Watching an old interview with the Sex Pistols can be funny. We’ll get a spiel about how crazy they are, how they embody burn-the-bridges musical terrorism…then the interview starts, and they seem disappointingly normal. Nothing ages as poorly as rebellion. They were ahead of their time, but not too far ahead. Both Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious would look dull at a 21st century Hot Topic. Time has murdered their shtick.
If anything looks bizarre to a modern viewer, it’s the pomaded, coiffed, tweed-wearing creatures in the interviewer’s chair.
Scott Alexander once said “Virtue is appropriated by people wanting to signal smug superiority. Others start by condemning the signaling, but move on to condemn virtue.” Punk rock was like that. It started out as a reaction against the pretensions of popular music at the time (17 minute progressive rock opuses about walruses mating, and all that), but soon became an all-out attack against music itself.
Punk rock tore down every idea about music, especially that it has to be good. Having standards became an indicator of poseurdom. Can you play your instrument correctly? Suspicious. Do you sing on key? Doubly suspicious. Do you have lots of fans? That’s the worst of all. Might as well write “fake punk” and “sellout” on your guitar case.
Which is funny, considering that the authenticity of the Sex Pistols is far from unimpeachable. Yes, their image was calculated, and they were stage-managed. To hear Malcolm McLaren tell it, they were little more than a boy band formed to promote his clothing line. But maybe even trying to be authentic is inauthentic. Maybe the realest band is actually the fakest band, and vice versa, and thus the Ouroborus eats its own tail.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Johnny Rotten sneered at the final Sex Pistols show, in San Francisco. The band was coming apart at the seams. They were wrapping up a tour where McLaren had deliberately booked them for venues in the deep south, to maximize the controversy (and if one of them got blasted to death by a drunk redneck!). Sid Vicious was already picking up speed into a terminal death spiral. He was a few days away from a valium and methadone-induced coma. If this is real music, maybe fake is better.
Even if the Pistols were “real”, most of their fans weren’t. One gets the feeling that the Pistols were growing disillusioned by the social movement they were meant to be heading up. The Winterland promoter estimated that only about 10-15% of the audience were genuine punks. The rest of them were just normies who’d come to see the freaks. For the average person in that crowd, it was just a kind of zoo where you can throw food at the animals.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that after the Sex Pistols ended, Johnny Rotten terminated what seemed like a prosperous career as Iggy Pop v2.0, and started releasing utterly unmusical albums as Public Image Ltd. Maybe he wanted to plant his flag firmly on the side of rebellion, and the Sex Pistols weren’t breaking enough soil for his taste. People will be listening to the Pistols record for far longer than anything PIL will ever release, but that’s a small price to pay for the most valuable currency of punk rock: authenticity.
Johnny Rotten once said “only the fakes survive”. Which he himself did, in a way. But not very well.