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Backspin: Steve Jones on the 40th anniversary of punk and whether the Sex Pistols 'could've ended up like U2'

As Britain celebrates the 40th anniversary of punk this year, it’s hard to believe that the band at the center of that revolution released only one official full-length recording, on Oct. 28, 1977. However, that recording was Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols — and it changed everything.

“We only did one album. And that one album has kept the whole ball rolling ever since,” states Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones during Yahoo Music’s in-depth Backspin interview covering his career with the Pistols and beyond. “Normally, most bands who are this kind of band — Doors, Beatles, Stones, Clash — they get about four, five, six albums under their belt. The fact that we only did one, I think, is a testament. Maybe if we had done another album, it would have sucked.”

Steve Jones (Photo by Paul Rosales)

Jones says he rarely spends much time thinking about what might have been if the Pistols hadn’t broken up after less than three years, spectacularly imploding at the Bay Area’s Winterland Ballroom at the end of an infamous, ill-fated, 12-date U.S. tour in early 1978. However, he admits, “in hindsight, maybe that was not the smartest thing to do, to break up the band in San Francisco. Maybe we should have just chilled for a minute, got back to England. But it just didn’t seem like it was in the cards. [Bassist] Sid [Vicious] was completely out of control with that girl Nancy [Spungen, whom Vicious was charged of murdering before his own death in 1979]. It just didn’t seem like anything could turn around, where we could get back on track again.

“But I do wonder about it, if we could have knocked another record out,” adds Jones, revealing that the Pistols attempted to write new music during one of their reunions, in 2003, but nothing came of it. “Could we have ended up like U2? I doubt it. It’s something good, that it just ended when it did.”

And so, it took only one album to forever cement the Pistols’ place in rock ‘n’ roll history. (They’re even in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside U2, though they famously didn’t attend the induction ceremony, and Jones jokes that he wants to sell his Hall of Fame statue on eBay.) Still, Jones had no idea, when the classic Pistols lineup featuring frontman John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), drummer Paul Cook, and original bassist Glen Matlock entered Wessex Sound Studios in London’t Islington to record Bollocks, that they were doing anything especially significant.

“When I first heard the finished version of the single ‘God Save the Queen,’ I knew it was great, but I had no idea [we’d] still talking about it 40 years later,” marvels Jones, who at the time of the Wessex sessions had been playing guitar for only about a year. “I don’t know how anyone thinks they hear something and goes, ‘This is going to be a masterpiece! Space people are going to hear this album!’ You know what I mean? You don’t think about it. I didn’t, anyway, being 21, 22. We was just having a laugh at that point, wasn’t thinking of the future. I wasn’t. ‘No future.’”

It was, in fact, the Pistols’ anarchic “no future” message, delivered during an economically dire time in Britain, that made Bollocks “the main album to have, if you were part of this new revolution.” Says Jones: “It was bleak in the early ‘70s in London. No one had jobs. A lot of people were on strike. The trashmen were on strike, trash bags everywhere. A lot of abandoned buildings. Nobody really had any money. It was perfect timing for us to come along.”

Jones further recalls the Pistols’ inauspicious beginnings, when Lydon answered a “singer wanted” ad in the local paper and met up with Jones, Cook, Matlock, and Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren for an extremely casual audition. “We went ‘round the pub ‘round the corner, we had a couple of pints, everyone got bowled [drunk]. … That’s when we decided for John to sing along to the jukebox.

“He sang along to the jukebox in an arrogant way, you know, taking the piss, and I thought he wasn’t being serious: ‘To hell with this guy, he won’t even try!’ But he was being what John was, you know? It took me a few seconds. I thought he looked fantastic. But that’s where it all started — if that was an audition.”

There was tension within the lineup from the start — “It’s funny, because we have a similar sense of humor, me and John, but there’s something that just makes me uncomfortable when I’m around him,” admits Jones — but for a while, that worked in the group’s favor. “You’ve gotta have that chemistry [in a band], and that doesn’t mean that you all like each other. There is an invisible friction that people pick up on when they go to see a band, and it’s important.”

Unfortunately, everything really started to unravel after the Pistols’ notorious, profanity-laden, last-minute appearance (filling in for Queen) on a regional Thames TV program, Today, with host Bill Grundy. “I think the real thing when the cracks started to show was after we did the Bill Grundy show — when we swore on [live] TV,” says Jones. “Prior to that, it was about us being in music magazines, picking up fans. … And then when we did the swearing thing. [Grundy] was provoking us, anyway. And the next day, it was front-page tabloids all the way — until we broke up, really. And I think that was the beginning of the end.

“Glen didn’t last much longer after the Grundy show; he just didn’t seem that he wanted to go in 100 percent. I always got along with Glen; it was just the dynamics, it seemed a bit off. He was always washing his feet, which we thought was a bit odd. He was always close to his mum and stuff. His mum was offended when we wrote ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’! I think Malcolm had a bit to do with the manipulating and giving him the boot — hence getting Sid in the band. … Sid never picked up a bass in his life before, which was a nightmare for me, because I’m the one telling him where to put his fingers. But you couldn’t deny he had a fantastic look. I think he would have gone on to be a real star. He had the potential; he just got slung in the deep end.”

Post-Pistols, Lydon formed the experimental rock group Public Image Ltd., and Jones and Cook — or “Cookie,” as Jones affectionately calls him — soldiered on in McLaren’s 1980 mockumentary The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle and a new band called the Professionals (as seen in the Diane Lane/Laura Dern cult punk film Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains). Jones later joined forces in L.A. with Michael Des Barres, Tony Sales, and Blondie’s Nigel Harrison and Clem Burke in the promising rock/new wave supergroup Chequered Past. But at that point, he had become hooked on heroin (when asked why the overdose death of his addict bandmate Vicious hadn’t cautioned him about the dangers of drug use, he just shrugs and says, “Seeing someone else ain’t gonna put me off doing something”), so these projects quickly fell apart.

“To be honest, all musical things, the Professionals and all that, was secondary. Shooting dope was my No. 1 priority,” Jones says matter-of-factly. “Music didn’t mean anything prior to me getting sober. It was just a means to an end: ‘Oh, great! A record company? That means we’ll get some advance money. That means I can carry on doing drugs!’ That’s all it meant.”

Jones recalls a particularly low point in his checkered past, with Chequered Past, when he was crashing at the home of Michael Des Barres and Michael’s wife at the time, famous groupie/author Pamela Des Barres. “One day I just decided to start doing dope again, and they went out of town one day and I had no money. And I sold some of Pam’s records — Beatles records, I think — and some of Michael’s [leather] jackets. And of course, when they came back, I had to find somewhere else to stay. [Michael] wasn’t happy. … Not my finest hour, but when you’re a junkie, man, it’s hard to be honorable and to do the right thing.”

Finally, in the mid-‘80s, Jones got sober for good, actually starring in a R.A.D. (Rock Against Drugs) PSA and releasing a solo single called “Drugs Suck” (which he now groaningly denounces as “preachy” and says makes him sound “like a prick”). He grew his hair long, adopted a “biker-y” persona, and started hanging on the Sunset Strip. He even played in another supergroup, the Neurotic Outsiders, in the ‘90s with members of Guns N’ Roses (and John Taylor of Duran Duran!). This image shift may have surprised some old-school Pistols fanatics, but Jones never had any problem moving on from his punk days. “I’m not the person that thinks I’ve got to have my hair spiky still,” he asserts, though he proudly quips that he still has “all my hair — and teeth.”

Nowadays, you’ll find the non-spiky Jones on Los Angeles radio station KLOS, hosting the wildly popular and wildly genre-hopping afternoon show Jonesy’s Jukebox and playing a little bit of everything. “I think you just like what [music] you like, regardless of what you think people think you should like. I used to listen to Boston and Journey when the Sex Pistols was going on,” Jones confesses, further recalling listening to “Don’t Stop Believin’” on a Walkman on the Professionals’ tour bus back in the day. “That wasn’t something you could really talk about then — or I didn’t feel like I should open me mouth about it. But now I don’t care. … I like all kinds of music. I still like Boston and Journey. I like a lot of Tamla Motown. I like a lot of early reggae — ‘60s and ‘70s reggae. I like a lot of classic rock. The least thing I listen to is punk.”

Watch Steve Jones’s multipart Backspin interview for more musical memories, and pick up his candid new autobiography, Lonely Boy, here.

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