Back bedroom, Pakuranga, Auckland 1978
When the father-house burns, young men find blisters on their hearts
– Old Ukrainian Proverb
One summer afternoon my brother came home with an album under his arm. We met in his room. He slid the disc from its fluorescent sleeve – all hot pink and canary yellow with ransom note lettering – and put it on the turntable. Like a panza division, Never Mind The Bollocks had just shown up at our house. Shit was about to change.
Paul and I gave the album a proper listen. We’d heard the singles already and seen them on TV – sickly Sid, rat-faced Rotten. We’d gorged ourselves in that all-you-can-eat way they’d been dished up by the press. Obscenity, scandal, shredded clothes and street urchin hair; each time they’d been banned, beaten up, arrested. The Sex Pistols were antiheroes in a blitzkrieg that would scorch the musical landscape and change it forever. Paul and I decided to volunteer.
Our hair was the first casualty. Though hacked and dyed with blue and pink crepe paper, we failed to reach peak hair atrocity because we didn’t know you had to bleach first to get the colour to grab. My earlobes were the next casualties. Paul found a blue pen, a cork and a needle. While he boiled the needle, I checked the freezer for ice; no cubes, but I did discover a long-lost raspberry popsicle. Mum didn’t ask what we were doing, she left us to it.
Back in Paul’s room, he dotted my earlobes ten times with pen, checking from side to side that the marks were even. I held the wrapped popsicle to my right ear and we listened to the album again. Twin sensations of aching cold and the Nazi rally boot crunch on the opening track made me shiver. A cheap holiday in other people’s misery ranted Rotten with sobering truth.
I was impressed by the controlled energy of the track – not raging anger, but a slow, blistering burn. The simplicity was almost shocking. It felt bone-crushingly new. Death to calcified musical virtuosity. This was the sound of rock music being hauled all the way back to its rebellious roots. It was never going to be pretty.
At the height of their infamy, The Sex Pistols took a trip to Jersey to escape the violence and hostility of London. When they were thrown off the island, they tried Berlin instead. Rotten didn’t care that it was rainy and depressing – he loved the decadence, the wall and the insanity of the place and the song came about from that. In true punk fashion, they nicked the descending introductory chords from a song by The Jam which had been released six months earlier. Talent borrows, genius steals.
By the time we got to No Feelings, my ear was sufficiently numb. Paul braced my head against the wallpapered wall. A giant poster of Bowie’s Low looked on as he tucked the cork behind my ear and stabbed the needle in with a good, firm twist. I held the popsicle to my left ear while he stabbed away at my right. It was a warm day and I could feel the popsicle oozing down my neck. Blood and raspberry, an indistinguishable mess.
Halfway through Problems, he finished my right ear. I had no sleepers, so we pushed multi-coloured plastic pearl-headed pins from mum’s sewing box through the piercings. The popsicle was now a bag of wet pulp and my left ear wasn’t as numb as it could’ve been, but we ploughed on. It helped to think of England. God save the Queen, we mean it man. Some pins were messier to force through than others. They brought tears to my eyes.
Submission ended. Paul trimmed the ends off the pins and the job was done. He stood back to consider his handiwork, nodding. We’re pretty, pretty vacant, and we don’t care. Mum called us for dinner and I went to the bathroom to clean up, half afraid to look in the mirror. I don’t know what I was expecting – probably not this chased-through-an-abbatoir-by-a-maniac-with-an-axe look: raw mince ears, defense wound stained hands and a flux of sticky red drips down my neck. I ruined a white flannel trying to scrub it off.
I did what I could to camouflage my swollen ears and took my place at the table. Paul and I sat opposite each other in a quiet limbo of anticipation. It took mum about ten minutes to notice the butchery. She gasped, hand to mouth and my father swore in English and Hungarian. Already. It was working.
The Sex Pistols carved a clear generational divide through our family. My mother found it hard to believe they were allowed to swear that way and my father, who listened only to the most caramelised form of jazz, loathed them. We mostly played the album when our father was out, because when he heard it, he behaved as if something important was about to burst inside him. I secretly hoped it would.
Once the swelling had gone down, my mother changed her mind about my ears. She also made me a black mini-skirt with ten zips in it. I wore that skirt the night we saw Proud Scum at Zwines and our friend Toilet pushed a safety pin through his cheek and we got gobbed on. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more punk in my life.
I didn’t ask for sunshine
And I got world war three
I’m looking over the wall
And they’re looking at me