To understand the importance and significance of Steve Jones and the Sex Pistols, but also all the misunderstandings around them, just take a look at the British singles charts of December 1976, the same month in which they became stars, and also the most hated guys in the country. We see artists and groups like Johnny Mathis, ABBA, Mike Oldfield, Electric Light Orchestra, Elton John, while the song titles reigning supreme in the charts are When A Child Is Born, Under The Moon Of Love, Somebody To Love or Love Me, nothing particularly dangerous or anarchic, nothing to piss off the 'establishment', represented by journalist Bill Grundy, who on December 1 learns that Queen are to be replaced by the Sex Pistols on his show, a group that no one outside the most knowledgeable circles, let alone Grundy, has yet heard of in the UK.
What happened on Grundy’s show might be described as the greatest publicity stunt in the history of rock music and it all occured by pure chance, even if Malcolm McLaren, the band's manager, later wanted to take credit for it. What happened was that a group of kids decided that they were not going to tolerate being treated with condescension and poorly repressed disgust. Steve Jones took the lead in insulting a drunken Grundy who was trying it on with Siouxsie Sioux who, as part of the Browley Contingent, had gone to the interview with the band. Never had so many swear words been heard on British television and the next day all the tabloids made the Pistols public enemy number one, as the story made the front pages of each and every one. The most memorable of them, however, was the Daily Mirror, which ran the headline: "The filth and the fury".
What they did not see coming was that in classist England, many of the working class saw themselves reflected in those angry punks, who had decided not to let themselves be trampled on any longer. The young people, mainly, went crazy with them and they did it partly for the message, for Johnny Lydon/Rotten's lyrics, McLaren's publicity stunts and for what Jones declared shortly before, and that would always haunt them, "we’re not into music, we’re into chaos", but, and here comes the vindication, also for Jones' great guitar work and for some unforgettable songs. The Pistols only released one album (and possibly they had no more in them) but it is a perfect album from beginning to end, one of the few in the history of rock. This is the story of their guitarist...
Stephen Philip Jones was born in London on September 3, 1955. His was a Dickensian childhood in which his father abandoned him when he was two years old and his stepfather habitually abused him. The only escape from his miserable life was music. When he was 11 years old a neighbor bought Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze single and played it loud, and a young Jones used to shout at the wall imploring him to play it again.
Still, coming from a broken, lower-class family, his only escape seemed to be delinquency and young Jonesy seemed destined to spend his days behind bars. Conflicted and prone to fighting, his specialty was stealing everything from cars to one of his passions, musical equipment, amplifiers and guitars. This young hooligan, who spent more days in the reformatory than at home (that being understandable if we take into account that our protagonist found the former more comfortable than the latter), was still passionate about music and had several groups that he never missed: the Faces, Roxy Music, Mott The Hoople and Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust along with his adored Mick Ronson. It was precisely at one of Ziggy's farewell concerts that Jones snuck in after the show and grabbed a few kettledrums from Spiders From Mars’ drummer Mick Woodmansey. Although in Jones’ honor it is necessary to say that when decades later Woodmansey went to his Los Angeles radio show, he gave him 200 dollars as compensation (although Steve Jones himself recognizes that if he had had to do that with all those that he had stolen from, he would be ruined...).
Returning to Jones’ youth, next what happened is that together with his compadre Paul Cook, Jones decided to form a rock & roll band in London. The two had met a guy in class named Wally Nightingale who played guitar and had befriended him, so they could play. Cook played drums, Nightingale played guitar and Jones sang. They played at Nightingale's house and called themselves The Strand. The thing is that Jones and Cook had started to meet a group of outcasts like themselves, who hung out at the clothing store run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in the Chelsea neighborhood, Too Fast to Live. One of them was Glen Matlock, who worked Saturdays and also played bass. In early 1974, with Matlock as an official member, Jones asked McLaren to be the band's manager. McLaren paid for their first rehearsal space and began to see in this group the catalyst for his new clientele, a group of young snubbed kids who would eventually become known, as mentioned above, as the Bromley Contingent.
In November 1974 McLaren went to New York and soaked up the nascent punk scene that was emerging in that city. He even became manager of the band that had served as inspiration for the movement, the New York Dolls. He went so far as to propose to Sylvain Sylvain, the band's rhythm guitarist, that he become the new singer of The Strand. That didn't work out, but McLaren kept Sylvain's '71 Les Paul Custom in exchange for a plane ticket that he never bought. When McLaren returned to London his head was buzzing with ideas, but the first thing he did was to give Jones the Les Paul and declare him the band's new guitarist. Poor Wally, who never fitted the image that McLaren sought, was mercilessly fired and, on top of that, Jones had already stolen another of his Les Pauls, the guitar he liked the most.
Jones had never been comfortable with his role as a singer but he hadn't had much time to play guitar either, between his arrests, his fights and his nasty habit of sleeping with his friends' girlfriends. The fact is that he was up to his eyebrows in speed, something that, according to him, helped him with his attention deficit disorder (a condition that prevented him from learning to read fluently until adulthood), Jones started practising with the guitar without interruption, drawing predominantly on two records, the debut album by the New York Dolls and Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges.
In the meantime the band had found their definitive singer, another regular at the McLaren and Westwood store, now renamed Sex, a guy named John Lydon, who was sporting green painted hair and a Pink Floyd T-shirt to which he had added a self-painted phrase: "I Hate". His audition consisted of a cover of Alice Cooper's I'm Eighteen. In a short time Jones found him the definitive nickname, Rotten, due to the state of his teeth. Mind you, the new singer, in addition to being a born provocateur, was a smart kid with a sharp pen, and in no time, he and Jones would be doing their "no future" version of Ziggy (at this point with Rotten with his hair dyed red) and Mick Ronson.
Before that Cook, who had been forced to quit his day job to focus on the music came to the conclusion that Jones was still too green to handle the guitar on his own. An ad was even placed in Melody Maker looking for a young guitar ace "looking no worse than Johnny Thunders." But Jones' evolution was so rapid that the idea was quickly abandoned.
His arsenal of tricks was based on old Chuck Berry licks assimilated through his favorite guitarists: Ronson, Thunders and Ronnie Wood of the Faces. To all this he added his juvenile delinquent chutzpah, the fury of his painful past and the speed that Speed brought him. A grimy, furious sound that would be uniquely his and would serve to define punk forever. In their first concert, in November 1975, they played covers of the Who, the Small Faces and the Monkees, but what stood out were their own songs, great songs like Seventeen (with a riff courtesy of Jones), Submission and, above all, Pretty Vacant. Jones' guitar and Lydon's incendiary lyrics turned them into rarely heard songs, even though Matlock, the most experienced musician of the four, was the main composer at the time.
Their concerts began to be followed by the regulars of what would become known as the Bromley Contingent, people like Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol and Phillip Sallon, all of them dressed like the band with the look that would end up defining punk. The reaction they got was visceral - either you loved them, and converted to punk, or you hated them with all your might. Their strength in those early days gave way to a whole cultural revolution. After a performance of theirs in which they opened for the band The 101ers, Joe Strummer, a veteran of the pub rock scene, decided to leave everything and convert to punk rock, and soon after The Clash were born. After reading about them in the NME two friends from Manchester embarked on a trip to London to discover this band, and after seeing them their lives changed and they formed The Buzzcocks in their wake. When those friends, Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, managed to organize a Sex Pistols concert in Manchester, on June 4th 1976, the audience included future members of Joy Division/New Order, The Fall, The Smiths, A Certain Ratio and Simply Red. Theirs seemed to be the way of the Velvet Underground, few records sold but for each one, a new band.
On July 20, 1976 they added a new song to their repertoire, Anarchy In The UK. The main riff and melody were by Matlock, the lyrics were pure Rotten but the edge came from the Les Paul of an on fire Jones - from that wild beginning to the two simple and effective solos. On August 29, already with the Clash and the Buzzcocks as opening acts, they played one of London's finest venues and three days later made their television debut on Tony Wilson's So It Goes in Manchester. Punk had become the new rock revolution.
On September 20 McLaren organized the 100 Club Punk Special that was a success and made the record labels take notice of the new phenomenon, by that time, the PIstols were a band, and contrary to legend, totally wild and energetic live - what little they knew how to play, they played very well as evidenced by the sessions they did for EMI in October 1976 when the label signed them.
With Chris Thomas as producer the band got a solid and wild sound on Anarchy In The UK, one of the best singles of all time, especially with Jones who recorded several guitar parts, even using an MXR Phase 90s on one of the rhythm parts. Bill Price, the veteran sound engineer who had recorded with Mott The Hoople and Sparks, was thrilled with the guitarist.
On November 26th the most important single of 1976 appeared but it didn't make a particularly big noise until Freddie Mercury had to cancel at the last minute Queen's appearance on Bill Grundy's show due to a toothache. After the mythical interview the single sold over 50,000 copies in one day and entered the charts. But, from then on, the focus would no longer be on the music but on the provocation. McLaren walked them along the Thames in full celebrations for the 30 years of reign of Elizabeth II while singing the wonderful God Save The Queen, but the worst was the departure of Matlock from the band and his replacement by Rotten's personal friend, Sid Vicious, who did not even know how to play bass. Vicious took his role as agitator very seriously and was more concerned with spitting and rowdiness than contributing anything.
Now the music took a back seat and McLaren hijacked the band, as he was more interested in the next headline than in finding a future for a band that had made it clear it had none. Regardless, the songs were already written and they were incredible, so the singles kept coming out, with recordings where they didn't bother to call Vicious - and Jones was in charge of playing the rudimentary bass parts. EMI fired them in January 1977 in the middle of the Grundy controversy. Thus came the aforementioned God Save The Queen, Pretty Vacant and Holidays In The Sun - all of them hitting the top ten in the UK charts.
By the time their debut album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here Is The Sex Pistols came out on October 28, 1977, the band was already mortally wounded. Jones and Cook could not stand Rotten and Vicious, and the former was fed up with his friend and his new girlfriend, Nancy Spungen; the chaos had eaten the music. When in January 1978 McLaren decided to take them on tour to the Deep South of the USA the whole thing exploded, Rotten spat out "have you ever felt cheated?" and the Sex Pistols, as we know them, passed to a better life.
Jones became addicted to heroin with his friend Phil Lynott with whom he would play and form a band known as The Greedy Bastards. He would also play with other heroes of his like Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, who would baptize him as the Robert Mitchum of punk, and even with people as far away from the noise and fury as Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison. He would eventually overcome his addictions, but not his horrible past, and become a light entertainment radio host in Los Angeles, his adopted city since 1982.
Of course, his legacy remains in the twelve tracks of Never Mind The Bollocks, and even though the Sex Pistols are still more remembered for the chaos than for the music, the strength of their message continues to resonate because the biting lyrics and melodies spat by Rotten were accompanied by the violent and visceral guitars played by Jones, adding that point of danger and violence that has always characterized the best rock & roll. And it's good that there are people who like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms, but rock is not so much about technique as it is about guts, something that Steve Jones has plenty of.