In his weekly column, Thomas Dimopoulos takes us down the back streets of Saratoga to bring us the city's best stories
He was, at the time, a loud and snotty young man, blessed with an acid tongue and a mouth that secreted venom: “I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist, don't know what I want but I know how to get it…” He went by the name Johnny Rotten then, fronting the Sex Pistols and railing against just about everything.
Now he is fifty-six and blandness has not become him, which makes for an interesting event when John Lydon - who dropped the “Rotten” moniker in favor of his birth name – and his group Public Image Ltd. bus in to the cookie-cutter community of Clifton Park Friday night to stage a performance at the Upstate Concert Hall.
Saratoga County is a long way from the grime that was London in the late 1970s, when a British tabloid labeled Rotten - barely out of his teens at the time - as the biggest threat to the Kingdom’s youth since Adolf Hitler. They were together less than three years and had only one real album to their credit, but in their brief flare of existence the Sex Pistols changed everything. At least for a while.
"God Save The Queen, She ain't no human being," scowled Rotten, biting off the syllables of a song issued during Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. In spite of its ban from radio airplay, the song steadily climbed the British charts – a blank spot on the Top Ten listings alongside The Eagles, Rod Stewart and other chart-toppers of the day.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is dead, it’s a disease, a plague, it’s vile,” Rotten, eyes madly darting around his intense skull, told television talk show host Tom Snyder in 1980. “The Sex Pistols was going to be the absolute end of rock ‘n’ roll – which I thought it was – unfortunately, the majority of the public being the senile animals that they are, got that wrong.”
What should not be buried in the tomb of history is this: despite the notoriety of record company firings, the forced cancellation of concerts and the walking disaster that was Sid Vicious, when the riotous chainsaw of the Sex Pistols buzzed across the Atlantic Ocean American culture was stuck in the muck of a post-hippie malaise of lazy chords, artificially-programmed disco beats, and droopy love songs. While downtown districts in American cities were setting bonfires of creativity to light the dark nights ahead, it was Rotten and gang, right or wrong, who put a blossoming scene over the top in a big way. What the Sex Pistols accomplished was to save rock ‘n’ roll while simultaneously killing it.
“Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?” a grim Rotten announced from atop a California stage more than 33 years ago, after the Sex Pistols had played the last song of their last show during their one, brief American tour. And, just like that, it was over.
Lydon re-emerged with PiL, but the music was not what fans who clung to punk rock labels were waiting for. A second release - issued in a metal box that was near-impossible to open – and performances staged behind a silhouette screen fueled the anger of fans who questioned whether Lydon was a performance artist, or a BS artist. “You never listen to a word that I said. You only seen me for the clothes that I wear,” he sang.
John Lydon today
“PiL is the experimental side of me. It’s all the truer, and more honest,” Lydon explained in a recent interview with British art historian and broadcaster Andrew Graham-Dixon. “I can get into emotions in a much deeper way. With the Sex Pistols there was (more) an act of aggression against oppression.”
The images of Rotten in the 20th century are imprinted on the pages of pop culture history: the wild-eyed cynical stare; the head cocked sideways; the limbs wagging like a voodoo doll; the body hunched in a way that looks as if he was birthed before being fully cooked. In short, a human tripod draped in plaid and black leather.
Now, at fifty-six, Lydon has a new album, a bizarre commercial where he acts as pitchman for a butter company, and a new tour with PiL. It is unclear whether all has been forgiven, but a vintage clip of “Pretty Vacant” was performed on a giant screen during the Opening Night of the 2012 Olympics in London. And if Lydon has been similarly transformed, perhaps the clues of his transformation are embedded in his own lyrics: “They put a hot wire to my head, Cos of the things I did and said, And made these feelings go away, Model citizen in every way…anger is an energy, anger is an energy, anger is an energy…”
Thomas Dimopoulos is a local author who has a knack for storytelling, and a gift for finding some of the best-kept secrets in Saratoga Springs.
You can follow Thomas on Twitter at @thomdimopoulos
Rotten in Green - Live in Toronto © Viliam Hrubovcak/Photosynthesisstudio.com / Public Image Ltd 2010
Rotten in Red - Live in LA (© River O'Mahoney Hagg / Public Image Ltd 2010)
The Band - Sex Pistols
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