How Johnny Rotten Joined the Sex Pistols

In his scabrously delightful memoir, Lonely Boy, the guitarist for the Sex Pistols describes how they auditioned the wrong John, hired him anyway, and why it all worked out.

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Malcolm McLaren used to like exaggerating how close Richard Hell or Sylvain Sylvain came to joining the band, but there was one plan to import a vocalist that did almost happen. The source was a lot closer to home, but still just as unlikely as the gutter outside CBGB’s. It was Scotland, where Midge Ure, who’d end up doing Band Aid nine years later, was singing with a second division Bay-City-Rollers-style band called Slik.

Malcolm and Bernie convinced themselves Midge was the guy, to the extent of going all the way up to Glasgow to meet him, but when they arrived he’d just signed a record contract, so there was nothing doing. The joke was on him in the end, cos he ended up being in Matlock’s band The Rich Kids before joining Ultravox. Good luck, Midge, and see you in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame… or maybe not.

When it comes to the mechanics of how John Lydon finally came to fill our singer- shaped vacancy, that’s another traumatic event in my life where my memory checks out a bit. So I’ve decided, since he’s dead now and can’t charge me for it (I reckon he still owes me, anyway) to use the account Malcolm gave when he came on my radio show in 2005. He was just hanging around in LA at the time—I’m not sure what he was up to, but I’d bumped into him a couple of times since the court case two decades before, and there’d never been any bad blood between the two of us, so the interview seemed a natural thing to do. To be honest, it didn’t seem like too big a deal at the time. It was only after his death a few years later that it started to feel that way, and now I’m really glad we did it.

No one can deny Malcolm is a great storyteller, and while he should sometimes have had his poetic license endorsed, this version of what happened does pretty much tally with the occasional fragments I can remember. I should add to anyone reading this out loud that he also did a pretty good impression of Vivienne—you can still hear it if you look the interview up on YouTube.

So we were left with this name, Kutie Jones—that was you—and his Sex Pistols, that was the rest: Cook, Matlock, whoever else you could grab and put in the band. You weren’t faring that well, so it was decided—I think at a certain point in the car going back from Brighton—that we would audition for a singer. I was going to stand in the shop every day and watch people come in, and various individuals were auditioned as a result. The guy who ended up being the lead singer of The Damned, and this group called The London SS which was the group Mick Jones was in before The Clash—they were looked at for possible singers, Chrissie Hynde at one point was considered …

We didn’t find anybody, at least I didn’t. But Vivienne kept telling me, ‘Look out for this guy called John—he’s very good-looking and he’s very interesting in the way he wears his clothes.’ I sat in the store looking for him when in came a guy—a very, very obstreperous creature—who was looking for a pair of brothel creepers in white suede. I didn’t have them in his size… but I could order them for him the week after. I asked him, as I was asking everyone who came in the shop at that time, ‘Do you sing?’ and he said ‘Nah—only out of tune.’ I thought, ‘All right, we’ll test you.’ I told him, ‘If you want these shoes, I may even give them to you if you promise to head down to this pub round the corner called the Roebuck where you can meet the rest of the band tonight.’

He did, and typically of his character he turned up with a group of friends that even then he probably thought of as his bodyguards because he didn’t want to arrive anywhere alone. I sat at the bar talking to a few of the local characters—fashion victims, drug victims—and let you get on with it. Then you came up and said, ‘Look, Malcolm, if he keeps on ’ollering at me, I’m gonna beat the shit out of him. You’ve got to get him down to the shop now, cos I don’t really know if we want to be involved with this guy.’ So I went over and dragged him down to the shop. At that point I became very officious and grabbed—I don’t know why we had it—a broken shower-head device that could behave like a microphone. I gave it to John and told him to stand at the end of the shop. Then I put a song on the jukebox— I think it was Alice Cooper’s ‘Eighteen’—and said, ‘Behave as if you’re onstage and sing along to it, otherwise this guy that’s sitting next to me now, Steve Jones, is going to beat the living daylights out of you.’ Then you and Paul Cook and I think Glen—the Saturday boy who’d become the bass player—stood back by the jukebox as we all watched John perform.

I remember he began to look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose, he was spitting and coughing and talking about ‘sex in the grass is free,’ I don’t know, God knows what he was talking about but he was trying to imitate and scream along. He was somewhat embarrassed and vulnerable and strange. I laughed because I thought it was really funny and brilliant. Paul Cook said, ‘I’d better go back to the brewery and carry on with my job,’ but he was always like that. You went along with it. I think you just thought, ‘why not?’

Suddenly I put you all into a rehearsal room somewhere in Rotherhithe. That’s what happened the following week, except he turned up and you guys didn’t. Maybe you weren’t certain about him, I don’t know. Either way, then he was pissed off and he stayed at home … eventually we convinced him to come back to the band on the basis that you were going to get very serious and rehearse with him. That’s when we dropped the Kutie Jones and it became just Sex Pistols … young, sexy assassins, that’s what you were, and you were going to compete with the Bay City Rollers.

That was the idea, cos they were on top of the charts at the time—they were the nubile, young, good-looking kids. You were coming in with a very different angle—far, far more cutting edge … less a pop sound but more something that was going to be completely new, more a sound that would really hurt and annoy people, a sound that would be stripped of all its slickness …”

I do remember Malcolm saying that about the Bay City Rollers. Tam Paton, the very sleazy geezer who managed the Rollers, got done for being a nonce a few years later, although he got off another set of charges when the rhythm guitarist Pat McGlynn accused him of rape. I don’t think he fucked all of them, but whatever went on in that band certainly wasn’t pretty—you could see it on their faces as they got older. The singer definitely didn’t age gracefully, but then not everyone is lucky enough to have my classic good looks.

Fast- forward again back to us talking on my radio show. We stopped for a commercial break and Malcolm said he’d forgotten a bit, then added the following, which definitely had a grain of truth in it, although that grain was certainly no bigger than the pinch of salt you should probably take it with.

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What I forgot was when the Sex Pistols were finally formed I went back to see Vivienne and said, ‘I’ve found this John and he’s gonna be all right— you were right Vivienne.’ She said, ‘I’ll come up to Chelsea and have a drink with him. I’d like to meet him because he’s a very handsome boy.’ She arrived at the pub in the King’s Road and came up to see me at the bar. She said, ‘That’s not the John I thought I told you about— that’s another John. You’ve got the wrong guy.’ I said, ‘He’s OK, he’s fine, he’s got something.’ Then she replied, ‘You’re gonna have a lot of trouble with him— you’re never gonna hear the last of this. Oh well, you’ve made your bed so you’re going to have to bloody lie in it!’

At that point she walked out of the pub. The John she was talking about came into the shop a few weeks later. His name of course was John Simon Ritchie and he later became Sid Vicious. He wanted to join the group from the beginning—he said he could play the saxophone. I said, ‘We don’t need a saxophone—we’ve got enough people in the group, it’s fine.’ So instead he became the agent provocateur and invented the pogo.”

The way these things work out sometimes does make you wonder if God was a punk rocker, or do things just happen the way they happen? The timing certainly worked out pretty well with Matlock having crawled out of the 430 King’s Road woodwork, me getting lobbed on to lead guitar and starting to learn really quickly, then John coming along, and it was like “here’s our guy.” The band was a great combination and the fact that none of us except me and Cookie got on too well was a big part of that, because the gaps between us were what the music sparked across. There’s no formula for how these things happen. Look at The Beatles—they got rid of the good-looking drummer and got Ringo in who could barely play, and that didn’t work out too badly.

I was the one who ended up christening John “Rotten” because of the terrible state of his teeth, and that kind of stuck, but I’d seen him coming into Sex a few times before the audition and I thought he looked fucking great. He was one of those guys who just have something. It was the same with Sid, who I’d also noticed hanging around the shop a few times before John joined the band—presumably that was when Vivienne had clocked him. He always looked fantastic, too. You’d see the two of them walking down the King’s Road and they looked like they were stars already, even though no one knew who they were yet.

It wasn’t just John’s look that drew you to him—the dyed green hair and the safety pins (way before Vivienne started using them) and the “I hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt he’d vandalized himself—he also had a great face. That set all the other elements off—his excellent bone structure. And a lot of the stuff that would later become the punk uniform, he did seem to do first. Obviously there’d been a bit of the spiky hair going on with Bowie, but that was more of a glamour thing, whereas with Rotten it was all on a do-it-yourself level, which was what made it really stand out.

Later on I’d see pictures of Richard Hell doing similar things a little bit earlier, but I don’t think Rotten had seen those pictures, and I guarantee that if you asked him, he’d tell you he hadn’t. Maybe if you were thinking a certain way about how the world was in the early ’70s, that was a natural style to start dressing in. Either way, it was a great look.

Americans claiming they started everything would get quite tedious as punk went on. The New York guys were definitely up to something, but it was different to what we were doing. Of course we’d been influenced by The Stooges and the New York Dolls, but no more than we had by Roxy Music or the Faces. And I remember us hearing the Ramones album for the first time when we were already rehearsing. We certainly didn’t see them and think, “Oh, we’ve got to be like this band now.” The funny thing was, I became friendly with Johnny Ramone a while later and I remember this one geezer, a journalist called Legs McNeil, who was the leader of the “Oh we Americans were here first” brigade—Johnny absolutely hated that geezer. He didn’t want anything to do with him or his bullshit.

Back to the other John, though. Both Malcolm and Glen used to moan about how he always had to have his gang of mates with him, but the only ones I really remember him bringing around in the early days were a girl from his college whose name I can’t recall and John Grey, who was more of an art-school guy. Rotten never showed up with his Arsenal ’erbert mates, even though I knew he had some because that was what his brothers were into.

There was a bit of antagonism between me and him from the off, but not as much as Malcolm implied (he’s still doing the divide and rule thing, even from beyond the grave). It was just the way he behaved at the audition that got on my wick. I thought he wasn’t taking the whole thing seriously and it kind of bothered me that he wasn’t trying to sing to get the gig. With hindsight, the fact that I wanted him to make an effort—“OK, show us what you’ve got as far as being a singer is concerned”—was the reason I was the wrong man for the job and he was the right one. Because I was still from that school of trying to be like Rod Stewart, whereas he was right to be taking the piss, because that’s Rotten in a nutshell, and that was exactly what the Sex Pistols needed.

On top of the fact that it was my band and he was coming into it from the outside, John was probably a bit intimidated by me being physically stronger. To compensate for that, he would use his intellect to put me down a lot, which he could do because he was very smart whereas I wasn’t the brightest of kids and had never learnt anything at school. He still does that now, but luckily for me I’ve reached the point where I don’t take offense any more. He says so many things that if it was someone else saying them it would probably hurt my feelings, but coming from John it’s like ‘Oh, it’s just him’.

I don’t know if he and Malcolm ever really liked each other very much. John certainly didn’t have the same kind of relationship with him that I did—I’d always be open to Malcolm’s suggestions and wanting to know what we were doing next, whereas from the start he and John were more like rivals. I think they were possibly a bit too similar, and Rotten probably sussed him out early on as a bit of a bullshitter—which of course Malcolm was, but you know what they say: it takes one to know one.

However different their music might be, all bands are basically the fucking same. The reason I still—to this day—love watching documentaries about bands like the Eagles (I know they’re technically just Eagles, but that looks stupid written down) is that I can totally relate to them. The personalities involved and the reasons for the tensions between them never seem to change.

The singer—because that job requires the kind of person who wants to be in the front going “look at me, look at me”—will almost always be very insecure, and usually a bit of a cunt. Then there’s the guitarist, who wants to get all the pussy, and there’s always at least one weird introvert in the band. For me, in the Pistols, it was Cookie. It’s quite unusual for that person to be the drummer, but that was good for us, because drummers are the ones who tend to come unstuck. I think it’s cos no one really gives a shit about them and they’re just sitting out the back. It gets to them after a while, the same way it does with goalkeepers in football.

One thing about our band that was unique was the way Malcolm and Vivienne’s shop brought us all together. From me and to a lesser extent Cookie hanging out there because I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, to Matlock being the Saturday boy, to John coming in there looking for his brothel creepers—Sex was the Mecca that drew everyone in. If we were going to take that vibe out into the world, we needed to find a place our music could call home in the same way.

Our first couple of attempts at finding rehearsal spaces were never going to fit that bill. First there was some hippie dump south of the river in Rotherhithe that Rotten has never stopped moaning about us not turning up to. Then there was the Rose and Crown in Wandsworth, just a pub that some chancer was pretending was a rehearsal studio. There wasn’t any kind of soundproofing, so you’d get nothing but complaints, and it was on a roundabout—it felt like you were practicing in the middle of the road. Everything about that place was depressing: getting there, setting all the gear up. It was awful and I hated it. In fact, it scarred me for life as far as rehearsing was concerned …

Well, that’s my excuse anyway.

Excerpted from Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol by Steve Jones. Copyright © 2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Steve Jones was born in West London in 1955. He founded the Sex Pistols in 1972 with Paul Cook and Wally Nightingale and was their guitarist until the band broke up in 1978. He is a musician, record producer, and actor. He lives in Los Angeles, where he hosts the radio show Jonesy’s Jukebox.