Glen Matlock: 'I was the most conservative member of the Sex Pistols'
His dad has Alzheimer's, his son's started a new college and he reckons being a bassist hindered his career. Glen Matlock tells Edwin Gilson why he's not just the guy who stood next to Johnny Rotten on stage
Being the "most conservative" member of The Sex Pistols is surely akin to being the "wild one" of the current Snow Patrol line-up.
Then again, the hedonistic actions of John Lydon, Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Seventies London punk band would make anyone look safe, even wet by comparison. It's a problem of proportions and the reputation of Glen Matlock, The Pistols' original bassist, has rather suffered because of it, from band mate Steve Jones' allegations that Matlock was "always washing his feet", to the bassist's wariness of Lydon (which still exists to this day).
Today, when chat comes round to The Pistols, the 57-year-old displays a strange mix of openness and defensiveness. He asks me not to make the article too Pistols-orientated, which is perfectly understandable given his other band activity (at various times he has been a member of The Rich Kids, The Philistines and The Faces, as well as playing with the "intelligent, talented nutcase" that is Iggy Pop) and his new solo acoustic venture that brings him to Belfast to play Voodoo next month. He promises with gusto that the gig will be a "really uplifting experience for the crowd; just because it's acoustic it doesn't mean it's all miserable and pontificating. I have a right laugh".
No chuckles meet my questions about The Pistols, though; only quiet contemplation. He initially points out that "there are other much more important things going on in my life at the moment, namely my dad's Alzheimer's and my son's first days at his new college. So when people like you ask me about those old days it can seem a bit irrelevant".
Reasonable, of course, but that productive yet destructive Pistols dynamic is simply too fascinating not to be pried into, and eventually he responds with honesty.
"I think I probably was the most conservative member," reflects Matlock. "But it's all relative. Actually Steve was probably the most out-there guy in terms of hedonistic behaviour and everything. I was more the safe kind of guy; I knew some of what the guys were doing was going too far. We all need a bit of back-up, and I don't think Steve and Paul gave me enough of that in those days, when John was being John. I didn't see past the end of the week at that stage, so I wasn't really thinking about it all ending in tragedy like it did. I don't wake up every morning thinking 'What if ...' It's just that when you're young, it seems so natural, then it all falls apart and you have to be a bit more considered about things."
Matlock left The Pistols in early 1977 claiming later, in his autobiography I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol, that he was "sick of all the bulls**t."
"John changed around that time," says the bassist today of the snarling frontman. "He was a bit shy at first, but the fame gave him confidence. He was always prickly, but that confidence made him even pricklier. He was fine on stage, but not so much when you were trying to get on with him off-stage. He's full-on all the time, and some of the people he hangs around with are very hard work. We're not worst enemies, though."
Despite the friction between Matlock and Rotten (a lot of which was reportedly trumped up by The Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren) the bassist has joined his former band on reunion tours in 1996, 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2008. "Why shouldn't I have joined?" he demands. "I was in two minds for a little while, but those are as much my songs as anyone else's." Revealingly Matlock apparently still "gets on well" with Jones and Cook, but merely has a "working relationship" with Lydon.
"We're not all sitting in the back of a van without windows like we used to be," he adds. "This means we don't get on each other's nerves so much."
Matlock is adamant that the term 'punk' was only slapped on The Sex Pistols some time after his replacement Sid Vicious's fatal heroin overdose and the collapse of the band.
"Back then we weren't punk, we were just The Sex Pistols, or at least that's how I saw it. Punk came later. It's the same with the bands over in Northern Ireland; I'm not sure The Undertones thought of themselves as punk so much, they were just a great pop-rock band with their own personality. The Stiff Little Fingers too, they were just speaking for the disaffected youth during The Troubles."
Don't be fooled into thinking Matlock is in any way denying or playing down his and The Sex Pistols' legacy, though; in fact, he's fiercely proud of it.
"It was a very exciting time and I'm honoured to have been a part of it," he states. "When we started out only a few people came to our gigs, but all of them went on to do something cultural, usually in music or fashion. It was an exciting scene, that's for sure."
As forward-thinking as Matlock evidently is (he claims that he "lives to write new songs") he acknowledges and understands that fans who come to his gigs will expect to hear classic punk songs like God Save the Queen and Pretty Vacant, whose creation he had a hand in.
"Yeah, if I go and see David Bowie and he doesn't play Heroes, I'll go home disappointed," he says. "You've got to give people what they want. I don't have a setlist though, it's more considered spontaneity."
He seems just glad to be on lead guitar duty now, rather than plucking his usual four-stringed instrument.
"A journalist asked me recently whether I thought being a bassist had been a hindrance to my career," he laughs. "It's funny really because I actually do. I've always been, in my mind, a songwriter who happens to be quite good at bass too. It's not very rock and roll but being a bass player is a bit like a plumber, or a delivery boy; the job has to be done."
And what of the occasional "journeyman" slights that greet musicians with their fingers in numerous pies like Matlock? As well as focusing on his solo career, he's also hoping his friend Ronnie Wood will call soon, inviting him to play for The Faces again, who he's been sporadically involved with since 2010.
"I love playing with them, and obviously Ronnie is a brilliant, genuine guy. There have been some rumblings about Rod Stewart coming back on vocals but I think his replacement, Mick Hucknall, is doing a great job."
He takes a considerable pause to consider the journeyman tag. "Well, I suppose I am a bit of a journeyman, but I think I'm a good one!"
And then his defensive nature comes to the fore again: at this stage Matlock really shouldn't have to justify his glittering career and obvious talent to anyone but, it seems he still feels the need to do so. Perhaps The Sex Pistols' "most conservative" member just wants to make sure everyone gets the point.
"There are a lot of strings to my bow; I've done the band thing and I've made it on my own," he says.
"People who know me know I've got more going on that just being the guy who used to stand next to Jonny Rotten on stage."
What became of the punk originals?
John Lydon – after the dissolution of The Sex Pistols, Lydon formed the more experimental Public Image Limited in 1978. The band split in 1993, but since 2009 PIL have played numerous reformation shows. He's also released a solo album, hosted a TV show and appeared on reality programme I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me out of Here. As he is considered one of the key figures of punk music, Lydon attracted criticism for appearing as the face of Country Life butter. He argued the money from it funded PIL's reunion tour.
Steve Jones – for the last decade, the guitarist has fronted his own radio show, Jonesy's Jukebox, on various stations in America. He regularly performs songs in the studio and often interviews the biggest names in music including, once, former bandmate John Lydon. After The Sex Pistols broke up, Jones and drummer Paul Cook formed The Professionals, who released only one album.
Paul Cook – currently drumming for Edwyn Collins, the former Orange Juice man. Appeared in rock band Chiefs of Relief in the early 80s among other acts, and joined The Sex Pistols on their first reunion tour in 1996 along with Lydon, Jones and Matlock.
Glen Matlock plays Voodoo in Belfast on November 29