This is the story of a feud both rotten and vicious; a falling-out which has reached the High Court.
At stake is a payday of as much as £5 million per person — a mouth-watering sum for former punk icons the Sex Pistols, who have long complained that they barely made a quid from the music which shook the world 44 years ago.
Anyone who knows the men involved is not in the slightest bit surprised about the feud. It follows decades of slights, barbs and chilly years-long silences.
The current crisis — which by common agreement marks the very end for the Pistols — has been provoked by the question of whether their music should be licensed for use in a forthcoming big budget TV series about the band, Pistol.
John Lydon, known by his stage name Johnny Rotten, says it should not be used. He regards the idea as ‘the most disrespectful s*** I’ve ever had to endure.’ Former bandmates, drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones, insist it should.
The spat has now ended up in court as they sue him for damages and costs, and to use the songs.
The current crisis has been provoked by the question of whether their music should be licensed for use in a forthcoming big budget TV series about the band. John Lydon, known by his stage name Johnny Rotten (pictured), says it should not be used
The row kicked off in March as the Disney TV series started filming. Directed by Danny Boyle, it stars Maisie Williams, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Anson Boon and Iris Law. Shooting is now nearing completion. This week, sources close to the rest of the band claimed Lydon hasn’t said what his specific objections are.
His lawyer has argued that the drama portrays him in ‘a hostile and unflattering light’. And Lydon said in court: ‘I care very much about this band and its reputation and its quality control and I will always have a say if I think anything is being done to harm or damage [it].’
But Jones denies the portrayal of Lydon is unflattering. His side’s suspicion is that Lydon is only enraged because the series is based on a memoir written by the guitarist and he is therefore not the central character in the drama.
‘John says it’s all terrible but he hasn’t actually engaged with any of them about what is wrong with it,’ says a source. ‘The point is that the show is not about him, and he likes to feel that he is at the centre of everything. That is probably what it all boils down to.’
But Rotten’s former bandmates, drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones (pictured together), insist their music should be used
He may also feel insecure because the musical stars of the Pistols were very much Jones and Cook. ‘John wrote the lyrics and has always had the credit for that, but he doesn’t care to be reminded about the musical part of it,’ I’m told.
Former punk Jordan Mooney, 66, who was a muse to the Sex Pistols in the 1970s and knows all of them, is unsurprised about the stand-off. ‘John argues for the sake of arguing. He’s a difficult person and I can’t say that part of him has changed at all. As he’s got older, he’s only got more difficult — he’s contrary.’
The truth is that Lydon has never been friends with the rest of the band: Jones, Cook and Glen Matlock. In fact, seldom has any group of musicians been riven by such mutual loathing.
What many don’t know is that Lydon was never the kingpin of the band in the first place. He was hired in 1975 as a frontman some months after Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren had assembled the group, led by lifelong best friends Cook and Jones.
Aged 19, he auditioned for the job by singing along to Alice Cooper on the jukebox in McLaren’s iconic shop, called Sex, on the King’s Road.
The spat has now ended up in court as his former bandmates sue Rotten (pictured arriving at court) for damages and costs, and to use the songs
The shop was the epicentre of the punk revolution, and the hub from which McLaren wanted to make ‘cash from chaos’ and to reflect what he called the ‘blank generation’ — victims of soaring unemployment with nothing to hope for. He hired Matlock, a Saturday boy in the shop, as the bassist in the band.
Matlock quickly fell out with Lydon. A laid-back grammar school boy and graduate of St Martin’s School Of Art, he could not have been more different from the son of a lorry driver who lived in a squat, had been bullied at school, survived spinal meningitis and been left with a hunch and rotten teeth.
‘You just had to put up with a constant tirade of bulls**t from John,’ Matlock said. ‘Total lies and denial. He’d say something and two minutes later he’d completely deny he’d ever said it.’
McLaren reportedly ramped up the tension between the two, and by 1977 he had let Matlock go — but not before the bassist had contributed to 10 out of the 12 songs on the Pistols iconic album Never Mind The B******s, which came out after his departure.
The thinking was that Matlock had just been too posh for the group, and McLaren’s solution came in the form of his less than sophisticated replacement — Lydon’s old friend, the entirely unmusical heroin addict Sid Vicious, who he had been close to since his teens.
Perhaps it was McLaren’s attempt to keep the peace by balancing the Sex Pistols’ warring factions, making it a two versus two contest.
Whatever the case, it was less than successful. The Pistols fell apart after a gig at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on January 14, 1978.
After performing the last song, Lydon sneered at the audience: ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night.’
Their contribution to popular culture — an explosion of hatred, disgust and self-loathing so powerful that it changed the face of music forever — was over.
The feud between them, however, endured. Lydon later explained that he felt the enterprise had become a farce. He said: ‘I wasn’t going on with it any longer. Sid was completely out of his brains —just a waste of space. The whole thing was a joke at that point. Malcolm wouldn’t speak to me.
‘He would not discuss anything with me, but then he would turn around and tell Paul and Steve that the tension was all my fault because I wouldn’t agree to anything.’
Meanwhile, Jones said: ‘We just was all drifting in different directions. We wasn’t a band, like a unit. It was all over the place and America just made it worse, because we weren’t used to this big country and all the attention.’
Drugs played their part in the calamity. Vicious died of a heroin overdose in February 1979 while on bail for stabbing and killing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.
Jones, too, fell into heroin addiction, observing later: ‘The Sex Pistols were born to crash and burn. That that’s exactly what we did.’
Afterwards, both Lydon and Matlock tried furthering their careers. Lydon moved to Marina del Rey, near Los Angeles, with wife Nora, who now has Alzheimer’s and for whom he is a full-time carer, and formed his next band, Public Image Ltd (PiL).
Jones, meanwhile, moved to Benedict Canyon in LA and, after coming through drug addiction, worked as a spin class instructor and a radio DJ.
There were two disastrous reunions. In 1996, they reunited for their Filthy Lucre tour, netting a reported £1 million each for six months on the road around the world. They flew first class. By the end of it, they loathed each other once again.
There was an attempt to write new music for a possible Pistols album in 2003 which Jones called: ‘The worst thing we could have done.’ It followed a tour of Europe in 2008 which persuaded all concerned that the end of the line had been reached.
Jones said: ‘The last time I spoke to him [Lydon] was 2008 when we did a tour of Europe. I have no desire to speak to him and he has no desire to speak to me.
‘That’s totally fine. I wish him all the best. I’ve got no resentment toward him. It’s just our marriage went wrong and we got divorced. You don’t want to speak to your ex-wife, do you?’
It was in 2016 that Jones published his memoir, Lonely Boy. In it, he revealed that he was the first member of the band to have had a sexual relationship with Nora, who Lydon went on to marry.
Jones also said that Lydon was impossibly argumentative and had had singing lessons, arranged by McLaren. It is hardly a complimentary portrait.
In an interview earlier this year, Lydon was asked what the actor playing him in the TV series was basing his portrayal on. If he was working from the description in Jones’s book, Lydon replied, it is ‘not my character’.
He added: ‘I’m Johnny, you know, and when you interfere with my business you’re going to get the bitter end of my business as a result. It’s a disgrace.
‘I fronted this band. I’m the man that wrote the words. I supplied the image and direction.’
The current legal action has its roots in an agreement signed in 1996, which was sparked by Lydon selling his North American publishing rights to music label BMG.
The arguments are complicated, but under the agreement, deals to license music for use in adverts or TV shows, say, could be struck even if there was a ‘dissenting minority’ — in this case Lydon — who disapproves.
Lydon, however, says that this arrangement is not valid or enforceable — and points out that on many occasions in the past just one band member’s dissent has been enough to prevent their music from being used. For instance, Lydon objected to songs being played in an advert for Jaguar cars, and the deal never went ahead.
Another time, the estate of Vicious objected to music being used in a skateboarding advert. Matlock declined the use of the hit Anarchy In The UK in the TV show Hell’s Kitchen because he was angry with its presenter, chef Gordon Ramsay, who he claimed had a hand in closing down his favourite Thai restaurant in London’s Maida Vale.
Lydon himself had objected to the Sex Pistols’ music being used in The Crown, saying that the makers were seeking to create an unhistorical drama and he would not have any part of it.
The court has heard that the rest of the band had, however, given the go-ahead to Pistols music being used by Lydon in a documentary about his subsequent band, PiL.
A source said that they felt that it was deeply unfair for him now to prevent Jones from realising this solo project in return.
Lydon counters that the project was a ‘secret squirrel’ and that he had been excluded from it.
In his witness statement, Cook said Lydon ‘can be a difficult character and always likes to feel that he has control’.
He added: ‘Maybe Steve and I have been too nice to John over the years in trying to maintain good relations and that we should have been tougher.
‘I am unhappy that he would behave like this over an important personal project for Steve, particularly as we have always backed his personal projects.’
Jones gave evidence from California. He was asked by Mark Cunningham QC, representing Lydon about the book calling him a ‘total d**k’. The barrister asked Jones: ‘Your view of him is he is a total d**k, correct?’ Jones said: ‘Yes.’
Lydon’s intransigence means the band could not only lose out on money offered for licensing the song for the TV series, but also potentially a huge sum derived from a massive uptick in record sales for the band. The films Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman saw sales of Queen’s and Elton John’s music soar — in the former’s case by 500 per cent.
However for Lydon — who is about to embark on a tour with PiL and is a veteran of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! — it seems the money is unimportant on this ocasion.
He is concerned with his legacy, and alarmed at the idea of losing control to Cook and Jones and their managers, who are also executive producers of the TV show.
As his former muse Jordan Mooney said, it boils down to a question of identity. ‘Probably the rest of the band are more true to themselves. John has got a few issues about his importance in the world so him not being involved [in the TV show] is the best thing that can happen — he would just be a saboteur.’
She added: ‘John picks and chooses when he wants to be a punk. If it suits him one day, he will be Johnny Rotten and otherwise he is John Lydon.’