Cosmic Slop #22: Sex Pistols credit cards and the art of “selling out”
Shaun Ponsonby tackles the Sex Pistols credit card debacle the only way he can. With quantum mechanics.
Originally published on Getintothis
I’m afraid to say that we have reached the inevitable moment that all music-based websites face at one time or another; we must discuss the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
As scientists and fans of Dr Sheldon Cooper know, in 1935 Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger published a theory that stated if you placed a cat in a box with a gas canister that may or may not leak, then the cat would exist as both dead and alive until you opened up the box to find out its fate. During that time, it exists in two completely contradictory states at once.
That’s how I would explain the paradox of the Sex Pistols. Or the Reproductive Firearms, if you will. In a way, they exist as two separate entities. They inspired something genuine out of something that was largely artificial. The widespread ideology that the Pistols were some kind of uber-subversive “real deal” is a tiny bit of bullshit, aided by 40-odd years of loud mouthed bravado and 26 months of conservative knee-jerk reactions.
Their subversion of the industry is overplayed. Record companies could give less of a shit how authentic an act is or what they’re about. All they care about is revenue, it is a business after all. And Virgin have made a helluva lot off Never Mind The Bollocks. If anything, the people they were giving the middle finger to in that respect was the audience.
There’s this myth that they were somehow profound when really their antics, in hindsight at least, are pretty transparent publicity stunts. Which is fine. I have no issue with that. But let’s not pretend that there’s any deeper meaning here. They’ve always reminded me of Rik in The Young Ones. Saying “I’m an anarchist” doesn’t necessarily make you an anarchist. Yes, they may have been investigated by MI5, but that is far less shocking/impressive when you find out they also investigated UB40, who – aside from being arguably the worst band in history – your Nan likes.
That’s why I don’t quite see the big deal about the Sex Pistols credit cards that were announced last week.
Oh, some deluded people on Twitter went nuts! “Woe betide!“, they cried, like babies. Very intelligent babies who know phrases like “woe betide”. “Punk is dead! The singular fact that a bunch of old men have got a nice pay-out means that there is no punk left“. This sentiment was echoed by blogs on the websites of tabloid newspapers. Seeing as they were trying to affirm public opinion, they followed it; “Punk is dead! There is no punk!” But are people who work for established Murdoch-owned rags allowed to make that assessment? Are none of the people who were crying “sell-out” former punks who are now working in comfortable office jobs for a large, evil corporation?
There were at least some posts from people who seemed to have some perspective. I particularly like this one:
Never mind the @VirginMoney bollocks. The truth is, the Sex Pistols were as much a commercial manufactured product as any 90s boy-band.
— Bantrim Smoot (@gilfer) June 9, 2015
That’s more or less true. As much as the band might have believed the music they were making, just because Johnny Rotten says it was about something more doesn’t make it so, especially when you consider that he is a massive arse with an exasperating air of self-importance. I could call my knees a pair of slippers, I could argue it for hours, and say so with an undeserved authoritative tone, but it wouldn’t make it so. Bush and Blair claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and people give Jason Derulo decent reviews. But I wasn’t fooled by those either.
The story of the Sex Pistols formation speaks for itself. A haberdasher (and shyster) puts a band together. He hires the singer after getting him to lip synch to another artists’ song. Eventually a member of the band is drafted in who is can’t sing or play because he looks good. That sounds more like Boyzone than some kind of pure movement.
“Hey, hey! We’re the Pistols!/All we do is pistol around!”
Essentially it’s more about the look and attitude, which has always troubled me for its mass hypocrisy. Why is it that punk bands get celebrated for being lousy musicians based on image but glam rock bands are ridiculed for it? Why is occasional girlfriend murderer Sid Vicious widely lauded for his lack of bass playing prowess, but the very same fact is often used to discredit non-girlfriend murderers Gene Simmons of KISS and Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue? Surely it’s not the murderering? I should hope not.
Personally, I’ve never quite bought into the Pistols (just in case you haven’t spotted that yet). It’s a nice idea, but it never rang true. There’s way more ultra-serious snarling than people tend to do in real life. I have no problem with that fundamentally, but to pretend otherwise makes me cringe. I’d take The Damned over the Pistols any day. There’s way less pretence there. The Clash at least stood for something specific, particularly when taking into account how closely associated they were with Rock Against Racism. The Pistols were about…what? Anti-authority? Well, there’s a novel idea! Why hadn’t anyone in the history of rock & roll thought of that before?! I mean it’s pretty vague, but A for effort.
Even as a punk band, they kind of fall short. Lemmy says in his book White Line Fever that the Pistols were a great rock & roll band, but not a very good punk band. And what Lemmy says goes, bitches.
But, the Sex Pistols have come to represent something to the audience. If art is supposed to inspire, then punk – and particularly the Pistols – certainly did that. The entire following decade was littered with former punks taking on different guises, often people you wouldn’t expect. It’s the DIY ethos of punk that survived above anything else. Weirdly, the Sex Pistols paved the way not only for post-punk bands like Siouxie & The Banshees, but for synthpop, the New Romantics and even pop stars like Madonna.
Although an artist can’t support a particular image and not expect a backlash when they willingly contradict it, the cry of “sell-out” is perhaps more a reflection of the audience. The fans project their own meaning and memories onto the artist than perhaps the artist even considers. The idea of “selling out” may even be generational. Ever since Michael Jackson started working for Pepsi in the yuppie 80s, it’s kind of expected that pop stars will sign off on something similar eventually. Do da kidz care about Beyonce’s ludicrous sponsorship deals? No, but Iggy Pop fans certainly cared about those car insurance ads.
Also, let’s remember that the idea that all rock stars are multi-millionaires is also false. Lydon’s Country Life campaign paid for his Public Image Ltd projects, which he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. Iggy went into great detail in his John Peel Lecture last year about all the lousy contracts he’s signed that have, at various points, left him penniless and “unable to get my music released. Music had become an industrial art, and it was people who excelled at the industry who got to make the art” – and he’s far from the only one.
The industry strives on fucking over naïve kids. It’s the dirty open secret to their entire fiscal stability. For every shrewd multi-millionaire McCartney, there is a Sly Stone living in a camper van.
But maybe it’s not so much advertising in general but what you’re advertising. Nobody complained when Motorhead appeared in a Kronenbourg 1664 commercial, but beer fits in with their image a lot more comfortably than insurance fits Iggy‘s. And although the artist doesn’t owe the audience anything, the audience don’t owe the artist their undying support either.
My personal feeling is sort of balanced. So long as the corporate side doesn’t directly contradict your art, then it’s not so bad. Which is maybe the issue with the current Pistols situation. They’re a band who have continuously loudly proclaimed one thing, whilst acting in the exact opposite way. But even if you were to buy in to their initial idea, numerous cash-grab reunion tours, appearances on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here and butter commercials have been going on for so long that the credit cards shouldn’t be a big deal by this point.
It’s just the latest example of the Sex Pistols revealing what bullshitters they are.
Whilst we’re on the subject of Johnny Rotten, Ginger Baker – rock’s other notorious blowhard – has continued to prove what a wanker he is by dismissing a genre that he himself inspired with Cream; “I’ve seen where Cream is sort of held responsible for the birth of heavy metal. Well, I would definitely go for aborting. I loathe and detest heavy metal. I think it is an abortion.” He also showed his own sense of self-importance by claiming that Led Zeppelin didn’t fill the void Cream left. No-one likes Ginger Baker as much as Ginger Baker likes Ginger Baker.
For some reason, noted intellectual scholar Sarah Palin‘s daughter Bristol has responded to Miley Cyrus‘ claim that her parent’s deeply held Christian beliefs hampered their acceptance of her bisexuality by appearing to claim that the widespread intolerance these days is against Christians. Yeah! Right on, sister! All those Christian-bashing hate crimes and centuries-old institutionalised gay books teaching intolerance against Christians prove it, don’t they?
The announcement of Florence + The Machine replacing Foo Fighters at Glastonbury has received some accusations of laziness on Twitter, with some thinking that the Eavis‘ should have been able to pull one of the world’s biggest stars to take their place at a week’s notice.