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The Pistols at dawn
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The Pistols at dawn

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Next year Danny Boyle’s series on the greatest punk band of all, The Sex Pistols, will reach our screens. In this edited extract from the new Tortoise book, Giants, drummer Paul Cook tells Michael Henderson about his part in their rise and fall


Packed off to school at Christopher Wren on the White City estate, Paul Cook recalls those days fondly; rather more fondly than the boy he befriended. “Steve Jones and myself attended different primary schools, but our mums knew each other and we hit it off. We bonded, as they say today, and we saw a lot of him in our house. He had grown up in a troubled household, and he spent quite a bit of time with us. My parents could see that he was vulnerable, and didn’t mind him kipping at our place. That’s how we got on at first, I suppose. I loved his spirit of adventure, and he enjoyed the steadiness and normality of our family life, something he had never known. And we both loved music.”

There were other friends to knock around with: Steve Hayes, Wally Nightingale and Jimmy Macken. They were a gang, who went to Cooke’s on Goldhawk Road for pie and mash – “and don’t forget the liquor, most important”. On the other side of the street was the Wheatsheaf, an old-fashioned boozer that put on strippers (“in the middle of the afternoon!”) and hosted occasional drag shows. “We used to peep through the window, as you do, like naughty boys. One day one of the acts was our music teacher at school! Canadian chap he was, a decent fellow.”

Radio could be self-consciously retro, as the BBC, which ruled the airwaves like an absolute monarch, pumped out hours of pap. “I remember those Sunday nights in November, listening to Sing Something Simple, and thinking ‘oh dear, back to school in the morning’.”

But those early days spent in Shepherds Bush were happy. “It was largely a white working-class area where we grew up, but there were plenty of West Indian families, too. Working-class people and immigrants both love music, and they like to perform it. There was a youth club in White City and we heard a lot of ska there, and in the clubs round the Bush. This would be the first wave of skinheads, in 1969 and 1970, and there were plenty of records coming in from Jamaica. 

“My sister Jackie, who was two years older than me, which is a big gap when you’re young, used to buy records, and let’s not forget Tony Blackburn on Radio 1. There was a lot of shit, yeah, but he played the latest hits from America, Motown and all that, which was fantastic. We were doing multiculturalism long before people started talking about it. For me, for all of the people I knew growing up, it was normal.”

What a fertile period it was, as songwriters on both sides of the Atlantic extended the vocabulary of popular music. “I was never a massive Beatles or Stones fan, to be honest. The Kinks and the Who were the ones, and the Small Faces. The Troggs, as well. Reg Presley! They were one of the original punk bands, I reckon. It was a west London thing, too. Roger Daltrey came from the Bush, and Pete Townshend was from down the road, in Acton. 

“There was the Ealing Blues Club, with Alexis Korner, and the scene at Eel Pie Island. The Stones played that club in Richmond [the Crawdaddy], and later the Faces lived there. Steve and me used to go down to see if we could spot them.” The Faces, with Rod Stewart front centre, played a signal part in the formation of the Sex Pistols, and Cook still has the T-shirt. He saw them time and again, all over town. “A great band, though they could be sloppy.”

How the two friends created their own band has become the stuff of legend, like Alfred burning the cakes. “Steve was always the instigator. He led me into being a naughty boy. I needed somebody to get me going, and he was the one. We used to bunk into gigs all over town. We never paid to get in.” Those were the days of pub rock at the Nashville in Barons Court, and Dingwalls in Camden, as well as the bigger venues like the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park and the Hammersmith Odeon, which was right on their doorstep. Cook was now an apprentice engineer at the Stag Brewery (“my Uncle Jack got me the job. He was a trades union representative, and a bit of a firebrand”) but increasingly he was drawn to the life of a musician, particularly when (hats, rabbits) his pal supplied a set of drums.

“We all had jobs except Steve, who was going out thieving. He nicked all our equipment! Guitars, drums, the whole back line. Wally’s dad was a caretaker at Riverside Studios by Hammersmith Bridge, and we’d borrow the keys. The place was totally empty. We had it all to ourselves, with equipment and everything. I’d bring a couple of kegs from Watneys, and away we’d go. It was Wally who said ‘why don’t we start a band?’ and at first we thought: we can’t do that, bands are from outer space. But Steve picked up the guitar very quickly. He was very determined, and I practised the drums in my parents’ bedroom. My father could have told me to bugger off, but he went off to the pub. The neighbours could hear, though.”

Each Saturday, if Cook was not at Stamford Bridge, the friends caught the No 11 bus to World’s End, where they would hang around Let it Rock, “a shop for teddy boys” run by Malcolm McLaren. “Because he didn’t work, Steve would hang round Kings Road more than me, and I think Malcolm saw him as a young ragamuffin. A good English word. He and Vivienne [Westwood] saw something in him, and when Steve said he was going to form a band then Malcolm could see there was some sort of scene going on. He had managed the New York Dolls, and wanted to have another go.”

Nightingale had left by this stage and Jones, given the singer’s part, did not enjoy it. When Glen Matlock, a grammar school boy who had dropped out of St Martin’s School of Art and worked shifts at the shop, said “I play bass”, they were three. Finally an odd duck from Finsbury Park sauntered in, “and there was our band. We held an audition by the jukebox, and he sang I’m Eighteen by Alice Cooper. He went straight into his Johnny Rotten act, and there it was. All the planets were aligned. We never knew his name. He was always ‘John’. One day Steve and Glen told him he was being really rotten, and it stuck. Later, when we asked him his surname, he just said ‘Rotten’. It was like something out of Dickens!” 

The first gig, at Matlock’s old college on 6 November 1975, was “a disaster, a right racket. We had barely learnt to play, and they pulled the plug.” They persisted, often turning up at venues uninvited and telling people “we’re the support band”. Taking up digs behind a music shop in Denmark Street, Jones would play guitar into the wee hours, determined to crack it. In Shepherds Bush, as Cook bashed away, the neighbours drew their curtains.

Bravely they ventured out of London, met with curiosity if not outright hostility, until a concert before 70 or so people at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 4 June 1976 lit the blue touchpaper. In the four decades since that concert the numbers of those claiming to be present that evening has reached epic proportions. 

“I remember the day, going up there in the van. I think Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks helped to get us the gig. I’m not sure they supported us that night, maybe they did, but they were aware of what was going on in London, and had come down to see us.” On returning to London they were soon joined in the burgeoning punk movement by the Clash and the Damned, “who used to come and see us play”, as well as a host of bands who were not punks at all, but who found a favourable wind filling their sails.

It’s not difficult to see what those young men and women, whether angry or not, were responding to, or recoiling from. In June 1976 the pop charts were topped by the Wurzels and their combine harvester. Roxy Music, admired by all within the punk tent, had stepped down for a breather, which lasted three years, and Rod Stewart, who had shone so brightly with the Faces, had left London for Los Angeles, put on a straw boater and slipped into the cocktail lounge. The LP charts were dominated by Abba, John Denver and Demis Roussos, and featured the likes of Jim Reeves, Roger Whittaker and even James Last, the German parp-meister!

“We tapped into a lot of unrest, all over the country. There were picket lines, National Front marches, and riots at the Notting Hill carnival. Malcolm was an agitator, a troublemaker, and our blueprint was to shake things up. But we weren’t a political band. We weren’t into class warfare. We never went in for sloganeering, as some did, or pinned our colours to a mast. Our message was simple: if you want to do something, then do it yourself. We were the trigger for other bands, who saw us and thought ‘we can do this, too’.”

The gang mentality, wanting to belong, brought clear benefits in terms of setting “us” against “them”. On the first day of December, as Showaddywaddy’s Under the Moon of Love topped the hit parade, the culture war supplied a Battle of Naseby moment, with Bill Grundy cast in the role of Prince Rupert. Grundy, an excellent journalist with a short fuse and a fondness for strong drink he did little to conceal, was clearly unprepared for his interview with the Pistols entourage, band and associates, which went out live on ITV. Jones, no less refreshed than the host, called him “a fucking rotter” and by midnight the balloon was up, trailing banners of outrage as it wobbled its way across a puzzled kingdom. 

It was the noun that did the trick, and still does. Rotter is one of those words, favoured in Fifties films by Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael, which never fails to bring a smile to English faces. “It was all a bit Carry On. We had grown up with Max Wall, and comedians like Tommy Cooper on the telly. It’s that English sense of humour.” Similarly, when the band eventually released their LP, Never Mind the Bollocks, in the autumn of 1977, it was the B word that reaffirmed the sense of playfulness. The longbowmen, sharpening their arrows, said as much at Agincourt.

The amateur ethos of “you can all do this” served their cause well in those preliminary days, even if it was a fib. Mick Ronson, the guitarist in David Bowie’s band, who later joined Mott the Hoople, was astonished when he heard Pretty Vacant. “I was told they couldn’t play,” he said, like a customer taking back a pair of boots that pinched. “Of course they can play!” It was a generous remark from a man whose guitar had been lifted by Jones’s light fingers when a roadie at the Hammersmith Odeon nodded off for 40 winks. 

“There were really two scenes going on,” says Cook: “the New York and the English. The Ramones had been playing before us, and of course we knew about Iggy Pop and the Stooges. You could say that punk rock had its roots in America but as it developed it became quintessentially English, with the fashion, the art and everything else that went with it. It’s that gang mentality again, going on through the teds and the mods to the skinheads. That English sub-culture which makes you think you’re a part of something.”

That, and the language. While Television, the Manhattan new wave (as opposed to punk) band, were led by a singer who borrowed his identity from a French poet, Verlaine, thereby stretching his intellectual pretensions beyond breaking point, the Sex Pistols were gurning like music hall comedians and calling folk “rotters”. It really was a very English revolution.

With cordite in the air, it couldn’t last. There were four hits but the band exploded after an American tour, as the line that had always separated Lydon from the two friends from the Bush became a chasm. A year later there was one of rock’n’roll’s ritual sacrifices, when Sid Vicious, dragged in to replace Matlock on bass even though he could hardly pluck a string, died from a drugs overdose in New York. The song had ended, though, as Boyle is determined to show, the melody lingers on.

This is an edited extract from Michael Henderson’s essay ‘A very English Revolutionary’, in the new Tortoise short book of long stories, Giants. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can order a physical copy here.

Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images