JOHN LYDON & THE SEX PISTOLS: PROLETARIANS IN HAUTE COUTURE

 

John ‘Johnny Rotten’ Lydon, Sex Pistols (source: unknown)

University is done for me. It’s been three years now. Yet, my master thesis’ subject is still picking my curiosity. That’s what I want to share what I’ve done about it. It is the presentation of self in rock music. This is the first extract, first analysis on the blog, but hopefully not the last. Come on, we’ll talk about punk, Sex Pistols and a little bit of fashion.

« Can a revolution be born in a King’s Road clothes shop? » – Barry Miles[1]

We can’t talk about punk without mentioning the Sex Pistols. And we can’t talk about the Sex Pistols without mentioning their leader, John « Johnny Rotten » Lydon. We also can’t leave in the dark bands like the Ramones and the New York Dolls, and the common denominator: Malcolm McLaren.

« The Ramones invented the sound of Punk. » Marco Pirroni[2]

 

The Ramones (source: unknown)

« The Ramones are not punks – they are the Ramones. » Chris Sullivan[3]

In 1976, The Ramones are playing in many clubs in New York, and most importantly they’re playing at the infamous CBGB. The New York Dolls, like Iggy Pop and The Stooges, were already there since 1973. McLaren tries to become the New York Dolls manager, without an ounce of success. He goes back to England but did spend some time at the CBGB. He doesn’t stop there and travels continuously between London and New York all while keeping with his at-the-time wife, the ex-teacher Vivienne Westwood, their shop on King’s Road, the epicentre of the upcoming musical earthquake.

« We can notice some funny parallels between Mary Quant’s Bazaar and Vivienne Westwood’s SeditionarIes (aka SEX and Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die), with Quat’s associate who took care of the Chas McDeviTt Skiffle Group and Westwood’s who took care of the Sex Pistols: in both cases, it’s a DIY prole music which influence has been decisive and which was born in a King’s Road shop. »[4]

But, who’s John Lydon, where does he come from and why has he been a part of the Sex Pistols? Born in London in 1958, from Irish migrants parents, he grew up in Finsbury, nearby the football stadium[5]. He describes the place where he grows up as « a slum, without tap water, with rats »[6]. An environment quite poor, proletarian. He adds he has been a difficult child. So it is, he met Sid Vicious (who would, later on, become the band’s bass player, charismatic but with no technique) « in a school for difficult children. » [7] Both of them shared very peculiar relationships with their mothers, however in radically different ways. Vicious’ mother was an addict to heroin when Lydon’s took time to home school her son after his short illness. [8] It goes without saying that growing up and hanging around King’s Road, John Lydon was among the originals, the dropouts. With green coloured hair and a T-shirt saying « I Hate Pink Floyd » it doesn’t take long for him to be spotted by McLaren.

 

Steve Jones, Alan Jones (with unknown companion), Chrissie Hynde, Jordan and Westwood at Sex, 1976 (© DAVID DAGLEY/REX/Shutterstock)

By taking care of the New York Dolls, Mc Laren has seen in Lydon and his friends, before anything else, a mean to sell the clothes from King’s Road shop. The New York Dolls, fans of the Rolling Stones, were outrageous and provocative, close to glam-rock and Johnny Thunders a real hothead. The similarities between the two bands are numerous.

« I’m only the medium of a rage accumulated for centuries by millions of individuals socially oppressed and emotionally mutilated. But this anger, I’ve expressed it without any violent act, only with words. My words are my bullets. »[9]

For John Lydon, the sociopolitical context within which he grew up is inextricably linked to his music and his career. The different wars, social battles and other revolutions and rebellions hippies were trying to pursue peacefully, the fans of loud rock music, from hard rock to heavy metal, did change radically their image but not their opinion.

Lydon’s lyrics, like God Save The Queen, are the witnesses of an era and a peculiar and timed society. The punk movement and music is, however, a media and a genre that we can find somewhere else, in other contexts. Even if they weren’t the first punks, Lydon and the Pistols incarnated a kind of ideal, a strong stereotype that, in the collective mind, defines punk fully, putting aside and ignoring numerous points in this kind of genre and movement, without distorting it totally.

 

John ‘Johnny Rotten’ Lydon (source: unknown)

Thus, because Sid Vicious had a t-shirt marked by a swastika, he’s a Nazi: exactly like metal music, it is a provocation, pure and simple, probably not his actual ideology. It won’t be the only t-shit that will make the media talk as Westwood’s creations got censored on a regular basis. A noticeable example: the cow-boy t-shirt where we could see two cowboys facing each other, almost entirely naked: they’d kept shoes and hats. Another example: the ‘Cambridge’s rapist’ t-shirt. And of course, with this, everything about sadomasochism. Nowadays, Westwood’s creations got soberer and, above all, some pieces are seen as important pieces of haute couture. Therefore, the Sex Pistols wore haute couture before it was labelled as it.

« The raison d’être of SEX was to destroy taboos and, when we think about it, it really succeeded. Never before a piece of clothing had been so provocative – some clothing that changed truly the way of seeing things. » Marco Pirroni[10]

Because John Lydon got into fights several times at gigs, punks are all violent: violence is in the music and the lyrics, sometimes on stage with some bands, but Lydon is merely a representation. He represents a part of the punk movement. He can see with the Ramones, as a counter-example of this violence, and yet both bands are punk bands. The generalisation on one side or the other doesn’t work. Everything is about context. Also, all proletarian are not punks and all punks are not proletarian.


[1] MILES Barry, Ici Londres! Une histoire de l'underground Londonien depuis 1945, Rivages Rouge, 2014, p. 194 [2] COLEGRAVE Stephen & SULLIVAN Chris (trad. PARINGAUX Philippe), PUNK, Hors Limites, Seuil, 2002, p. 212 [3] Ibid. [4] MILES Barry, Ici Londres! Une histoire de l'underground Londonien depuis 1945, Rivages Rouge, 2014, p. 194 [5] DORDOR Francis, « John Lydon de PiL », Les Inrocks [en ligne], 21 novembre 2013, [consulté le 6 juin 2016], disponible sur http://www.lesinrocks.com/2013/11/21/musique/john-lydon-de-pil-punk-europunk-la-colere-comme-combustible-11442773/ [6] CASSAVETTI Hugo, « Johnny Rotten : ‘En tant que roi du punk je décrète cette loi : le punk n’a pas besoin de roi.’ », Télérama [en ligne], 13 juillet 2013, [consulté le 6 juin 2016], disponible sur http://www.telerama.fr/musique/johnny-rotten-en-tant-que-roi-du-punk-je-decrete-cette-loi-le-punk-n-a-pas-besoin-de-roi,100075.php [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] DORDOR Francis, « John Lydon de PiL », Les Inrocks [en ligne], 21 novembre 2013, [consulté le 6 juin 2016], disponible sur http://www.lesinrocks.com/2013/11/21/musique/john-lydon-de-pil-punk-europunk-la-colere-comme-combustible-11442773/ [10] COLEGRAVE Stephen & SULLIVAN Chris (trad. PARINGAUX Philippe), PUNK, Hors Limites, Seuil, 2002, p. 126

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