Monday, 6 September 2010

The king is gone but he's not forgotten

"The king is gone but he's not forgotten
This is the story of a Johnny Rotten" Neil Young, "Hey Hey, My My"
 It's not uncommon for me to wake up on the morning with a snatch of a song stuck in my head.  Sometimes it's a song I've not heard in years, most of the time I have no idea why that particular song or song lyric should be all I remember from a dream.

One day this week, I woke up with a line from Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My" -- a song which apparently debates whether it is better to burn out or to fade away.  One thing has always bothered me about the song, and that's the line's quoted above -- "the king is gone, but he's not forgotten/this is the story of a Johnny Rotten".  I haven't ever read an analysis of the song, so I can't be sure of all the references in it -- but it's always bothered me, because Johnny Rotten isn't dead.  Not literally, anyway.  Sid Vicious is dead, and it's Sid Vicious who is considered by many (many who aren't really that familiar with punk) to represent the movement -- I have always felt a nagging that Neil Young was confusing Johnny Rotten with Sid Vicious.

I said that Johnny Rotten wasn't "literally" dead.  What I mean is that John Lydon is alive and well, and appearing on our television screens advertising Country Life butter -- but at the same time, because of this and the passing of the years, his persona as Johnny Rotten is dead.

In the Sex Pistols, back in the 1970s, he was a crazy eyed kid who couldn't sing in tune and had more in common with Shakespeare's Richard III as played by Laurence Olivier than he did with any king of rock and roll.

Punk was a revolution.  It was the downtrodden and the pissed off giving the ruling classes, the middle classes, two fingers up.  It was about taking back control -- music no longer had to be prog-rock opuses, instead punk told people that anyone could have a go. And they did.  Those who didn't form bands made fanzines with sticky tape and paper, that was as rough-and-ready as the music it presented.

Punk as a movement caused more moral outrage and paranoia than any music before or since -- it was considered a bigger threat to our way of life than Russian Communism.

 The Sex Pistols made only one album.  Is that what Neil Young meant when he said it's better to burn out than to fade away?  Glen Matlock was replaced by Sid Vicious, just for the image, and Sid was in his own way responsible for making the safety pins and torn clothing of the impoverished working classes a punk "uniform".  Sid never "burned out" because he was never burning in the first place.

So what of Johnny Rotten?  He formed "Public Image Limited", who weren't punk at all, and dropped the Rotten moniker.

These days, John Lydon is a property millionaire, milking Sex Pistls and PIL reuinions for all they're worth.  He lives in a mansion in Los Angeles.  And while it seems he still has all the anger and bitterness of his youth, speaking out against the middle classes ands private schools and international politics, it's hard to take "Johnny Rotten" seriously these days -- he's long gone.  His opinions on the Royal Family matter less to me than someone who actually still lives here.

What really burns is that Johnny Rotten didn't even burn out -- he wasn't a candle that burned twice as brightly for half as long.  While it could be said that he should be respected for forming PIL, something completely different to the Sex Pistols and respecting his artistic integrity instead of playing up to the punk rock cliche, he has lost any kind of credibility in the years that followed.

That is the story of a Johnny Rotten, gone but not forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. 'The king is gone but not forgotten' is a reference to Elvis, the king of rock'n'roll who died a year earlier.

    The lyric is 'is this the story of the johnny rotten?', with the song being about rock and roll's demise into the black at the hands of the punk movement.

    Neil has confirmed the Elvis line in interviews.