They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Oh, the dark deeds that must occur on the birthday of the spiky-hair-crowned prince of punk. How does one fete a man whose very name conjures smoking images of filth, fetidness and psychopathy — Decorate a cake with rancid raspberries spilled over the Union Jack? Present a champagne flute of fermenting trash juice to pour on DVD copies of the Queen’s Christmas address?
There was a time before the fellow was synonymous with festering. When little John Lydon was born in London on January 31 1956, bollocks-fuelled punk music had not yet set parents of electric guitar-owning children on antichrist watch. But still, for him, there were few kittens or rainbows. Lydon’s formative years were spent raising siblings in his working class immigrant family. His “fun” was playing in abandoned factories; his misfortunes a succession of abuses at home and school and the contraction at seven years old of hallucination-causing spinal meningitis that he says put him “on the road to the rotten” and left him with the unnerving, unblinking “Lydon stare.”
But as an early teen, he was hanging with Sid Vicious, skanking in reggae clubs, loitering at fetish clothing shops. And when Malcolm MacLaren finally auditioned Lydon to front the Sex Pistols in 1975 by asking him to sing along to an Alice Cooper tune on jukebox, modern music’s fate was sealed: one of the world’s most influential musical flashes in the pan ignited with a foul-mouthed cackling spark. It’s easy to forget that the Sex Pistols (in their initial makeup) produced one studio album. But with four inflammatory singles, Rotten and the Sex Pistols launched a whole new era of musical power and possibilities. As well as, y’know, an album’s worth of wicked songs.
Rotten’s career continued to flourish and evolve after the Pistols break, with his post-punk experiments in Public Image Limited, an oeuvre of solo work, television appearances and a blissfully blasphemous autobiography. His collaborations range from the beguiling (The Chemical Brothers) to the bizarre (multiple false starts on ill-fated reality shows), though no matchup could be any stranger than the 2004 Sex Pistols revival, the very possibility of which he’d strenuously denied for years.
Yes, Rotten’s eccentricities aged somewhat awkwardly through the years. Yes, he grew heftier, sloppier, more goofily outspoken once his golden punk moment passed. But here is a fact that cannot be denied: for a musical icon to survive personal and political chaos for the majority of his life and yet still be rocking out on his 56th birthday is an event worth celebrating. So let’s join the following lineup of lovely ladies in offering a birthday party’s-worth of congratulations to the Regent of Rotten with these interpretations of classic Sex Pistols era tunes.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – Pretty Vacant (Sex Pistols cover)
While Sex Pistols was undoubtedly a boys club, Joan Jett’s throaty channeling of a slightly femme-ier hard-edged vibe convinced the Pistols’ Paul Cook and Steve Jones to join in on three Jett recordings (including an early track of “I Love Rock and Roll”) during her visit to England in ’79. Years later, Jett showed her appreciation through re-interpretation, with this kicking version of their third single. Allegedly the original tune’s main riff was inspired by Abba’s “SOS.” This tune’s cynical reverence of things inane might be just the way to start off an irony-draped birthday festivity for King Rotten.
Bananarama – No Feelings (Sex Pistols cover)
1983’s teen film “Party Party” was England’s answer to the John Hughes’-style house party genre movies proliferating in the US. And what better soundtrack addition to a venture like this than lady-duo Bananarama singing a skippy pop cover of this Sex Pistol’s track? Okay, so such a tune might not pass grade on Rotten’s “authenticity” scale, but it sure does exemplify the sentiment of the song title. And, anyway, sometimes at a birthday party you really just want to calmly two-step next to the bowl of Cheetos. Yes, even you, Sir Rotten. We know how you hate getting cheese dust on your carpet.
Veruca Salt – Bodies (Sex Pistols cover)
Lady grunge rockers Veruca Salt serve up a contemplative comment on this emotionally difficult song for that time in the party where a birthday boy might get a bit nostalgic. While much of the Sex Pistols’ politics were aimed at the governance of British society at large, this explicit song about abortion was a more pointed piece of argument, allegedly inspired by the letters (and occasional visits) of a disturbed fan and her real-life experiences. While Veruca Salt’s deep, loping arrangement is certainly not a toe-tapper in the ranks of Bananarama, its musical and thematic coherence is a testament to the enduring power of the Pistols’ message through the era of grunge and, still, today.
Nouvelle Vague – God Save The Queen (Sex Pistols cover)
Simple, sweet, stripped-down and seductive, Nouvelle Vague’s acoustic interpretation of this ultimate Sex Pistols classic follows well in the playlist after the guests have gone and whilst the cake plates are tossed into the trash bin. Sure, Johnny could choose from any number of devoted psychobilly or post-punk or metal covers of this iconic song. But after so many years of eardrum-shattering amp blasts, to hear how one’s music can be so subversive and simultaneously charming must surely be a welcome treat.
The Queen Haters – I Hate The Bloody Queen
And, after a night of partying, Cheetos, nostalgia, and clean-up… no birthday eve is complete without a little giggle. Second City Television was a beloved Canadian sketch comedy show that ran from 1976 to 1984. Aside from arguably launching the careers of character actors such as Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, John Candy and others… it also broadcast spoofs of contemporary events and culture that, in their own geeky low-budget way, have truly stood the test of time. And so as the John Lydon birthday party comes to a close, let us roast one of our favourite punky fellows with this parody of his Pistols. If Johnny doesn’t smile at Martin Short’s dance moves, then next year we’ll have to whip up that rancid raspberry cake.