Vicious in Winterland, 14 January 1978. This was the final show of the original Sex Pistols'.
|John Simon Ritchie Jr |
10 May 1957|
Lewisham, London, England
2 February 1979 (aged 21)|
New York, United States
|Instruments||Bass guitar, vocals, drums|
|Labels||Virgin, EMI, A&M|
Vicious joined the Sex Pistols in early 1977 to replace Glen Matlock, who had fallen out of favour with the rest of the group. Due to intravenous drug use, Vicious was hospitalised with hepatitis during the recording of the band's only studio album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. Accordingly, his bass is only partially featured on one song from the album. Vicious would later appear as a lead vocalist, performing three cover songs, on the soundtrack to The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, a largely fictionalised documentary about the Sex Pistols, produced by the group's former manager Malcolm McLaren and directed by Julien Temple.
During the Sex Pistols' brief, chaotic ascendancy, Vicious met eventual girlfriend and manager Nancy Spungen, and the pair entered a destructive codependent relationship based on drug use. This culminated in Spungen's death from an apparent stab wound while staying in New York City's Hotel Chelsea with Vicious. Under suspicion of having committed Spungen's murder, Vicious was released on bail; he was later arrested again for assaulting Todd Smith, brother of Patti Smith, at a nightclub, and underwent drug rehabilitation on Rikers Island. In celebration of Vicious's release from prison, his mother hosted a party for him at his girlfriend's residence in Greenwich Village, which was attended notably by the Misfits bassist Jerry Only. Vicious's friend Peter Kodick assisted him in procuring heroin, and he died in his sleep after overdosing on it.
Less than four weeks after Vicious's death, the soundtrack album of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle was released. On 15 December 1979, a compilation of live material recorded during his brief solo career was packaged and released as Sid Sings. Gary Oldman portrayed Vicious in the 1986 biopic Sid and Nancy.
Vicious was born John Simon Ritchie on 10 May 1957 in Lewisham, to John and Anne Ritchie. His mother dropped out of school early due to a lack of academic success and went on to join the RAF, where she met her husband-to-be, Ritchie's father, a guardsman at Buckingham Palace and a semi-professional trombone player on the London Jazz scene. Shortly after Ritchie's birth, he and his mother moved to Ibiza, where they expected to be joined by his father who, it was planned, would support them financially in the meantime. However, after the first few cheques failed to arrive, Anne realised he would not be coming. Anne later married Christopher Beverley in 1965, before setting up a family home back in Kent. Ritchie took his stepfather's surname and was known as John Beverley.
Christopher Beverley died six months later from cancer, and by 1968 Ritchie and his mother were living in a rented flat in Tunbridge Wells, where he attended Sandown Court School. In 1971 the pair moved to Hackney in east London. He also spent some time living in Clevedon, Somerset.
By age 17, Ritchie was hanging around London. One favourite spot was Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's then-little-known clothing store, SEX. There he met American expatriate Chrissie Hynde before she formed the Pretenders. Though at least five years older, she tried (but failed) to convince Ritchie to join her in a sham marriage so she could get a work permit. John Lydon nicknamed Ritchie "Sid Vicious" after Lydon's pet hamster Sid (which was named after Syd Barrett), who had bitten Ritchie, eliciting Ritchie's response: "Sid is really vicious!" The animal was described by Lydon as "the softest, furriest, weediest thing on earth." At the time, Ritchie was squatting with Lydon, John Joseph Wardle (Jah Wobble), and John Grey, and the four were familiarly known as "the Four Johns".
According to Lydon, he and Vicious would often busk for money, with Vicious playing the tambourine. They would play Alice Cooper covers, and people gave them money to stop. Once a man gave them "three bob" (three shillings, i.e., 15p in decimal currency) and they all danced. Yet the darker side of Vicious' personality emerged when he assaulted NME journalist Nick Kent with a motorbike chain, with help from Jah Wobble. On another occasion, at the Speakeasy (a London nightclub popular with rock stars of the day) he threatened BBC DJ and Old Grey Whistle Test presenter Bob Harris.
Vicious began his musical career in 1976 as a member of the Flowers of Romance along with former co-founding member of the Clash, Keith Levene (who later co-founded John Lydon's post-Pistols project Public Image Limited) and Palmolive and Viv Albertine, who would later join the Slits. He appeared with Siouxsie and the Banshees, playing drums at their notorious first gig at the 100 Club Punk Festival in London's Oxford Street. According to members of The Damned, Vicious was considered, along with Dave Vanian, for the position of lead singer for The Damned, but Vicious failed to show up for the audition.
Vicious later contended that Vanian and associates had intentionally withheld information regarding the audition as an act of jealousy to ensure Vicious did not arrive. Soured by the experience, Vicious held a personal grudge for this perceived slight perpetrated against him by Vanian and The Damned, a grudge which would become violent. During The Damned's performance at day 2 of the 100 Club Punk Special, the day after making his debut drumming with Siouxsie and the Banshees, an intoxicated and amphetamine-fuelled Vicious hurled his glass at the stage. He was attempting to strike Dave Vanian as an act of retribution, but the glass missed, shattered on a pillar and partially blinded a girl in one eye. Vicious was arrested the next day and imprisoned at Ashford Remand Centre. Westwood sent him a book about Charles Manson to keep him occupied during his imprisonment.
According to various publications (such as the biography England's Dreaming by Jon Savage) and films (namely The Filth and the Fury), Vicious was asked to join the Sex Pistols after Glen Matlock's departure in February 1977, due to Vicious being present at every gig. Manager Malcolm McLaren once claimed "if Johnny Rotten is the voice of punk, then Vicious is the attitude."
McLaren also said in person and in a documentary that if he had met Vicious before he had hired Rotten to be the singer, Vicious would have been the Sex Pistols' front man, because he had the most charisma of anyone on that stage. Alan Jones described Vicious as "[having] the iconic punk look ... Sid, on image alone, is what all punk rests on." His nails would be painted in a sloppy manner with purple nail polish. Vicious played his first gig with the Pistols on 3 April 1977 at The Screen On The Green in London. His debut was filmed by Don Letts and appears in Punk Rock Movie.
Vicious was in the band, but he could not play very well and had no bass guitar experience, so guitarist Steve Jones had to double on bass duties as well as guitar for the band's debut album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols barring two songs: "Anarchy In The UK" (which was recorded with Matlock on bass and already out as a single) and "Bodies" which Vicious was allowed to play on even though it would be overdubbed later on by Jones. He was also absent from the album because he was in hospital with hepatitis (most likely from his drug use) and during that period his main visitor would have been his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, an American groupie and heroin addict he had met in 1977. She was also a part-time prostitute and stripper, and she is said to have introduced Vicious to heroin, although he was already abusing multiple drugs (supplied by his mother, Anne Beverley) before he met her.
On 25 December 1977, the band played a matinee for the children of Huddersfield during the firemen's strike. John Lydon claimed in the documentary Never Mind the Baubles that Vicious needed a serious talking-to beforehand because he wanted to be the "hardcore, tough rocker bloke" and that swearing and being tough wasn't "the right way" to "get the message across" to the children. The recording of the Johnny Thunders song "Born to Lose" which appears on Sid Sings, featuring Vicious on vocals, was recorded during this performance, when Johnny Rotten stepped offstage to pose as Father Christmas. These were the Sex Pistols' last performances in England until the Filthy Lucre reunion tour of 1996 (with the original quartet together again).
In January 1978, the group embarked on a US tour which would only last one to two weeks because of multiple show cancellations and deterioration within the group. These issues primarily involved tension between Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Rotten and Vicious, with Rotten accusing Mclaren of trying to "wreck the very thing that made the Sex Pistols great," and the issue of Vicious' worsening heroin habit and negative interactions with members of the audience. In San Antonio, Vicious famously hit an audience member who meant him physical harm on the head with his bass; the audience member had antagonised Vicious, who shouted out "faggot fucker" before hitting him. Before the Pistols took the stage of the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, Vicious, again in heroin withdrawal, carved the words "Gimme a Fix" into his bare chest with a razor. In autumn 1977,[timeframe?] the Sex Pistols began to perform the controversial song "Belsen Was A Gas" live for the first time. The song was most likely Vicious' only contribution to the band during his tenure as a member, even though it was composed during his time in the Flowers of Romance. Vicious would also perform this song during his brief solo career after the band's split.
After the show at Winterland in San Francisco, (Live at Winterland 1978 was released in 2001), the group fell apart, freeing Vicious to do as he pleased. He embarked on a path to destruction, while recording lead vocals on three cover songs at the same time for the soundtrack album for the film The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. "My Way" was released in 1978, "C'mon Everybody" was released in 1979, and "Something Else" was released in 1979 after his death.
With Spungen acting as his "manager," Vicious embarked on a solo career during which he performed with musicians including Mick Jones of the Clash, Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, Rat Scabies of the Damned and the New York Dolls' Arthur Kane, Jerry Nolan, and Johnny Thunders. He performed the majority of his performances at Max's Kansas City and drew large crowds, though some performances were "hellish," especially when Vicious insulted some of the audience. Examples of this can be heard in the in-between tracks on his live album Sid Sings. Guitarist Steve Dior said in the documentary film Who Killed Nancy? that he "got good money for those shows." His gigs at Max's would turn out to be his last performances as a solo musician, as well as his last performances ever before he died the following February.
On the morning of 12 October 1978, Vicious claimed to have awoken from a drugged stupor to find Nancy Spungen dead on the bathroom floor of their room in the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan, New York. She had suffered a single stab wound to her abdomen and appeared to have bled to death. The knife used had been bought by Vicious on 42nd Street and was identical to a "007" flip-knife given to punk rock vocalist Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys by Dee Dee Ramone. According to Ramone's wife at the time, Vera King Ramone, Vicious had bought the knife after seeing Bators'. Vicious was arrested and charged with her murder. He said they had fought that night but gave conflicting versions of what happened next, saying, "I stabbed her, but I never meant to kill her," then saying that he did not remember, and at one point during the argument Spungen had fallen onto the knife.
On 22 October, ten days after Spungen's death, Vicious attempted suicide by slitting his wrist with a smashed light bulb. He was hospitalised at Bellevue Hospital, where he also tried to kill himself by jumping from a window shouting, "I want to be with my Nancy" or other similar words, but was pulled back by hospital staff. In a November 1978 interview he said that Spungen's death was "meant to happen" and that "Nancy always said she'd die before she was 21." Near the end of the interview, he was asked if he was having fun. In reply, he asked the interviewer if he was kidding, adding that he would like to be "under the ground." At Bellevue he was visited by his lawyer James Merberg, who did everything he could to keep Vicious out of jail.
Vicious was charged with assault after attacking Todd Smith, singer Patti Smith's brother, at a Skafish concert at Hurrah, a New York dance club. Vicious was arrested on 9 December 1978 and sent to Rikers Island metro jail for 55 days to undergo a painful and enforced detoxification. He was released on bail on February 1, 1979. His bail was originally set at $50,000, but lowered after court hearings and negotiations from his lawyer. Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols' manager, worked to raise money and the bond was eventually covered by Virgin Records. John Lydon has stated that Mick Jagger stepped in and paid for Vicious' lawyer, and has praised Jagger for never seeking any publicity for this.
On the evening of 1 February 1979, a small group of friends which included Jerry Only of the Misfits and future D Generation founding member Howie Pyro, gathered to celebrate Vicious having made bail at a friend's Manhattan apartment at 63 Bank St. in New York City. Vicious was clean, having been on a detoxification methadone program during his time at Rikers Island, but at the dinner gathering, Vicious had his friend, English photographer Peter Kodick, deliver him some heroin. He had apparently spent hours during the party looking toward the future, planning an album he would record to get his life and career back on track should he be acquitted. Vicious overdosed at midnight, but everyone present worked together to get him up and walking around to revive him. Vicious died in the night and was discovered dead by his mother, Anne Beverley early the next morning.
In the book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Vicious' close friend photographer Eileen Polk said that no New York funeral home was willing to hold a funeral or burial for Vicious due to his reputation. His remains were eventually cremated at Garden State Crematory in New Jersey.
According to Eileen Polk, Vicious had stated during his life that he wanted to be buried with Nancy Spungen. Spungen, who was Jewish, is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Pennsylvania. Vicious' mother Anne Beverley later traveled to Spungen's family's home in Philadelphia and asked Spungen's mother, Deborah Spungen, if she could scatter Vicious' remains over Spungen's grave. Spungen's mother denied the request. Polk said that despite Spungen's mother's refusal, Jerry Only drove Beverley and her sister, and two of Vicious' friends to the cemetery where Spungen was buried, where Beverley scattered Vicious' ashes over Spungen's grave. Howie Pyro, who also went along with the group to scatter Vicious' ashes, said in a 2009 documentary that he felt Spungen killed herself and Vicious was innocent. "To me, she just did it herself because that's what people like that do, like teenagers who cut themselves." Pyro said that he thought Spungen was desperate for attention and stabbed herself, thinking Sid would come to her rescue, but that he was too intoxicated to do so.
Shortly after Sid Vicious' death, his mother Anne Beverley claimed that Vicious and Spungen made a suicide pact and that Vicious' death was not accidental. Beverley claimed that after Vicious was cremated, she found a handwritten note in the pocket of Vicious' leather jacket. It read:
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.
In the pilot episode of documentary series Final 24, NYPD police sergeant Richard Houseman revealed that shortly after overdosing, Vicious wanted another dose of heroin. Anne Beverley went into the bedroom. In 1996, Beverley confessed to journalist Alan G. Parker that she had then purposely administered a fatal dose of heroin to Vicious because she knew that he was afraid of going back to prison and had doubts about how good his lawyers were, even though the lawyers were certain they would clear his name. In an interview some time after this documentary's broadcast, it was revealed that the show's production team lied to Parker to obtain his "confession".[clarification needed] Parker later directed his own film, Who Killed Nancy?, to set the record straight.
Though regarded by many including Steve Jones and original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock as a talented vocalist, Vicious's abilities as a bass player were debated. During an interview for Guitar Hero III, when Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones was asked why he, instead of Vicious, recorded the bass parts of Never Mind the Bollocks, Jones responded, "Sid was in a hospital with hepatitis, so he couldn't really play, not that he could play anyway." The only song that he played on in the studio was "Bodies." Vicious asked Lemmy, the bassist of Motörhead, to teach him how to play with the words, "I can't play bass," to which Lemmy replied, "I know."
According to Paul Cook, in the few months between joining the band and meeting Spungen, Vicious was a dedicated worker and tried his hardest to learn to play; indeed, this period was Cook's favourite in the band.Viv Albertine went further in defence of his ability, saying that one night she "went to bed, and Sid stayed up with a Ramones album and a bass guitar, and when I got up in the morning, he could play. He'd taken a load of speed and taught himself. He was so quick."Keith Levene, a member of the Flowers of Romance with Vicious and later a member of the Clash and then Public Image Ltd, also recounts a similar story: "Could Sid play bass? I don't know, but one thing I do know was that Sid did things quickly. One night, he played the first Ramones album nonstop, all night, then next morning, Sid could play the bass. That was it; he was ready! I told you Sid did things quickly!"
In 2014, the town of Tunbridge Wells, where Vicious had lived for six years during his childhood, proposed a memorial plaque for famous people who lived in the town for a considerable amount of time. Sid Vicious was one of the people in line to receive his memorial plaque. Many residents were opposed Vicious being memorialized by the town due to his reputation. One resident called Vicious "vile" and "a man who died as he lived, surrounded by filth and misery."
Various bands over the years have recorded songs about Sid Vicious. In 1982, The Exploited included the song "Sid Vicious Was Innocent" on their album Troops of Tomorrow. Former frontman for the Clash, Joe Strummer, recorded "Love Kills" and "Dum Dum Club" for the Sid and Nancy soundtrack. In 1986, the Ramones released "Love Kills" on their album, Animal Boy which was a tribute to both Sid and Nancy. In 1997, U.S. Bombs released their song "Ballad of Sid" on their album Never Mind the Open Minds. In 2015, UK rock band Medusa released a music video called "Sid and Nancy", in which a young boy resembling Vicious wreaks havoc around London with a young girl resembling Spungen. In 2016, California Punk band NoFX put out a song called "Sid and Nancy" on the album First Ditch Effort. The songs details a fictional affair between Sid and former first lady Nancy Reagan.
In the Netflix original series, Thirteen Reasons Why, based on the novel of the same name, Justin Foley and Jessica Davis dress up as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen for a costume contest at their high school.
The 1986 UK feature-film Sid and Nancy, directed by Alex Cox, portrays the chaotic last phase of their lives, ending with a fictionalised stabbing scene. It starred Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious and Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen. Oldman's performance was praised by Uncut as a "hugely sympathetic reading of the punk figurehead as a lost and bewildered manchild."