I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol by Glen Matlock (Rocket88, 2012/revised, 1990)
Get this book. If you don’t have it, get this book now. If you do have it - but not this edition - get this book now.
If you do have a copy of this edition, get copies of "I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol" and give them to your friends, relations, people you know hate punk rock, everyone you know who reads biographies, and especially, your other half.
Why? Apart from coming across like he’s speaking the truth plainly without over-egging the thing, it’s occasionally so funny it makes your cocoa go down the wrong way and come out of your nose.
Or perhaps that’s just me; try this: After the Grundy Incident, "I didn’t speak to my mum for about a week. When I finally did talk to her, all she could say was, 'Glen, it’s terrible what you’ve done, you used to be such a nice boy, no every time I go to work … they call me Mrs Sex Pistol.'”
I had to change my top and leave it in the sink overnight to soak out the cocoa stain.
Perhaps I should explain that I love this band. Sure, I know the New York Dolls were the real breakthrough to what became (UK) punk, punk as a world-wide wave, as a genre, and now an oldies niche. And yeah, I heard them before The Ramones, and The Ramones before the punk explosion happened. And the Sex Pistols were the pinpoint, the drunken surfer of a vast and ever-expanding series of hurricane waves.
Big deal, right?
For me, the Sex Pistols were a critical part of an underground which abruptly arose from a placid, dully-lapping lake and transformed the rock world into a universe of potential. Assorted industries put the shutters on that fairly smartly, of course, as far back as 1978 - and I don’t mean as a reactionary "yuck!" but as a "grab it, it’s popular, we can do business" kinda way.
Perspective: for me, the initial records by The Clash and The Damned were exciting - but they became rock bands pretty damn quick. "Music for Pleasure" and "Machine Gun Etiquette" are rock LPs - brilliant, but not punk, just excellent rock LPs. "Give ‘em Enough Rope" was sold in the chain stores in England - it was a rock LP. Brilliant and divisive as it was, "The Scream" was utterly out there, belying what the Banshees were to become… just a great rock band.
More or less by accident, the Pistols were never just a rock band. The confluence of characters, each with a depth and breadth of experience, formed songs which resonated beyond each individual, and far beyond the rock world. They couldn’t have predicted it. McLaren, no matter what his creative points were, was always into image over content; while Westwood (who comes across as being oblivious to almost everything except tailoring) seems astonishingly thick.
As for Nancy … there’s one anecdote which might, to some, seem that Glen was unutterably callous. But me, I think he did entirely the right thing.
When I walked in the door of the Glen Matlock gig a couple of nights ago, I had a look at the merch stall. Didn’t have much money - couldn’t spare any, to be honest, as we’d just received one of Adelaide’s famous electricity bills which the powers that be tell us are only a third more than usual, and everyone I know looks in horror and disbelief at low usage quarters well over double what they were accustomed to paying in heavy usage quarters - but I saw "I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol" which I’d never seen in the shops and had always meant to buy but … anyway I obviously had to have it.
"I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol" is a remarkable contrast to both Jones’ recent "Lonely Boy" (Da Capo Press/Heinemann, 2017), and Lydon’s two ("Rotten: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish" - Hodder and Stoughton, 1993), and ("Anger Is An Energy" - Simon and Schuster, 2014); see here for a review of the Jones’ book and Lyon’s second). In your stocking this Krimbo should be the autobios of Jones, Rotten and Matlock - because one story without the others is simply lopsided.
But in 1990, Matlock’s book was the first to come out, and there’s absolutely heaps stuffed in here which isn’t in any of the other books. Written in part response to all the bollocks written about the band, but also in retaliation to Lydon’s interviews; Lydon, very much to his credit, apologises to Glen; “I know I’ve said a lot of horrible things over the years, and I’m err, I’m err … sorry."
Better late than never.
Although it wasn’t to appear for another year, Glen may as well be responding to Jon Savage’s "England’s Dreaming". Savage’s tome is, I suppose, jolly interesting from a historical and sociological perspective, and seemed to make a lot of sense to the posh papers and academics in the UK at the time… but it’s essentially Malcolm’s scally-like "after the fact theorising" writ large and, as Jones, Lydon and Matlock all appear to agree, Savage’s doorstop reads a bit like someone’s trying to make sense of, put a context to, find a clear narrative for, something they didn’t quite understand at the time and, several hundred thousand words later, still don’t. That ‘England’s Dreaming’ has been revised and reprinted tells me that people can’t get enough of the mythology, no matter how poorly thought out.
On the other hand, Matlock’s book is someone telling the story more simply, obviously trying to sort something out (let no-one tell you that being a Sex Pistol was not traumatic), find a perspective for his experience which makes sense. This isn’t mythology, this is history in the first person. "Naivete played a major part, as did internal wranglings. The common cause got lost amid the power struggles. And I certainly felt guilty for letting those struggles get on top of me… but a lot of the blame must be laid at Malcolm’s feet."
One of the things most bios don’t include are the incidents, often deeply embarrassing, which reveal how little you know, or how gauche you are, or were. There are some rather touching moments where you begin to understand more about his background and upbringing and realise just why Lydon thinks or thought that Glen was "too nice".
There’s a contrast, of course… there are a few revealing stories about Lydon which we, with the smug and comfy benefit of hindsight and life experience, can recognise as Lydon’s utter bloody fear of what he’s trying to do, of making his way without making a fool of himself, all hidden behind a world of tumbling bravados and extravagant dress and behaviour.
And that, really, more than I think any other books on the band, is where Glen’s book shines: he absolutely nails a few things. From a business perspective, "realistic[ally], the Sex Pistols were a total failure … we had so much going for us - our originality, our freshness, our songs, our ideas, the fact that we could play … yet we blew it".
That said, you do get the sensation that being in a band like the Pistols would have been entertaining, but a hell of a job of balance and patience. One other aspect of this book which others don’t seem to touch on that much: the band’s age. It makes a huge, huge difference; it’s the age of summary decisions without a full appreciation of what is to come, or what might come. Everything is exploding in the moment. There’s a damn short fuse and everything just goes off.
The foreword is very, very interesting: "When I first put pen to paper … in the very late '80s, …. [my feelings have] been given cause to be qualified by the reformation[s] of the band… all of us in the band … have all groaned as stories of who did what to whom, why and when have appeared, and grimaced at how wide of the mark some of these tales have been… on revisiting the original manuscript, I decided that I would [let it stand as it is] as I felt that the story is the story, that it stands up, and to change it now would not only be the wrong thing to do but also leave me in danger of not remembering things quite as they were…"
"Being a Sex Pistol has certainly been a game of two halves. What I felt before the reformation - which, maybe not surprisingly, was more than a small degree of bitterness - and what I have felt after, are chalk and cheese."
The kicker in this edition is not just the story of Glen’s formative years, however. The reunions are also briefly covered. From being an albatross around Glen’s neck, the Sex Pistols became a useful earner, as the band tours the world and play huge venues and, hopefully, bolster their pension plans. Because, the first go-round, they got a very raw deal, partly of their own making (Glen’s description of the EMI signing is extraordinary).
Lastly, for my money the most balanced Pistols documentary is the "Making of …" in the Classic Albums series. If you’ve not seen it, do so. Sid is correctly placed to one side as, Glen-less, they had to rely on Steve Jones for the bass (and second guitar). ‘Bollocks’ is a great record - but you haven’t heard the real Sex Pistols unless you have the bootleg ‘Spunk’, and live recordings prior to February 1977…
I think that cocoa stain might have soaked out by now. I’ll go have a look.