The Face of Punk

Rankopedia is a website that believes “everything can be ranked.” One of the more interesting categories is The Biggest Punk Icon of All Time, with the subtitle “The face of punk. Who is it?” The current leader is Sid Vicious. Johnny Rotten is ranked #4, so the Sex Pistols are well represented on the list. Of course, the Sex Pistols weren’t the only punks who mattered. Joe Strummer is second on the Rankopedia list and Joey Ramone is currently ranked #3. Its interesting to note that on the cover of The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists, Joey Ramone is featured most prominently, with Sid Vicious off to the side and Johnny Rotten in the background. I don’t know what criteria that at book are using to justify using the term “official,” but one of the authors is Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators so that gives it considerable weight.

In any case, the Sex Pistols are the band most closely associated with this genre. Jon Savage’s history of punk rock, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, reinforces these rankings. Savage’s study is wide ranging, but he focuses on the Sex Pistols as the progenitors of punk rock and he credits them with defining the movement.

I can’t help but notice that the Rankopedia list seems to reward early death, as the top three are all dead and Sid Vicious died at a particularly young age, 21. Also, the Sex Pistols broke up after releasing only one LP, and John Lydon abandoned the name Johnny Rotten when he formed Public Image, Ltd. Early demise makes it easier to remember them they way they were. Julian Temple chose to show the members of the Sex Pistols in silhouette in his 2000 documentary about the band, The Filth and the Fury, for that very reason. It would seem, then, that punk rock is not just rebellion, but youthful rebellion.

So who best represents punk rock, Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten? Skullcrusher TV on YouTube makes the case for Sid Vicious.

Malcolm McLaren seems to elevate Sid Vicious’s stature at Johnny Rotten’s expense in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle,

You never wanted to be part of that New Wave, Rock ‘n’ Roll liberal tradition, looking like you were doing good things. That was never behind Eddie Cochran, or Elvis Presley. he was a Punk rocker, and so was Gene Vincent. So was Marilyn Monroe. They were Punks. They were anti-establishment, and they were gods. Marilyn Monroe is bigger than ever, and so is Sid Vicious. I don’t see Johnny Rotten on a T-Shirt on the Lower East Side: I see Sid all the bloody time. (quoted in Savage, p. 501)

Neil Young touches on these same themes in, “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black),” adding “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

But while Malcolm McLaren had his differences with John Lydon, he has been quoted as saying, “if Johnny Rotten is the voice of punk, then Vicious is the attitude,” though I haven’t been able to locate the original source of this quote. Whether or not Malcolm McLaren actually said this is beside the point, however, as the quote aptly demonstrates how Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten reflected different aspects of the band and their rebelliousness. The Filth and the Fury makes it clear that Sid Vicious was the ultimate fan. He regularly attended Sex Pistols shows before being asked to join the band, demonstrating how little distance there was between punk bands and their audiences. But while fans, such as those voting on Rankopedia, lean toward Sid Vicious, those closely associated with the music industry look more to Johnny Rotten. An example of this is Simon Reynolds, author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Reynolds notes that post-punk was not as cohesive as punk had been and didn’t have the iconic imagery of punk. He points in particular to Johnny Rotten.

SR: It’s too diffuse, too rich in a way, too varied. It doesn’t have the simple shock impact of punk and punk’s imagery — the Queen with a safety pin through her nose, Johnny Rotten’s face — or the obvious political impact it had, with “God Save the Queen” being banned, the Pistols on the Bill Grundy show and so on. There aren’t so many examples of that with post-punk.

Jon Savage also places much more importance on Johnny Rotten’s contributions to the Sex Pistols, despite the use of Sid Vicious’s image on the cover of the book.

The year 1977 had been dread: Grunwick, Mogadishu, Sammheim, Lewisham–the jubilee already seemed like a pathetic scrap of bunting hung up amidst the list of apocalyptic locations. The Sex Pistols were a symbol of the year: Johnny Rotten’s face was an archetypal image to be set against that of Margaret Thatcher, the Lewisham policeman, the burning 747, on on the cover of Dennis Browne’s Datsun, placed next to L.R. Hubbard, Gudrun Ensslin and Elizabeth II. (Savage, p. 430)

Perhaps these writers looked to Johnny Rotten because he could always be counted on to articulate his version of punk rock’s purpose.

But there’s still another opinion about who best represents the face of punk. An alternative viewpoint came from another member of the Sex Pistols: the original bassist, Glen Matlock. In his book I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol, Glen Matlock points to Steve Jones as the spirit of the Sex Pistols,

Being in a band was our world…. Steve never wanted to work. He was happy being a thief. If somebody gave him a job as a stockbroker he’d have nicked the computer by lunchtime and been off with a secretary by the time the elevenses came round. It was Steve, not John or Sid, who was the real spirit behind The Sex Pistols. He was the one who did whatever he liked whenever he liked–something that most of us don’t have the honesty or guts to do. Perhaps he was just plain dumb, but you couldn’t help but admire the fact that he was the one who really didn’t give a shit.


One thought on “The Face of Punk

  1. I actually agree with this. I wasn’t around when the Pistols happened but got into them later as a kid. Sid may have been an unending spectacle, but a spectacle’s only interesting when it’s happening. Once it’s over, there’s nothing there, and that’s how Sid comes off. If anything, he was one of the least interesting of the Pistols, just above Paul Cook. Whatever his reputation was, he comes across like he was totally helpless as a human being, even before the heroin. The other Pistols could survive on the streets, Sid would get chewed up and spit out in short order, and he was.

    Rotten was interesting because he was insecure and arty, and he put out a few good albums later with PiL. But he wasn’t the one responsible for a lot of the things that made the Pistols notorious – when Grundy challenged him on the show, he backed down and looked embarrassed. He didn’t have anything to do with stealing Bowie’s gear or getting into fights with audience members. He said nasty things in the press but anyone can do that, and you can look at most of what he said and see insecurity all over the place. Like Matlock said, he was a mama’s boy. Other than his mouth, he was always well behaved.

    Jones was the one who pissed everyone off over Grundy. Jones fought back when rednecks started fights with them in the US. He’s the one who stole their gear, got drunk and pushed himself on record company secretaries, etc. He was also the funniest guy in the band, and definitely the most likable.

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