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The Sex Pistols were an English punk rock band that formed in London in 1975. They were responsible for initiating the punk movement in the United Kingdom and inspiring many later punk and alternative rock musicians. Although their initial career lasted just two and a half years and produced only four singles and one studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, they are regarded as one of the most influential acts in the history of popular music.
The Sex Pistols ARE punk; the rest are “punk rock”.
In mid-1970s Great Britain, punk rock spoke to the frustrations and rage of mostly working-class adolescents and young adults, frustrations and rage the punks of that moment wore on their proverbial sleeves. This was apparent in their fashion, in their politics, and in the music to which they listened — breakneck songs played at harsh volumes by do-it-yourself players who might have only picked up their instruments a week before someone booked them for a basement gig or pushed “Record” on the tape deck.
Into this scene stepped the Sex Pistols — drummer Paul Cook, guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Sid Vicious, and the singer known as Johnny Rotten. The band’s music was a scabrous racket whose lyrics dealt with upending authority and good taste in all its forms; it was music to cause outrage, every blessed minute of it. “God save the Queen,” Rotten sang, “and her fascist regime.” But while the band was sowing chaos and thumbing their noses at censors, there was darkness afoot within the group itself. Drugs were a major factor, as was a personal animosity that developed between band members. After the band broke up, less than a year after most people had first heard of them, a deeper darkness descended, and lives were lost in its wake. This is the tragedy behind one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most incendiary musical forces — the Sex Pistols.
The Sex Pistols were born the day in 1975 that John Lydon walked into the band’s rehearsal space wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words “I Hate” written above the logo, and walked out of the rehearsal space as Johnny Rotten. For the next three years, the Pistols would tear through stages at colleges, art schools, and other establishments. Steve Jones summed up the band’s philosophy when he told a reporter, “Actually, we’re not into music. We’re into chaos.”
Sid Vicious joined the Sex Pistols in 1977, replacing Glen Matlock not because Sid could play bass (he couldn’t), but because he looked the part of a punk. The band’s single “God Save the Queen” was banned by the BBC but went to the top of the British singles chart anyway. In late October of that year they released their only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, which Rolling Stone then called “just about the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll record of the ’70s.” Several major retailers in the U.K. refused to stock the record; nevertheless, it went into the British album chart at No. 1. In January 1978, the Pistols began a 12-date U.S. tour, but the group broke up after the final show in San Francisco, torn apart by in-fighting and drug use. At the show’s conclusion, Rotten asked the audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” He then dropped his microphone and left the stage.
Sid Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen was a Philadelphia native who arrived on the New York punk scene at age 17 and soon garnered a reputation as an extraordinarily dangerous character, in a culture full of dangerous characters. Immediately upon arrival, according to New York Magazine, she began abusing drugs, sleeping with musicians, and exhibiting violent tendencies. These were extensions of her harrowing childhood, when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, placed in a boarding school for children with special needs, and committed to a mental institution. Her mother Deborah’s memoir, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life: A Mother’s Story of Her Daughter’s Murder, contains reminiscences of Spungen’s disturbing behavior as a child, from attempting to harm the family’s pet, to physical attacks on family members, to a spate of drug overdoses.
Eventually, Spungen ventured out to London where she met and became attached to Sid Vicious, just as the Sex Pistols were closing in on their historic flame-out. The rest of the band detested her, banning her from their ill-fated U.S. tour in 1978. In his memoir No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, Johnny Rotten called her “a very self-destructive human being who was determined to take as many people down with her as possible.” The tour ended with the Pistols breaking up, which allowed Sid and Nancy to head off together as they pleased.
Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen returned to England, where Vicious attempted to start a solo career, with Spungen now acting as his manager, or at least telling people she was. Things didn’t go well, so the pair decamped for New York in August 1978, moving into the Chelsea Hotel, the last stop for troubled people of all stripes. Returning to the city on the arm of a Sex Pistol was something Spungen lorded over her old New York punk cronies, who hadn’t much liked her to begin with. “Some people were outraged by it,” photographer Eileen Polk told New York Magazine. “They just couldn’t believe that she had succeeded in her quest.”
Life for the punk couple was anything but idyllic. Their drug intake, for one, had spiraled out of control. Guitarist Richard Lloyd told New York Magazine, “To hang out with Nancy and Sid was to make a grievous mistake for your own health.” At the Chelsea on the night of October 11, witnesses saw Vicious take as many as 30 tablets of the sedative Tuinal and pass out, according to Rolling Stone. Spungen was last seen at 2:30 a.m., asking one of Vicious’ friends to go out and get drugs. At 10:00 a.m., Vicious called the front desk, saying he’d awoken and found Spungen dead on the floor of their bathroom, stabbed in the abdomen. That afternoon, he was arrested for her murder; he confessed to the crime, but later recanted.
In early December 1978, Sid Vicious, out on bail awaiting trial for Nancy Spungen’s murder, was sent to Rikers Island prison after being arrested for assaulting a man in a bar fight. While at Rikers, he went through detox and rehabilitation, and upon completing rehab in February 1979, he was once again released on bail. According to The Independent, his mother, Anne Beverley (who herself had a drug habit), threw Vicious a party at his new girlfriend Michelle Robinson’s apartment to celebrate his release. Eileen Polk was there and remembered, “It got late and the guys with drugs showed up, and the rest is history.”
“History” has shown that Vicious was found dead by Beverley and Robinson around noon the next day, according to Rolling Stone. He was lying face up in bed, with Robinson sleeping next to him. The New York Daily News reported at the time that Vicious had injected drugs in a bathroom during the party, and quoted the medical examiner on the scene as saying “individuals who have been detoxified are vulnerable to overdoses if they go back to taking drugs in the same quantity as before.” There were some, however, who thought the overdose was a suicide, the result of a pact between Vicious and Spungen. No real evidence of any such bargain has ever been revealed.
Some who knew Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen find it inconceivable that he would kill her. “He was just too much in love with her,” photographer Dennis Morris told The Telegraph. For years, rumors surfaced about who other than Vicious might have been responsible. Rolling Stone cited punk author Phil Strongman in reporting that the actor and drug dealer known as Rockets Redglare might have been responsible. Vicious had received a royalty payment for $25,000 from his record company, and, according to Strongman, the room at the Chelsea had cash all over it.