If we were sitting in an early 1990s teen sitcom in a high school lesson all about the history of British music and I was tasked with providing a report on Sex Pistols’ bassist, and extremism incarnate, Sid Vicious, the said report would begin with a definition of two words.
Firstly, ‘Punk’—an admirer or player of punk rock, typically characterised by coloured spiked hair and clothing decorated with safety pins or zips. The second word would have to be ‘Psychopath’—a person suffering from a chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behaviour. We’re looking back at the abhorrent, unfortunate and unsettling life of John Simon Ritchie, also known as the eternal punk; Sid Vicious.
John Simon Ritchie was born in the South London borough of Lewisham to John and Anne Ritchie on May 10th, 1957. His mother Anne found herself a career in the RAF following a disappointing time in school, while his father, John, was a guardsman at Buckingham Palace and a semi-professional jazz trombone player. Shortly after the arrival of their new baby, Anne took John Jr. to settle down in Ibiza where they would be supported and eventually joined on the island by John Snr.—this was not to be the case.
When the cheques that Anne had been hoping to arrive failed to reach their Balearic doormat, Anne feared that John Snr. would not be joining the family. She was sadly correct in her assumption and quickly moved her small family to Kent where she re-married to Chris Beverley. A move which young John would acknowledge as he kept his father’s forename and honoured his new step-father by adopting his surname to become John Beverley.
One of the larger moments of Ritchie’s life occurred when Christopher Beverley died six months later from cancer and, by 1968, Ritchie and his mother were living in a rented flat in Tunbridge Wells. It was there where Ritchie attended Sandown Court School. In 1971, mother and son moved to Hackney in east London. He also spent some time living in Clevedon, Somerset.
The weight of a troubling upbringing was already weighing on Ritchie. Suicidal tendencies had been a part of his life for some time. When the bassist was attending Kingsway College for difficult and expelled kids, Ritchie was singled out by a counsellor after mentioning suicide during one of their brief conversations. The counsellor asked Ritchie, to bring a friend to the session and John Wardle (AKA Jah Wobble) went for a laugh, as high school kids tend to do.
When the counsellor told him that Ritchie had planned to kill himself, Wardle joked back that he “might as well end it all”. Instead of laughing along with his pal, Ritchie nodded his head with a dark solemnity that frightened Wardle to his very core. The darker side of Sid had begun to rear its ugly head. In fact, he would only really find the light in his life when he met one John Lydon in 1973.
Rolling around with this clique it was always likely Vicious was bound to end up in a band. As well as enjoying some busking sessions with Lydon, singing Alice Cooper songs until people paid them to shut up, Vicious was also close to becoming a part of some huge punk pioneers. As well as sharing the stage with Siouxsie Sioux for her iconic 100 club debut, Vicious was also very nearly the lead singer of The Damned but the group picked Dave Vanian after Vicious refused to turn up to the audition. It started a grudge that Vicious would never forget.
Though Vanian had very little to do with picking himself as the lead singer of the band, Vicious held him in contempt forevermore. In fact, during the legendary 100 club punk show, an inebriated Vicious aimed a glass at Vanian’s head and launched it from the crowd. Missing Vanian, it shattered on a pillar at the back of the stage and partially blinded a girl. It saw Vicious arrested and sent to prison. It wouldn’t be the final time he would see the inside of a cell.
It didn’t stop his musical career from accelerating, though. In fact, in the early days of punk, when it was positively fizzing with creative energy and malicious intent, acts like Vicious’ pint-throwing, were not only welcomed but championed. They symbolised an unoppressed person willing to seek retribution and act defiantly however they saw fit. It was the exact kind of thing Malcolm McLaren was looking for.
Glen Matlock was, without doubt, the only person with real musical chops in the Sex Pistols. The architect of most of their songs and the only performer in the group who could stand alongside other contemporary rock bands. Put simply, he was just about the only one who could properly play. For McLaren, that was far too square. He fired Matlock from the band and inserted Sid Vicious, the new face of punk. The Sex Pistols manager once said: “If Johnny Rotten is the voice of punk, then Vicious is the attitude.” He would join the band in February 1977 and get his first chance on stage at The Screen on the Green in April 1977.
Here was one seriously large problem for the band—Sid couldn’t play. We don’t mean he wasn’t a John Entwistle on the bass or that he didn’t match up to Matlock, I mean he literally couldn’t play a note on the instrument. According to Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones, Vicious is only recorded on one Sex Pistols song, ‘Bodies,’ and even then “he’s out of tune”, forcing Jones to overdub with his own playing. What’s perhaps worse is that he never bothered to learn, despite having both Jones and Motorhead legend Lemmy try to teach him.
The facts were soon there for everybody to see, aside from being extremely gifted in the art of sneering, Sid Vicious really wasn’t that talented. What’s more, his darker side had moved on from self-mutilation and was beginning to show itself as violent outbursts.
Nick Kent, a well-known annoyance of the punk world, felt Vicious’ wrath one night at the 100 Club. Kent was a reporter for NME and had even rehearsed with the Pistols before the group went with Lydon as a frontman. A fact that may have contributed to Kent’s bashing of Lydon in the music weekly. Kent turned up at a Pistols gig at the Oxford Street club and found Vicious in a bad mood. When the reporter asked Vicious to move out of his way, the bassist whipped a bike chain from his coat and lashed the writer atop the head three times, watching blood splatter the walls behind him. Though the reporter claimed it didn’t really hurt, Vicious’ teeth sharpened by the second.
Unfortunately, Vicious followed a stereotypical psychopathic pathway as he not only harmed himself and others but defenceless animals too. In fact, when the bassist was living with Lydon and the other two Johns in the aforementioned squat when he was said to have not only slashed himself open with old tin cans but strangled a cat with his belt. Lydon’s father remembers of Vicious’ attention-seeking ways: “If he was sitting here and no one was taking any notice of him, he’d cut his hand or something to attract attention. You’d have to take your mind off everything else and look at him.”
There was perhaps only one person who ever gave him the attention he needed: Nancy Spungen. Friend of Johnny Thunders and known-New York groupie, Spungen and Vicious enjoyed a whirlwind romance filled with gutters, guitars and getting high—they were the punk rock idyll. Often attributed with giving Vicious heroin for the first time (though he had been an avid user of pretty much everything else beforehand), sadly Spungen would become another victim of Vicious’ preoccupation with attention and his only viable asset—violence.
Vicious was known to have abused Spungen on many occasions before her death. The singer, like most abusers, used Spungen as a punching bag when struggling through his own issues. Spungen’s body had been brutally assaulted during their time together and it only worsened when the Sex Pistols broke up for good and left Vicious, a man with very little musical talent, without a direction to head in. Nevertheless, Spungen would become his manager and the duo would try to find a career path for the former bassist.
However, that idea would come to an end on the morning of October 12th, 1978. Vicious awoke from his stupor to find a trail of blood leading from him to the bathroom of the hotel. When he opened the door he found Spungen dead with a knife wound in her gut. Vicious called the front desk and alerted them to the accident. In the meantime, Vicious roamed the halls of the building weeping and hurling himself at walls, telling a neighbour “I killed her… I can’t live without her… She must have fallen on the knife.”
It’s a statement which sounds utterly ridiculous. How could something like that happen? Surely it was Sid who was responsible? Well, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, in their intoxicated state (and they were always in an intoxicated state), an accident like this could have very well happened either without Vicious’ knowledge or, in turn, shortly before he blacked out. Equally, the hotel room had been frequented by a number of dealers that night, all leaving their fingerprints in the room as well as $1,500 being stolen. It’s plausible that Spungen had been caught in the crossfire.
For detectives though, there was only one man in line for the murder—Sid Vicious. The bassist was quickly arrested for her murder and the police felt confident that they had the right man. Many critics of the finger-pointing will say that Vicious loved Spungen, that she was his world, that he would never hurt her. But when you couple not only his own dark past, nor his murder of a defenceless animal with his vicious beatings of Spungen (including a broken nose and torn ear), then it is extremely easy to see how the bassist could be at the centre of the incident, even giving police two differing reports on the evening, first admitting to stabbing her and not meaning to kill her and then not remembering anything.
Vicious’ lawyers (reportedly paid for by Mick Jagger) were increasingly confident that the singer would not go to jail for Spungen’s murder. For Sid, however, the dye had already been cast and he was not ready to continue in this life without Nancy. On October 22nd, the bassist attempted to commit suicide by slitting his wrists with a smashed lightbulb. He was then hospitalised where he once again tried to kill himself, this time by trying to jump from a window shouting “I want to be with my Nancy!” It was clear that Vicious’ life as he knew it was already over.
The following month, Vicious gave an interview in which he suggested that Spungen’s death was “meant to happen”, stating: “Nancy always said she’d die before she was 21.” As the interview wound down, Vicious was asked if he was having fun. Vicious coldly asked if he was kidding and then added that he would rather be “under the ground”. Sid had hit the self-destruct button.
As another additional moment of violence, Vicious attacked Todd Smith, brother of Patti Smith, after Smith had asked Vicious to leave the band Skafish’s roadie alone. Unprovoked beyond that, Vicious smashed a glass beer bottle across his face and sent Smith to the hospital. Vicious was once again heading back to prison and the final nail in the coffin was being sharpened.
Vicious underwent a 55-day detox and was then released on bail on February 1st 1979, with Virgin Records allegedly putting up the majority of his bond. The enforced detox on Rikers Island hadn’t deterred Vicious and his appetite for heroin had only grown during his time away. Luckily, he planned a small party in Manhattan to celebrate his making bail with both his friend Peter Kodick and his mother Anne Beverley arriving at the shindig, Vicious’ heroin habit was well catered for.
Yes, that’s right—his mother. Anne Beverley was a known user. Thought to have used Sid’s toddler trousers to smuggle blocks of hash from Spain to England when Vicious was a baby, Beverley even gave the bassist heroin for his birthday with Malcolm McLaren claiming she smuggled heroin to Rikers Island for him too. After some seriously pure heroin had arrived via Peter Gravelle, the party began to taper off and left Sid and the remaining heroin in Beverley’s care. McLaren claims Beverley provided her son with the heroin that night because she knew he would hate life in jail. Beverley found her son dead the next morning.
After Vicious’ death, Beverley claimed that her son had been completing his part of a suicide pact he had shared with Spungen saying that she had found a note in his leather jacket reading: “We had a death pact, and I have to keep my half of the bargain. Please bury me next to my baby. Bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots. Goodbye.” Despite Deborah Spungen, Nancy’s mother, denying the request, Beverley and Misfits’ own Jerry Only, drove to Nancy’s grave and spread the bassist ashes, they would, in some way, still be together.
The iconic figure of Sid Vicious is a tough one to shake. He is the archetypal punk poster boy and, if you’ve followed the genre for a prolonged period of time, then chances are you’ve mimicked his spiky hair or worn his chain necklace or donned his leather-jacketed sneer. But while we can all play dress up and enjoy the aggressive nature of the music, Vicious is a villain, he was nothing but a serial violent offender who just so happened to be in one of punk’s pioneering bands. Unable to play, unable to contribute and unable to control himself.
Simply put: Sid Vicious, was not that talented and he was probably a murderer.