Drummer Paul Cook on the Sex Pistols' legacy: 'We were public enemy number one'

Paul Cook at the Professionals <em>What in the World</em> album preview on Oct. 4, in New York City. (Photo: CJ Rivera/Getty Images)
Paul Cook at the Professionals What in the World album preview on Oct. 4, in New York City. (Photo: CJ Rivera/Getty Images)

As troubling and uncertain as conditions are in both the U.S. and the U.K. today regarding unemployment, health care, and taxes, 40 years ago they were far worse — especially in England.

When the Sex Pistols released their groundbreaking debut, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, on Oct. 28, 1977, all of the rage and disenfranchisement fomenting in the underclass in England spilled out like a barrel of sulfuric acid poured down a steep hill. The Pistols immediately became the band to rally behind, and even if their image was partially molded by manager Malcolm McLaren — an artist and designer who owned the clothing shop Sex — their songs were abrasive and aggressive, and their concerts were loud and unruly, filled with angry kids looking for a catalyst to rebel and riot.

It was the perfect combination of timing and talent. The Sex Pistols probably didn’t need to create a first-rate album to rally the youth; they just needed the attitude and irreverence of frontman Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) and a bombastic rhythmic backdrop to provoke complete chaos. Yet Never Mind the Bollocks is, perhaps against all odds, an exceptional record. As caustic as songs like “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “Pretty Vacant,” and “God Save the Queen” are, they’re all fairly traditionally crafted songs that feature strong verses, choruses, solos, and mid-sections. Forty years after its initial release, it still holds up as a motivational, insanely influential slab of ripping rock that still resonates for angry, disconsolate outcasts looking for an outlet for their pain.

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Following the dissolution of the Sex Pistols, Lydon launched his new, more art-rock-based project Public Image Ltd. (PiL), while guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook formed the poppy punk band the Professionals. The Professionals signed to Virgin Records, but their self-titled 1980 album wasn’t released until 1997. The band’s first public release was 1981’s “I Didn’t See It Coming.” The title was ironic since the band’s career basically ended — for 25 years — after their car was in a head-on collision and Cook, along with bandmates Allan Myers and Ray McVeigh, were injured. Jones moved to Los Angeles, and the rest of the band members returned to England, putting a long-term halt to the Professionals.

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Then, in 2015, Universal Music Group released the three-disc set The Complete Professionals, and Cook and Meyers decided to reform the band with guitarist Tom Spencer since Jones didn’t want to be involved. This week, the revamped Professionals release the new album What in the World, a solid, hook-filled record featuring guest performances by Jones (on three songs), Pistols fans Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses), Billy Duff (the Cult), Mick Jones (the Clash), Phil Collen (Def Leppard), Marco Pirroni (Adam and the Ants), and Chris McCormack (3 Colours Red).

Yahoo Entertainment talked with Cook about the birth of the Sex Pistols, the punk rock scene in England, the heroin addictions that plagued the band, and the forces that destroyed one of the greatest punk groups. He also addressed the rise and fall of the Professionals, the recent resurrection of the band, and the possibility that they’ll play Sex Pistols covers with special guests at the band’s record release party.

Yahoo Entertainment: Paul, is all the press about the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols album something you wear with pride or is it more like an albatross around your neck?

Paul Cook: It’s a bit of both, actually. Obviously, I’m very proud of the music and what we did with the band, though I’m not keen to go back and harp on about it all the time. I know it was an important time musically and culturally, and it was great that the album became a big part of that. But it is a generation ago, and I don’t know if it still has the same kind of resonance and meaning today as it did back then — although it influenced a lot of people at the time, and maybe even now.

The cultural climate in England was a crucial part of the Sex Pistols’ popularity, correct?

That’s the era we grew up in, and there was a lot of trouble and strife going on in the U.K. back then. There was social unrest and garbage strikes. Trash would pile up in the streets, and there were a lot of electrical and coal worker strikes. We had to get the candles out at night if we wanted some light when I was a kid, because the electric had been cut off. There were still bomb sites around in the UK. So we kind of grew up around this scene, and it caused a lot of people to be angry, including us. It reflected in our music and our attitude and I think that’s where the energy and anger came from — especially when we got Mr. Lydon in the band to express these ideas. We tapped into a real feeling of unrest with the youth, and they were looking for something to follow.

You met Johnny Rotten in Malcolm McLaren’s shop. Did you know right away he should be your vocalist?

First, we had to audition him, but it wasn’t a real audition. He sang “I’m 18” by Alice Cooper along with the music. We were looking for a singer. Me, Steve [Jones], and [original bassist] Glen [Matlock] were all hanging around Malcolm’s shop and we were looking for a frontman who could express what we were feeling. John was perfect. He was fantastic — the final piece of the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle. And, bang, that’s where it all started.

What was most appealing about Johnny? He certainly wasn’t great at carrying a melody?

Lots of guys could do that. It wasn’t important. John had something about him. He always had a lot to say, and that’s what we liked. He was very smart and sarcastic.

John recently said that he was never into drugs and debauchery and that Sex Pistols were all straight and sober when you started out.

That’s pretty spot-on. We weren’t into a drugged-up lifestyle. It was quite the opposite to start off with. We were working-class kids. We always thought that drugs and heroin were for middle-class kids who can afford. We weren’t into drugs at the time. We couldn’t afford it. I blame New Yorkers who came over to London for bringing drugs to the scene.

Lots of wealthier British rock ‘n’ roll bands were doing drugs before the punk scene started. You can’t blame the American punk scene.

I know, but that’s what some people say. They always try to blame people like Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. They say that when they came over they introduced drugs and destroyed the punk scene. But that’s not true. Everyone is their own man and is old enough to make his own decisions. I think that was just a cultural thing, really, that grew into the scene. So yeah, there were drugs and Steve [Jones] got addicted to heroin, but there weren’t many drugs around — not compared to what there is today where you can walk around to any street corner and get whatever you want within five minutes. If you wanted to get any drugs back then, you had to wait a couple of days sometimes.

Some people say the Sex Pistols couldn’t play their instruments and were just creating noise.

We got a lot of that from people because our live shows were so chaotic people thought we couldn’t play. And when we made such a great record a lot of people didn’t believe we were really playing on it. They didn’t think it was us, and that the label had hired studio musicians. There was a lot of jealousy as well from other musicians; they didn’t understand it. I guess we didn’t realize how different the music was at the time. We were just being ourselves, but it must have sounded so different to everyone else compared to what was going on at the time — there was Jonesey’s distorted guitar, my pumping drums, and Lydon’s [confrontational] vocals. It was powerful stuff and it took people a long time to get their heads around it.

The Sex Pistols in Eindhoven, Holland, in December 1977: Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Paul Cook. (Photo: gie Knaeps)
The Sex Pistols in Eindhoven, Holland, in December 1977: Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Paul Cook. (Photo: gie Knaeps)

Were you trying to incite crowds to riot? Did you want to start a revolution?

No, I don’t think so. The lyrics were quite nihilistic, but that’s just the way John wrote and that’s the way he was feeling at the time. We didn’t have any idea how the crowds would react. But we tapped into a real feeling of unrest with what was going on in the U.K. at the time. Kids just came flooding out of everywhere to be involved, and it happened instantly as well. It was pretty overwhelming.

The U.K. press instantly latched on to the punk phenomenon in a very sensational way.

We were public enemy number one. In everyone’s eyes, it was this horrible new punk thing that was going on, and it was degrading and there was fighting and f***ing in the street and swearing on the TV. Outrageous.

Did you look back and smile at the carnage?

Not at all. It wasn’t fun to be a part of, really. We were thrown into the storm so we played up the image. We played along with it a little bit because we weren’t able to stop it. We could just walk out onto the road and throw something and there would be all these stories in the papers about us trying to ruin society.

Everyone in the band was skilled except, arguably, Sid Vicious, who looked the part but wasn’t a musician. Was he an asset to the band?

I mean, Sid looked great. He had the attitude, and he went mad as soon as he joined the band. Really, he was troubled straight from the start. It would have been better, in retrospect, if Glen had stayed in the band. I think we would have probably lasted longer, but that wasn’t going to happen. Sid was great image-wise, but he made everything even more chaotic with all the things he said and did. I’m not going to go into all that.

The Pistols were on top of the world from the start. When did everything go sour?

I guess when Sid joined the band, that’s when things just went into overdrive and got out of control. John wanted Sid to join because they were friends and he wanted a friend in the band because he thought me and Steve were a team. Then, as soon as Sid joined and was going crazy, John and Sid fell out straight away. So that’s when it started to go downhill.

You and Steve grew up together.

We knew each other as kids. We went to the same school, and that’s why when the Pistols split it was obvious we were going to stay together. And that’s when we formed the Professionals.

John said the Pistols were over the night he broke up the band at the show when he asked the crowd if they ever felt they’d “been cheated.”

No, we knew that the end was coming before that. We were burning too brightly, and we burnt out. There was just no way we could continue. We couldn’t handle all the press and the pressure when we were 20 years old. It’s hard to understand what big news we were. We were in the headlines all the time, and it was pretty destructive a lot of the time. It was tearing us apart, so there’s no way we could’ve carried on much longer the way it was.

By then both Sid and Steve were addicted to heroin.

They were pretty f***ed up. Steve was my friend, and I was trying to hold it all together. I didn’t realize at the time that Steve was doing heroin to deal with all the stress of being in the Pistols until I read his book. He was medicating himself to handle it all, and I didn’t realize quite how serious it was. It just evolved into a really bad heroin problem that continued when we formed the Professionals. That’s one reason the band didn’t last too long. It’s amazing we actually got an album out and did some touring with that lineup the way things were at the time.

Was it hard to break out of the Sex Pistols mold and do something different?

The Professionals were really along the same lines as the Pistols. It was rocky, catchy songs, but it was slightly poppier, I guess. It was never going to be the same as the Pistols because we didn’t have Johnny’s vocals and his aggression and anger. So we went off and did our own thing, which was great. It’s a pity we couldn’t do more of that because of all the craziness that was going on.

The Professionals kind of ended with a bang after you got into a near-fatal car accident.

The car crash was really serious. I remember that well. I was in the car and we all managed to get out alive, just barely. The guy who drove into us killed himself. He came down the freeway straight into us, and we had a head-on collision. It was really serious. The crash almost took my head off. Paul Myers broke his arm and almost broke his leg, and Ray broke his hand. Of course, Lucky Luciano Jones wasn’t in the car. He was off shagging a bird or something. Somehow we were back touring the States within a few months, and that’s when the band disintegrated. Steve ended up staying in America, and that was the end of that. He has been in the States ever since. Steve was still a bit out of control on drugs, and he didn’t want to go back to the U.K. So that was the end of the Professionals Mach I, but now we’re on to Mach II.

How did the band get back together?

I stayed in touch with Steve over the years. I went to L.A. a lot and we would catch up. We had done the Pistols reunion tour things in ‘96, 2000, and 2007 — the last time we played was 10 years ago. And then in 2015 Universal Records released a box set of the Professionals so we got back together without Steve Jones. There was just no way he would come to the U.K. and sing Professionals songs. It’s a wonder we got him on the album. But we started jamming — the three of us — without Steve, and that sounded good and was fun. We played the songs for a long time and thought, Actually, these are not bad. Let’s take it a bit further. So we got Tom [Spencer] involved.

It’s a new lineup and it’s a new album, so we’re moving forward. We didn’t just want to go back and rehash all the old stuff on tour. I wouldn’t have done it if that was the case. We wanted to move forward, and I think that’s what we did. We’ll have to wait and see what people think about it, but I think it sounds like us — or me — or what I’ve been involved in before. That’s just the way I play and that’s what I like, and I think we’ve written a great bunch of songs.

What was the greatest obstacle you faced making the new record?

For me, everyone knows I was in the Professionals, but people don’t realize I was a large part of the creative process before. They think it was all Steve. Even Tom didn’t realize I’d written half of the old Professionals songs, so there you go. It’s about time I get f***ing credit I deserve [laughs]. Since I was just sitting in the back on the drums, people think, Well, there’s not too much creativity involved there. That’s just the idiot at the back of the stage with the drumsticks.

Are these all new songs or are there any leftovers from the old days?

There are only a couple of old riffs that I’ve had sticking around for years and years, but all the stuff with me and Tom sitting around with acoustic guitars and writing songs is now. And that’s what we did to get the basic ideas for the songs.

Did these songs come quickly?

Some of it did, but it’s not like the songs came in five minutes. We worked on them pretty hard over a number of sessions. You could bang out three-chord songs in five minutes if you want, but they usually sound like what they are. We wanted things that were just a little bit original and had some musical twists to them. So we kept bouncing ideas back and forth and it all came together eventually.

What in the World features guest performances by Duff McKagan, Billy Duffy, Phil Collen, Mick Jones, and others. That should be exciting for fans of those bands — and it’s a way to get them to check out the Professionals, which they may not have heard before.

It all happened through connections over the years, mainly through L.A. with Steve. He’s been here forever now, so I went there a lot and I’d meet with Duff and Billy Duffy. And Phil Collen is a friend of mine. We did a band called Man Ray a while ago. And, of course, I’ve known Mick Jones and Marco Pirroni from the London punk scene. So it’s not like we were ringing up strangers asking them to help out. We’re all friends, and they were all really excited to get involved. Most of them were original Pistols and Professionals fans, which is really cool. I know Duff McKagan is a huge punk fan.

Anything funny or wild happen when you got all those guest stars into the studio?

Everyone’s quite sensible these days. We’re all grown up, you know? We’re all boring. There are no good stories anymore. Everyone’s sober. All the guys in L.A. are clean. No stories of decadence or debauchery, unfortunately.

That seems to be a byproduct of growing up and become more, er, mature.

Yeah, and that’s what we are now, and what we’re addressing on this album. We’re not talking about partying or world problems. We mainly wanted to address what’s going on within ourselves as older guys and just trying to age gracefully.

You’re having a record release party on Saturday, which is the 40th anniversary of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Any chance you’ll break out some old Pistols numbers?

I’ve always said I never want to play Pistols songs in the Professionals. And I still don’t want to do that in our regular concerts. But there may be a chance on the anniversary to get a couple guests up there and do some Pistols numbers. We’ll see who’s around. But if ever we’re going to play a couple of Pistols songs, this is the time to do it.

If it goes well, why not incorporate a couple of Never Mind the Bollocks songs into your set?

Because we want to be a totally different entity to that. Glen Matlock likes to go out and play “God Save the Queen” and f***ing “Anarchy in the U.K.” on acoustic guitar. But that’s not for me. The Professionals were formed to be something different than the Pistols. And now we’re continuing to move on. I just be myself. That’s all you can be. People sometimes are shocked to see me dressed like a normal guy. I guess they expect me to come out in a big studded leather jacket with a Mohawk. But I just gotta be myself now and I’m no longer that guy.