We Spoke To Steve Jones Of The Sex Pistols About Punk Rock, Rehab And Growing Old Gracefully
Steve Jones sounds tired. But so would you be if people kept calling you up asking questions about something you did 40 years ago when you were a teenage tearaway addicted to a) booze, b) drugs and c) having sex with your bandmates’ girlfriends.
Born in Shepherd’s Bush, West London in 1955, it’s been 35 years since Steve Jones moved to Los Angeles and nine since he was last in the UK. He’s sober – has been for 27 years, he tells me – and content now, a DJ with his own daily rock show and a working actor. He’s largely left the process of creating new music behind – the stuff he did with The Professionals was reissued in 2015, prompting a live and studio reunion, neither of which he is involved in. I guess when you’ve collaborated with Johnny Thunders, Thin Lizzy, Billy Idol, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Andy Taylor, Duff McKagan, Lisa Marie Presley, Johnny Depp and Insane Clown Posse there’s a certain amount of creative fatigue that sets in. Jones also has his own autobiography, Lonely Boy, which arrived earlier this year full of hilarious and illuminating stories but also tales of domestic sexual abuse and neglect that at times make for difficult reading.
Yet still… after all that, it tends to be the same, one thing people wanna talk about. You know, that time? That time when Steve Jones played guitar and basically invented punk rock with the Sex Pistols, one of the greatest and most decisive rock ’n roll bands the world has ever produced. What does that do to a man and his life – when you collide with culture with such force that people are still camped out at the impact site, peering down into the crater four decades on?
Forty years after the uproarious, pivotal, hilarious and vital release of Never Mind the Bollocks, I called Steve Jones to try to find out.
Steve challenges authority in 1977. Photo: Barry Plummer
Kerrang!: Hi Steve, how are you doing?
Steve Jones: I’m good, how are you?
Not too bad. I’ve not just woken you up, have I?
No, no. I always sound like this.
Okay. Are you in LA at the moment?
Yeah. Where are you, in sunny London?
Yeah, Holloway Road. Do you know the Odeon cinema?
Vaguely. It’s been so long since I’ve been there – I’ve been out here for 35 years. I mean, I know Holloway Road, but I’m sure it’s changed a lot.
I guess it must have. Do you get back to London much?
No, not at all. The last time I was there, funny enough, was when we were doing a bunch of Sex Pistols shows in 2008 in Europe. The Apollo in Hammersmith was the second-to-last show. We were based in London and did festivals in Russia and Japan and all that. That’s the last time I was there. How long is that?
It kicks my arse, actually, to be honest with you. Going to Europe with the jet lag and all that. How old are you? You sound young.
Yeah. Do you have long hair?
Nah, I’ve not got long hair, what makes you think that?
Cos it’s Kerrang!, isn’t it? It’s all a load of metallers.
Sex Pistols - Holidays In The Sun
I shave my hair grade 3 at the sides. I was reading the blurb for your book – it describes you as being a “street urchin” when you were growing up. What did your mates from those times make of punk rock, and your transition into being a spearhead for it?
Obviously one of me best mates was Cooky [Pistols drummer Paul Cook]; he came along for the ride. There were a couple of other blokes; one of them’s dead now, one I don’t talk to. I think they were kind of envious and didn’t embrace my success. But that sort of jealousy is common when you’re young – 20 years old, 19, 18, whatever. Another guy I kept around was called Jimmy Mackin, he was a big guy so I wanted him to help us out when we did live shows. But he killed himself.
Shit, I’m sorry.
But is that what you mean? Is that what the question was?
Yeah, I guess so… just that transition, I can’t really imagine it today – a kid growing up in a not-particularly-opulent part of London and forming an incredibly successful rock ‘n roll band. It doesn’t seem to happen any more.
Yeah, I guess so. There’s always people creating, the trouble today is there’s so much… stuff. You’re bombarded with a million things coming at you all at once. It’s hard to absorb things for a period of time; you’re over it after ten minutes and it’s on to the next thing, you know? Back then, technology wasn’t what it was: you still only had three channels on the TV and the only way you’d get to see or hear about a band was in NME or on Top of the Pops. So you had plenty of time to focus on what you liked and figure out what you didn’t.
So you think it’s a question of people not being bored enough?
Yeah, exactly. There’s just too much… stuff out there. For me, anyway – I don’t know how young people think. You’ve got your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, blah blah blah. Don’t get me wrong, I like iTunes, but the fact that you can just get something at the drop of a hat, you don’t have to go milling around record shops and all that – that was great at the time but I like the convenience of technology. I don’t nick me music, I still buy it on iTunes. What do you think about that? Do you think it’s right, to thieve music?
It feels to me like it’s gone too far in that direction…
Do you think there’s a way of wrangling it back, then? I mean you don’t make any money. Spotify, iTunes: they give you peanuts. It’s just as bad as classic, old, big record companies, though it’ll never go back to those days when they had governance, they’re over. But I do believe you should get paid to create music. I do believe you shouldn’t just accept the fact you’re not gonna make money from it cos everyone’s gonna nick it.
How do those feelings tie in with the release of this 40th anniversary edition of the Sex Pistols’ debut album?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know, mate! It’s just another fucking 40 years later thing, isn’t it? I don’t quite get the whole concept of 40 years, 50 years, 60 years [anniversaries]… There are a few bits on this new thing that are pretty good; there’s the DVD part of it and if you’re a fan I guess you like that stuff. I don’t really know what else to talk about with that other than, I guess, if you’re a fan of the Beatles, you get all their stuff; if you’re a fan of the Rolling Stones… [long pause] Is it worth it? I don’t know the answer and I don’t really care.
How much enthusiasm would you say you have left for talking about anything related to the Sex Pistols?
Oh, none. I’m fucking knackered.
Do you wanna talk about something else?
Nah, I mean, I dunno what you need for the piece but… I mean how long can you keep just talking over the same old shit, you know?
Go on, ask me a question, let’s see what you got.
Sex Pistols - Pretty Vacant
It’s 40 years ago the record came out – do you think it’s weird that some people still seem to be waiting around for “the next punk” or “the new punk” to arrive, when you consider that 40 years previous to ’77 was ’37, and that was two years before World War II started? It’s not like people in ’77 were sat about waiting for “the next Bing Crosby” to turn up.
Yeah, well I mean, whatever you call “punk”, to me it’s just rock ‘n roll. And the true form of rock ‘n roll is just “knock out some songs, get on with it and don’t give a fuck what people think”. That’s basically what rock ‘n roll means to me. You don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. But yeah, I mean… 40 years ago. There’s been a lot of change since then. If you’re looking for another band that’s like the Sex Pistols, there’s not really anyone. I guess you can say that punk or rock ‘n roll comes in many forms – like rap or whatever, that was a big deal. Whatever is “the next punk’, I hope I don’t like it. Cos then it’s mission accomplished. I shouldn’t be liking what teenagers are doing; they should have their own identity and be creating their own music. What do you call that stuff over there now, grime?
Yeah, I mean, I shouldn’t be liking that. That means it’s doing its job. But as far as a revolution like punk is concerned? Punk would’ve been a lot better if we wouldn’t have broken up; it would’ve been a lot bigger. But unfortunately we broke up pretty early. But you had your grunge, you had rap… they were big deals.
What do you think you could’ve achieved with punk that didn’t happen because you broke up early?
It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say. On the one hand, it looked like it was destined to fail. Cos it just burnt out; it was too much too soon for us, I believe, and we – I – didn’t know how to deal with it so I just fucked off. In hindsight, should I have hung in there? Probably: done another record and see where it went. But I kind of like the fact that we only did the one album that we’re still here talking about now 40 years later. So it’s a hard one to say “woulda, coulda, shoulda…” It is what it is.
Looking at where you are today, how much does that album and that time still have a bearing on your life, 40 years later?
I don’t wake up in the morning and start playing it, that’s for sure.
But how often are you reminded of it, for instance?
You get people coming up to you, saying it’s changed their lives, and I appreciate that, it’s great. But I’m not really walking around with a Never Mind the Bollocks T-shirt on, you know? It was a long time ago and I try not to… you know, I’m not just Never Mind the Bollocks and I’m not just the Sex Pistols. You’re always gonna get people associating you with just that, but that’s OK: life’s short and then you die, and you don’t know where it’s gonna take you. That’s the great thing about life: if you open yourself up, you don’t know where you’ll end up. I couldn’t have thought 40 years ago when I was recording Never Mind the Bollocks at Wessex Studios that I would be in Los Angeles, and that I’d be clean and sober, not smoking fags, have a radio show, done an autobiography. I wouldn’t have dreamed that in a million years. But there are a lot of twists and turns in life.
In the book you talk about some really quite intense formative experiences you had. [Passages in Lonely Boy allege that Jones was sexually abused by his stepfather at the age of 10 and by another man shortly after, events to which he attributes his subsequent sex addiction.] What kind of impact do you think the success you enjoyed with the Pistols had on your emotional development as a person?
It definitely filled a hole for a couple of years. Pretty much the whole upbringing I had, I was always looking for a fix to that emptiness inside. Whether it was thieving [Jones stole loads of equipment from David Bowie’s tourbus before his final Ziggy Stardust show in 1973], getting laid [Jones claims to have slept with all of his bandmates’ girlfriends, including Nancy Spungen], nicking cars [Jones used to break into building sites and hotwire the diggers so that he could smash up the workers’ cabins], bla, bla, bla, [in his teenage years, Jones would go to a vantage point above a place known as “Shagger’s Row” and watch people fucking, sexually frustrating himself to the extent that he’d end up chucking giant rocks at people’s cars as they screwed in them]. Being in the Sex Pistols, it was the same kind of attempt to fill a hole and that carried on for years and years… The only time it really turned round was when I got sober, many years ago. Don’t get me wrong; it was a lot of fun too, I wasn’t walking around like a bedwetter: I was having a lot of fun. But it just got to the point where it wasn’t working any more.
Was there one key trigger moment that sort of kicked you to go to rehab?
To be honest with you, I was out here in LA and I didn’t have a pot to piss in. I was pretty much homeless, sleeping on couches. Someone who I’d been getting loaded with had gotten sober and offered to put me on their couch as long as I went to meetings. And that was where it started, it wasn’t an idea to do that, it just happened. A lot of people don’t even get to that point and never get clean and just die or go insane. I have no idea… I have no idea why it stuck with me. [Long pause] Do you drink a lot?
Yeah, I do. Too much, really. I’m trying to kick it to the curb for a bit.
Do you go to meetings?
No, I’m in therapy for other stuff. But I’ve never been to a meeting.
I dunno, I guess I wanna try to knock everything else on the head and not have to stop drinking, if that makes sense? I’d hate to have to do that.
Yeah, well that’s good. If it works, why not? I can’t just have a drink though, personally. I can’t just have one; once I have one, I get that phenomenon of craving and I have to have another one, and another one till I’m shitfaced, you know.
Yeah, it’s something that I worry about myself.
I tried to do it by myself many times before I discovered the 12-step programme, but I always ended up back in the same place, you know?
And are you still fully committed to that programme and its ethos?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I have to, I have to; I’ve got no choice. I’ll be 27 years sober in a couple of weeks and the thought of having a drink now, it’s horrifying – what I’d be like if I picked up a drink at this stage in the game… [Long pause] Who’d have thought we’d be talking about being sober right now?
Ha, yeah. It’s quite an achievement though, 27 years.
Yeah. It’s good. It’s good.
To what extent do you think rock ‘n roll is geared towards allowing people to live in a kind of permanent adolescence?
It’s great when you’re 20, but I think when you’re 60 and you’re acting like that it’s a bit stupid. I like to have some dignity in my old age. Don’t get me wrong: I like having a laugh. I’m a clown, I’m mischievous. Have you seen my Instagram?
Yeah, yeah, I have. I follow that.
I like having a laugh, you know. I don’t wanna be some miserable old sod. But for me anyway, to live that life 24/7? No. You get away with stuff when you’re in your twenties. I think rock ’n roll is a teenage thing, really. Not that you can’t play it when you’re 60, but I think that’s the peak for a lot of bands, when you’re younger.
Yeah. Is that not quite depressing, though?
I don’t mind it. It’s life, you know? The Rolling Stones look like they have a good time. But there are some bands that do reunions and you’re like, ‘For fuck’s sake, give it a rest, you’re terrible.’
How did you feel about the Pistols reunion shows?
They were good. ’96 was the first reunion after not being together for 20 years, then there was a couple more in 2008, then a couple more little spurts. It was alright, I’m not really into it any more. I don’t think that’s gonna happen again, I’m good with it.
What are you working on musically at the moment?
Not a lot. I just do my radio show, I’m always twiddling at home with guitars, writing tunes and riffs – I might do a solo record at some point, for shits and giggles. But obviously not to make money. Just on a creative level. If you’re a creative person, you’ve got to have an outlet somehow; whether that’s goofing around on Instagram or writing songs and knocking out albums for cheap, you know?
Sex Pistols on Letterman, 1996
Obviously in the 80s and 90s you were working with so many top-level musicians. What was that like, and how did it differ from the experience of being in the Pistols for you?
It was good, it was when I first got straight. It was like two lives that I’ve had – prior to being sober and then after. When I got sober it was in the 80s and it was like starting all over again, with Iggy Pop, Andy Taylor, whoever I was working with. And it was great, I could see things with clear eyes and not hiding behind drugs and alcohol. I loved that period. Listen here buddy, I gotta get moving…
Can I ask one more question?
Are you still pissed off about anything today? As you were in ’77?
Not really… Alright buddy.
Cheers for talking to me.
You got it. See you later mate.
Preorder the new Never Mind The Bollocks boxset (out December 1st) here. The Sex Pistols 1977: The Bollocks Diaries as told by the Sex Pistols, is published by Cassell Illustrated, and is available for £25 here.