Thursday, September 23, 2010

No Future for You

Johnny Rotten was still squirming a bit after the presenter had called him out on his naughty word. Schoolboy humiliation washed over him as Bill Grundy, dapper in his gray sport coat, black shirt and black and blue tie, mocked. Johnny scolded himself – the best you could come up with was “shit.” How weak!

“Good heavens,” said Grundy with false shock, “You frighten me to death.”

Johnny shrank at the ridicule, looking down at his fuzzy black and white sweater that suited a 1950’s pinup girl more than a Sex Pistol. Guitarist Steve Jones sat, smoked and stewed.

Grundy went on, addressing Siouxsie Sioux, standing to his right. After a bit of banter, Sioux took the piss out of the older man.
“I always wanted to meet you,” she said coyly, sarcastically, batting her clownishly made up eyes.

Grundy was repulsed by these dirty punks, but attracted as well. The bleached blond Sioux in her white shirt and suspenders intrigued him. He'd had worse. Imagining her attentions to be pure, Grundy, reeking of gin, pursued.

“We’ll meet afterwards, shall we?”

That was it for Jones. In his sleeveless t-shirt that featured a monochromatic pair of tits, he puffed on his ciggy and let Grundy have it.

“You dirty sod. You dirty old man,” spat Jones contemptuously.

Grundy, sensing a scene, pushed him. “Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on, you've got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.”

And he did. “You dirty bastard. You dirty fucker. What a fucking rotter.” The other Pistols, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook, laughed. Johnny smiled weakly, knowing Steve had taken the spotlight from him. After Grundy signed off, Steve stood up and after a bit of celebratory dancing, the entourage ran off to the green room backstage for more of the free drink that had greeted them upon their arrival.

Telephones rang. Steve and Sioux picked up the receivers, and were met by complaining viewers, appalled at the foul language they’d been subjected to. “Fuck off, you stupid cunt!” yelled Sioux.

Everyone giggled but John. He was ashamed that he hadn’t risen to the occasion and knew he needed to seize the moment.

“Ah, he thought he bloody had us, didn’t he. Well, we wiped his arse off the floor, didn’t we!”

Steve couldn’t believe it. He’d done the deed, and Johnny, that big headed pain in the ass, wanted all the credit.
“You didn’t say a word, you little shit,” said Steve, gobbing on the carpet in disgust.

Rotten knew he’d been a coward and deflected Jones’s rightful scorn to Glen.

“Me? I said ‘shit’! I started the whole row! It was Glen who said nothing, sitting all neat with his clean cut hair and his poofy sweater.” Rotten turned and lashed out at Matlock, sitting quietly. “You ain’t one of us, Glen. You’re a prim little schoolboy, a real musician.”

Glen got up to protest, but thought better of it. He’d hated John’s guts ever since the press had gone to his skull. On top of that, Glen had already been planning his own group and EMI was interested. He wanted to write melodies mainly and that wasn’t what The Sex Pistols were interested in.

“Fine, I’ve had enough of this.” said Glen. “I quit.”

“Maybe you can join Wings,” Johnny sneered. “You always loved The Bay City Rollers any way.”

Steve and Paul watched with disinterest. Jones never really got on with Glen, thought he was a wee bit poncified, not one of the lads. Once Steve had stolen a bass and gave it to Glen to sell. Poor Glen, innocent as always, hadn’t a clue it was hot and was arrested. Paul met Glen first, when they were kids playing football on Wormwood Scrubs, but he didn’t care whether Matlock was in the band or not.

“You’ll regret this John, you need me,” Glen threatened. “Who you gonna get to replace me?”

“Ah, you’re not so special. It’s easy, we’ll get Sidney!”

Steve and Paul recoiled. Sidney? Sid Vicious? Sid was crazy and couldn’t play a lick. He may have been acting the drummer in Sioux’s band The Banshees, but he couldn’t play. Sid followed John everywhere. Once he was a conservative kid worried about his exams, but Sid became Sex Pistols’ fan number one, transforming into a reprobate, drinking, fighting and shooting up at the gigs he attended night after night.

Jones jumped in. “That nutter? He can’t play bass.”

“Who the fuck cares? He’s one of us,” replied John. “He’s not some suburban geezer like Glen, listening to Paul McCartney and writing pretty little songs.”

“Wait a bloody minute, John. Glen may be a fuckin’ wanker and a tart but he can write and he can play.” Steve looked at Glen, who stared straight back. “There’s no way Sid will join this band. God, you’d be sorry if you brought that stupid fucker in. HE CAN’T PLAY!”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters, you twat. We are a band. Bands need people who can play instruments.” Steve was disgusted with John.

Just as he was put in his place by Bill Grundy, Johnny found himself again contrite, with Steve in charge. He hung his head as Jones spoke.

“Listen Glen, you’re a tosser for sure, but you are the best musician of the lot of us and we can easily make it big. Whaddaya think?”

For a moment Glen was quiet, but quickly realized that The Sex Pistols would be huge if they hung together and Johnny didn’t fuck things up with his massive ego. It was worth a go.

“Just keep Johnny on a leash, Steve, ‘kay?” Johnny remained mute.

Later that night, at the 100 Club, The Sex Pistols put on a killer show, with blistering versions of Matlock’s “Pretty Vacant” and a cover of The Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Out in the crowd, Sid Vicious pogoed, springing up and down doing the dance he created. In a quick, he heaved a beer bottle against the wall and a shower of glittering specks of glass descended on the writhing revelers. Listening to his favorite band, accompanied by the screams of those cut by the shards, Sid grinned like a baby. He was living his dream.

The power struggle between Johnny Rotten (Lydon) and manager Malcolm McLaren would cause a rift between Rotten and Glen Matlock. Matlock, the group’s bassist and primary songwriter, was seen by Rotten as a McLaren stooge. Glen was sacked and, on March 3, 1977, was paid less than £3000 settlement and subsequently vilified by Rotten as conservative and liking The Beatles too much. Matlock would form The Rich Kids with future Ultravox front man Midge Ure. Sid Vicious was brought in as the band’s new bassist, but without Matlock’s writing skill The Pistols hit a creative dead end and broke up in January 1978 after a disastrous tour of America. Johnny regretted bringing Sid into the group and hated him from day one, as Sid and his heroin addicted girlfriend Nancy Spungen annihilated the band.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Beat It

Things were definitely looking up at MTV. Ad sales for the first quarter of 1983 had outpaced those of all of 1982. Video-mania was sweeping the country. Duran Duran, a band going nowhere in the States, had seen a flop album named Rio turn into a blockbuster. Months after its release and teetering on the edge of oblivion, the band, with the support of Capitol Records, had produced a video for “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and the images of the clean cut, androgynous group sailing across the South Seas, drove suburban girls (and boys) wild. The frenzy forced the hand of radio stations and in January 1983, Duran Duran was as hot an act as any.

It was all playing nicely into the hands of the corporate giant that was Warner American Express. MTV was a highly valuable product. There was more gold to be mined, and how to extract those nuggets was the subject of the day’s board meeting.

“People,” began 29-year old Bob Pittman. “Let’s get down to it.” Pittman had been a radio announcer at 15, and had programmed MTV to its present position of musical dominance. Though offered the CEO job at WASEC, Warner American Express’ cable company, he had demurred, accepting, instead, the position as executive vice-president. His charge was to cut the company’s $10 million dollar loss in half, to turn their growing musical supremacy into dollars, and he was certain he knew the way.

As the MTV brain trust sat down, Pittman continued. “Folks, the guys upstairs are really pushing for us to charge cable operators for MTV. They think that’s the way to guarantee a steady stream of revenue. CNN has been charging 15 cents per subscriber ever since they’ve been on the air. The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network is starting to charge as well, and what do they show Australian Rules football and college sports. Our audience wants their MTV and they’ll pay, I’m sure of that. Thoughts?”

Carolyn Baker, head of talent and artist relations, spoke. “Bob, it’s a fine idea, but to make that really pay off we need to dramatically expand our audience. Having a select group of cities broadcasting our network isn’t going to cut it. If we played Michael Jackson’s new videos, I’m sure…”

“Carolyn, stop, just stop. If this is going to be another ‘We need to play more black artists on MTV’ sob story, I’m not interested. We’re doing fine with what we have now.”

“Listen, Bob, you’re wrong. We shouldn’t have passed on Rick James last year. ‘Super Freak’ and ‘Give It to Me Baby’ were huge hits and we snubbed him. It certainly doesn’t help our image when Rick James is out there calling us racists.”

“You’re black Carolyn. How can he call you a racist?” Pittman let out a smug chuckle.

“I’m just saying it’s bad for the network.”

Pitttman demurred. “We didn’t do too badly turning down Rick James.”

“Those were big hits,” countered Baker.

“We didn’t suffer”

“But we could’ve done better. His album sold three million copies.”

The debate about black artists on MTV was a hot one. One faction felt that MTV was rock only, and that most black artists didn’t fit into the format. That made for a small list – Joan Armatrading, The Bus Boys, Prince, Tina Turner. Not many others after that. The other side pointed out that MTV wasn’t merely one of many video outlets, it was the only one, and they had an obligation to desegregate their lineup. This wasn’t FM radio. Plus, cutting off a huge audience just wasn’t smart business.

Pittman answered. “We’ve built up a solid suburban white audience. I won’t risk alienating that demographic.”

“Alienate our audience! Michael Jackson is already a huge star. You do know that, right? Off the Wall sold eight million copies a few years ago. This Thriller album is already a big hit and CBS is pushing it hard.”

That was true. The first single was a duet with Paul McCartney, sure to capture the most airplay possible. It did, screaming to number 2 on the Billboard charts. To keep the momentum going, Epic Records, the CBS subsidiary that carried Jackson, issued two singles in January. “Billie Jean” was a killer dance track aimed at the urban audience, and “Beat It,” with guitar god Eddie Van Halen, was sure to gain rock radio approval. Epic hoped both could hit the Top 40. To push the album that much further, Jackson made a video for each single.

CBS President Walter Yetnikoff knew MTV was not likely to embrace Michael, so he laid down an ultimatum – if MTV didn’t pick up Michael Jackson, they would be barred from playing all of his label’s stars. No more Billy Joel, no more Journey, threatened Yetnikoff.

“Sorry, Carolyn, I’m not buying it.”

“What about Yetnikoff? Doesn’t that concern you?” she asked. Surely she could use CBS’ position as the leverage she needed to open up MTV to black audiences. Michael was just the vehicle to get it started.

“Yeah, right, I can hear Walter now. ‘Oh, Billy Joel, we’re very worried about Michael Jackson’s career and, because of that, we’re not letting you on MTV. Oh, Journey, you’ll just have to help us with Michael Jackson’s sales. I’m sure you understand.’ They won’t stand for that and you know it and Walter knows it.”

“Have you actually seen the videos Bob? They’re groundbreaking. You’ve never seen anything like them.”

“Don’t have to see them Carolyn, we’re not going to put them on. Michael Jackson doesn’t fit into our format and that’s that. He can sell millions of records without us, and we can keep feeding our white kids The Stray Cats, A Flock of Seagulls and Haircut 100. After all, bands like that will last a long, long time. We’ll be fine. I guarantee it.”

Though MTV made Michael Jackson bigger than ever, and, vice versa, the decision to show Michael Jackson on MTV was not an easy one. On March 2, 1983, one week after “Billie Jean” hit number one, the video aired. “Beat It” followed weeks later. Michael Jackson and MTV exploded together. Thriller, which had already sold two million copies, began selling an astounding 800,000 per week. By June it would top the seven million mark. MTV spread throughout the entire country and soon become the first profitable cable network ever.