Jan Svenungsson

"Sing Along with Johnny", in: SIKSI, # 3, 1996

Berlin has punks who look like they were never given a choice. As if they were born to be this. And that may well be the case, sometimes. If you are under twenty, maybe your mum and dad were punks – and maybe still are – it's possible, at least in Berlin. Who could have imagined such paralysis in 1976, when the Sex Pistols played their first groundbreaking concerts?

When I saw an ad for a Sex Pistols concert in Berlin on the 6th of July, 1996, I thought it was a joke. Then I found the whole thing tragic, imagining pathetic has-beens forced out on a humiliating tour.

Somewhat later, on the BBC, I heard an excerpt from a press conference with the re-united band. The message was crisp; John Lydon spoke: "We are in this for a common cause: your money!" His malicious honesty made me curious in spite of myself.

When the group played in Stockholm at the end of June, I happened to be in Sweden. Before the concert, the newspapers tried to outdo each other in condemning the band for having sold out. Pretty meek accusations, considering Lydon's own words. The night of the performance, I took the car to drive by the concert, outside of the National Maritime Museum. Just as I arrived, the show began. I didn't see anything, but I could hear ... and it sounded good ... surprisingly good ... even though the sound was made abstract by obstacles and distance. I stayed on, surprised and bewitched by the peculiar feeling of being present at a historic event. The Sex Pistols were booked to play Stockholm in January 1978, immediately following the disastrous US tour – and I would certainly have been there; I had become obsessed by the promise that everything was possible – but instead the Pistols split. Here I was, hearing John Lydon's voice 18 years later, from the other side of a wooden fence, outside a museum in Stockholm:

– Would you like some more?

– Now it's sing-along-with-Johnny-time!
... with a fake upper class accent – ironic, mean, cynical?

Arena in Treptow is situated about 100 m from the Wall that no longer is. Nearby stands the only remaining watchtower, now a museum. A gigantic, run down industrial hall lit up by the sunset, filled with punks and others. Most of the audience is unexpectedly young. Two support bands perform; both with shorts clad guitarists who jump up and down while playing with tremendous (well-rehearsed) precision. The singers run back and forth like frantic rats, shouting out various politically correct messages. The energy level is truly overwhelming, and I wonder how disappointed I will be after this.

The hall goes dark, and green underwater light bathes the stage. Four shadowy figures take their positions. Then at once: on comes the music, on come the lights, on comes the amazing volume, and on come the Sex Pistols playing "Bodies" with great force and determination in a former East-German factory in Berlin 1996. My immediate impression is astonishment: this is obviously for real...! It sounds terribly good, hard as hell, loud, ferocious – and John Lydon sings with a manic, spiteful whine. The PA is obviously in a different league today than twenty years ago – they can never have sounded this heavy back then. Steve Jones strikes poses worthy of a true rock'n'roll hero, playing unreined guitar – meticulously following the old arrangements. Centre stage the no longer so thin John Lydon ... his hair standing straight up like orange coloured carrot tops ... he's wearing a padded chequered jacket buttoned to the neck that makes him resemble Zippy the Pinhead – he looks almost unreal and is moving jerkily, mechanically, like a marionette, a marionette with entangled strings ... maybe is he thinking about all the money he is going to get ... but it is impossible to take your eyes off him, and he sings with tangible intensity ... and worst of all: he is relevant. To be relevant, rock music, like all art, has to be simultaneously ambivalent and precise. To copy one's own revolutionary work with great conviction after 20 years is a powerful celebration of that work's intrinsic value, and at the same time it entails a radical questioning of that same work – and its reception, back then as well as today. This performance is relevant – not because it should be, or due to some intricate theory or something else – but in the sheer power of convincing artistic expression.

It becomes clear to me that the Sex Pistols are simply proud of their material, and play because they have something to prove. It's no longer a matter of money – they claim interpretive priority. The fight cannot end – interpretive priority belongs to whoever claims it most convincingly – now the band is on a surprising offensive ...

The Sex Pistols were never the musical joke so many have wished them to be. In the group, there was a tumultuous personal chemistry that in little more than a year (from the end of 75 to the beginning of 77, when Glen Matlock was replaced by Sid Vicious) generated not only a cultural shift, but also some extraordinary songs ... The shift would not have happened had not the Sex Pistols written these songs, and had they not had the ability to perform them in a uniquely expressive way. But at the time a rumour was spread that they couldn't play. I remember the exciting discussions that ensued – how far can you take a concept without technique – but it was a myth, in part created by their manager, Malcolm McLaren, who, with great energy, worked to make the whole punk phenomena, and especially the Sex Pistols, seem like his own subversive work of art. And his ambition has been surprisingly successful, perhaps because it so poignantly confirms fellow intellectuals' aspirations for power. After the concert, I read the book John Lydon wrote about those years (footnote), and I noticed two things: how consciously he was working with his role in the group, and with the lyrics (without which everything would have been different); and that to him there was a subtle layer of humour in the project which was totally lost when McLaren made the remains of the Pistols into a joke.

Once again the Sex Pistols have provoked the establishment – but an establishment that in the meantime has changed. When the band returns to the stage, with the original line-up, the whole of the carefully mythologized history is put into question by the assertion of the music – the artistic content and expression – and thereby the power balance is upset. The tragedy is not that a musical group is once again playing the music they themselves wrote – as long as they do it well – the tragedy is if the same music is taken as an excuse by others to cease thinking.

The Sex Pistols play the Sex Pistols with superior insight. This time around they are not drenched in gob – the stage is too high. Only Lydon spits on stage a couple of times, so as to establish the new conditions. The concert ends ... the band returns for an encore – "Anarchy in the UK" – and once again the ambivalence is overwhelming: this is totally convincing right now – the audience is going wild – at the same time I feel caught up in an anachronistic vertigo.

The concert is heading towards its finale. "No Fun". The audience is surging back and forth. Then it happens: a beer bottle, still half-full, is thrown at Lydon – the first hard object that's been thrown at the stage – and absurdly enough Lydon is able to catch the bottle in its flight. At the same time he says:

– STOP! and all stop playing.

– Nobody's gonna throw bottles at me. Fuck off!

The four of them leave the stage so fast that nobody below has time to react before background music is heard from the PA and neon has lit up the hall. The audience, dumb-founded and surprised, flows towards the exits, without protests or cheers, as if they had woken from a dream.

Jan Svenungsson