The Sex Pistols bassist/songwriter on the filth, the fury, Fender and 30 years (!) of Never Mind the Bollocks …
Has it really been 30 years since the release of punk rock’s magnum opus? Is it really true that a whole three decades have passed since the snarling, spitting, slashing arrival of the one and only studio album by the U.K.’s most venerated, celebrated, castigated, fabricated, expectorated musical enfants terrible, the Sex Pistols?
It’s true, mate. Never Mind the Bollocks, Heres the Sex Pistols is 30 now.
No future for you, eh? Not so, as it turned out. The Pistols have occasionally regrouped most successfully since those mid-’70s days of filth and fury—Lydon and company even manage to still grab a headline or two to this day; witness their highly publicized 2006 snub of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, more recently, their announcement of a November 2007 performance in London to celebrate Bollocks’ 30th anniversary.
It was with great pleasure, then, that Fender News had the distinct honor of a lengthy conversation with original Pistols bassist and songwriter Glen Matlock, who played on the infamous and historic single “Anarchy In the U.K.” and is credited as co-author on ten of the dozen songs on Never Mind the Bollocks, almost certainly the most famous punk album ever (see related story). Matlock left the group in 1977 and continued his career with several other musical efforts, most recently the Philistines and Slinky Vagabond, but rejoined the reunited Pistols in 1996 and has been with them for every outing since. He very kindly rang us from his home in England in early October for a chat about the filth, the fury and Fender …
FN: Is NMTB really 30 now?
GM: Well, it’s a bit longer than that for me.
FN: You joined the band in ’75, right?
GM: Something like that, yeah. Or even late 1974. A long time ago. I get confused with the chronology a little, but yeah, it was sometime way back then.
FN: You were playing a Precision then, as now.
GM: I’ve always sort of been a Fender player. I’ve dabbled with other things for a while, but realized the error of my ways (laughs).
FN: When did you start playing?
GM: I started when I was about 14. Somebody at school had a bass. Looking back, it wasn’t really a bass; it was a guitar with the six strings taken off and four put on—you know, it was supposed to be like a Fender Mustang®, but it weren’t. So that was that. And then I met Steve and Paul, and they had a proper Fender, so I ended up playing that. It was, like, a sort of ’70s Precision®.
Matlock with his black Precision bass.
Photo courtesy Whitehouse
FN: That was your first Precision?
GM: Yeah. I played that all through the early days when I was with the Pistols. But then, when we got our deal, I did actually go and buy a Rickenbacker®, because it was nice and shiny. And it sounded fine, you know, but it was just too fiddley. You know, it’s got that thing where you sort of plug it in and get the Ric-O-Sound (the stereo output found on many Rickenbacker® guitars and basses); I had one of those. I mean, the one I got, I actually used that one on “Anarchy In the U.K.,” and it’s in the hall of fame now, in Cleveland. I’m going to have it back soon. So it’s nice to have but, you know, I have all these kind of fancy bits, but it ain’t no good for punk rock, really.
Then I had a little Gibson® Les Paul® bass, which fit in the boot of my sports car, but it didn’t sound very good. You know, what do you call them—the EB0 or EB1? With the banjo heads on it, you know. I played that for a bit. And I had one other thing, a Dan Armstrong. And then I got a gig with Iggy in ’79, and I went out and bought a Fender ’61 Precision I saw in a store; played it; loved it, and I’ve never really picked up another guitar, you know—I’ve still got it, 30 years out. Although, the only thing is that it’s worth a lot of money now, and if we do small shows I’m worried about it getting thieved.
FN: No, you don’t want to leave that in the car …
GM: (emphatically) No. And then I got, from you guys later, a couple of years back, just a black Mexican one, and it’s fine, you know. I mean, the thing with Fender is that they just sound like bass should sound. When I’m recording, you invariably just plug it in and you end up just using the D.I. sound.
FN: And they can take a beating.
GM: They got it right, you know. And I hadn’t done any playing for … I went to do something the other day, and I hadn’t picked me guitar up for about a month just because I’ve been doing other stuff, and I got it out of the case and it’s still in tune, you know, and it’s been all over.
FN: Was a Fender instrument easy to get back in the early ’70s?
GM: Yeah, but it wasn’t cheap. It was something you had to save up for, but sometimes when you save up for things, you kind of look after then a bit more. But then there’s the other side of Fender—the very first amp I used in a band was a Bassman®. And, um, I don’t have the original one, but I’ve gone ’round all the other amps in the world. And 16 years ago, I was doing some little gig somewhere, and I didn’t have an amp. And my mate called me up and said, “Glen, I’ve seen this amp for sale; you have to go down there in the morning and queue up (chuckles).” So I went down and queued up, and I bought a Bassman head and cabinet for £99, which was not a lot of money back then, but I’ve used it ever since. It’s fantastic. And I lend it out to people and they go, “Wow, that amp is great!” So I wish you guys made that one again.
It’s fine, and what’s good about it is that if you take the front off, all the speakers are angled across the corners, so there’s a lot of room in it, and at the end of a tour you can just put all your dirty wash in it …
GM: I’m kind of joking, but …
You know, those old amps are great. So that’s my kind of sound. You know, actually, for doing a really big gig it’s not quite loud enough, although you can put it through the monitors and stuff, but it’s nice to have that bit of trouser-flap going on. But for a good medium-sized club show or a small theater, it’s fantastic.
That’s kind of me, really, as far as bass is concerned. I mean, I don’t play on all the Never Mind the Bollocks stuff. I was in the live band and I played on “Anarchy” and I played on a couple of other tracks, but Steve played a lot of it. But he used a Fender as well, you know.
FN: Yeah, but didn’t you write or co-write most of the songs on Bollocks?
GM: Yeah, I co-wrote a lot of that stuff.
FN: There’s sometimes confusion about who played bass on Bollocks—many people assume it’s Sid.
GM: (politely correcting our clumsy pronunciation) “Bollocks,” not “Bullocks.”
FN: Oh. Sorry.
GM: It’s all you Americans who always say “Bullocks,” but they’re animals. “Bollocks” is another thing entirely …
FN: Got it. Did you play any of the bass parts on BOLLocks?
GM: Mainly, I’m on “Anarchy” and “I Wanna Be Me” and “No Fun.” But that’s kind of enough, innit? I’ve done all the live stuff, and then there’s the live album—Filthy Lucre Live, which we did in ’96.
FN: And now you’re getting ready for a Pistols show this November in London.
GM: Yeah, we’ve got one show, and maybe there might be some more; we’ll see. But it’s looking kind of good.
FN: How does it feel to be playing with those guys again?
GM: Well, you know, nobody’s ever gonna be the best of mates in the band. And that’s fine—it gives it a certain frisson. But, you know, we’ve got something in common—we’re the only four people in the world who, when we get together, sound like the Sex Pistols when we play live. So that’s kind of something to celebrate. It’s just, the total is more than the sum of the parts. It’s just good chemistry. I mean, what’s a band about? Chemistry.
FN: Are you still playing with Slinky Vagabond or the Philistines?
GM: Yeah. I like playing. I mean, playing a few shows every 30 years with the Sex Pistols is something to look forward to, but it doesn’t while away the winter nights, you know? I’d rather be out playing. And the Slinky Vagabond thing is a great lineup—Clem Burke on drums and Earl Slick on guitar. That’s in its infancy at the moment. It just kind of fell together, really, so we’re seeing how that one goes. It’s great playing with Clem; he’s fantastic.
And then I’ve got my Philistines thing going, but that’s whenever; if I have a new bunch of songs for an album. And then I’ll maybe put another lineup together, as well. And I sing in that one, you know—“Oh, look out; Matlock’s havin’ a go at singin’ again (laughs).”
We’re so pretty: The Sex Pistols in 1996, with Matlock at far left.
Photo courtesy MSO
FN: The November show in London will be really cool.
GM: Yeah. Who knows—if it does well, there might be some more, but we’ll have to wait and see. But I will be using my Fender. The old Precision, it does what it says on it—it’s precise. It’s simple and straightforward, and that’s kind of what punk’s all about, really, I think, musically.
FN: Punk came and went pretty fast in the ’70s, but elements of it certainly proved successful and enduring.
GM: I think in England it was the last great youth culture, really. It wasn’t only about the music—it was the look, it was the attitude, the fashion, and everywhere you go you can see spin-offs from it, you know. And now, people from there who cut their teeth on it are quite in positions of power, so things are kind of a bit hipper because of them all coming through that.
Now, I can’t speak for America, because I don’t really know. But I was in New York not that long ago, and you walk around and there’s all this kind of punk-influenced stuff still in fashion. Whether that’s good or not, I don’t know—I mean, I wish people would come up with something new, but there ain’t nothing new under the sun, as they say.
FN: Punk culture is everywhere now, and you guys played a big hand in that.
GM: Yeah, we certainly did.
FN: Does that seem strange to you? Cool? Valid? Irrelevant? Gratifying?
GM: Actually, I feel like a culprit (chuckles). ’Cause sometimes these people come up to you and go, like, “Oh, you’ve changed my life!” And you look at them and you think, “Blimey, what were you like before?” (laughs) you know? Um, yeah, it’s a cool thing to be, I suppose, but it ain’t really what we’re all about—we just wanted to stir things up a bit.
FN: Do people still ask you about the Bill Grundy Show? Do you get tired of it?
GM: Um, yeah. You know, I know they mean well, but what happened is what happened. I mean, it was funny—over the weekend, I’d just bought the paper I normally buy, and, um, this thing fell out, and it was “Great Interviews of the 20th Century” (chuckles); you know, like the week before they’d had Mahatma Gandhi, and David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon the week before that, and then they’ve got the bloody Sex Pistols/Bill Grundy Show!
FN: The songs sound as good today as they did ten years ago, or 20 or 30 years ago. How did you guys create that sound? Did it just come naturally?
GM: I think we just did what came naturally. We kind of got on with it, you know. And it had all the elements—a good tune, a great lyric and a good attitude behind it. It was simple and direct and to the point, and it was about something, and that’s a winning combination; you can’t really beat that.
FN: And you guys could play your instruments pretty well …
GM: Um, we had our moments. Enough to do the job, really.
FN: But wasn’t there a lot of “Oh, they can’t play their instruments?” Clearly, you could play, though.
GM: Yeah. I mean, I ran into some dude last night at some fashion show, and there’s this guy—a pretty cool designer, really, called Sir Tom Baker. And he had this sort of a fashion show at the 100 Club, where we used to play. And then they was playing all these records in the background, you know, and they sandwiched “I Wanna Be Me,” which is one of our earliest recordings, with some Bowie track and something else and something else, and, you know, our playing is just as good as on any of the records. I just think when we came out that people were trying to compare us to Yes and Genesis, who were doing, like, 14/8 time or whatever that is, but we weren’t doing that. We didn’t want to do that.