes appalling pranks they played on the hapless bassist - one anecdote concerning a sandwich is particularly revolting. The rest of the band despised Glen too. He grudgingly admits eventually that the musical success of the band was down to the friction between the contrasting styles of Matlock and himself. Lydon predictably reserves some of his deepest scorn for Malcolm McLaren and his works.
Sid Vicious gets plenty of putdowns, mainly for being an airhead and a fashion victim. His dishevelled appearance of legend contrasts sharply with the character of his teenage years who'd spend all his money on the latest shirt and cared more for his appearance than anything else. Lydon regrets Sid's passing and rates his initial impact on joining the band as surpassing Matlock's contribution. He admits Matlock was hired as sessioneer on the Bollocks album and even admits hiring Vicious was down to him. Interestingly John's parents were critical of him for getting Sid in the band, believing Sid to be a danger to himself even then.
Vicious was part of a gang of cut-throats and cultural terrorists Lydon/Rotten collected around him even while at school, including John Wardle/Jah Wobble - the bassist who distinguished himself on the early PIL albums. This gang is described as the first 'punks'. The tastes of this gang were broad enough to encompass seventies disco soul amazingly, and they often went to soul clubs dressed in their proto punk rags drawing gaping astonishment from the assembled 'smoothies'. The disco influence became evident in the momentous second PIL work, Metal Box (now available as Second Edition).
Although gleefully recalling the beatings Sid dished out to McLaren, Lydon admits that Vicious was useless after the initial purple patch during which Belsen, Holidays etc were written. Heroin and Nancy Spungen were the culprits, but Sid apparently developed an ego problem. Lydon's, indeed everyone's, disgust with Spungen and her incessant whining is made clear. Lydon implies that he and Sid would have got together musically had he lived, and makes vague claims of conspiracy concerning Nancy's and subsequently Sid's death.
Heroin entering the scene is blamed on the arrival of the Heartbreakers and their entourage in mid-77 and Rotten claims that virtually no one admired Thunders except for the ever-gullible Sid. In fact Rotten disclaims any influence of the New York scene on the Sex Pistols, but does mention the Stooges Funhouse album. He says his pre-Pistols diet was mainly Can and Hawkwind. These influences were only to become apparent on Metal Box as the rest of the band were simple rock'n'rollers. Lydon is somewhat apologetic on this score.
Rotten stands by the more chaotic songs the Sex Pistols did; "Submission" and "No Fun" come in for particular mention. It is interesting to read how Matlock had intended "Pretty Vacant" to be a nice melodic number with the emphasis on 'Pretty', only to see his creation besmirched by Rotten - 'Va-cunt-ah' - and by Jones' primaeval riffery. This was a pattern that emerges in the book - Matlock trying to drive the band in a melodic, pretty-boy direction and Rotten continually courting controversy with his lyrics and delivery.
The story of the cliques who followed the band is detailed here. There were the trendies from Bromley, art-school poseurs. There were the football hooligans from Finsbury Park, the scruffy North London district where Rotten grew up. Rotten incidentally knew most of them personally, being a loyal Arsenal fan and veteran of a few terrace scraps himself; being a football fan does not automatically make you a thug, I would emphasize. Rotten uses this mix of class backgrounds to put across his theory that the Sex Pistols were trying to break down class/race barriers in Britain. I found this lengthy idealistic passage amusing and wondered what kind of shrift he'd have given a hapless interviewer for suggesting this was their principal motivation back in the thuggish, foul-mouthed days of '76. As a punk myself at the time, I can concur with his comments about bringing races together - the wholesale adoption of reggae music by punks was of enormous importance. He doesn't mention it, but in addition, punk briefly united the youth of the six northern counties of Ireland.
This is a fascinating book, with countless priceless anecdotes. Given the recent resurgence of bands namechecking the Sex Pistols, it is good to see that Lydon has reserved some venom for the likes of Nirvana, comparing them to the clueless metal bands they were up against in the seventies. The style is virtually Lydon verbatim and contains some excellent subtle wordplay.