Glen Matlock in interview

One of the most memorable of the Sex Pistols’ songs was Pretty Vacant, given a different treatment (for six saxophones and techno) by Thorne on his Sprawl CD. Glen Matlock wrote most of it, and he is still alive and kicking with a new CD. We interviewed him at his home in London on June 29 2000: a lively and frank interchange.

Glen Matlock interviewed by Mike Thorne

Streaming audio of Glen's answers can be heard by clicking on the player after each question. For help in playing music, see our Playing Audio page in the Big Help Desk.

Glen Matlock / Sex Pistols external links:
To Glen Matlock's personal website
To Sex-Pistols.net
To The Filth and the Fury


Does it ever get wearing being an ex-Pistol?
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Yeah, very much so. It was so long ago. I mean it’s something one ought to be proud of, and I am, but it also is a bit of a millstone. You know when you want to try to get with the new stuff, you’re always remembered for old stuff. Therefore, it’s a mixed blessing, really. It’s a double-edged sword.


But it opened a lot of doors and also defined a lot of people in the way that they thought, including you and me for that matter.

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Did it? I don’t know that it did, really. I don’t think it changed anything ultimately. I think it changed the kind of trousers people wear, and changed their kind of haircuts, but I don’t think it changed that much in the music business. I think it’s straighter now than it ever was to me, in England, now with all these Boy Bands and Steps and people like that. It’s almost like Larry Parnes in the Fifties. Not that I remember that, but it’s how I assume that to be like. It’s the days of Tin Pan Alley-all gloss and sheen and no content. So, could you say we were a Year zero approach and everything would change after that? Well, yes and no. I think the thing we did was provide a benchmark for people to kind of measure up to, and, maybe we can talk about this a bit later on, but I think that was one of the important things when we did the Filthy Lucre Tour in ’96. You know you provide a yardstick what people can aspire to and just reiterate it then. That was my interest in doing that tour.

You’re talking about the music business as if it’s synonymous with music.

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In many people’s minds it is. I don’t think it is. No matter what was going on in the music business, music - popular music - is always peppered with somebody sticking their neck out somewhere along the line be it Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, be it Iggy Pop, be it Jacques Brel, Charles Trenier, somebody like that. You know or some out there kind of jazzes. Yeah and long may that continue? The drag is I don’t see too much of that going on now, but, perhaps, I am getting a bit old myself, really. I don’t think I am ' cause everybody keeps saying the- same thing repeatedly. You know there’s always something somewhat slightly interesting, but there’s nothing earth shattering. Nevertheless, how easy is it to be earth shattering now when everything is done? Then, I rather feel a little bit sorry for the kids, really.

Couldn’t you have asked the same question in 1975 just when everything got very bland?

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Well, I think when not a lot is going on is actually a good time as opposed to a bad time, because that is when something does tend to come through, but what it is I don’t really know. I mean you can’t really predict it. You may not define what is predictable now and I'm at loggerheads a little bit more now. But, I have more and more dance records, and it’s just the same old beat over and over and over again, and I found it all quite exciting when it first came out. I mean I don’t know what you want to classify as the very beginnings of the dance movement, but the electro thing, I would say, is people like Kraftwerk and then moving on a bit Grandmaster Flash and stuff like that. To me, that was far more groundbreaking than Fatboy Slim or the Chemical Brothers, who have their movements, but don’t really back it up with anything to say. I think the whole dance movement is a bit of a cop out in a way.

Do you think that’s because it was more related, in the old days, innovations connected to song or have songs seemed to slip out of the equation?

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Yeah. I think one of the fundamental things with a song is that you’re singing and when you’re singing you’re singing words and you have to back it up with something to say. These days, it’s all about the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everybody says we're cutting edge and we're, you know, leftfield, which you know is a name of one of the bands but they ain't really, it’s all squeaks and bubbles, you know. In addition, those squeaks and bubbles appear to me that somebody else has made and they’re just sampling and using. Does that make me reactionary? I don’t think so.

Right. Well, at the end of the Pistols, that was way after you’d left, it also became very navel gazing; it became very self-referential and just almost striking a pose. It was just going through motions...

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I think they became a bit lost, really. I mean, to me, the whole Pistol thing was like a magnesium strip. It just went (explosive sound) you know and then it was all gone and you were left with a detritus and the detritus was Steve and Paul doing that stupid Cosh the Driver thing which was pathetic. That summed up to me that they really didn’t have much of a clue: Steve and Paul, they made a good sound, but artistically they weren’t really pushing anything out. In a band there's chiefs and Indians.

Well, for me, all the music in the Sex Pistols and what constitutes the music is arguable anyway really was defined before you left. Do you think that it would have continued to grow? Or do you think it was over for all of you by then?

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Que sera, sera. Yeah. We could have made more records, but, so what. Maybe it’s just as well we didn’t. If you’re talking in terms of a career, it was a very bad career move. It all fell -apart, but you want to achieve in life.

Would you go on another Pistols revival tour?

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Would I? I would never say never again. I’ll tell you the reason why. Most bands who have some kind of success get to play their songs for twenty odd years until they have played the stuffing out of them and they become sort of chicken in the basket versions. We’ve never, ever done that. I mean, how many gigs did we do with the Pistols altogether first time around? Well, with me in the band, and it was maybe seventy and then with Sid in the band and it was maybe another seventy. I don’t even think they did that, then we did Filthy Lucre Tour, and we played a hundred gigs. That’s a drop in the ocean and, you know those songs still exist there in a kind of ether. They’re fresh, and, if we did it again, they would still be fresh. The songs are. It's down to the size of Johnny Rotten's waistline it’s the drawback on that really. So, to actually play those songs with verve and vigor and aplomb and we mean it, man. I don’t think it’s a problem at all.

Well there’s something timeless about the songs, but you’ve moved on to really focus on songwriting. Do you see yourself more as a writer or as a performer or do you think the two are inextricable?

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I think they are inextricable, really. The drag with my stuff is I tend to write stuff with my particular warped kind of arrowed Englishness, and it’s hard to get people to cover that, although some people have done stuff. I do see myself, as more of a writer and playing live is a vehicle to get your stuff out. However, I should think that’s no different from many other people.

Do you think it is easier or harder to write for yourself?

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It’s inevitable. I think it’s harder to write for other people. But, then it’s kind of funny, you know, I see writing songs and I see playing a bass is been a bit like being a plumber. You do a trade with a twist. There's a certain artisanship involved in it, which is divorced from the artistic side of what you actually come up with. That’s the songwriting skill, but then if you get into a room with people and it's all happening what you put into it is the bass part is part of the whole, as well. You know there are all sorts of strands and leads intertwining and moving around. Many hand movements going on here you know to try to explain why, a lack of being able to explain yourself properly.

You talk about writing songs as though it is an old cliché. Pop songs are often in the same structure, anyway, but somehow it manages to stay fresh.

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Well, I don’t know. That’s for me to attempt and other people to kind of pass comment on. There's a struggle to write, if you don’t have anything to say anymore. Sometimes, there’s no point in doing it, but people do it because they don’t. They are so caught up in it they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and can’t see the wood for the trees. They don’t realize they’re not fresh, exciting or vital anymore. I don’t fall into that trap.

Well, there are a lot of Y2K Punks who are just striking a pose and imitating the attitude that was defined a whole generation ago, but are there people in that area that you think are fresh and new?

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I read some interview with some bloke today who was in, -can’t remember the name of the band, but he did say something quite interesting. It was, if you write a song and it’s a cool song and then you go on stage wearing a pair of leather trousers and perform your cool song, that’s cool. But, if you just get a pair of leather trousers and try to come up with a song that goes with the leather trousers, then it’s not cool. I thought well, he’s kind of a new bloke and that’s kind of an interesting way of looking. There’s no difference from what I felt. I can see the value of putting on a show, and I think that music is an entertainment. Rock music is an entertainment and a spectacle. There's no point in going to see a shoe-gazing band. I went to see Oasis a few years back and it was so damn boring I’ve never gone see them again. Except I did actually. We all saw them in New York, and it was the same. I have seen them twice; you might have stayed at home and listened to the record. What is good about that band is the singer, Liam. You do actually see him standing there singing his heart out on the two nights I’d seen him, and that was cool, but the rest of the guys are so boring.

What got you going? How did you actually start in music?

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The big influence on me was the dawn of pirate radio and all the cool bands like the Who, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. Not so much the Stones and the Small Faces but within the Small Faces was a guy called Ronnie Lane who, if I had a hero of any kind, it would be him. I don’t know why. He was part of the Mod scene, but he seemed so different and there was an attitude that was kind of warm and knowing but also hip at the same time, and that got me interested in music. Those were my major influences. Later the Small Faces split and he became involved with the Faces. Rod Stewart and Ron Wood were in the band and it became a whole different thing. I won’t mention now, I think you know who I'm talking about. In the face of all that, the Faces were really sticking out like a sore thumb, and when I met Steve and Paul that was our common ground. Therefore, the whole thing to that is that I still think music should be a laugh somehow, somewhere along the line. The whole Pistols thing, even John says, you’ve got to realize it was pantomime. Not that we didn’t mean it, but we did understand the ludicrousness of the situation.

There’s a whole, the cliché of the Rock ‘n Roll spirit, it did mean something once upon a time. Do you think the sum pervasive quality, some attitude which just keeps surfacing in different guises, surfacing in The Stones or in The Faces or in The Pistols or in people now, recently. Are there any examples you can think of?

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I think, a band I've just got hip to a little bit, The Bloodhound Gang. Do you know them? They are a rock band from the States. I don’t know that much about them, but their lyrics are outrageous. There’s this one called The Ballad of Chasey or something or other. It’s so funny, and the video is so funny. I think that’s kind of funny and it’s real kind of sub-South Park kind of American humor that’s really quite cynical, but it’s funny at the same time. So, yeah, I suppose they’ve got it. I mean there are bands but it’s always down to you do either have it or you haven’t it's like a loser thing. You can’t really, you can talk about it until the cows come home, but you can’t really define it. It’s not something you can buy at the music shop. Now, there’s an idea. Owning the markets.

It’s all to do with winding people up, isn’t it? Moreover, it’s winding people up in an abstract way that in the Seventies you’d wear a swastika or just do some outrageous thing, but it was all a general outrageousness. Where do you think the limit is? Where do you think is the edge that should be pushed?

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I don’t think you can say it is this or that. I think it ‘s down to your personal experience. I don’t know. I did a gig with Sid after the Sex Pistols. We had this thing called The Vicious White Kids which seemed like a good idea at the time and yeah it was quite a good gig we did. We were talking about that song Belsen Was A Gas which Sid really didn’t want to do. I said, "Well, all right we won’t do it or we will do it, well what's behind that song" and he said,"Well , I was reading this thing in the book and I was trying to be, whatcha ya call it, uh, ironic, but it just didn’t come across." So, what I am saying is it’s a very sticky wicket. You know with that kind of stuff. Where does that go? I don’t know.

I was about to say a lot of pop music,a lot of the best pop music, is very subversive, and you mentioned ironic. So, it says one thing and implies another, and maybe the parents don’t get it.

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Yeah, it’s true, and many people don’t get it sometimes, as well. I know irony gets lost on the press, and I know irony might be wrong. What’s that program that came out, Wayne's World. I found it quite interesting the way they say something and then they have to say "not" in the end just to explain that they’re being ironic which is maybe an American thing. That’s the difference between the States and England, somehow. With everybody in LA, you say something not quite dryly and over here people would be chortling. Over there they go, ‘oh, right well I can't think of an explanation."

So it seems there’s not much room to maneuver in the pop song now - when you’re writing pop songs.

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It’s funny. I’ve just been reading is it Adam Clayton’s biography of Jacques Brel and in it he says, "Why do I do this?" Jacques Brel says this. It’s like you’re trying to write a song and in one particular verse you have to encompass all these ideas and then you have four lines to get through-you know four lines in a verse-to get through these things. He says every syllable of every song has to have a particular note above it. You know how can anybody expect anybody-why do I do this? Well, why do I try and do it? Because it’s a challenge, I suppose, and music does express things you can’t really. Some people have a gift for painting. Some people have a gift for writing. Some people have a gift for composing. Some people have a gift for lyrics. Hopefully, mine is, you know, for composing songs which is a little bit about-you know the whole idea of a song is you try to get a mood across and evoke something you can’t necessarily explain in any other way. You know it doesn’t always have to be, let’s abolish the monarchy or let’s all drive on the right-hand side of the road than the left. You know it can be anything.

One of your classic songs for me is Pretty Vacant, as you know. What was the genesis of that?

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Well, it was a bit of a misunderstanding, really. I mean there was definitely a mood going on within the Pistols’ camp. There was the very beginning of bubblings going on in London at the time, and there was a lot of social unrest. There was this thing called the three-day week going on. There were power cuts; there were rats all in the streets--I mean the animal ones--and piles of rubbish. There was people getting buried at sea because the gravediggers were on strike--I mean not loads of them but I’m sure a few do. There was this whole kind of weird thing going on, and I was looking for a way to kind of sum up what the Sex Pistols were about. I got wind of what was going on in the States and I heard this song called Blank Generation by Richard Hell and that heavily influenced me. I thought well, that’s quite a good idea. I don’t want to nick his idea, but it kind of set me off on a tract of thought and it just comes to me this vacant mood--this empty feeling inside but then maybe that’s not such a bad way to feel when you’re trying to get on with something. It’s like playing in and out of the cupboards, you know. We don’t care. That’s where it came from, really, but it was still the fact that it was catchy; that’s what played a big part in it. But, I think what was important about that particular song was, before Anarchy In The UK was written, before God Save the Queen was written. It was at our first or second gig, and it was like a manifesto for the Pistols. You know I think John superseded that because his lyrics are far more cotton and ascetic and acerbic than mine, but that paved the way.

It got stuck in a loop though because there’s quite a lot of luminaries from that period adopted that attitude, and they continued to be acerbic and continued to seemly recycle the same ideas. Does that strike you?

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Yes, I agree with that. They say in the book world there’s like seven different kinds of stories, and they just keep going round in circles, and the same thing can be said over in different ways in different slots. I suppose that’s the same with songs, but I do think there’s only so many ideas in the world and, as time goes by and there’s more media and more things have been done and there’s more history, it’s harder to come up with something new, but then it’s back to, like, some people really do have something to say. You know, there’s always the doers. There’s the winners and the also-runs, you know. So, it’s not surprising really. There’s strength in having a bandwagon especially if you’re the leaders of it cause it bolsters your position. So, you shouldn’t knock it too hard.



Well, John, for example, gets a bit, I mean for me, he gets very shrill in his commentary, in his Matlock commentary. Does that ever get to you?
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Yeah, it does really. I take it for granted a bit now, it was a long time ago. You know, when he goes on about demanding respect from people but he doesn't give any respect back. I think he's in quite a privileged position and he should just think it through how he got there. That's it really, that's all I have to say about that.

The one thing that continues for you, though, is the instrumental line-up you work with. Do you think you might ever move outside the beat-combo lineup?

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Well, I do when I’m working at home. It’s all computers and, you know, maybe not samples, but samples and rather than sound. I tend to use them as a tool for writing a song. I mean what you can do these days is you used to record something down in the studio, and about a week later it would dawn on you that the middle eight should have come after the second chorus and after the third one. In addition, it was a bit late by the time you’d had all the expense of doing it. Nevertheless, now you can sit over there and just chop it around on the computer and, at least, get to the next stage before then. But, I do actually like playing with a band because there’s an immediacy there that I find I don’t get perhaps because I'm slow and quack handed with programming. I have all digital stuff or all analog stuff for the stuff that I do so I ended up replacing a lot of the stuff, but maybe that’s just the studio I used or the way I go about things. I’m not anti anything.

Do you find the computer very useful for songwriting?

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Yeah. It’s a good tool and maybe, as time goes by, perhaps, I’ll just finally get myself a better, some outboard sounds, what you call midi-units or what have you, and it’ll all click and stuff. You know your programming gets a bit better. But then I always find when playing with people, when you’re in a room with somebody, you just do something and then somebody does something -and then its (snaps fingers) down on the tape straight away but then there’s the luxury of good studios all the time. That’s the financial ... thing, I think that’s the word I am looking for.

In addition, it used to be relatively easy, in the pre-computer days, when you’re playing just because you would know when there was an exciting performance. It was something that everybody just seemed to feel in the water. Do you think there’s a danger of losing that now? Those things can be so deliberate and so carefully wrought?

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I think all the bands that I loved, I loved them because of the way they played together. They weren’t all-some were good musicians and some weren’t and some were just okay and somewhat good enough. The way they all worked together gave that band the sound. To me, many records I hear now sound pretty much the same. Sounds formulaic because you know a real kind of attention to detail and a lot of the spirit of the actual playing doesn’t come across anymore. I mean all of us want Poor Little Richard by the Faces and it’s so sloppy. It just won’t be released today, but that’s what’s good about it. You know the Sensational Alex Harvey Band; the playing is so quirky, Zal Clemenson's guitar is like, "Wow, man, you know. I don’t think you rather get that today. People don’t tend to play all the way through a song without stopping, and say that’s great, you know, that’s the tape, man. You just go back and do this bit. You know I have been guilty of that, as well. It don’t necessarily make for music. To me music is communication. You know, it’s communication between-its picking up a guitar, or a saxophone or a drum in a particular way that somebody’s listening to gets off on in a room live, that's why I like playing live and you get a feedback on it. When it is cut down into little bars and stuff, you might make great sounding records, but it's not the spirit of what it’s all about in my book.



You think the controls we’ve got now is losing us in the details, and we’re missing the big strokes.
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Yeah, I think so. I think when we were talking earlier on about correct sounding records. I think you lose the spirit of it. To me the sound of Jailhouse Rock is amazing. I think we have a different kind of sound now, but I don’t think it’s better. I don’t think so.

With your new CD, did you have a struggle against this sea of getting buried in details because you recorded it partly as a layered production.

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Well, that was just the way it was. You know it was a little studio we couldn't get too many people in there. So that was a bit of a constriction, as well I’m not precious about it. Looking back I would have, maybe, think a couple of tracks I would have gone in a bigger studio and actually retained it a bit more. Then we played it live. To me the end result is much the same. It’s down to your budget.

Now that you’ve finished the CD and it’s ready to go you’re taking it on the road. How does the music change when you start playing it?

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I think that’s it really. I don’t think there’s any, for my particular kind of stuff. I don’t think it is any cleverer than that. I like simple music. I think that as we go on a little bit the one thing that I’ve tried to keep is the simplicity and directness of my music. I think that’s important and I think that’s the legacy of the punk thing. That was one of the reasons why the whole punk thing came through because people were fed up with all the intricacies of horrible bands. Having said that, I've seen him on the television saying "I'm Rick Wakeman" and he seemed to be a right laugh. I think one of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard in music is that he wanted to do the Six Wives of King Henry VIII in Wembley Empire Pool. And, they said well, you can book the venue but there’s only a problem, there’s a big problem with that is that Empire Pool in Wembley it was at the end of the Christmas season or something and it’s still set up with an ice skating rink. The viewers out there don’t know Wembley and ice skating, and they have Pantomimes on Ice and stuff, and he said, "That’s all right; we’ll do it on ice!" I think that’s great. It is so funny, you know. There you go.

Well, that’s Hollywood. Do the show right here.

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Yeah, but on ice, the skates on right now. I don’t know perhaps I'm just stupid but I think that's funny. He told his other funny stories on the Tele. Can we just chat generally? He said he used to manage or he was the director of Brentford Football Team and somebody asked him about the pressures of stardom and being quite well known and this was a few years ago; he was, I suppose. He said so I’m driving home from this Brentford game when we lost and he said I was pulled over by the cops, and they breathalized me, and I was arrested. They put me in this squad car, and they’re driving along and these blinking Kirin kicked in and he said I was taken short and I had to stop. He said to the cop I’ve got to stop otherwise there’s going to be a real big accident here. I’ve got to stop. So the guy asks him "What happened" Well we were out Brentford way, we stopped, and we were driving past these semi-detached houses. He said the copper went and knocked on a door and a woman came out and he said I am commandeering your toilet for the prisoner. He said he went in there and he had handcuffs on. So, he is standing there with these kind of long ankles and this little bit of paper comes through the crack in the door and says can I have your autograph.

It puts it in perspective. So, do you think everybody takes it a bit too seriously now?

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I don't know if they do. I’m sure some people have a laugh and some people don’t. You can’t be party to what goes on in every musician’s mind anyway, I think some things are quite po faced and some things aren’t. Bloodhound Gang seems to be having a laugh.

So you don’t think there’s too much weight of history felt by anybody just because of all this music that’s floating around?

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Well, I think if you are a young band and you’re trying to start off for the first time, you do what you do and you kind of pick and chose from it and you get influenced a little bit or not. I think the hard thing is to try and come out with something new as a band and everybody goes oh, oh, we’ve heard that before. You know, I don't get where you're saying that. Let’s be benevolent.

However, you must have felt that same way from the mid-Seventies onwards.

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Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that somebody like, you know, going back a bit, John Entwistle, might see the Sex Pistols come out and say we’ve heard all that before. It doesn’t mean somebody like, you know, one of those Fifties, Little Richard, The Beatles come out you know, we’ve heard all that before. You know it’s kind of things only change a little bit. There’s never really a complete change. Everything is influenced by what's come before. You can’t walk down the street without hearing some music these days, and that’s a good thing. It always sinks into your sub-conscious, and your mind is kind of a big stew. In it, there’s lumps of Reggae and there’s a piece of Soul, you know, and there’s a butter bean of Pop and there’s a carrot of Glam Rock, and it’s all floating around. And, you know, when you have a stew, you pick out the bits that you like, first and then you rather eat the rest to fill you up.

Glen Matlock / Sex Pistols external links:
To Glen Matlock's personal website
To Sex-Pistols.net
To The Filth and the Fury