Johnny Rotten’s Most Wicked Moments Remembered, As Sex Pistols’ ‘Bollocks’ Turns 35

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

Never mind middle age, here's the Sex Pistols!

The seminal punk band's first and only studio album was released October 27, 1977… which means that, even if it doesn't sound a day over 18, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols is turning 35 years old this weekend. No allusions to Johnny Rotten's famously ragged British dentistry are necessary when we point out that the album is now officially a little long in the tooth. Yet it remains among the most vigorously and sneeringly youthful of rock & roll classics.

Also undiminished with age: Johnny Rotten's penchant for the outrageous. He may have changed his name back to John Lydon after the Pistols broke up almost as soon as they'd started, but his attitude will always be rotten to us. (Charmingly rotten, we'd hasten to add, though your mileage may vary.) In honor of Bollocks' 35th birthday, here's a rundown of a dozen of Rotten/Lydon's most outrageous moments over the years, from the Pistols' first fateful appearance on live television to his recent Joe Biden endorsement.

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1. The Bill Grundy British TV debacle. This memorable talk-show chat was listed at No. 8 on the Guardian newspaper's list of "great interviews of the 20th century." Well before Never Mind the Bollocks came out, on Dec. 1, 1976, the Pistols appeared on the English version of The Today Show and had a row with host Bill Grundy. "They are punk-rockers—the new craze, I'm told," Grundy told viewers. "You see, they are as drunk as I am," he added. Rotten said the S-word, and when Grundy asked him to speak up, Johnny said, "Nothing, a rude word. Next question." Future star Siouxsie Sioux was among the girls gathered behind the band, and when Grundy suggested that they should "meet afterward," Steve Jones called him a "dirty old man." Grundy further baited them by saying, "Go on, you've got another five seconds. Say something outrageous." And, with no time delay in place, they did. The next morning, the Pistols were at the top of all the English papers, including one whose headline screamed, "The Filth and the Fury!"

2. Alienating the major labels. In the wake of the Bill Grundy interview, the Pistols managed to get dropped by two major labels—with no love lost, as the group bashed both EMI and A&M in the song "EMI," which closed out the Bollocks album (released on their third label, Virgin). Knocking queen and country in "God Save the Queen" and "Anarchy in the UK" was one thing. But biting the hands that feed?

3. Bashing newly-dead Elvis. The Pistols had no use for the pomp and circumstance of prog-rock, but neither did they have much respect for any other rock elders. Asked for comment about the death of Elvis Presley in '77, Rotten replied, "F---in' good riddance to bad rubbish. I don't give a f---in' s---, and nobody else does either. It's just fun to fake sympathy, that's all they're doin'."

4. The bitter farewell. On the final night of the group's North American tour, on Jan. 14, 1978, Rotten threw down the microphone and famously spat, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Good night." What a wonderfully graceless way to go out.

5. Not quite going through the motions with Dick Clark. After the Pistols split, the newly rechristened Lydon started Public Image Ltd., and on March 17, 1980, they were booked on American Bandstand, which went about as awkwardly and hilariously as anyone would have imagined. Performing "Poptones" and "Careering," Lydon casually strolled through the audience of confused youngsters, only bothering to feign the show's standard lip-syncing for a few moments of PIL's surreal, deconstructionist performance. Instruments were swapped; "dancing" extras were randomly engaged in peculiar ways. No wonder when Clark died, this clip was one everyone placed among Bandstand's top 10 moments.

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6. Sassing like there was no tomorrow on The Tomorrow Show. On June 27, 1980, Lydon had his way with another American television institution, Tom Snyder. When he quickly grew bored with Snyder's line of questioning, Lydon snapped, ""Well, surely you've studied your history of us. I mean, come on… Do your business!... Humor us." Eventually they got to some more meaningful exchanges. "Why do you dislike rock & roll so much?" asked the host. Said Lydon: "It's dead. It's a disease. It's a plague. It's been going on for too long. It's history. It's vile. It's not achieving anything, it's just regression. They play rock & roll at airports." If he felt that way in 1980… Toward the end of the chat, Snyder chided, ""It's unfortunate that we are all out of step except for you… Interesting having you on tonight. One of the most interesting moments in my life."

7. Turning down the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In the early '90s, Lydon had attended the opening of a Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas and declared he found that outrightly commercial, arguably gaudy shrine to rock much preferable to the sacrosanct Hall of Fame. Sure enough, when it was announced in 1996 that the Pistols were to be inducted, Rotten/Lydon sent a handwritten letter that said in part (sic): "Next to the SEX PISTOLS rock and roll and that hall of fame is a p--- stain. Your museum. Urine in wine. Were not coming. Were not your monkey and so what? Fame at $25,000 if we paid for a table, or $15000 to squeak up in the gallery, goes to a non-profit organisation selling us a load of old famous…"

8. Deferring to Judge Judy. After a certain point, Lydon's TV appearances on the most unlikely shows imaginable took on the patina of performance art. In 1997, PIL's former drummer, Robert Williams, filed suit against him, and they have agreed to leave the verdict up to Judge Judy. He may have once advocated anarchy in the UK, but there was no archy in Judge Judy's courtroom. When she told Lydon to clam up and "be respectful," he did, more or less. What could be more outrageous than that?

9. His grand reality-TV moment. In 2004, Lydon became a contestant on Britain's Big Brother-like show, I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Before he walked off the show, his antics were appreciated by much of the English public and he was even considered a favorite to win. But that popularity went against his nature, and he unloaded with a string of curse words on undelayed live TV when he failed to be voted off as he'd hoped. He became a favorite in spite of—or maybe because of—tangling with Kardashian-style celeb Jordan, of whom he said, "Whatever career that thing thinks she has, it's a pretty useless one in my book."

10. The butter commercial. In 2008, Lydon put on a tweed suit and shot a commercial for Country Butter. Despite appearances, it was no sell-out, he assured his followers: "People know I only do things that I want to or that I believe in and I have to do it my way." Sales for the product shot up considerably in the wake of Lydon's salesmanship. He eventually conceded the advert was a way of financing a Public Image Ltd. revival without major-label support—though messing with our heads was probably Reason No. 1.

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11. Bashing Green Day. Sadly, this fateful meeting was not captured on video, so we have to take Lydon's word for it. At an Anna Wintour fashion party in New York a few years ago, he let his feelings be known to some fellow guests: "Jamie Oliver (a British celebrity cook) and Green Day came walking down the corridor at the same time, and I really let them have it. Oliver first, for being a mockney. He got all upset and told me I was letting the (British) side down. Then Green Day, who I shouted at for a while. A few minutes later, Richard Gere comes up to me. He says, 'Well done John, they needed telling off.' I replied: 'OK, hamster boy!' Now that to me was a good night out."

12. Lydon and Biden: Separated at birth? After the recent VP debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, Lydon felt that, in the guffawing and openly disdainful vice president, he'd recognized a kindred spirit. "Biden's my man," he told So That Happened host John Fugelsang. "I look at Biden and I see myself there." Think of the malarkey-less band these two could form.

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