“Punish The Punks!”: The Sex Pistols’s Johnny Rotten on dealing with violence

By on October 27, 2015

On the anniversary of the October 27, 1977 release of the Sex Pistols’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, their only studio album (released on November 10, 1977 in the U.S.) we thought we’d share this short snippet of a cartoon, less than a minute-long, where we see John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) being attacked by a gang wielding razors and at least one machete on June 18, 1977, outside the Pegasus pub in Islington, London, which left him with a slashed arm and tendon damage.

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At the time of this incident, the Sex Pistols — which in addition to Rotten on lead vocals included lead guitar player Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bass player Sid Vicious (who had replaced Glen Matlock in early 1977) — had managed to reach #1 with “God Save The Queen,” despite the song being banned by BBC radio on the grounds of “extreme bad taste,” and because it attacked social conformity and deference to the Crown, bringing on what what reviewer later called the “last and greatest outbreak of pop-based moral pandemonium.”

Commercial radio stations were ordered not to play it under a rule which barred anything “against good taste or decency, likely to encourage or incite crime, or lead to disorder.” Major retail outlets had refused to sell it.

Despite the notoriety, and the success of their number one song, their concerts continued to repeatedly bring them into direct conflict with organizers and local authorities, and their public appearances often ended in fist-fights and lots of spitting. Their manager Malcolm McLaren — a visual artist, performer, clothes designer and boutique owner — loved the huge amount of publicity it generated, but he also tended to want to paint the band as a cartoon, perhaps much like the one we’re featuring here.

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More than six months earlier, in early December 1976, the Pistols’s notorious two-minute appearance on the ITV magazine show “Today,” where they called TV host Bill Grundy a “fucking rotter” and then, encouraged to continue by Grundy, spewed even more curse words on live TV, outraging viewers at home, who then forever saw punk linked with the worst in their society, including rampant violence, disrespect for authority figures, and indecent behavior. A headline that ran in the Daily Mirror on December 2, 1976, summed it up nicely for everyone, calling punk rock “The Filth and the Fury.”

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But the filth and the fury rally seemed to be coming to a peak in the contentious summer of ’77, right after the Queen’s Jubilee. The Pistols’s “God Save The Queen” (originally titled “No Future”) pretty much laid out the way Rotten and the band felt about the Queen mother and the ruling monarchy in general: “God Save the Queen / The fascist regime /… She ain’t no human being / There is no future / And England’s dreaming.” It offended everyone, it seems. Even a left-wing Labour Party MP found it offensive, saying at the time, “If pop music is going to be used to destroy our established institutions, then it ought to be destroyed first.”

“‘PUNISH THE PUNKS’, ran the headline in Sunday Mirror [June 12, 1977], and the British public took the instruction to heart,” writes Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, the Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, published in 1991. “The attacks were now not just verbal but also physical.”

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The Daily Mirror didn’t cover the Sex Pistols’s music, which they believed held little interest for their staid English readership, but they were more than happy to cover and highlight any incident related to punk rock-related violence, and several times prior to that summer (particularly a year earlier, in a June 1976 editorial) had attempted to link London’s high unemployment and punk’s violent and uncertain future.

Savage continues detailing what happened that night in June: “The first to be victimized was Jamie Reid, the next day [after the ‘Punish The Punks’ headline appeared in the Mirror]: he was attacked just around the corner from his Borough flat and his leg and nose were broken by unknown assailants. The next Sunday (of the second People story) it was the turn of Public Enemy Number One, John Lydon.”

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“‘Chris Thomas and I were in the Pegasus, just around the corner from Wessex Studios,’[Rotten] says, ‘and as we left, we were attacked in the car park by a gang of knife-wielding yobs, who were chanting, ‘We love our Queen, you bastard!’ Normally I’d say they were National Front, but a third of them were black. They were just lads out for violence. I got some bad cuts from that. It severed two tendons, so my left hand is fucked forever, and as I’m left-handed, I can’t close the fist properly. I’ll never play guitar: there’s no power to it. I jumped into the car and someone jumped after me with a machete and cut me from there [he points to his thigh about a foot down] . . . to there [his knee]. I had on extremely thick leather trousers at the time, thank fucking God, because it would have ripped the muscle out and now I’d be a one-legged hoppity.'”

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The attacks on the Pistols, and punks in general, continued. On June 19th 1977, the very next day — after Rotten, producer Chris Thomas and studio boss Bill Price were attacked outside the Pegasus — Pistols drummer Paul Cook was attacked with iron bars at Shepherd’s Bush Tube station. Then, on June 23, 1977, during a Pirates gig at Dingwalls, Rotten’s arm suffered more damage when it was bashed in undetermined violent club behavior.

A few weeks later, July 16, 1977, Capitol Radio broadcast a 90-minute show (“A Punk and his Music”) in which Rotten discussed with interviewer Tommy Vance the problem of violence (possibly the source of this interview used in this cartoon, about which we can’t find too many details).

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That same month, the Sex Pistols had toured Scandinavia. It was not uneventful, as Sid Vicious had to fly back home to England after being fined for carrying a knife at the 100 Club festival. The band then attempted to play shows in mid-August on a short UK tour of small clubs, under assumed names like the Tax Exiles, the Hamsters and SPOTS (which apparently stood for Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly), as it was the only way the could avoid being banned or, worse, exposed to the kind of suffocating media attention they were getting due to the violence that seemed to follow them around.

By the time director Julien Temple’s biographical mock-documentary film about the band, The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, was eventually finished in 1980 — it had begun life as Who Killed Bambi?,  a project written by Roger Ebert and directed by Russ Meyer, and later finished with McLaren’s help (and with a radically different script) — the Pistols had long since disbanded, Sid Vicious was dead and Johnny Rotten — who was already then touring under his birth name John Lydon with his new band Public Image, Ltd. — had said he did not want to participate in the project.

Lydon was listed in the credits of the Swindle film as “The Collaborator” and appears only in archival clips showing the Sex Pistols onstage and as an animated character in short sequences, much like this one, which show the band arriving drunk at Heathrow airport in London, where the press are waiting, an engineered publicity scam, which led to them being dropped by EMI.

If you like this cartoon, be sure to check out Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury, the 2000 British rockumentary film, which is considered a continuation of Temple’s first documentary centered on the band, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.