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40 Years Ago: Sid Vicious Replaces Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols

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In February of 1977, the Sex Pistols were a mess. The punk rockers were on the receiving end of reams of negative press from the British media. They had been dropped from their record deal with EMI. And there was a serious clash of personalities within the band.

Founding frontman John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon and founding bassist Glen Matlock weren’t getting along. They were “chalk and cheese,” as characterized by Matlock, who later claimed that the unpleasantness was at least partially due to a power play within the Pistols.

“The thing about John is that, he was the last to join,” Matlock told the Guardian in 2014. “In my time in the band he always thought it was us [versus] him. It wasn’t. It was Steve [Jones, guitar] and Paul [Cook, drums] who were a double act, then me and then John. I think he thought he’d get Sid [Vicious] in and it would be them against those two. It didn’t work out like that.”

Vicious, whose real name was John Ritchie, had been friends with Lydon for years and was a fixture on the British punk scene. Lydon supposedly gave the punk icon his famous moniker after the singer’s hamster, Sid, bit him, causing Ritchie to exclaim, “Sid is really vicious!”

Future Pretender Chrissie Hynde claimed that she had recommended to Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren that he try Vicious as the band’s frontman – but she called Sid by his real name and McLaren thought that she meant John Lydon. For his part, McLaren has said he would have installed Vicious as the Pistols’ lead singer if he has met him before Lydon, because he thought Sid had a quintessential punk look – spiky black hair, gangly frame, leather jacket and a permanent sneer.

Vicious might have had the right look, but he couldn’t do much with an instrument – though it didn’t deter Lydon from trying to get his ally in the band. According to Matlock, McLaren wasn’t against Vicious joining the Pistols, but didn’t necessarily want him to replace Glen on bass. Matlock claims that the manager met with him secretly and implored him to fight for his role in the group. But the band’s bassist, and primary songwriter, wasn’t sure it was worth the battle. He certainly wasn’t enjoying the media circus.

“There wasn’t any preparation for it. Steve Jones reckons that’s why I left,” Matlock said. “There was too much too soon. When I was in the band it was akin to the early Who and when Sid replaced me it was more a media exercise.”

Talk of replacement began on Feb. 13, 1977, when Vicious claimed in a radio interview that he had auditioned for a part in the Pistols. Disenfranchised by everything that was going on, Matlock made up his mind to leave the group – telling McLaren, Jones and Cook in person about his decision later in the month.

Although Glen thought the parting was amicable, he was surprised by what he learned via the press a day later. In a bid for more publicity, McLaren sent a telegram to music magazine NME about how Matlock had been fired from the band.

“Glen was thrown out of the Sex Pistols I am told because he went on too long about Paul McCartney,” McLaren wrote in the telegram, as published on Feb. 28. “Sid Vicious their best friend and always a member of the group but unheard as yet was enlisted.”

Matlock said that, after McLaren realized Sid couldn’t play, the manager asked him to return. But Glen had already begun forming a new band, the Rich Kids. As the Pistols entered the studio to record their debut album, Vicious’s bass playing was ruled inadequate by producer Chris Thomas. When another bid to pay Matlock to play on the album failed, guitarist Jones filled in. Regardless, nearly all of the songs on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols were at least co-written by Matlock.

Watch the Sex Pistols Play “Anarchy in the U.K.”

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“Glen Matlock was the most musical of the Pistols, the hub of the band,” wrote McLaren biographer Ian Macleay. “After he left, the Pistols only wrote four more songs – none of them of any merit.”

In trading Sid for Glen, the Pistols lost a great deal of musical talent. On the other hand, putting Sid in the spotlight created a pop culture icon – a figure that still remains the face of British punk, despite having little to do with the music.

Years later, Lydon has said he regretted encouraging Sid Vicious to join the group. That’s not because of the Pistols’ musical legacy, but due to the tragic circumstances that would unspool on the way to Sid’s death from a drug overdose two years later.

“Poor Sid. Once you start on that heroin trail of self-pity, it’s gone,” Lydon told the Independent in 2009.  “I’m sorry, God, for the day I brought Sid into the band. He felt so isolated, poor old Sid, because he wasn’t the sharpest knife on the block. The best aspect of his character, which was his humor, just vanished the day he joined the Pistols.”

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