Icons / September 2018

Sid Vicious: The Grubby Demon of Punk

He was an icon of freedom and a helpless addict, rock ’n’ roll inspiration and cautionary tale. Simon John Ritchie — a.k.a Sid Vicious — just couldn’t escape his own contradictions. He was dead at 21.

Sid Vicious in London, 1977. Photograph by Alamy.

It’s easy to hate Sid Vicious. He is, after all, to blame for embodying one of the 20th century’s most exciting art movements in the form of a drooling, talentless junkie in a swastika T-shirt.

Beyond the ferret-faced, sneery urchin cartoon, though, there’s another Sid, not much more real but closer to something celebratory, romantic and even meaningful. Like the Marquis de Sade or Francis Bacon or Quentin Tarantino, he took ugliness and nihilism to their extremes, and found beauty in them. He said it best in an interview filmed in December 1978, close to the end of his brutishly short life. “What would you like to happen over the next year or so?” asks the interviewer, to which Vicious replies, “I’d like to have fun… That’s my object in life.” Its glorious simplicity, ludicrously, stops you short: what else is there, after all?

The trouble is that life isn’t that simple, as Sid had already found out. “Are you having fun at the minute?” the interviewer continues. “Are you kidding?” he replies, his voice telling a world of pain and bewilderment. “I’m not having fun at all.” That’s Sid: icon of freedom and helpless addict, rock ’n’ roll inspiration and cautionary tale: he’s both sides of the same argument.

For an icon of anarchy, his start was stock-joke Little England. Born in the conservative heartland of Tunbridge Wells in peak post-war-grey 1957, he was named with near-comic blandness Simon John. Originally his last name was Ritchie, though he often went by his mother Anne’s surname, Beverley. An early adoptee of the bohemian lifestyle and a heroin addict herself, she remained a presence in his life until his death, but rarely a positive one. She threw him out of the house at 17, telling him, as she recalled to the writer Jon Savage, “It’s either you or me, and it’s not going to be me. I have got to preserve myself and you can just fuck off.”

Sid found a place in a squat with John Lydon (not yet Johnny Rotten), whom he knew from further education college. Along with John Wardle, later to become Jah Wobble and a co-founder of Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band PiL, they sought out the clubs and assembly points of what would become punk, including Sex, the King’s Road boutique run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Sid was unworldly and easily led, looking for somewhere to belong. Viv Albertine, of The Slits, remembered him as “kind of sweet”, and Lydon, sensitive and clever as well as angry, saw this too, giving his man-child friend his nickname not because he was violent but because he wasn’t: Vicious was the name of Lydon’s hamster.

Tags

Contributor

James Medd