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Glen Matlock: The unluckiest man in punk?

Glen Matlock is a brilliant musician. There can be no doubt about it. As the bassist of the British punk band the Sex Pistols, Matlock contributed to one of the most iconic and influential albums ever released. After his departure from Britain’s premier punk rabble, he played in short-lived new wave supergroup Rich Kids and even featured on Iggy Pop’s hard-rocking 1980 album, Soldier.

In short, Matlock has had many musical exploits since his days in the Pistols; however, his stint as the band’s original bassist has been the defining episode of his career.

Born in London, 1956, Matlock attended the city’s prestigious Saint Martin’s School of Art, now known as Central Saint Martin’s, until 1974. Around this time, the British chapter of the punk scene was starting to formulate. It was largely centred around Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s clothing boutique, SEX, on the King’s Road in west London. It was here that Matlock would meet future Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook. At this point, Jones and Cook had already been playing in a band called The Strand since 1972. However, due to The Strand’s inner turmoil, after this meeting with Matlock in early 1974, the duo recruited him as bassist. 

Fast forward to fall 1975, the band would morph into the Sex Pistols. This came after McLaren had briefly decamped to New York in November 1974 and managed the iconic proto-punk troupe, the New York Dolls. After his sojourn to New York, McLaren returned to London in May 1975 and was invigorated and inspired in equal parts by the punk scene that was unfurling in Lower Manhattan.

The radical style of artists such as the Ramones, Richard Hell and Television led to him taking a keen interest in The Strand and, upon his return, he put a concerted effort into managing them. This role was something that he had actually assumed before his transatlantic departure but to a rather lax extent. Given his well-known character as somewhat of a “shyster”, McLaren saw an opportunity that he was not about to miss.

It was in August 1975 that the band would meet a 19-year-old John Lydon on the King’s Road. Looking for a vocalist without long hair, The Strand spotted Lydon wearing an eye-catching Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words ‘I Hate’ handwritten above the band’s name and holes scratched through the eyes. This chance encounter would be the true inception of the Sex Pistols.

Remembering the attitude of the punks at the time, Lydon later recalled: “Early ’70s Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down, there was trash on the streets, total unemployment—just about everybody was on strike. Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point-blank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks…then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all. Out of that came pretentious moi and the Sex Pistols and then a whole bunch of copycat wankers after us.”

Glen Matlock with The Sex Pistols, 1977. (Credit: Alamy)

Before too long, the band were making waves across the British live scene, and whilst on the road, they would go on to influence everybody from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Joy Division. They would cause a stir amongst the older generation and gain support from the nihilistic youth at the same time. Not since ‘Beatlemania’ had Britain seen such a game-changing cultural phenomenon.

Two heady years would pass, and in February 1977, Matlock would be thrown out of the band. McLaren sent a telegraph to the NME claiming that he was “thrown out…because he went on too long about Paul McCartney….The Beatles was too much.” On the other hand, Matlock claimed he left the Pistols via “mutual agreement” because he was “sick of all the bullshit”. He was replaced by the iconic head-case Sid Vicious, and we all know how that ended up. Given the band members’ opaque memories and contrasting retrospective accounts, we will likely never know the genuine reasons for the departure.

Looking back, Jones explained his thoughts on the definitive event, stating: “He was a good writer but he didn’t look like a Sex Pistol and he was always washing his feet. His mum didn’t like the songs.” Matlock has also claimed that he found it increasingly hard to deal with Rotten’s inflated ego “once he’d had his name in the papers”. Latterly, Lydon argued that the single ‘God Save the Queen’, and its sarcastic take on the British monarchy was “the final straw”. The Pistols frontman claimed that Matlock “couldn’t handle those kinds of lyrics. He said it declared us fascists.”

Regardless, Matlock has since been regarded as the unluckiest man in punk, as his departure came before the band released their debut and only studio album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols in October that year. The story goes that he never got to enjoy the fruits of his labour and that it was Vicious who basked in his glory. To make this clear, Matlock is credited as co-writer on ten of the 12 songs appearing on the album. 

One would argue on the contrary that Matlock is perhaps the luckiest man in punk. He added a great deal to the Sex Pistols and to the majority of their work and managed to jump off the ship before it burst into catastrophic flames. His departure wouldn’t even mark the end of his work with the Pistols, as after he would return in contracted or “session” capacity to help them write new material. Without his input, the album wouldn’t have been the same.

Reflecting on this, Jones has expressed regret at Matlock’s departure: “We were what we were. Who cares if he washed his feet? That was him. I’m sure I had things that bugged him”. Jones has also said that the Pistols would have most likely have carried on if he’d have stayed due to his songwriting capabilities. After all, famously, Sid Vicious wasn’t much of a musician or, shall we say, as cerebral as Matlock. 

Matlock would have the last laugh, though. He has played with the Pistols at every one of their reunions, including the iconic 1996 ‘Filthy Lucre’ reunion tour. After the Pistols, he also went on to play on The Damned’s 1994 album Not of This Earth and has featured in supergroups boasting the likes of Clem Burke, Mick Jones and Earl Slick. In 2010, he even leant his bass to the glitzy reunion of British rock icons, Faces. 

It is wickedly ironic that Matlock is the only member of the Sex Pistols to carry on actively as a musician, and actively is an understatement, try prolific. Now, who said unluckiest?

Listen to Matlock talk about his time in Sex Pistols, below.

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