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DOA: Never Mind The Bollards - Here Are the Sex Pistols

John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten with Johnny Ramone in a relaxed conversation backstage at The Roundhouse, London before a Ramones gig (with Talking Heads supporting) in June 1977. © Jill Furmanovsky

There comes a point where being the right age doesn’t really mean as much as it did. For example, a 20 year old going out with a 25 year old wouldn’t raise an eyebrow but take five years off each and it certainly would, especially now. This ‘not quite being old enough’ can also apply to music when you’re a kid.

I was 10 when punk broke and just too young to understand why it was so important. To me it just seemed frightening. Had I been 4 or 5 years older I may have been caught in the maelstrom of the short-lived punk tornado that swept across the UK and the US, wrecking all in its path and destroying or deriding all that stood before.

By the time I was 12 in 1978, punk was already dying out; a faint breeze replacing the angry storm; an ill wind rippling the calming waters as it was already being replaced by the ‘New Wave’ movement of bands such as Blondie, Talking Heads, Devo and in the UK, The Jam. Those US bands had started as punk but, like The Clash in the UK, were just a bit more astute and aware than many of the punk bands that started with the moniker “pick up a guitar, get three friends, learn three cords, form a band”.

Sex Pistols performing at The 100 club on Oxford Street, London. © Ray Stevenson

That was the only beauty in punk; it allowed bands to rage against the machine and against the bloated excess of prog rock when twenty minute songs were reduced to two adrenaline fuelled minutes. This was the moment when people in the audience saw bands so basic that they thought they could do better themselves and many did. Bar the mid 50s, never has there been a time where kids really lived for the music and rather than just dress like their idols, they wanted to give them a run for their money and challenge them as well as the system, putting all they hated about it to music.

This reason alone makes punk one of the most important eras in music. Not because of the excellent music (most of it wasn’t) but for the fact that revolution wasn’t just something a '45 did when played, it was what was on the vinyl cuts that caused one and something that truly frightened the establishment, exemplified in how the UK charts were supposedly rigged in 1977 to make sure that Rod Stewart was #1 during the Queen's silver jubilee rather than the Sex Pistols God Save The Queen. Britain in the mid 70s wasn’t the rose garden it once was as the repercussions of WW2 were still being felt and the only blooms seemed to be in the wild flowers that grew from the still numerous bomb sites that many kids used as playgrounds. It was a dark place even in the hottest summer on record in 1976 with strikes and riots were common place.

Photographer Richard Mann recalls "This was the middle part of a Record Mirror commission to illustrate a piece on Sid and Nancy’s relationship. At this point they were happy to pose and presumably found the surroundings harmonious." © Richard Mann

This is why I feel punk was a British phenomenon, with the key bands being English and Irish, as although American kids seemed to embrace it, it was in the US that punk, represented by its most famous leaders The Sex Pistols went to die, in the elephants graveyard of the country and western bars of small towns and crowds with smaller mindsets. It was these places that Pistols manager Malcom McLaren thought he’d mine gold rather than play New York and although the newspaper headlines were 24 carat, the rich seam he was digging for soon caved in on all who dug it.

This dying of the light is exactly what the film D.O.A.: A Right of Passage documents. The film, which was originally released in 1981 and is directed by filmmaker Lech Kowalski, takes the pulse of the late 70s punk scene when the Sex Pistols began to implode and American punk bands and performers were on the rise. It is now getting a much-needed release on DVD and Blue-ray.

And it’s a Shakespearian tragedy where key players, quite literally, don’t make it to the final encore but the cord(s) they struck still echo through to today. This is the film where we see Sid and Nancy, the Romeo and Juliet of punk (a term Shakespeare brought to the masses) as they really were; not just star-crossed lovers but puppets whose strings were about to be cut. This pair sum up the difference I was pointing out earlier. Spungen is the US—the brash up-taker of the band and their music who sees Sid Vicious as not only her prince but her ticket to the ball, although the clock was about to strike 12 for both of them.

Photographer Jill Furmanovsky recalls '"I was a little afraid of Sid and kept my distance when I saw him in clubs etc. Nevertheless I was brave enough to snatch this image of him and Nancy in the dressing room after a Ramones gig that took place on New Years' Eve, hence the bottle of champagne in Nancy's hand. In the murky background is Linda Stein who was married to Seymour Stein of Sire Records, and Dee Dee Ramone listening intently to Sid. None of those mentioned are alive now." © Jill Furmanovsky

In reality, Vicious was any but a prince (c)harming. He comes across in D.O.A.: A Right of Passage as a slightly backward naughty boy who lost his way and just wants to go home. He’s the face of the band but has nothing to smile about anymore and seems sick of sneering, although the moment he swings his guitar at disgruntled fans is another iconic ‘Sid’ scene. Blood pouring from his nose where he’s head-butted fans, and from his ghostly anaemic torso where he’d carved 'I Need A Fix', years before Richey Manic followed suit.

It’s tragic to behold the now famous ‘interview’ that the filmmakers managed to capture of Sid and Nancy in their bedroom and you can plainly see that the writing, or graffiti, was on the wall for Sid, Nancy, The Pistols and punk as a whole. All the safety pins in the world couldn’t stop it tearing apart.

This film is truly punk, unlike many of the bands who wanted to ride on the movements ‘banned’ wagon. It is guerrilla filmmaking at its best, and although it’s famous for the incredibly rare footage it scored of The Sex Pistols on stage, it’s those around and behind the camera who sum up the movements ethic. These are the people who took the chances—be it the filmmakers sneaking cameras into gigs and facing the wrath of its fans or the wrath those fans in turn felt when they walked down the street in Hicksville to the gig.

The Sex Pistols enjoying a stroll on Carnaby Street, London during the early days of Punk in 1976. © Ray Stevenson

This isn’t the fake news of a film like The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, whose only great moment is Sid Vicious singing "My Way". No, this film is more of a reality show 30 years before the term came to be. This is how it was, warts and all. It’s like a freak show at the fun fairs of old where you’d dare yourself to lift the canvass just for a second to see if the banners proclaiming the horrors inside were true to their word. It isn’t people sitting round a pool bemoaning bad hair days as so called reality shows do now—this is as close to a snuff movie as you will get, where key musicians and the movement as a whole really was about to self-combust and by the time it was released in 1981, punk and the key bands that optimised it, really were Dead On Arrival.

And yet, through this film they will all live forever, captured in amber trying to climb the tree. This film should be in the Smithsonian as although it comes across like a home movie, it's a perfect document of the time, filmed by those who lived it and whose stories, which appear on the superb documentary that supports it, make you realise why, in its brief flame, its ethic shone so bright. This supporting doc is longer than the film itself and is essential viewing to fans, not only of the movement, but to music lovers as a whole and is so good it could have been released as a standalone film.

Photographer Jorgen Angel recalls, "I took this shot of Johnny Rotten in July 1977 at the first show of what allegedly was a secret Scandinavian tour. The Sex Pistols did two nights in a small club, Daddy’s Dance Hall, in Copenhagen, Denmark. I love this shot because this punk, supposedly insane in his straitjacket, looks like a sweet boy, and though he is completely still, this shot has all his energy in it." © Jorgen Angel

It’s fascinating to look at the dictionary and see what the term punk means, all of which fit its ethic so perfectly: An often aggressive or violent young person; inferior, rotten or worthless. That description may have fitted the general consensus of the term and certainly the views of many older peers interviewed in the film. One wonders if John Lydon got his stage name from it.

However, punk is also the term for the tinder that was used to build fires and used to light fireworks. Surely that’s the better description; the brief explosion that lights up a darkened sky before falling quickly to earth in burning pieces leaving only the echo of a sound that could have broken windows.

DOA has one of the most famous lines in music, where Johnny Rotten (Lydon) turns to the crowd and says “Ever felt like you’ve been cheated?”. The fact that the other description of the term punk that stood out was To dupe or deceive. Perhaps that was the plan all along? Make up your own mind but if you want the hard evidence, go and buy DOA right away.

'D.O.A.: A Right of Passage' gets a UK release on Blu-ray and DVD Dual format from Second Sight on 10 September 2018. Check out a trailer for the doc below.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer many iconic Sex Pistols images as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here.

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