The Sex Pistols were nothing but a boy band!
Yes, it is a sentiment about as new or unique as the equally age appropriate: we’re dying everyday, man or parents don’t know everything. Triteness in motion. We’ve all heard it, and more painfully, it’s probably come out of our own mouths. That’s just how it goes, I guess. Eventually, I got over it, and got back to relishing the Sex Pistols youthful, hateful, frustrated energy along with their perfect, and only, record. Like it or not, Never Mind the Bollocks is a milestone, and I’ll take it over the Ramones or the Clash any day.
John Scanlan’s book Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine is, whether intended or not, a response to the famous boy band critique. It tells the story of the Sex Pistols with an emphasis on manager and provocateur Malcolm McLaren, from his early days to the dissolution of the Pistols. It’s an interesting story alone, but with this new perspective, dimensions are added.
In punk rock, we are so used to the idea that authenticity is a hallmark of the artists, and the notion that a manager assembled a group to perform music is a mark against its authenticity. As Scanlan details it, the truth is a bit more complicated. What Poison in the Machine successfully argues is not only for the artistry of the Pistols, but also of McLaren himself. It was his obsession with provocation, transgression, and youth culture that eventually led him to form the Sex Pistols. Scanlan follows McLaren trying on different ideas, all surrounding different permutations of what would be the famous clothing store SEX. Eventually, of course, history is made, but never quite how you expect it.
And while McLaren is critical to a lot of threads punk would continue to follow, by telling McLaren’s story, Poison in the Machine also manages to give due credit to the boys in the band as well. It paints the band as more than just its members or its manager– but as a combination of influences, and more importantly, human beings, who are at odds with each others. Scanlan shows us with a collection of well-selected quotes how McLaren’s art project and the Sex Pistols became two different beasts, and then dismantled itself. It’s an almost Frankensteinian turn. When McLaren assembled Jones, Cook, Matlock, and Lydon, he didn’t plan on them having ideas or even vision, and when his monster learned to speak, the creator was out in the weeds.
It’s a fast read, with clean writing and little editorializing. Scanlan has clearly put a lot of work into the fact checking, with a good chunk of the book dedicated to references. He uses quotes and rare photos to give the reader a sense of the time and place, which is as important to the Sex Pistols as the people involved in their rise.
Great book for fans of the band who need a little more ammo in the face of trite dismissals, or punk history buffs alike– Poison in the Machine is a fascinating read.
Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine by John Scanlan, published by University of Chicago Press.