SEX PISTOLS – STEVE JONES
Interview by STEVE OLSON
Photo by CURTIS Y SMITH
From a wee lad, to a Guitar Hero The way the story goes, is this… You play in a band. No other band that anyone has ever heard play the kind of music that your band plays. One record, that changes the way music, and the music industry approaches music from that day on. There is only one Steve Jones… and it’s about the person. and what makes them, them….
Here we go. What’s your name? [Laughs] I already know this.
Steven Phillip Jones. See you didn’t know that I had a middle name.
I didn’t know that your middle name was Phillip. SPJ. Where were you born?
I was born in London in Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in September 1955.
You’re a Virgo.
Yeah. I was born Sept 3, 1955. You’re a Virgo too, aren’t you?
Yeah. That’s why we are good. In 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” was starting to break.
I was in my mom’s tummy when she was down at the local palais jiving to all the rock n’ roll. That’s what was going on and I love ‘50s music. I’ve always got Sirius radio on the ‘50s channel and I never get bored of it.
What ‘50s dudes?
Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee… not Elvis, I wasn’t a fan. He looked great, but I liked his later stuff better when he had the white suits on and he was doing “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” and stuff like that. The really good stuff is Little Richard, and Gene Vincent is at the top of the list with Jerry Lee and Eddie Cochran.
What about Billy Fury and all those cats?
Billy Fury was okay. He was England’s version of rock n’ roll. Cliff Richards was another English version. The real deal was Eddie Cochran.
The ‘50s music is what it was all based on, right?
For me, it was.
It was a basic chord change.
Pretty much. In the mid ’60s, I remember when I was about ten, a bird lived next door to me and there was this guy that would go around and shag her and she had a little record player and he had a 45 of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and I used to go next door and he’d play it. I’d say, “Play it! Play it again!” I was obsessed with hearing that song. I thought it was the coolest song ever. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a certain kind of music that I liked and that was one. I was always into music. It was a big thing for me. I liked the Dave Clark Five when I was really young. Ready Steady Go! was the show that I’d watch on a black & white TV. I remember seeing that when Sandie Shaw was the host and they had a bird that looked like Twiggy as a commentator. They had various bands on there, all that English swinging ‘60s music.
You were a little kid then.
Yeah, I didn’t really get it. I remember seeing the Beatles movie with them running down the street and all the girls were chasing them. I was like, “What is that? That looks exciting. I’d like some of that.” Obviously, I don’t really remember anything about the ‘50s because I was in the womb. In ’55, I was dropped out, mid rock n’ roll, and then it started to deteriorate at the end of the ‘50s. It had already been going for a few years, right?
It had already been going for about three solid hard years, but those three years had some great music.
Oh yeah, for sure. Before the ‘50s, it was big bands. There was no rock n’ roll.
You had Gene Krupa and all that stuff.
Yeah. You had Muddy Waters and all that crap. I couldn’t care less about all that Lead Belly stuff. I hate the Blues, to be honest with you. I can’t stand it.
It’s too slow?
I just don’t like it. I like melody. I like songs with melody in them. Guitar riffs are good too. Now you have all these young hipster kids playing the Blues and it’s massive. Some of them sing and play guitar and play the Blues, and it just does nothing for me. Prior to that, there was no rock n’ roll. Rock n’ roll, for me, was the real revolution, as far as young people getting involved with music. Prior to that, it was Big Band and Frank Sinatra. There was no rebellion. It was accepted by all.
When rock n’ roll played, they would tear up the theater. It moved you.
It was for young people. That’s what it should be. I should be upset now with young people and what they’re listening to, but I’m not. I don’t care, which is not a good sign for the youth these days.
They’re not sparking any emotion.
Yeah. They have them raves and that big bass stuff in there. If it’s not that, it’s retro music.
When is the new stuff going to happen?
I have no idea and I don’t care. If I want to analyze it, I feel that a lot of youngsters are resorting to looking at old stuff to get some sort of sense of music and what it used to be like, but times change and technology changes. You don’t have to be good at anything these days. It’s more about image and there are quick fads that come and go. It’s tough being young and wanting to be in a band nowadays. You have to come from a place where it’s not about making money anymore. That really narrowed down before the music business crashed. Now there basically is no music business. It’s like actors. There are ten million actors in this town and probably a handful that work all the time. That’s what it’s like in the music business now. There are a few big shots.
How does a band even make dough now, not the big shots?
I don’t know. It’s got to be live shows. If you write a song and someone big covers it, you can make a bit of dough there. If it’s in a TV commercial, you can make a bit of dough there. If a song you recorded gets used in a movie, you can make a bit of dough, but it’s hard. Even for us, the Pistols, it’s hard. I know we only had really one album, or a couple, from the old school, The Great Rock N Roll Swindle and Never Mind the Bollocks. We don’t have a big catalog. Even with that, as far as residuals go, we don’t make near as much as we used to when the music business existed.
All of that stopped in 2008 with the Internet and all of that?
Yeah. Everything is free now. Why would you pay for it, if you can get it for free? Kids don’t even get the concept of going to a record store and buying a CD. I never use CDs. They are lame. I have songs on my phone. I had a few CDs that some people signed for me when I was on Indie 103 and I took them all to Amoeba and sold them before they were worthless. I have a Dodge pick-up truck and it doesn’t even have a CD player in it. It’s just got a cord to plug the phone in for Bluetooth and I’m fine with that. It’s so much easier. If I hear a song I like, I press on Shazam and two minutes later I’ve got the song on me playlist. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. It’s great. You’ve got these silly old people my age that say, “When I was a kid, I stared at the album cover.” I’m like, “Good for you. Go ahead”
In the meantime, I’m listening to a couple of other new songs that I just discovered. [Laughs]
It’s convenience. The analog versus digital thing is just crap too. At the end of the day, it all sounds the same. There’s no difference. Now you’ve got Pro Tools where you can put a thousand trillion tracks on a little thing. It’s great if you know what you’re doing and you’re a good musician. It’s great having a million tracks and you can just edit it all, boom, boom, boom, but it’s given people that basically can’t even play music the capability of making music and then you go to see them live and they just suck.
Yeah. That’s not a good thing. There are still talented kids. There are always going to be people being born with natural talent. That’s always going to happen in all kinds of art, whether it’s skateboarding or music or painting.
Right. There’s that kid from England, I forget his name. He’s a singer/guitar player.
Jake Bugg. He’s good and he writes good songs.
Yes! He can play. I heard one of his songs and then I searched him on the Internet because I was like, “Let me check out this kid.” I saw him on a guitar show with some cat in Ireland and this kid was just strumming. The dude that was the guitar guy really couldn’t strum the same way as this kid that had just picked it up. It was cool. I have a whole new respect for Jake Bugg.
Yeah. He’s a young kid, and he was like 18 when he first started playing. You’re always going to get talented kids that are just born. It’s got nothing to do with what era he or she is born in. There’s always going to be people that have been blessed with talent. I like the singer for Arctic Monkeys, Alex Turner. I think he’s very talented. I think he has a natural talent for writing words and lyrics. There are a million musicians out there. If you want to analyze it, yeah, the Pistols’ idea is that anyone can do it.
You still took time to figure out how to do it.
You have to figure out how to do it on the guitar.
Then when you would play live, you could play. I don’t know. I’m asking.
Well, people didn’t want to give us any credit for how good we were. Before we broke, which was not long after we started playing, people would say that we couldn’t play.
Was there any truth to that?
There was a little truth to it because, literally, I had only been playing for a few months. Cookie had only been playing for a little bit. Glen was the only real musician at the time because he had been playing for a few years, but we learned pretty quickly. We picked it up and we had a good blueprint. My thing was the glam Roxy music with David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars, the Faces, Mott the Hoople and Queen… When I was 14 and 15, those were the bands that I would go all over the country to see.
Did you see Sweet play?
I did see them play, but they were more of a joke though. People didn’t take them seriously because they had a bunch of hits and they were on Top of the Pops and it was pop. It wasn’t in the same category as the Faces. Gary Glitter was number one and he wasn’t taken seriously.
What about Mott the Hoople?
They were a great band. I liked a lot of those bands from the ’60s like the Kinks and the Who. They were great bands. They were great lyricists with great songs. That was the foundation.
When did you start getting into music and starting to identify hard with it?
Well, I was very poor and I had a miserable upbringing. My stepfather was horribly abusive and my mother was weak in all ways when it came to him, so I got pushed into the background. I didn’t feel wanted, I guess, so I was an angry kid. I didn’t want to be. On the other foot, if I didn’t have a horrible abusive stepfather and I wasn’t neglected, I probably wouldn’t have gone down the path I went down to start the Pistols.
In your heart, it probably hurt though.
As far as how a human takes it in, one can only accept it and move with where it is. Did it push you into rebelling as a kid?
Yeah. I started stealing and smashing things up when I was 12. I was a skinhead when skinheads first started and that was great. I used to love that.
Did that give you a group to identify with?
Yeah. It’s like what they talk about in Compton. When you join a gang, those are your real bros. It is the same concept.
You latch on because there is some camaraderie there.
Your instincts take over and you don’t know why. Looking back you know why but, at the time, you don’t. I used to like hanging out with these kids in Shepherd’s Bush. We’d go to football matches and just cause trouble. We looked a certain way, the skins. It was a whole peacock thing, and I was a good thief. I used to nick the best. I had 13 Ben Sherman’s, back in the day, and five pairs of Dr. Martens. I loved detail. I was very into detail.
Where do you think that comes from?
I think that’s just one of the basic instinctual things that you’re born with.
What made you a good thief?
I don’t know. I thought I was invisible. In my mind, they couldn’t see me. They don’t know I’m in the room and they can’t see me. I’d get away with so much. I got caught and I had 14 convictions as a juvenile, so I wasn’t really that good as a thief. [Laughs]
I got caught stealing cigarettes when I was in fourth grade. John Crooks went in and came out and he had a pack of Marlboro Reds and I was like, “He’s not so genius. If he can do it, I can do it.” As I was walking out, that hand came down on my back and I got taken into the back room.” I was like, “Oh, this is not cool.”
Getting taken to the police station was not a good feeling. It was not a good feeling at all.
Yeah. I’d say you got away with it some though.
I got away with it a lot of times. For the amount of times I got caught, it was not that much, for the amount of stuff that I used to steal. I was a kleptomaniac. Every day I went out, I was like, “What am I going to steal today?” [Laughs]
There was the adrenalin kick too.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was addicted to it. I have an addictive personality, and I didn’t start drinking and using until I was about 14. I got that feeling when I first drunk a pint, like, “Ah, everything is okay. Everything feels okay.” Prior to the drinking, stealing was the fix, and being a peeping Tom. I was looking through windows and watching birds. I was a dirty Tom…
[Laughs] You were just a dirty little kid.
When did you discover that you wanted to play music?
It was when I was 15 or 16 and I started to hang out with Malcolm McLaren down on Kings Road.
How did it happen that you started hanging out there? Was that near your neighborhood?
No. That was where all the clothing shops were on Kings Road. It was all the fashion shops. This was prior to punk wear. It was all flares and kipper ties and suits with waistcoats. All these shops had the same crap in it. There was one shop that wasn’t like that, which was Malcolm’s shop, at the time.
Did you like fashion and that whole world, at the time?
Yeah. I was dressed like that too.
There’s an adrenalin rush to dressing up and looking good. I like it too.
Oh yeah. I’ve been everything. I’ve been a skinhead. I’ve been a hippie. I’ve been a Teddy Boy. I’ve been a greaser. I’ve worn a suit holding a briefcase convincing myself that I’m a businessman. I did everything in the space of like three or four years, you know what I mean? [Laughs]
Yeah. Wait a minute. You were a Ted as well, after being a skinhead?
I was a Ted for like ten minutes. I would never claim that then. I would just see these revival Teds and I’d say, “I’d like something like that.” Malcolm McLaren used to sell all the Ted stuff, so I would go in there and steal it and then I became friends with him.
[Laughs] Did he ever catch you stealing out of there?
Yeah. He didn’t care. [Laughs] That’s where the relationship started, around 1971.
Okay, so you meet and you started hanging out at Malcolm’s shop?
Yeah. I liked it because you could go in there and hang out. They had a jukebox and a couch and he didn’t mind me going in there. I think he got a kick out of me and he knew I was a little tearaway kind of guy, you know? I think Malcolm liked that. Plus, he couldn’t drive, so I would drive him around.
You had your license?
No. [Laughs] I’ve never had a license, but I could drive. I learned to drive at an early age. That was another big addiction, stealing cars and joy riding. Malcolm’s girlfriend, Vivienne Westwood, at the time, had a little mini, and I would drive him to all the tailor shops out on the East End where he could get materials. Then I would hang out with him at night and he would take me to these bars and clubs, which was great. The immersion into that world opened me up to a whole other world where the elite used to hang out. It was all the hipsters of the early ‘70s, so that was good.
You’re 15 or 16, at that time, and now you’re opened up to this new scene?
Yeah. I don’t know how I decided to want to start a band. There was one kid, Wally Nightingale, we befriended that went to school with us. He didn’t look cool, but he could actually play a bit of guitar. We started going round to his house in his bedroom to rehearse, and then I met Glen Matlock because he used to work at Malcolm’s shop on Saturdays. When I met him, he could play a bit of bass, so we’d go over to Wally’s. Cookie was always my buddy. Then we just started rehearsing at this kid’s house. I stole him a guitar, a Les Paul. I was singing at the time, and I didn’t like singing. Then Malcolm got involved and that’s when he said, “You shouldn’t sing. You should play guitar. Get rid of that idiot on guitar because he looks stupid.” Then we auditioned for a singer and that’s when we started the band.
So you’re singing and Wally is on guitar and Cookie is on drums and Glen is on bass? Then you kick Wally out, and you jump over to guitar.
It was easy to nick instruments back then as well?
Back then, for me, it was. I nicked so much stuff.
We nicked some stuff too. It was easy.
It was easy. There were no cameras. I used to break into musical shops and the alarm never even went off, you know?
Yeah. I’m not condoning it, but it wasn’t that difficult.
No. You know what? I do condone it. Do it. [Laughs] See how long you last these days. You’re on video somewhere. You’re not getting away with it. Nicking cars back then was so easy. You could literally start cars with a comb. You just file down the edge of a comb and they’d just start. It was great. Now you’ve got cameras everywhere and alarms and all kinds of deterrent.
Okay, so you switch over to guitar, but had you been playing at all?
No. I didn’t know the first thing about a guitar.
How did you figure it out?
Once I got slung over, we were doing auditions for singers. Once we got John as the singer, we got put up the West End behind a bookshop that Malcolm McLaren got dirt-cheap. I moved in there and I lived upstairs and there were rats and stuff, but it was great. It was the first time I had me own place. I was 17 or 18 now, and downstairs we used to rehearse. Prior to that, we used to rehearse and we had to rent a van and haul the equipment to a place and set up and rehearse and then take it down and then put it back in the van and take it back and it was a nightmare. So we got this place and we had it set up the whole time and it was great and I lived upstairs and it was brilliant.
So you guys could go downstairs and jam whenever, day and night?
Yeah. Pretty much. No one could hear you.
That’s genius. And you had gear and amps?
Oh yeah. We had tons of gear that I stole. How else could three urchins afford to buy equipment? I never had a job in me life. Save money? Are you kidding me? The real key for me to learn to play guitar was that I got into this program with this doctor down on Harley Street, which was the famous street where all the doctors used to be. There was a quack down there called Dr. Cale and he would give out a diet program to lose weight, which was 60 black beauties and 60 mandrax to help you sleep at night, and that’s how I learned to play guitar. I’d take a black beauty, which was speed, and I’d sit there for hours trying to teach myself.
When you were teaching yourself, how were you figuring it out?
I was playing to a record. I basically knew the one bar chord, so I was just up and down the neck and trying to figure out leads and notes. When I was doing speed, I could literally do it for hours. Without the speed, I don’t think I would have ever learned, because of the attention thing. I think I had that A.D.D. thing. At school, I’d sit in the back of the room in class and I couldn’t learn anything because I had no attention to learn. The speed got me focused.
So you were just taking black beauties and playing?
That was it and that got me decent in a few months.
Yeah, but you also set your own tempo. When I listen to what you’re telling me now, I think, “Okay, the ‘50s is the ‘50s and then you have that glam world, which was beyond the players of the ‘50s and that took it beyond the basic form…” “The Girl Can’t Help It” and all those songs are basic, but there is power behind them.
Sure. There are little bits of great stuff. There was a lot of music in the ‘50s too, just like in any era. You’ve got your real dudes and then you’ve got the knock-offs. That’s always been since the beginning.
This has nothing to do with this interview but it just reminded me that I saw this great movie called The Wrecking Crew.
Oh, is that the one about the players for Motown?
No, it’s the dudes that were in L.A. They were the players for Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell and a whole bunch of musicians. It was Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kaye and all these other cats. You have to see this flick. It’s on iTunes or something. It’s good. I just saw it. You will appreciate it.
I heard about that. I love all that stuff.
Those guys are really excellent too. They’re funny. The amount of songs that they played on is absurd.
That sounds great.
Well, you guys developed your own sound, which isn’t so easy to do.
Again, I think that wasn’t a plan either. We didn’t sit around and say, “We’re going to be different.” We just started playing the way we knew how. I thought I was playing like Ronnie Wood from the Faces, but I wasn’t. In my mind, I was kind of close, you know? [Laughs] From that, and, obviously, with Johnny singing the way he sang, it just came out that way. Before you know it, it was like, “There is this new sound.” We didn’t know it at the time.
How old were you then?
I was 18 or 19.
So you’re full of crazy energy too.
Yeah. It was one of them things. It was the best times. When you talk to any successful band, the best times were before you’re famous and all that other stuff kicks in. You’re just four dudes that no one knows, so you don’t have all that other crap, and people saying, “You’re better than they are. You don’t need them.” You’re just four dudes trying to make something up and that was the best time. It was terrifying too because when we used to play up North, they hated us! It was all these idiots that used to go to working men’s clubs wearing their flares and stuff. It was ignorant Northern English people. Maybe one out of the crowd would be like, “Oh, this is cool.” The rest of them hated us and they were slinging bottles and pint glasses at us. It was awful. I used to puke before the gigs. It was horrible. Looking back on it, it was brilliant, because it was the beginning. No one knew what was coming around the corner. We didn’t have any idea.
So you had these dudes in their flares and you guys were not dressing in flares.
No, and we were not sounding like the Glitter band or whatever.
The lack of familiarity pissed them off?
Yeah. Like most people, if they don’t understand something, they react negatively. They’re not bringing it in with open arms. They don’t like anything that they don’t understand and they turn against it. You know what makes me laugh? There are people now that are like, “I remember seeing you guys back in the day.” I’m thinking, “Yeah. You probably hated us too.” Now they’re like, “I was there!” You can smell them out a mile away.
Was it hard to get gigs for you guys?
We didn’t do that many gigs and it happened so quickly.
In the span of how long?
It was like a year.
So you form and you play out a little bit…
We played a couple of little places. We couldn’t get gigs. We opened up for people. There was a thing called the pub circuit, at the time, where Joe Strummer was playing.
He was with the 101ers then, right?
Right. We opened for them. That’s when that fight broke out and we got on the front of the music paper. That kind of pushed us into the limelight. Then Joe Strummer saw us and, the next thing you know, he’s like, “Right. Right.” It was great because he saw the light. He was like, “I’m gonna do that.” We excited him. He got it. I used to love the Damned and the Clash. I used to like the Stranglers, although they never really quite got accepted because they were older.
They could play a little bit. Jean-Jacques was a good player.
They were all good players, but they were older. Whenever you think of punk bands, you never think of the Stranglers, but they were around early on. The Buzzcocks were around from the beginning.
What about the Vibrators?
They were Johnny-come-lately’s.
Did Spedding have something to do with that?
He produced them and played on a couple of their things, but they were nothing. They were Johnny-come-lately’s. Generation X was there pretty early, but didn’t get accepted because he was such a pretty boy.
Was that his fault?
I liked Gen X.
I do too. Billy Idol was around at the beginning. Billy was around before anyone, with the Bromley Contingent. He used to come and see us play. He was way ahead of the game. I have respect for Billy. Generation X had a couple of good songs, but they didn’t have the depth. Rotten had a gift for the words. He was a great lyricist. The things he was singing about was unheard of back then. I didn’t get it. I was just playing guitar.
It didn’t matter. I didn’t have to understand what he was doing.
You guys were the nucleus for writing the songs and then John would come in and sing and write the words?
Yeah. It all worked. There were a couple of years where it all worked. Listening back to punk bands, one of my favorite albums is the first Damned album, Damned Damned Damned. I loved it.
Oh yeah. One of the first songs I learned was “Neat, Neat, Neat.” I was like, “That is really cool. That’s some hopped up ‘50s music.”
Yeah. They were tight and they played with great rock n’ roll spirit. That’s a great album.
As a kid, I remember liking the way that Ray Scabies attacked his drum set. It was like he wanted to hurt his drum set.
It was out of control sounding.
So, within a year, the Pistols became what it became.
Yeah. It was a combination of scenarios and the Bill Grundy show…
At the Bill Grundy show, you were taking the piss out of the old guy. Everyone was, but you were.
Yes, of course. He was being an ass and we stood up for ourselves and most people wouldn’t. Most people would have accepted it like, “Oh, I’m on the Bill Grundy show. Treat me bad. I don’t mind. I’m on the show.” We just didn’t get the concept of that. You know what’s funny? Whenever you see any interviews of the Beatles being interviewed in the ‘60s, all these interviewers would interview you like you were an idiot. That was the way they used to interview you. They’d try to catch you out on stuff. That was the same mentality as this Bill Grundy guy. They were not pulling for you. They were trying to make fun of you. That’s how the interviewers on TV used to interview you.
It’s disrespectful, and it’s also this whole adult thing against the kids.
Yeah. It was acceptable then and these guys were bigots and pedophiles and they had the power. Most working class people would just accept what they were given. For some reason, our instinct was that we weren’t having it with this guy. We weren’t going to let this guy treat us the way he was treating us and that catapulted us into a whole other place. The next day it was insane. The Sex Pistols were a household name overnight.
How did the Grundy show happen?
We had just got a record deal with EMI and we were going to go on the road with the Heartbreakers, the Clash and the Damned. We were rehearsing and someone says, “We have to go to the Today show now.” I was like, “Okay.” I guess, Queen was meant to do it, and we were on the same label, EMI. Queen had to pull out and they had to fill the spot with someone else, so we went down there. I don’t know the ins and outs or what the truth was, but that’s how I perceived it, so we went down there to talk about our new single, “Anarchy in the U.K.” and the tour we was going to do, not that we spoke about any of that because he wasn’t interested.
He didn’t care.
No. He was drunk. He was just an obnoxious ass and he was the status quo and he just did his thing. It was just one of those flukes that backfired. It was great. Prior to that, we were doing good. On the other foot, it was also the beginning of the end because that took it to a whole other level. Then it wasn’t about the songs anymore. It was about the circus after the Grundy thing. It wasn’t about anything else that was happening with the band. That’s what I didn’t get. In hindsight, we should have milked it. I just didn’t understand what was happening at the time. You couldn’t get the publicity that we were getting. Everyone was writing about us. Then there was this whole movement and then kids started spiking their hair and wearing leather jackets and it went crazy. We did have one little period after that where we did some Sex Pistols shows as SPOTS, Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly. We did about six shows up north in these little tiny clubs and no one really knew, but they were great. They were some great shows full of punks that wanted to see us and we were getting a little bit better.
You’d been playing, so the unit was tight.
Yeah, and it wasn’t people throwing beer bottles. It was people that wanted to see us play. The whole movement was brilliant, and the booze was working and the suction was working…
[Laughs] It all seemed to be working.
Yes. It was great, and then it just went “Whoosh!” The last two shows we did in England were in Huddersfield. We did a matinee for these firemen that were on strike to raise money for their kids for Christmas presents, and then we did a show that night. Then we went to America and we had no idea that was going to be the end after that.