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'Lonely Boy' Steve Jones on His New Book, Life with the Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan and More
Steve Jones was one of those kids whose high school yearbook entry would have read “Most likely not to succeed.”
His life path was an all-too-certain roller coaster ride to the gutter until rock and roll blew its anarchic spirit into his lungs. The true epitome of an accidental pioneer, Jones’ pile-driving, powerful guitar work powered the engine that ignited the Sex Pistols‘ punk rock fusillade.
His new autobiography, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, details his fast-paced life, a sweaty sex, drugs and rock and roll journey with dollops of humor, honesty and bratty tongue in cheek pathos.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you realize music would be your escape from getting a day job?
Steve Jones: Well, I knew that from the beginning. When I attempted to do any kind of normal work it would bum me out. It just wasn’t me.
Especially being a kleptomaniac; I got more things by doping than trying to work some job eight hours a day. It just wasn’t in the cards for me to be doing that.
Did you ever fess up to David Bowie when you met him after you stole some of his equipment after his famous farewell Ziggy Stardust gig at the Hammersmith Odeon in London?
Steve Jones: I didn’t fess up with him in the person but I believe I did on the phone. I remember to be honest but I know I made some roundabout amends to him and I think he thought it was funny. In fact, there was nothing really stolen from him.
It was a bunch of microphones, the bass player’s amp, and a bunch of cymbals. The only thing that was close to Bowie was the microphone, the little Electro-voice mic with his lipstick on it. That’s the gig where he said farewell; he did two shows at the Odeon.
When did the magic of the original lineup of the Sex Pistols first click for you where you felt, this is powerful, this is authentic, this is real?
Steve Jones: I realized that on our first gig actually when we played St. Martin’s College. I was so nervous; I had a few beers and a couple of Quaaludes, actually Mandrax which was the equivalent of quaaludes and it all came on at the right time. I think we were doing “Did You No Wrong.” There were 40 people in the audience, if that. But just the fact I was looking at (John) Lydon and thinking how cool he looked; I was going, ‘This is amazing; this is the best thing ever!” I was not sober either but it just seemed so good.
As shitty as we must have sounded at the time — we’d only been rehearsing for a little bit putting some songs together — it was amazing.
You talk in the book about your relationship with Johnny Rotten, one that is marked by ups and downs. It seems there’s always been a thread of tension and aggression between you, did that help fuel the spark for the Pistols?
Steve Jones: I think that’s the case with most bands. Singers are a different breed. They’re a certain personality. They normally want to be adored by everyone but on the other hand they have no self-esteem and they want attention.
That’s the hardest gig because you’ve got to get it up every night ‘cause people are looking at you. Guitarists, bass players, you can kind of hide if you’re not into it one night but a lead singer — that is like the hardest gig.
There’s always gonna be conflict with other people in the band because with the way that they are comes the other side, where they can be complete cunts as well.
And unfortunately that’s just the way it is; either you deal with it or you don’t. But I think that’s always gonna be there.
Prior to cutting your major label debut album, the band did some recordings with Dave Goodman and guitarist Chris Spedding. Bring us into the studio for the recording of the Never Mind The Bollocks album working with producer Chris Thomas.
Steve Jones: The Chris Thomas experience was night and day between Dave Goodman and Spedding; we did the Spedding session in a day, recording three songs. Dave Goodman was a bit more experimental but he wasn’t really a producer; he hadn’t really done anything before that.
He was our sound guy. When we got signed to EMI and we were cutting “Anarchy” he lost his mind. He was smoking so much weed and all of sudden he thought he was a big shot producer. He literally kept making us play a song 60 fucking times.
He just didn’t know what he was doing so we thought, “Fuck this!” and then we got Chris Thomas and we got the song in the second take; this was because he was a professional and he knew what he was doing. But there were some interesting stuff on the Spunk record that we did with Goodman but it was a pleasure working with Chris Thomas, especially for me doing guitars. He gave me a lot of leeway and time and we worked together a lot. That was my favorite time actually in the Pistols when we was doing Never Mind the Bullocks.
The Pistols did not adhere to the amphetamine pace of other punk bands.
Steve Jones: It’s rock. Me and Cookie (Paul Cook) and (Glen) Matlock, our favorite band was the Faces. We didn’t do a lot of fast stuff; “Bodies” is kind of angry. But as far as the actual tempos go on our record, when a lot of the other punk stuff came afterwards, those really fast bands like Bad Brains, that kind of tempo wouldn’t have even entered our heads to play like that.
You played most of the bass guitar on the album right?
Steve Jones: Glen is on “Anarchy” and I’m on the rest of the songs. We cut that as a single before we did Never Mind The Bullocks. Sid was in hospital at the time, he had yellow jaundice and he couldn’t play the bass which was a godsend, although he is farting and rumbling on bass underneath “Bodies.”
But that’s it. It was me playing the rest of the bass on the album and it was a piece of cake; I’m just playing eighth notes.
I was glad I could do it as we really didn’t want Sid on there because he literally couldn’t play. It’s not his fault; he just got slung into the deep end way too quick.
He could have went on to be a star in his own right but I guess it worked out the way it was meant to work out.
So Johnny brings in Sid Vicious, a friend but someone who could barely play bass. What was the experience like having Sid in the band from a musical level?
Steve Jones: It was the worst. Me and Cookie were pretty tight and we took ourselves seriously when we were playing. When this shambles came in with Sid it was awful. At the beginning Sid was attempting to play along.
He had his bass up high and I used to show him where to put his fingers. It was a nightmare. I didn’t want to be showing someone where to put their fingers on a bass; I had enough shit going on with what was going on already.
The Pistols did one lone tour of the U.S. in the ‘70s, ignoring major markets like New York and Los Angeles and playing in places like Dallas, San Antonio and Atlanta. Did you get a sense the band was winding down?
Steve Jones: It was winding down from where I looked at it; I don’t know what John was thinking or Sid. I don’t know if they knew it was coming. I knew by the time we came to our last gig in San Francisco at The Winterland that I’d had enough. It was the worst. It wasn’t like what we started out doing where we were playing music and it was fun.
Again, I believe it was too much, too soon for some 20-year-old guys.
The Sex Pistols first reunited back in the early 2000s and later regrouped a few times following that. What were the best and worst aspects of that experience?
Steve Jones: Well, the best parts were definitely the shows. When we first played London again at Finsbury Park that was a great gig. To see all these old punks who hasn’t seen us in 20 years was good. When we were originally together I don’t think we did that many shows, maybe 50, 60 shows. There’s no way that most of the people who came to see us on those reunion shows were at those shows in the ‘70s. So that was a good, emotional show.
It was great at the beginning; it just went on too long. We did 100 shows over a year and it was just too much and the hatred and resentments came back and it just ended ugly.
There was talk at the time of the band going into the studio to cut a new album, how close did that come to happening?
Steve Jones: In 2003 when we were rehearsing to do another little tour around America we attempted to come up with some ideas but it was a disaster. It wasn’t gonna go any further than that; John didn’t even put any pen to paper. We were coming up with bits and bobs of tunes but it was awful. We didn’t spend much time on it to be honest but the initial start of it made us go, “oh fuck, we don’t want to do this anymore.”
While in the Pistols, it can now be revealed that you harbored a secret love for everyone from Raspberries to Boston to Journey to the Knack.
Steve Jones: I’ve always loved all kind of music. You like whatever you like. Some people, me included, when I was young didn’t want people to know I liked music like that. I thought they would think I was corny. But music is funny; there’s no right or wrong. It’s whatever the listener is drawn to and I’m drawn to all kinds of music and Boston and Journey were some of them.
You hear a song and you like it or you don’t like it. Me and Cookie liked the Raspberries; the reason we liked the Raspberries is we thought they sounded like the Small Faces especially on a song like “Tonight.”
You played on Bob Dylan’s 1988 album Down In the Groove. What are your memories of those sessions?
Steve Jones: It was very interesting experience. Bob called me up and said, “Can you put a band together for a session?” But I didn’t know what that entailed. The only way I’d been recording before was me and Cookie putting down a guitar and bass and then I’d layer it.
This experience was very strange. I got me, Paul Simonon who happened to be in L.A. at the time, and Pat Benatar’s drummer Myron Grombacher. We set up in the studio. Bob came in with his acoustic and pieces of paper that he put on the piano and he said, “Well, let’s try this one, here are the chords.” We played along until he thought something had clicked. He cut us off halfway through some simple chords and would say, “Let’s try something else.”
I didn’t realize at the time what he was doing. But I think the reason he got me was to see what we would come up with but unfortunately I didn’t quite get that and I was just playing the chords that he played me.
There’s one track, “Sally Sue Brown,” that wound up on the record and it was a great experience. There’s another songs that no one really talks about that I played on. It was on Johnny Thunders’ solo album. The song is “Daddy Rolling Stone.”
Thunders sings a verse, Steve Marriott sings a verse and Phil Lynott sing a verse and it’s me and Cookie on guitar and drums. That’s something that I think was a big deal than nobody ever talks about. We had such a laugh with Marriott then; he was such a funny fucker. It was so good.
Working on the book, were there any especially painful areas of your life that were most difficult to address or was it freeing to open up about some darker days in your past?
Steve Jones: Nothing was too painful to talk about. I’d already unraveled most of the stuff that was in the book prior to doing the book. It wasn’t like any big revelations came as I was putting the book together.
The only thing that made me a little uncomfortable was knowing the world is gonna know that I got fucked around with by my stepfather. But I thought, fuck it, it wasn’t my fault and I want it in the book. It’s a part of my upbringing and it steered me in a direction.
I think it was important to have all that in there.