The Sex Pistols and The Romanticism of Sid Vicious
When Deborah Spungen first noticed the fame her daughter Nancy was gaining from dating Sid Vicious, she wondered why the papers would care enough about their relationship. Julia Cass, a reporter, told Mrs. Spungen “They were the ultimate tabloid news story – amusing, amazing, freaky”. That quote not only applies to the relationship of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, but also to The Sex Pistols as a whole.
For many years even after their breakup, The Sex Pistols became a band of lore and myths. Articles and stories were written about how much the band invented Punk in England. Also, they discussed how Sid Vicious lived and died as a Punk, and especially how notorious a couple Sid and Nancy were. It was heightened to the point where even Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love said how much they loved them. While there isn’t a doubt that Sid Vicious and The Sex Pistols are an important band to the history of Punk, it would be misleading to say there wasn’t some romanticism; mainly with the way their story (or even Sid Vicious’ story) is told in film.
This kind of romanticism and storytelling have become almost a mythology of its own, with stories being told from generations after The Sex Pistols’ height of their career. Of course, there are always going to be the purists who criticize these media interpretations, claiming “That’s not how Sid was!” Or “Johnny Rotten was always like this!” but it, in the end, it shouldn’t matter. Ever since the formation of the band, there’s been “myths” about the band members to hype them up as these dangerous individuals.
Cash from Chaos
Their formation was built upon controversy and edginess. Their “manager” Malcolm McLaren pimped the band members out as “sexy assassins” to make them appeal to the disenfranchised youth. The goal was to spread punk rock, chaos, and destruction. They were billed as dangerous angry criminals. In reality, they were a just group of young men who frequented McLaren’s, and partner Vivienne Westwood’s, clothing boutique. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock were already in a band. Later, Johnny Rotten auditioned to be the singer, and Sid Vicious was brought in as a replacement for Matlock.
Matlock, being the only “true musician” in the band, was kicked out in favor of Sid Vicious who was more of a look than a talent. Later, he had said he had quit since he was “tired of the bullshit”. These instances play up to the glorification of more of a look and attitude to Punk over the music, which is what Sid Vicious would end up being martyred for. “If Johnny Rotten is the voice of punk,” McLaren declared “then Vicious is the attitude.”
Sid and Nancy
If Sid Vicious was only added to The Sex Pistols because he looked good in Punk clothes, and nothing else, the decision to include him in the band would seem even more foolish than the idea already was. However, he was so hellbent on creating that image of being chaos incarnate that he overshadowed almost everyone in the band. In essence, he created his own ‘Sid Vicious’ brand. He was the anti-rock star simply by being terrible at his instrument and being destructive to people but to himself.
Sid’s upbringing might have played a role in his branding of personal destruction as he was raised by a single mother who was a Heroin addict and even gave him some for his birthday. It made sense to glorify his actions and his lack of talent in a twisted sort of way. He was like a disaster people couldn’t keep their eyes off of, and once he ended up with a girlfriend who was almost as self-destructive as he was, it was like watching a car crash.
The harsh reality of the matter is that while both Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were spectacles to behold. They were both young adults who had a toxic relationship fueled by drugs and violence. It’s a sad reality, especially knowing that Spungen was diagnosed Schizophrenic at 15 and used heroin as a form of coping with her mental anguish. The newspapers knew the truth of the relationship, but where’s the fun of telling the truth?!
Sid Vicious wasn’t a real musician and Nancy was just a fan-turned-girlfriend. The fact that they were “the embodiment of a Punk rock couple” made for fantastic publicity. It is dangerous putting these people up on a pedestal for just being “spectacles”. No matter the truth of the stories, it is not far from making films “based on true events,” angering purists. The couple would be the subject of a film after their death, sparking conversations over accuracies.
The Martyrdom of Sid Vicious
When Nancy was found murdered in their hotel room in NYC and Sid was cited as a suspect, the media stuck to the story like white on rice. The arrest was such a huge deal that Malcolm McLaren thought of merchandise to sell. This included a shirt of Sid with the quote “She’s dead, I’m all yours”. The arrest also furthered the belief that Punk had dangerous music played by dangerous human beings. Sid was released on bail but never went to trial as he overdosed in February 1979.
Starlet Marylin Monroe became the poster girl of a “tragic beauty who died too young”. Conversely, Sid’s death is an example of the Punk philosophy of “Live fast, die young”. Monroe’s death is viewed as tragic and sad. While Vicious’ death is put on a glorious punk rock pedestal; to live life the way you want to live, screwing the consequences. This kind of romanticism translates to plenty of articles and books. Most famously, it is featured in the film Sid and Nancy (Cox 1986) starring Gary Oldman as Sid and Chloe Webb as Nancy. Despite inaccuracies and “Punk purists” dislike of the film, it is well-acted. Nor does it shy away from the tragedy of drug addiction. A story like Sid and Nancy’s is naturally embellished and dishonest. Unfortunately, that is a curse the couple’s legacy is burdened with.
With the recent Hulu series, Pistol, we are seeing romanticism over a legendary band. Overall, it is surprisingly not as inaccurate as you think. With theatrical Danny Boyle directing, there is going to be some over-the-top cinematography. Graphic themes are also included in the show, but remain grounded in its storytelling. The focus is not on Johnny Rotten or the notorious Sid. Rather, it is focused on the guitarist Steve Jones. It is a nice break from the repetitive stories saturating the narrative. However, it still offers a grim look into the life of Jones before Punk saved him.
It may sound like a Cinderella story come to life. However, the show has more truth with its roots in Jones’ autobiography “Lonely Boy”. Perhaps stories about The Sex Pistols and Punk are gradually moving away from the myths and exaggerations created by media. The story is allowed to be told from authentic personal experience.
Featured Image courtesy of Photograph: Koen Suyk. In: Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 – negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang 2.24.01.05, bestanddeelnummer 928-9665, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons