KEXP Exclusive Interview: Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols

Interviews
01/22/2018
Owen Murphy

For many of us who grew up in the punk era, the sound of the Sex Pistols -- that power, energy, propelled by a sneer -- was life-changing. For me, it was those guitar chords. That sound -- copied over and over by legions of guitarists since -- changed my life on a cold, sunny day in a Victorian house in my hometown Minneapolis. Sure, we had heard power-chords of a similar nature, but none with this level of venomous, sarcastic, troubled fun, infused into six strings attached to a stolen guitar. But you know all that. What you may not know is that Steve Jones, guitarist for The Sex Pistols had an extraordinarily troubled childhood -- an experience that led him to music and that ignited shenanigans of the highest order. With the help of his radio producer Mark “Mr. Shovel” Sovel, I was lucky enough to speak to the influential guitarist from his Los Angeles radio studio about his sometimes emotional, sometimes hilarious, often VERY entertaining book aptly titled Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol, out now via Da Capo Press (and reprinted in paperback form on April 10, 2018).

Transcription by Michael Appleton

KEXP: So, first off, congratulations on this book. I read the whole thing in about a day and a half, and I thought it was fantastic. What does it feel like to pour your life out on the pages and share it with the world?

Steve Jones: It was a bit weird at first. I definitely balked at first, before anyone read it. “Am I doing the smart thing?” And then I thought, “you know what, life’s too short.” It’s OK, and you know, I’m OK with what’s in the book. I’ve only gotten positive feedback from it. I haven’t got any real negative stuff at all about the content of the book.

Portions of it are brave, from my perspective — you talk about being assaulted by, what I would describe as your stepfather? And in there, you use a phrase that is near and dear to our heart here at KEXP and that’s “you’re not alone.” If you don’t mind, share why you shared those kinds of intimate details.

I just thought that, it happens a lot. And no one talks about it. I didn’t do it for other people; I really did it just for myself. But I like the fact that there’s a lot of dudes who relate to it. Similar stuff happened to them when they were kids. It’s just one of them things that happens way too much, and no one talks about it.

Part of it — you know, my part of it was — this is all the picture that made me who I was. And then to want to start the Sex Pistols. That scenario of the stepfather shaped the way I became as a teenager, wanting to play music, and being angry, whatever. Maybe if I had really good parents, I would have ended up in a band like Air Supply or something.

That would have been terrible. You mentioned the Sex Pistols. I specifically remember the first time I heard the band: It’s a Victorian house in Minneapolis probably ’79, ’78, somewhere in there. And it’s your guitar playing — those power chords, that sound that comes through the speakers and kind of blows my 12-year-old head off. Musically, for you, was there a person, an instrument, a song that did that for you?

Well, definitely Mick Ronson was a big inspiration to me. Paul Kossoff. There’s a load of guitar players that I connected to as a child. Johnny Thunders. Ronnie Wood when he was in The Faces. You know, early stuff, that’s all my kind-of guitar playing. Jimi Hendrix. When I heard “Purple Haze” for the first time -- I write about that in the book -- that blew my mind when I was like 10, 11-years-old.

I was definitely attracted to the guitar, but I really didn’t start playing until I had to. I was singing in the Sex Pistols originally, then I got pushed over to guitar because I didn’t want to do the guitar. It kind-of came natural, so I guess it was meant to be.

If I had to pick my number one guitarist of all time, I would say it was Mick Ronson and them albums. The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane -- that was my blueprint of guitar playing.

 

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Did you see that era of David Bowie live? You may have mentioned in the book, I can’t remember now.

You didn’t read the bleedin’ book, did you?

I did. I swear!

I talk about the last show of David Bowie. I stole their equipment.

OK, sorry forgive me.

I know there is a lot going on in the world.

Well, do you remember the sights, the smells, the sound, the faces? What was that like for someone 15, 16-years-old?

Yeah, I think I was 15. It was, it was wild. And things were a lot looser than they are now. You know, you could just walk into a venue. There are no cameras. There are no turnstiles. There’s no one searching you when you go in. And it was it was loose, and it was a great escape coming from a poor neighborhood in west London to see David Bowie glammed up like that and the rock n roll-ness of it all. It was mind-blowing and it was sexual. It was everything rock n roll should have been that kind of lack a little bit more these days. Not that I’m knocking new people, but for me, it was like the ultimate rock n roll ride, you know?

In your book, you have a different point of view on Malcolm McLaren than Mr. Lydon has in his books. If you don’t mind, describe what Malcolm McLaren meant to you.

Malcolm showed me a different side of life that I never experienced before. I was just from a working-class kind of ‘boot boy’ area council flat, you know? You didn’t see much more than that, other than going to the local disco pub or whatever. He knew all the underground places and the avant-garde kind of places, and he exposed me to all that ‘cause I started hanging out with him and driving him around in Vivienne Westwood’s Mini. He couldn’t drive and he took me on as his driver to go and pick up -- his ‘errand boy’ or whatever you want to call it -- and it was great. That was a big change for me when I started hanging out with Malcolm. This is prior to the Sex Pistols; this is like two years prior to the Sex Pistols.

It must have given you hope that there was a different future than the one you had expected as a child?

It was just different. You know, it was different, but different in the fact that I love that side of life. The way people lived down the King’s Road in Chelsea you know? I think that was where my head was meant to be at, not in a council flat in London.

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On July 7th of last year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, we celebrated the year 1977 and played only music from that year. Obviously, you were there and were a huge part of changing people’s lives with the music you made. What was in the air then that caused this creative explosion with you guys, and the Clash, and The Damned, and even David Bowie or whomever?

I don’t know. I mean, I just put things down like that to divine intervention. Some things are meant to happen. The Beatles were meant to get together, you know? Ringo Starr was meant to be in The Beatles and not the good-looking guy they had before. You just don’t know. There’s no rhyme or reason really. Some things just happened and that’s purely how it happened with the Sex Pistols, and then followed by The Clash by seeing the Sex Pistols. They decided it was revolution because it was just bands with mustaches and flares. Here we come along and it was just completely different and it was just one of the things that young people saw it and [thought] “I’m going to have some of that. I’m going to cut my long hair and dye it orange.” It was just one of them things.

The music was important. And John’s lyrics -- John wrote all the lyrics -- and me and Glen wrote the tunes. We just did it all down Denmark Street in the little place where I was living upstairs, and we were rehearsing, and then we just banged out the songs in this little rehearsal room downstairs. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We had no idea people would still be talking about this album forty years later. There was no one saying “Oh, I don’t hear a single” because we were just doing our thing and like I said, “Some things are just meant to happen.”

 

 

You wrote in the book that “the Sex Pistols were born to crash and burn.” Why was that?

It just seemed like after we did the Bill Grundy show, when we just got shot into a different stratosphere as far as household name, front pages of the daily paper, and -- Sid [Vicious] joined and then we came to the states, and it really didn’t seem anything to do with music anymore. It was just “What are we going to do next? Who are we going to throw up on?” All this nonsense, you know, and it was just, it was just destined. Sid was a mess. Egos were out of control and by the time we ended in San Francisco in January ’78, I just said, “I’ve had enough. I’m out of here”. You know, in hindsight maybe that was not the smartest move but that was the best I could come up with when I was 21-years-old.

 

photo by
Steve Jones in 2004 // photo by Dan Tuffs/Getty Images

 

You host a radio show now. You bring a lot of great guests and you play music that ostensibly, you like. Radio is changing now. Delivery systems are changing, where people get their content is changing -- like me, you grew up on it. What does radio mean to you?

Radio means to me, you get in your car, and you turn the knob, and there’s someone playing music -- and hopefully it’s music you like. I mean, there are different formats now -- you got your Spotify and your Sirius radio, which, the good, the positive about it is you can hear it when you drive across country. But it’s very repetitive too. All the stations, they all repeat themselves a lot. But what I can say is about my show is literally I’m playing what I want to play and hope people relate to it. I’m sure there are people who don’t like it because it’s not familiar to them, but I know there’s a big percentage of people like me, and even younger dudes, who always come up to me and say “Man, I’ve bought so much music from listening to your show. I do Shazam and I spend money.” You know they appreciate that and I can’t do it if I’m just playing -- if I’m just talking “blah blah blah” in between someone else’s format. That to me is not fun. That’s a job.

Is there a song, or songs that you’ve played on the air that have you been surprised people loved? That’s gratifying for you to turn someone onto something surprising like that?

Yeah. That’s what, I mean, that’s what I just said. There’s a lot of people who do -- and I play new bands too. It’s not just old stuff. You know, deep cuts or whatever. I’m playing a lot of new bands.

Who’s new that you like?

Oh man. You would say that, wouldn’t you?

You started it!

I know I did. But when you get put on the spot, I mean... there are a lot of new bands that I play. I play bands that you would know -- the new Queens of the Stone Age album, I play deep cuts on that. I play Greta Van Fleet, I play Tame Impala. I play -- I play a lot of bands! You know, I think it’s important. There are a lot of bands that don’t get [played] on the radio, who have talent. There’s always going to be talent regardless of what’s going on, or how they can be heard. And that’s just a bonus part as well as playing old ‘70s. The '70s is my era, really. You know, I don’t play punk. To be honest with ya, a lot of it is crap. But I’m definitely a ‘70s guy.

I meant to ask this question at the beginning of the interview… you name the book Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol. You know when bands name albums there are reasons why they choose the title of a song or an album title. You named this these two words. What do the two words “Lonely Boy” mean to you and why did you want to present yourself in that regard?

Well, there is a "Lonely Boys" song that The Sex Pistols did that I sing that’s in the Rock n Roll Swindle, but the real reason is that I’m a lonely person and I always have been, prior to my upbringing, and I am to this day. I’ve never really had a relationship and it’s who I am. You know it really is who I am. I’m a loner.

 


 

Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol is out now as a hardback via Da Capo Press; available as a paperback on April 10, 2018. Steve Jones can be heard on 95.5 KLOS in Los Angeles as the host of Jonesy's Jukebox, Monday through Friday from Noon to 2 PM. And tune in to KEXP on Wednesday, February 7th to hear Steve Jones talk about his experiences playing with The Clash as KEXP celebrates International Clash Day. More info here.

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