Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, by John Lydon

This is the story of Johnny Rotten.

It has to be tough to be John Lydon. Reading Rotten, the combination memoir/oral history of his time in the Sex Pistols when he was known around the world as the dreaded Johnny Rotten, the reader is struck by several things: 1) Lydon can be very, very funny; 2) Lydon can be very, very arrogant; 3) Lydon is cynical to the core.

The Sex Pistols really were a shot heard ’round the world. It’s easy to forget all these years later what a profound impact the Pistols had, especially in England where they were condemned by decent people everywhere (including on the floor of Parliament) and championed by the disaffected, unemployed youth who saw England collapsing under a Labour government that promised them the world and delivered a massive decline in the economy and in international prestige. Look at what London was like in 1976 and it’s so very easy to see that for the youth of a nation there really was the possibility of there being “no future.” More than any other band from that era, the Pistols articulated this through the words of Johnny Rotten.

“We’re the flowers in your dustbin,” yelled Rotten. “There’s no future in England’s dreaming.”

These two lines from “God Save The Queen,” the Pistols’ wicked broadside at the English monarchy, are probably the two best lyrics that ever emerged from punk rock. They capture the zeitgeist of mid-70s London in 17 syllables.

England, especially London, was being ripped apart. On one side was the national pride of an older generation that had defeated those filthy Huns (twice!), a monarchy that had grown ever more detached from every day life, and a government that was mired in scandal and crony politics. The rock stars of the day had left the streets and were flying in private jets, snorting the best cocaine money could buy, and writing ever more pompous and self-indulgent music. They no longer spoke to the kids who were buying the records.

On the other side of this divide were the scabs of a nation driven insane, the youth crippled by high unemployment and filthy living conditions, disenfranchised from society, with no future. Enter The Sex Pistols.

Partially the creation of a self-described anarchist Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols were always much more than some angry version of The Monkees. They wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and channeled their own voices. They were thieves and delinquents and, in John Lydon, they found an unlikely poet.

Bassist Glen Matlock may have had a strong hand in making the music of the Pistols as good as it was but the power of the band, the reason they are still talked about today, rested entirely in Johnny Rotten. Of the punk rock movement, he was the King, with guitarist Steve Jones, Matlock, and drummer Paul Cook his loyal court and Sid Vicious (who replaced Matlock on bass before their first—and only—album) his sad court jester.

Anyone interested in the band needs to read Jon Savage’s extraordinary book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock & Beyond. The book provides a truly exhaustive bio of the Sex Pistols while also taking time to survey the rest of the English punk scene: the Clash, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, Adverts, etc. The story is largely the same in Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs but while Savage’s book is a model of a survey biography, Lydon’s book is both helped and hindered by the fact that it’s so personal.

John Lydon is an acquired taste, both as a singer and as a personality. He’s maddening, enlightening, insufferable, enjoyable, arrogant, humble. Rotten is a good book if you like the subject (and I do). It’s also very rambling as events are presented in only the loosest chronological order. Amid Lydon’s recollections you also get his opinions on everything from older rock and roll (hated almost all of it except the Doors and Alice Cooper), his punk rock peers (hated all of them except the Buzzcocks), religion (hates it), politics (hates it), his fans (hates a lot of them), his bandmates (hated them), conformity (hates it), and everything else in between (hates it). The book would be a drag to read if Lydon weren’t so damn entertaining. Yes, he hates almost everything that isn’t him or created by him, but he vents his spleen in a way that’s almost charming, and often funny. He deflects charges of arrogance and cynicism by retreating into a “What do I know? I’m just a working class lad?” schtick, but the reader will definitely walk away thinking that ego is in no short supply in the Lydon household. Even the many quotes sprinkled throughout the book from Billy Idol, Chrissie Hynde, and others, including entire chapters written by other people, are of the “John was a great guy and a genius” sort.

The big problem with all of this, to me, is that like most cynics, Lydon is far more content to destroy than he is to propose acutal working solutions to problems. All too often these days, sarcasm is mistaken for a quick wit. It’s not. A quick wit can playfully nip with pointed teeth or eviscerate with a scalpel’s blade, but sarcasm is incapable of doing anything but bludgeoning and tearing. Wit is subtle, sarcasm is not. It is designed to belittle and disarm. Sarcasm is the hallmark of a cynical soul, and there’s precious little wit but plenty of sarcasm evident in Rotten. Aside from some non-formed treacle about how everybody needs to just be themselves and not part of a herd mentality, Lydon never actually says what he is for. Parts of the book reads as if he were a political conservative. Other parts read as if he were a socialist. All of it reads like someone who’s still locked in an inchoate, adolescent, rebellious phase.

Lydon slams the fans who showed up to concerts dressed like him because they were just copying someone and not thinking for themselves. He lambastes other, older bands for not being different enough. He never considers that maybe the hippies he mocks for their group mentality and similar ways of dressing were trying just as hard as he was to be different and individual and that this movement for individuality was co-opted, much like the punk scene. He tears down his peers and never once gives them the benefit of a doubt that they may have been just as sincere in their sound and beliefs as he was. He reminds me of Holden Caulfield, the snotty adolescent protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye, passing judgment on the “phonies” he sees all around him and Lydon, like Caulfield, thinks almost everyone else is a phony.

Rotten is a good book. It’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a fascinating chapter in rock music history, and Lydon’s sense of humor and storytelling ability are excellent. But the reader is left with one of two possible conclusions: either “Johnny Rotten” is a put-on, a character played by John Lydon, or John Lydon is a deeply cynical man whose relentless sarcasm could suck the life out of a room the size of Madison Square Garden. If the former, then Lydon is even more of a phony than those he chastises for their lack of authenticity. If the latter, well, it has to be tough to be John Lydon.

Is this the story of Johnny Rotten? Only he knows for sure.

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The Price Of Fame

When asked how the Beatles avoided ending up like Elvis Presley, Ringo Starr said something along the lines of “There were four of us, and we kept each other sane.”

There was only one Elvis Presley, and his life was a trip down the rabbit hole of fame. Having recently finished Peter Guralnick’s outstanding two-volume biography of Elvis, Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley, I’m particularly struck by the sheer overwhelming power that fame has to destroy.

There are very few people who reach the levels of fame that Elvis reached. I can think of only the Beatles and Michael Jackson. Theirs was a fame that could only happen in the television era, when images of pop stars were being broadcast into living rooms all over the world. Frank Sinatra made the girls swoon, and his presence was ubiquitous on the radio and in movies, but it pales in comparison to the absolute mania that was created by Presley.

Elvis was not equipped to handle fame. He was poor, smart but not well-educated, and impossibly young when he burst onto the scene with “That’s All Right, Mama,” one of the most seminal of all rock and roll songs. Those early years, under the guidance of Sun Records svengali Sam Phillips, was the real prime time of Elvis’s career. While he did much excellent work at RCA, the truly essential Elvis recordings are the ones he did with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. Over 50 years of rock and roll has elapsed since then and time and technology may have served to diminish these somewhat primitive recordings, but back then these tracks must have been explosive. They are still vital and exciting today, crucial to understanding the development of rock and roll music. The moment in “Milkcow Blues Boogie” when Elvis interrupts the slow, plodding pace of the song to rev up the band to hyper speed (“Hold it, fellas…hold it. That don’t move me. Let’s get real, real goin’ for a change”) is as apt a symbol for the birth of rock and roll as has ever existed. It is like hearing the exact moment when, as Muddy Waters once said, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.”

Fame came very quickly for Elvis. Sympathetic DJs, some of whom didn’t even know whether or not they liked the songs only that they’d never heard anything like them, picked up on Elvis and the young audiences, hungry for something new, came running. Stampeding, in fact.

The best-known Elvis tracks are the early songs he did when Sam Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA. These tracks are the basis for a million Elvis compilations: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” etc. But Elvis was a huge star before he went to RCA. Today it sounds like a big mistake when we hear that Sun sold Elvis to RCA for a mere $40,000. To some, this seems almost on a par with Decca Records dismissing the Beatles by saying that “guitar groups are on the way out.” But the fact is that 40K was a huge amount of money for such a deal. RCA wasn’t buying an unknown, they were buying a star that was on the cusp of being a superstar. And Elvis had outgrown Sun Records, a small, local label. Sam Phillips loved Elvis, but Sun was on the verge of bankruptcy and selling Elvis’s contract allowed Phillips to keep the label afloat…and give the world Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison, among many others.

Of course, the deal was really with Col. Tom Parker, a former carnival huckster and manager of Eddy Arnold. The Colonel knew next to nothing about rock and roll music, and never bothered to learn. But he knew a star when he saw one, and that was Elvis all over. Having been fired by Eddy Arnold, Col. Parker drifted, looking for his next break, and found it with the kid from Memphis. What Parker also understood was marketing. He packaged Elvis and sold him on a mass scale, and Elvis’s career went into the stratosphere. TV, concerts, movies…The Colonel always had another deal in the works that would get Elvis out front. When Elvis was drafted it would not have been that difficult to get an exemption for such a famous star, but The Colonel insisted that Elvis do his time in the Army. To not serve would look bad to his fans who expected Elvis to do the honorable thing.

It was Parker who, thanks to several unreleased recordings for both RCA and the fact that RCA now owned all the many unreleased Sun recordings, kept Elvis in the public eye while the singer was stationed in Germany. By combining recently recorded songs with older, unheard songs, Parker was able to craft long players and singles to be released during the two years Elvis was out of the limelight. By rushing the production on movies before Elvis left, fans could still see Elvis in new films. When Elvis finished his time in the Army, it was Parker who arranged for a huge welcome home party and a television special hosted by Frank Sinatra. To many people, it was as if Elvis had never left.

But Elvis had left. John Lennon once pithily observed, “Elvis died the day he went into the Army.” There’s a frightening amount of truth in that simple quip.

Far from living the life of the average soldier, Elvis was allowed to live off base with his family and a circle of friends from Memphis, all of whom he transported to Germany with him. He did his soldier duty (quite well, apparently) but in his downtime he was living a more pampered life. During this time he was also given amphetamines. At the time, they were considered wonder drugs that would give you tons of energy, were not addictive, and had no side effects. The Army handed them out, and Elvis liked them. A lot. The pep pills instilled in him a love of pharmaceuticals that would eventually kill him. Elvis seemed to genuinely believe, almost right to his dying day, that these pills were harmless. It was this disconnect with reality that allowed him to be strongly anti-drug while being a drug addict.

Elvis had a love of movies and wanted very much to be a movie star. His role model was James Dean, and Elvis believed that he could fill Dean’s shoes after the actor was killed in a car accident. All he needed was a good part in a good film. His movie career began promisingly. The early films he made before he was drafted, Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole are considered the best he ever made, not that that’s saying much. They were, at least, serious attempts at creating a screen persona.

After the Army, deeply indebted to Parker for keeping his career afloat while he was out of commission, Elvis turned over more control to the Colonel. He was now Parker’s boy and willing to do anything his manager asked.

For Parker, the rock and roll thing was a sideline. What he really envisioned for Elvis was a successful career in movies. As the Sixties progressed, the only new music Presley recorded were songs for movie soundtracks. What made matters even worse were the deals that Parker had crafted. Both Elvis and Parker were entitled to a large share of the net profits for any movie that starred Elvis. Parker realized that those profits would be higher if the movies were made more cheaply, so he used his considerable clout to make sure that Elvis movies were made with C-level talent on rushed shooting schedules. Many of Elvis’s movies were filmed in two weeks, and then it was on to the next movie. The result of this was an endless series of bottom-dwelling films, rehashing the same plots, cheaply made, and released with no fanfare. Elvis’s name would ensure a good box office for a few weeks, and then the movie would disappear into oblivion. Elvis’s dreams of being a real actor were crushed by Parker’s desire to churn out the cheapest available product, The soundtracks, the closest thing to albums Elvis was releasing, were atrocious. While some of the earlier movies had great songs like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Return To Sender,” by 1964 the movies were weighed down by such God awful songs as “Wheels On My Heels,” “Harem Holiday,” and the immortal “Petunia, The Gardener’s Daughter.” The same man who ten years earlier had electrified a nation’s youth with his unbridled sexuality, good looks, and devastating talent was now hamming it up and singing songs that were light years away from the music he had helped create. The same month the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Elvis’s contribution to music was the soundtrack of Double Trouble, featuring songs like “Old MacDonald” and “Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On).” Elvis could not fall back on live performance. Parker had shut the door to concerts, preferring to concentrate on the films. The single most exciting performer of the early rock and roll era performed almost no concerts in the 1960s. Even the unplugged reunion that Elvis had with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana in his 1968 TV special was undermined at every turn by Parker.

The ’68 special, dubbed his “Comeback Special” did light the fire in Elvis again. Combined with a disheartening experience when Elvis went outside the recording studio and stood, unrecognized, on the sidewalk as hippies passed him by, Elvis finally confronted the Colonel about getting off the movie bandwagon. He completed the films he was contractually obligated to do, while turning his attention back to creating new music and giving live performances. The music he created in the late 60s is excellent. From Elvis in Memphis is one of Presley’s best LPs, though it lacks the stripped down, raw simplicity of his early works. There’s a high gloss production of the songs from this era, which include classics like “Suspicious Minds,” “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” and “In The Ghetto.” But Elvis’s talent shines through the gloss. For the first time in years, Elvis sounds confident and sounds like he actually likes the songs he’s singing.

Unfortunately, so much of the music he did afterwards was hurt by the increasing layers of production (tons of backup singers, string sections, you name it) and by a decreasing level of interest on the part of the singer. His early Vegas shows after the Comeback Special are considered some of the best shows he had ever done, some of the best that Vegas had ever seen (a town known for its shows). It wasn’t long, though, before the near constant intake of pills met the rigors of performing regularly. These tours were the first Elvis had done since he started taking pills, and the combination was more than he could tolerate.

From the time he went into the Army, Elvis had been coddled. The friends and relatives that he surrounded himself with, that he put on the payroll with no job description other than “hang out with Elvis” got the fame bug. They became drug addicts and drunks, none of them faithful to wives or girlfriends, all of them the patrons of the Elvis Presley Welfare State. They told Elvis whatever he wanted to hear, and made sure that they were there at Christmas time when Elvis handed out expensive gifts. This “Memphis Mafia” was formed with the idea that his old friends were the only ones he could trust. But they were seduced by the fame as well and became the worst sort of fawning sycophants. Their refusal to confront Elvis when they recognized the path he was on was practically criminal.

The women in Elvis’s life were no better. Most of them were much younger than he, confused by Elvis’s sexuality, which seemed to have been arrested when he was a teenager. They enjoyed being with Elvis, even if they didn’t understand him. Most of them turned a blind eye to his ever-increasing drug intake or, when the truth could not be avoided any longer, left him. They would lie in bed with Elvis, watching tapes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and listening while Elvis read from the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Although it dragged on for several more years in name, Elvis’s marriage to Priscilla ended the day Lisa Marie Presley was born. Such was the disconnect in Elvis’s psychology that he felt he could no longer make love to Priscilla because now she was a mother. She, of course, eventually sought the affections of someone who understood that mothers are also women.

In the early years Elvis was very much a Mama’s boy, protected and shielded by his mother who died just as Elvis was going into the Army. Through the 1960s and 1970s he was shielded from reality by Col. Parker who used Presley for his own gain (granted, Elvis made a bit of money in the bargain…quite a bit). He was blocked from reality by the Memphis Mafia who never did or said anything that might knock the gravy train off track. The women in his life, with the seeming exception of Priscilla, wanted only to be with ELVIS, the man whose name was in lights. And worst of all the drugs deadened him to any perception that he might have about himself or about what the real world had to offer. Through the last 15 years of his life Elvis succumbed more and more to the fame virus. He became isolated, withdrawn, lonely, paranoid. His once svelte figure ballooned. He forgot the words to his songs in concert, and gave lengthy rambling monologues that insulted his band members and alienated his confused audience. He would sit in the upstairs of Graceland watching his friends on closed circuit television, wondering about their loyalty. He had surrounded himself with friends and physicians who bowed before the altar of fame and got any drug the King of Rock and Roll wanted. He had everything he ever wanted and that’s not good for anyone. Fame of the type Elvis had creates its own world, and it cuts you off from the rest of humanity. You can trust nobody, your friends are using you, everybody has his or her hand out. The Beatles survived because there were four of them and any time one of them would drift into the fame world the others would bring him back. Michael Jackson did not survive, and his story in many ways is a parallel to Elvis’s story.

Elvis began as a young upstart. The first volume of Guralnick’s biography paints a portrait of a kid who seems like a genuinely nice guy, with good manners, polite, shy, deferential to his parents, respectful of women, brimming with talent and energy. He was the All-American kid, circa 1955. The second volume will break the heart of anyone who ever thrilled to the music of Elvis Presley. In the end, the All-American kid ended up on a bathroom floor with his pajamas around his ankles, having fallen off the toilet, with his face mashed into a pool of vomit.

The price of fame.

The Listening Post: April 2011

Warmth starts to arrive for real, and pop music is the order of the day.

  • Mighty BabyMighty Baby. Rolled Gold, a collection of band demos by Sixties mod Freakbeat band The Action, was a sterling set. Though not released until 1995, the album stands up alongside such legendary albums as There Are But Four Small Faces and S.F. Sorrow. But the songs from Rolled Gold were also the end of the band, who then rose out of the ashes of The Action as Mighty Baby. Their self-titled debut was recorded in 1968 but not released until 1969 and it’s an excellent collection of late Sixties British psychedelia. While a lot of the British psychedelic scene was marked by a taste for music hall and stories of wizards and knights, Mighty Baby’s roots as a hard rock band kept their music grounded. There’s some Middle Eastern stylings in “Egyptian Tomb,” “House Without Windows” relies on the standard “I met a man while I was journeying down life’s road and we talked about the meaning of life” hippie cliche, and “At A Point Between Fate And Destiny” is as pretentious and boring as the title suggests (as well as including lyrics about an “ancient hermit”—strike three). But what makes this album more listenable today than much British psychedelia is the muscle behind the songs. There’s a high level of musicianship and most of the songs rock…something you can’t really say about bands like Tomorrow or even early Pink Floyd.
    Grade: B+
  • The Best Of The Lovin’ SpoonfulThe Lovin’ Spoonful.The gentle folk rock stylings of The Lovin’ Spoonful underpinned several songs that can only be considered classic anthems of the mid-60s. There’s simply no denying songs like “Daydream,” “Summer In The City,” “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” “Do You Believe In Magic?”, “Jug Band Music,” and “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” Perhaps best of all is the achingly beautiful, “Darling, Be Home Soon.” Forty plus years ago the Spoonful were blasting out of every AM radio in the country, and much of it is impossible not to like. At their best, they wrote classic pop tunes. Having said that, there’s also an ephemeral air to much of this. The songs float precisely because they are lighter than air. These are songs that are instantly enjoyable coming out of a radio while laying on the beach or enjoying the summer air. But aside from the aforementioned classic tracks, most of the rest is simply lightweight, enjoyable pop. It’s as temporary as an Abba album track. The Best Of The Lovin’ Spoonful makes a compelling case for the band as enjoyable hitmakers with some high quality songs that you may never have heard. They’re not as serious or hard rocking as The Rascals, but they have more hipster credibility than Dionne Warwick. While it’s playing, it’s a great listen. When it’s not playing, you will remember only the handful of classic tracks.
    Grade: B+
  • Mars Needs Guitars!Hoodoo Gurus. Strip away early R.E.M.’s indecipherable mumble and sinister atmospherics, and shine up the choruses and you’ve got Hoodoo Gurus. From the opening power pop salvo of “Bittersweet” the Gurus pile on hooks and catchy choruses. “In The Wild,” “Death Defying” and “Like Wow–Wipeout” are indisputable highlights, but the album is consistently solid, a triumph of songwriting and execution, marred only by a too-shiny production straight out of 1985. Unfortunately many of even the best albums from this time period struggle against the awful production that was a sign of the times, and Mars Needs Guitars! is one of those albums. The album also ends on a weak note, with the title track and “She” providing a decent, but lackluster, finale.
    Grade: B+
  • Jesus Of CoolNick Lowe. Homage must be paid first to the album title. How awesome is calling your first solo album Jesus Of Cool? Answer: pretty freakin’ awesome. Unfortunately, it was only released in the UK under that title. The American version, with a slightly altered track listing bore the also quite cool title Pure Pop For Now People. Nick Lowe was always something of an anachronism in popular music. He had the heart of a rock ‘n’ roller from the Fifties and Sixties, with an intense pop sensibility that rendered his music as catchy as only the very best power pop can be. He also had a very skewed lyrical sense that you can see in the works of modern day Lowes like Brendan Benson; there’s really no question about it: “Marie Provost” is the best song ever written about a dead movie star whose corpse is eaten by her pet dachshund, and “Nutted By Reality” is at the top of the short list of songs written about castrating Fidel Castro. You can also hear where early Elvis Costello got much of his sound, especially on Armed Forces, which featured the hit single “What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)?”, written by Lowe and first recorded by Lowe’s band Brinsley Schwarz. Only “Shake And Pop” and “Tonight” lag a bit. “Shake And Pop” sounds uninspired, especially when compared to Rockpile’s ferocious version of the same song (called “They Called It Rock” and included as a bonus track). “Tonight” simply doesn’t go anywhere. But the lowlights are rendered irrelevant by classic pop rock tracks like “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass,” “So It Goes, ” “Marie Provost” and a killer live version of Lowe’s single “Heart Of The City.”
    Grade: A-