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Critic's Notebook

He's Still Rotten to the Core of Punk


Johnny Rotten isn't happy. For one thing, the air conditioning isn't working in his trailer backstage at the Inland Invasion punk festival, and the 101-degree heat, even at 7 p.m., hangs over the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion in Devore like an extra layer of skin.

The trailer lights must also be on the blink--unless Rotten just doesn't notice that it's almost dark as he sits and wonders what he's even doing here, singing with the Sex Pistols at their first U.S. gig in six years.

"To me this is just a cheesy little pop festival," Rotten says with his customary snarl. "I'm certainly not here because of KROQ or to sell flared jeans."

He's not about to take comfort, he says, in regarding the rest of Saturday's concert and the attendance of 52,000 as a tribute to the Pistols' legacy. The Englishman doesn't identify with many of the bands on the bill--there's a "frivolity" about a lot of American punk bands that he doesn't like--and he is not pleased that Levi's and KROQ-FM are sponsoring the event.

Rotten, 46, agreed to do the show, he says, only because the band members (guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock) wanted to do a U.S. date after their 25th anniversary performance in London in July.

He even seems ambivalent now about the Pistols' 1996 reunion shows, which were mostly acclaimed. "I don't remember that tour," he says coolly. "Why should I? I've done a lot since, and I'm constantly working.... I have my solo stuff and I want to go back and do more TV."

That may be, but it's only as Johnny Rotten that John Lydon matters in pop culture--and there's no way to overestimate the effect that he and the rest of the Sex Pistols have had on rock 'n' roll.

It was absurd--but not totally unexpected--that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame failed to induct the Pistols during the band's first year of eligibility in 2001. The Pistols are still viewed with suspicion by much of the rock establishment, some of whom point to everything from Rotten's caustic manner to bassist Sid Vicious' fatal drug overdose in 1979 as reasons to dismiss the band as more of an embarrassing chapter in rock than a serious force.

In truth, the Pistols' legacy has endured, and the Inland Invasion festival was testimony. Backstage, guitarist Jones admits he's touched by the response of other musicians.

"I've had three or four people come up to me and say they started in a band because of us," he says. "That's nice. How many people in the world get an opportunity to hear something like that?"

Others bands, including the Ramones and the New York Dolls from the U.S., contributed to the punk blueprint, but it was the Pistols who gave it life with a 1976-77 campaign of anarchy, outrage and buzz-saw anthems that kicked rock sensibilities in the teeth.

It was leading up to the time of Margaret Thatcher's conservative government in England, and working-class youth felt oppressed. The Pistols reflected their alienation with such taunting choruses about young people having "no future" under England's "Fascist regime."

The band so outraged British society with its boorish behavior, including cursing on television and throwing up at Heathrow Airport, that two labels, EMI and A&M, signed the band to bonuses and then quickly paid it again to leave.

When it seemed the quartet might be silenced, Warner Bros. Records released the group's debut album, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols," and it was a sensation in England. The album didn't sell nearly as well here, but it reached a core of young, active rock fans. The Pistols never performed that many live shows before they broke up in 1977, but, as the saying goes, it seemed as if everyone who saw them play started a band.

The effect was especially strong in Los Angeles, where the cult started its own clubs (notably the Masque in Hollywood) and its own magazine (Slash). The region also produced many of the bands that played Saturday, including X, the Circle Jerks, Social Distortion, Bad Religion and the Offspring. Southern California was also home to Black Flag, which was among the most revolutionary and intense L.A. bands ever to step on a stage.

One reason the Pistols didn't become a hit in this country was that rock radio stations were appalled by their rowdy, raucous sound and manner. The Pistols, in turn, ridiculed radio and the hit bands of the day as reactionary and irrelevant. The band's revolutionary messages were that anyone could be a musician, and that ideas and passion were more important than millions of dollars of equipment and virtuoso abilities.

Rotten, who lives in Los Angeles, says he's not certain America really understood the Pistols' political message.

"I was born into a class in England that was told I was [worthless] for the rest of my life, and I made sure I wasn't," he explains. "I am happy about that, and I would like to thank no one for it except myself."

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