Compared with the Lydon’s however Jones and Cook seemed like Lord Snooty and his pals. Mr Lydon worked away and Mrs Lydon was frequently ill leaving their eldest son John to look after his younger brothers in their two bedroom flat.As might be expected conditions at home were less than ideal and at the age of seven John contracted spinal meningitis which he attributed to the high rat population in their backyard. As a result of this illness he joined the illustrious list of rock stars (Tom Jones, Ringo Starr, Ian Dury) who were to spend much of their formative life in hospital. Lydon claims that he lost a lot of his memory and had to relearn much of what he thought he had known about his world and the people in it. He also suffered hallucinations and headaches as well as problems with his eyes (hence the Lydon stare) as well as a curved spine as a consequence of attempts at spinal drainage. All this took a year in hospital and a further three years before he was over the worst effects of the illness.
A traumatic event such as this was bound to impact on a child’s schooling, even in the early 70’s when it was quite possible to go to school for 10 years and not learn to read or write. What with the hallucinations and the time spent out of mainstream education it was perhaps inevitable that the young Lydon was going to have an idiosyncratic view of the world. Despite being highly intelligent he drifted, after being thrown out of home for dying his hair green he squatted, selling amphetamines or working on building sites and children’s play schemes. A lifestyle not that different to that being lived out by Joe Strummer and his chums apart from the fact that Lydon was no musician and wouldn’t be seen dead in a hippie drop out/squat rock/pub rock band. He liked music though, the inevitable glam rock and even Status Quo but he also like some of the harder edge hippie performers, Can, Peter Hammill, Hawkwind, as well as Reggae.
His life was to change forever when he started hanging around Malcolm McLaren’s shop Sex with his mates John Wardle, later to become Jah Wobble and John Beverley, later to become Sid Vicious. It was allegedly Bernie Rhodes, McLaren’s mini me who first noticed the hunched kid with the weird stare and the dyed hair and put him forward as a potential singer for McLaren’s new band QT Jones and the Sex Pistols.
The rest is the sort of legend, Lydon auditioned dressed in a Pink Floyd T Shirt with ‘I hate’ written above the bans logo. Singing along to Alice Cooper’s ‘eighteen’ on a juke box, a star was born. When Jones noticed Lydon’s teeth he couldn’t help but remark on how rotten they were. Dental hygiene was pretty much unheard of in the Lydon household John was only aware of a toothbrush because he had seen his father use one to clean his boots but by the age of 19 his teeth were well into decay.
And so John Lydon became Johnny Rotten.
And for a while Johnny Rotten was punk, certainly until his mate John became Sid Vicious Johnny Rotten was the one punk that the average tabloid reader would recognise. When I went to Trent Polytechnic a couple of years later, out of the campus of 420 people there was one person dressed as a punk, everyone called him (to his back at least) Johnny, his real name was Colin but Johnny was a brand punk name. If you knew anything about punk you knew who Johnny Rotten was.
It’s the people who dare to be different who make the difference if not the money. Rotten was his own man, part Iggy Pop part old man Steptoe. His vocal style was immediately distinctive, on the usual rock singer scale he score null points but few people have managed to encapsulate rage/alienation/anger in the medium of a rock song as well as Johnny with just a tone of voice. It was a style that wasn’t that hard to execute hence the huge number of copyists that sprang up overnight but quite simply no one had dared to do it before.
The other thing that Rotten brought to the band was a sense of style, Matlock knew how to dress but if you see a photo of the band it’s always Rotten who will attract your attention, he’s scrawny and malnourished but he looks different, its star quality but it’s not always a pretty sight.
At this point Rotten was actually quite shy and much of what seemed like aggression was actually defensiveness and a lack of confidence. He had reason, he had just joined a band with the thuggish Steve Jones and his henchman Cook who were under the influence of the untrustworthy McLaren. Matlock came from a background where you had the same number of bedrooms as people in your family and so was regarded a bit posh. For the next rehearsal proper the rest of the band didn’t turn up leaving rotten to make his way home through rather hostile neighbourhoods on his own. The band was never to band in the way that all great bands should, be the next couple of years would be an uneasy alliance before an implosion.
And Rotten was to become a bit of a monster. I remember from sociology that gang leaders are not the hardest or toughest or biggest or even the most intelligent it’s the most unpredictable that the others fear. Rotten was come from a decidedly underprivileged background but within a few months he was a voice of a generation. Someone like Strummer could be relied upon to give fairly reliable copy but Rotten was a loose cannon, whatever he said though he had people hanging -on his every word and had probably gathered more sycophants than Rod Stewart or Elton John or Mick Jagger could dream of.
But all this was in the future, by the end of 1975 they had played their first gig by which time Steve Jones had been playing guitar for a whole three months.*Humble beginnings but it put them almost a year ahead of the bands that would be their rivals.
And that was a significant head start.
* at that first gig the band that the pistols supported was named Bazooka Joe. They represented everything that the band hated, a rehashing of some barely understood mythical golden era of America. Bazooka Joe’s bass player, a curly haired chap named Stuart, was impressed at how the Pistol’s presented and realised the days of pub rock might possibly be numbered. He handed in his resignation but was soon to emerge with a new name….Adam Ant