The Sex Pistols were the most important band to emerge from the British punk scene. Pogoing, safety pins in clothes, studded leather, spiked hair: They all came from the band’s fandom. Music connoisseurs sometimes claim that it’s The Clash who were actually the Most Important British Punk band, but by definition, anyone who is a “music connoisseur” shouldn’t be discussing punk music.
What categorized the Sex Pistols’ music was a direct assault on the British establishment at the time, exemplified in lead singer Johnny Rotten’s notorious glare and sneer. Their first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” takes on a new connotation when one realizes that “anarchist” is British for “terrorist.” When Rotten sings, “I am an anarchist” who wants “to destroy passerby,” he is talking about blowing up civilians—hardly something that would make the radio even today. They performed their next single, “God Save the Queen” (“God save the Queen/The fascist regime/There is no future/In England’s dreaming”), on a boat outside Westminster Palace during the 25th anniversary celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign—and promptly got arrested.
Now, however, things have changed. Earlier this month, Rotten published his second autobiography, Anger is an Energy, under his birth name of John Lydon. And though the title is evocative of his punk youth, the prose isn’t. Throughout the book, evidence bursts out that one of punk’s founding fathers has basically turned into the typical grandfather.
1. He reminds you to always brush your teeth.
One of the oldest pieces of grandfatherly advice is the constant reminder to brush your teeth. Grandfathers regard their dentures as an avoidable consequence of dental neglect instead of a natural function of aging. In this, Lydon is no different. “I always had bad teeth,” he recounts. “The concept of brushing them never occurred to me.” The Rotten moniker came from his two front teeth that “had this green mould on them….I know it’s a bizarre thing for me of all people to say,” Lydon goes on, “but, really—take care of your teeth!” Thanks, Grandpa!
2. He urges you to let your family know where you are.
Grandparents worry about their grandchildren and want you to call and check in to let them know that you’re all right. It’s OK if you’re going to be coming home late; just take a second and drop them a line. You could be murdered in a ditch for all they know!
Lydon recounts that he would have died in the 1988 Lockerbie plane explosion but for his wife taking so long to pack that they missed the flight. What did that teach him—and, therefore, us? “Tell everyone what you’re doing all the time,” he notes, “and don’t jump on a plane or not jump on a plane without informing everyone of your movements, because it’s damn well irresponsible to do that….”
3. He thinks you have to be firm to raise children well.
We can’t have kids running wild, can we? The next thing you know, they’ll be dying their hair, sticking safety pins through their ears, and joining bands into order to sing—no, scream—awful songs with no redeeming social value. Youth is when a person learns the habits that inform their adulthood. Yes, there’s a time and a place for fun—but teaching strong morals and building character is what grandparents are all about. No one wants a hooligan for a grandchild!
Lydon’s stepdaughter was the late Ari Up, lead singer of punk band The Slits. Ari had twin boys who were hellions, and John and his wife ended up taking them in and raising them when Ari was unable to do so. “What they needed was boundaries,” Lydon writes, “as do all kids.” Lydon took his role as surrogate father quite seriously, taking a break from his band Public Image Limited in order to watch over the boys. He even finds time to recount the parent/teacher conferences. “Haha, the argument I had with the English teacher, who told me sentence structure didn’t matter!” Anarchy belongs in the U.K., not in English class.
4. He claims that they don’t build ’em like they used to.
Grandfathers find change to be confusing, and everyone dislikes confusion, so it’s not much of a leap for them to hate change. What’s wrong with the way things used to be done, anyway? Everyone seemed to manage in Grandpa’s day just fine. Now it’s like everyone has lost their mind, and that’s wrong.
“I bemoan the modern architecture in London,” Lydon says. “I find it coldly indifferent and soul-destroying.” Gee, I wonder if he prefers things the way they did it back in the day? Why, yes! Yes, he does! “In many ways, too, the old Georgian architecture was an imperialistic look down on us,” he admits, “but there was a beauty in it. It was at least something to aspire to artistically.”
5. He thinks downloading music is illegal and unfair.
After the Sex Pistols broke up, their manager Malcolm McLaren formed Bow Wow Wow. In 1980 the band released the world’s first cassette single, “C·30 C·60 C·90 Go!,” which explicitly advocated buying a 30-, 60- or 90-minute cassette and taping songs off the radio. Pirating music is nothing new—and neither is using it as a scapegoat for falling record sales.
Lydon regards piracy as illegal and the Internet music scene as a “catastrophe.” “If you look at the Grammys these days,” he complains, “it’s forever Taylor Swift and Jay-Z, and it always is going to be. They’ve hogged the top line. That was exactly the position when we first started with the Pistols.” In other words and by his own admission, things are exactly as they’ve always been despite the proliferation of Internet piracy. A bit paradoxical, no? Well, try explaining that to your grandfather.
6. He loves his free government healthcare.
Grandfathers love gobbling up as much free Social Security and Medicare as possible, believing that they’re simply getting the money they’d invested into the system returned to them. The math doesn’t quite work out like that, but they don’t want to hear it. All they want to hear is “free” and “doctor,” and they’re in grandfather heaven (as opposed to their next stop, actual heaven.)
Lydon reveled in the fact that the 2012 London Olympics celebrated England’s National Health Service. “It is an astounding creation,” he notes. But at the same time, he wants to make sure that tourists don’t exploit the system to their benefit. “What I’m saying is,” he explains, “please do take care of British citizens first. And emphasize the word ‘citizens.’” Why, when he was a wee lad, “there’d be a lot of people from all over Europe who would come to England just on a tourist visa and be claiming dole money, and it was never questioned….It’s just abuse and theft.” Open borders? Yes. Open hospital beds? Kinda, but not really.
7. He’s proud to call himself an American.
Is there any grandfather that doesn’t wave his flag high? Maybe it’s different overseas, but here in the U. S. of A., old people love the Stars and Stripes almost as much as they like whatever the hell else it is that they like. (Is it still prunes? Do they have trends?)
“I feel like I was born an American,” he says without a hint of irony. “The rights and freedoms of all, and the belief that all of us are born equal—these aspects are in the American ideology.” O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave, right? We meant it, man!