September 12, 2011 by Dan Swinhoe
According to popular belief, before punk the world was split into mods, rockers, teddy boys and hippies.
Whether this is true or not doesn’t really matter. What’s for certain is that despite lasting about five minutes, the influence left by the first wave of punk still resonates today. Punk reinvigorated metal; the mainstream has been under constant attack from pop-punk like Green Day for years and the grunge scene was punk to its core.
At the centre of the punk story is the Sex Pistols. Four oiks from London and their ambitious manager took the UK by storm and it’s fair to say (though some will cite the Clash or American counterparts The Ramones) without them the musical and cultural landscape of today would be unrecognisable. And in all likelihood teddy boys and Cliff Richard would still rule.
Unlike many important acts though, the Pistols influence has never been forgotten, and so the literature on them is far from lacking. Every book on punk and popular music will have more than a fleeting reference to the band, and the amount of ink dedicated to them is vast in itself.
So does the world need another book on the Sex Pistols? If you have only a passing interest and already know the story, probably not. But then you wouldn’t be reading this review. If you don’t know those events of the late seventies or are a die-hard punk this is definitely worth picking up.
Authors Alan G. Parker and Mick O’Shea know their stuff. Saying they are veritable encyclopaedias on the subject would be an understatement. They’ve both written plenty on both music and punk (especially the infamous Sid Vicious) and Parker has released films and documentaries on the subject too, so the reader is in safe hands.
In fact the level of detail and research is genuinely impressive. Pretty much every day the Pistols were together is documented. Every gig, every rehearsal (complete with addresses), the name of everybody that ever came into direct contact with the band is documented, along with the headlines and what books and films to see if you fancy even more insight.
Sometimes the detail can be a bit bemusing rather than informative though. What happened to venues after the band played is nice (although sad to see pretty much every US venue the band played is now a Starbucks or DIY store) but do we need to know if a venue was built to commemorate the repeal of corn laws?
There are some very nice touches. With a band like the Pistols, rumours will often become attached to the group that have no real footing in reality. Parker and O’Shea verify or dispel those rumours every place they can. Asking the people that were there, checking records, or just using common sense clear away some of the stories that other books have taken as facts, but the authors know when to admit that there’s no real way of knowing and clarify when they don’t really know.
Another nice addition is the personal nature of the book. There’s plenty of ‘when we were down the pub with…’ parts, where roadies, bands, and even Glen Matlock himself talk a little about their experiences. The ‘I was there’ nature of the reunion shows demonstrates how much the authors care about the band.
The story itself is all there. The roots of each member and how they got together, the trials and adventures of the band in the early days, the Grundy interview that made them pariahs of the press, successes and troubles with the record companies (Who would have thought that clean cut Richard Branson had a hand in punk’s legacy?), followed by the US tour and subsequent implosion, the events leading to Sid’s death and the reunion shows.
‘Young Flesh Required’ is the proper tale of the Sex Pistols; the birth of punk music, and the turbulent life of Sid Vicious, the man who epitomises punk and its self destructive nature, which ultimately led to the end of the Sex Pistols and his own untimely death.
But it’s also the story of Malcolm McLaren. His ambition is key to the Sex Pistols and without him nothing would have happened. His initial desire to create a band (sparked by his time in the US with the New York Dolls, which is barely touched upon) made the Pistols and his eventual boredom and obsession with his film a key factor in their breakup.
‘Young Flesh’ is well written and funny, the care and attention put into every aspect (even the discography at the end) makes it an easy read that really lets you feel some of the excitement and disappointment that surrounds the band. The most compelling part of the story starts at the beginning of the end, where bassist and creative engine Glen Matlock is ousted and Vicious brought in. While the band went onto gain the fame, they were always riding on Matlock’s songs and the egos combined with the disaster that was the US tour meant the band could never last.
The break up of the band, followed by Sid and his love Nancy’s deaths are detailed, including the speculation surrounding them (Who killed Nancy and whether or not Sid did the job himself) are all included, as are the interim years before the reunion. The solo careers, law suits and butter adverts are all given a mention. The saga that was McLaren’s film ‘The Great Rock’N’Roll Swindle’ is particularly shocking, and the amount of money he secured is a testament to how determined he was to do exactly what he wanted.
If you listen to ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ now, it’s still a landmark record. Undistilled by time or the thousands of imitators that followed in their wake. And so it feels right reading about the reunion shows. The band never completed a full tour unmolested by councils, church groups or those troublesome teddy boys, and so the delight in reading about Parker’s attendance to pretty much the UK reunion shows up to their last performance in 2008 is almost tangible. The disappointment in the shows that weren’t so good (and the walkouts before the shows finished) and the joy of a decent swan song leaves a much better taste than the bands that milk the reunion shows every few years.
‘Young Flesh’ is a quality read, full of characters larger than life, and tell of a time when the musical and cultural landscape was changing. And while it’s not a first hand account, Parker’s charismatic presence gives the book a real personality, and the research gives a strong foundation for the mayhem to stand on.