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Never mind the Sex Pistols: A Q&A with Glen Matlock

Written by Scott Mervis on .

 

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It’s not the easiest sell in 2014: Solo acoustic versions of “God Save the Queen” and “Pretty Vacant” ... sung by any Sex Pistol let alone one who is not named Johnny Rotten.

Glen Matlock wasn’t even around for the recording of “Never Mind the Bullocks,” having been replaced in early 1977 by Sid Vicious, but the bassist was with the Pistols in the band’s formative years and played a big role in writing the songs on that one and only album.

He’s currently on a Punk Goes Acoustic Tour with Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls, making that a double bill of un-frontmen.

Matlock was an art student who worked at Malcolm McLaren’s London store Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die (later Sex) when he was recruited to play in the Strand with guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook. With the addition of snarling frontman John Lydon (Rotten) in ‘75 and the re-branding as the Sex Pistols, McLaren’s creation became the trailblazers of the British punk scene.

 

They debuted in February 1976 and by July were joined by The Clash and The Damned. The Pistols’ revolutionary first single “Anarchy in the UK” dropped in late November, followed in December by the infamous TV interview with Bill Grundy and the riotous Anarchy Tour.

In February, Matlock was replaced for Vicious, who couldn’t really play but looked more the part of an evil twin for Rotten. Matlock went on form the Rich Kids (77-79) with Midge Ure, among other bands, along with being a hired gun for Vicious White Kids (led by Vicious for all of one show) and the Faces reunion (2010).

Matlock, now 57, has been back as the Pistols bassist for reunion tours since 1996, running up until the most recent in 2008. His most recent album was 2010’s “Born Running” with the Philistines.

His tour with Sylvain Sylvain stops at the Hard Rock Cafe on Tuesday (8 p.m.; $12/$14; www.ticketfly.com)

So you’re out with Sylvain Sylvain. How did you hook up with him?
We have been mates for some time. This is the second time we’ve done a tour like this together. We’re in similar boats: Known to be sidemen a little bit, but we’re also songwriters, and it’s a good way of getting our stuff across.

How influenced were you by the New York Dolls and New York punk, in general?
Quite a lot. I think Steve Jones was the one who was more influenced by [Johnny] Thunders and stuff. My thing that got me going was all the early rock bands in the early to mid ‘60s — the Kinks and the Who and the Small Faces. That was my yardstick. But I remember going to see the Faces in about 1973 or something and I didn’t really know or care who was on the bill. The New York Dolls were supporting, and that was fantastic, a real watershed moment, coupled with, I used to work with Malcolm McLaren, before the Sex Pistols, in the store, and I heard them talking about [the Dolls] and it all came together in the melange of what was going on. The Pistols were hip to the Dolls and the Stooges and things like that, and the New York punk scene, although we hadn’t heard it at the time because no one had made any records. It seemed to be filling both sides of the Atlantic at the same time. When the Ramones first came to England, the Pistols all went and we were quite shocked that they were on the same page as us without us hearing them or them hearing us. It was kind of funny. I think everybody got fed up with the same old influences and took a step further back.

Back to the early ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, even the mid ’50s.
Yes. There’s a lot of Eddie Cochran in the Pistols stuff and the Dolls stuff and the Ramones stuff. It’s that little 3-minute-30-second vignette of what’s going on in teenage life with a good beat and a good riff and a good tune — all connects into one. That’s what the best rock was to me. What was going on prior to punk with all the prog-rock bands and operas and stadium rock, that was all very remote from what we were trying to do or what was affecting our lives. People were singing about hobgoblins. I mean, there’s not many hobgoblins in London, I can tell you.

And you guys of course brought that brash political element to it. Were you comfortable with that part of it?
I was very comfortable with it. London was a complete dump in the mid ’70s and [inaudible] were on strike all the time, there was rubbish piled high in the streets. There was a real air of despondency, and the song ‘God Save the Queen,’ although the words were never changed, originally it was called ‘No Future.’ And it really seemed like there was no future. But we wasn’t celebrating that fact. We were trying to point out that you don’t let the wool be pulled over your eyes, you do something about it for yourself. And I wrote ‘Pretty Vacant,’ that’s my lyric. It was about that air of despondency, but we don’t care, we’re just going work through this somehow and come up with something. And it wasn’t a literal thing. Hopefully, the music and the lyrics were more than the sum of the parts. You’re attacking some esoteric thing that you can’t necessarily write out in an article or letter to somebody.

Was there a defining moment with the Pistols where you saw that it had taken off and people were behind you?
Yeah, we did this famous TV show, the Bill Grundy Show, and we thought it would be no big deal one way or another, but it turned us into Public Enemy No. 1, and the next day everything changed. And all these bands popped out of the woodwork almost overnight, because they were looking for something. Everybody always knows what they don’t want, but they don’t necessarily know what they want until it’s put in front of them, and we were put in front of them in a big way. Prior to that we’d been on the pages of a lot of the music papers so we’d already been making inroads there. But, I always aspired to be a songwriter. I always dug people like Ray Davies who’d written these fantastic vignette/slice-of-life songs, and that’s what I continue to do, so while the Pistols, I’m proud of that, it was a long time ago and it’s just one thing to my boat.

Watching you do your own thing, I’m reminded more of a Nick Lowe type approach.
Possibly so. I like Nick. I don’t try to be like Nick. There’s other people I prefer more. But I am a singer-songwriter. That’s what I’ve always been and when we do our set, we both do songs from all aspects of our career, but they actually hang other. A Pistols song against a Rich Kids song against something I’m doing now, they all hang together because it was written on an acoustic guitar and they have my same kind of sensibility all the way through. The main thing that does kind of change is the lyrical content. I saw a good interview with John Lennon, where he was talking about ‘Double Fantasy’ or something, and they asked him, ‘Are you still trying to write for kids?’ And he said no, but he thinks he’s writing for the kids who grew up with him, and I suppose I’m doing the same kind of thing. As you get older and go through life, you have a different set of life experiences that you don’t have when you’re 17, 18 years old.

Jumping back, was it difficult for you to leave the Pistols when you did?
No, it was just so intense. It was the right thing to do. And then we did reform in ‘96, of all the bass players in the world they could roust about, they asked me, so I feel I had the last laugh.

How did you only play on 'Anarchy'?
Because most of the record was made after I left, but the majority of them were my songs. Certainly the first three singles. I didn’t write them all, but all the riffs and all the tunes ... and ‘Pretty Vacant’ was my song, so if anybody in the world had those songs, they’d be doing all right.

How long have you been doing acoustic versions of them?
I’ve been doing acoustic sets for the past 15 years. Not all the time. A friend of mine, who’s now a top lawyer in Dubai, he used to live near me and to celebrate his birthday, about 17 years ago, he said why not do a few numbers for him in the local pub where I live in London. And it went down really well, and people started asking me to do it. I was a bit nervous about doing it at first, because I’d never really done that. You’re really on the spot when you’re doing acoustic shows. It’s just you. I get far more nervous doing an acoustic show than I do playing in front of 20,000 people with the band. But that’s a reason to do it, it’s a challenge, and I got better and better at doing it and I think I do a pretty good job. It’s fun. I’m not a po-faced musical musician. There’s some serious content in my songs, but when I play, I like to have a laugh with the audience and I like everyone to go home with a smile on their face. Which they do normally ... unless they’re miserable old gits.

Has Johnny ever given you a hard time for doing these acoustic versions?
You know, I haven’t spoken to Johnny for years and I’m not that interested what he thinks, to be honest. Good luck to him in what he does and hope he thinks the same of me. He’ll probably moan, because he’s a moaning kind of bloke, but I’m not really interested in what he has to say. Sorry, but do you think because Johnny thinks I shouldn’t be doing it that I shouldn’t be doing it? Then you’re very wrong, mate!

What did you think of the decision not to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction [in 2006]?
I think it was a unilateral decision by Johnny Rotten and I don’t agree with it. So there you go. I would have done it. What got me is, we turned that one down and then about two weeks later there was an English one that he went and accepted, so draw your own conclusions from that.

 

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