I was there when punk broke. It was exciting. There was a sense that music, and the way that young people saw the world around them, was changing. The Boomtown Rats, Buzzcocks, Magazine, and Jam first tours, the Clash complete control tour, the Damned, Siouxsie, the Stranglers, all of that was happening around me. They were gigs I saw. I knew that something special was unfolding.
The Sex Pistols were an anomaly. Undoubtedly the flag around which punk gathered, exactly what they were, was uncertain. For a start not many saw them play live. The relatively small numbers of shows they did play were at small venues, with attendances measured in hundreds, not thousands. Were the Pistols the band, or were they an artifice, puppets for puppet master Malcolm McLaren? Everything they did seemed to revolve round hyperbole. The “Anarchy” single was rudimentary, not revolutionary “God Save the Queen” was a PR masterstroke, the “Bollocks” album created more controversy for its title, than the music. Then there was the question of the music. “Pretty Vacant” was a classic single with a killer intro, and infectious sing a long chorus. Beyond that, little endures.
The Steve Jones biography has to be viewed in that context. With Mclaren dead, and Johnny Rotten as unreliably mouthy as ever, I looked to “Lonely Boy” as an opportunity for a more considered window into a hall of smoke and mirrors. It is helpfully divided into three sections, Before the Pistols, During, and After, and is surprisingly factual. Throughout it is an uneasy juxtaposition of push and shove as Jones regales us with prurient, salacious titbits, which in the end become quite laborious. Contrasted with factual detail which is often disappointingly scant.
Jones’ obsession with sex, and predilection for thievery, is a constant. A constancy which becomes tiresome. You only need to be told he is irresistible to women a few times. His thievery smacks as much of attention seeking as criminality or need. Yet amongst the spunk and stolen goods are some gems. Punk era Jones did not even have a bank account. Jones, far from being lonely, had drummer Cook by his side, while Rotten and Matlock were the outsiders. Vicious was an innocent pawn of McLaren’s Machiavellian masterplan, unlamented, unmissed, unloved.
To some extent the myth is laid bare. Jones was a music fan who learned the guitar to a fashion that made him competent and marketable. He would have loved to have been in The Clash and liked American Soft Rock. His gift has been charm and resilience, the latter in evidence with his musical career culminating in his current LA DJ career, the latter in his survival of sex, alcohol, drug and kleptomania dependence. His friendship with early conquest Chrissie Hynde has endured, but it has to be said that she did better as her career unfolded.
His biography is light, readable and of interest to any contemporary with an interest in the punk scene. But it falls well short of the exaggerated claims on the front and back covers. The “puff pieces” are no doubt down to the connections of biographer and journalist Ben Thompson. Ben Thompson is one of Britain’s most respected cultural critics. He currently contributes to the FT, Mojo and the Sunday Telegraph. As well as two critically acclaimed collections of rock journalism (Seven Years of Plenty and Ways of Hearing) and a landmark history of modern British comedy (Sunshine on Putty), he has also co-written memoirs with Vic Reeves (Me Moir), Phil Daniels (Class Actor), Mike Skinner (The Story of the Streets) and others. Worth reading, not worth buying, Steve would not mind if you stole a copy.