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In the nearly two decades since the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, God has preserved Elizabeth Windsor rather nicely. The Sex Pistols, however, are another matter. Despite her familial trials, the Queen has rarely appeared less than regal, but the four young turks who once turned a nation on its ear have forgotten the obligations of their rank. When the so-called Sex Pistols played their first-ever D.C.-area gig last Tuesday, it seemed less a triumphant reunion than a slightly winded outing by a tarted-up tribute band that just happened to have all four original Pistols in it.

Apparently feeling a bit bashful about getting back together, Messrs. Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, and Johnny Rotten found it necessary to quote in their press release the blessing of the high priest of rock’s Reunification Church, Pete “One More Time for the Kids” Townshend: In June’s Q magazine, the protopunk mastermind behind White City: A Novel and The Iron Man: A Musical gave the plucky former youths permission to tour, reminding readers that “Never Mind the Bollocks is one of the greatest records of the 20th century.”

When I got to the Patriot Center at a quarter to 10, I was worried. I had just noticed my ticket was general admission—who knows what might happen at a Townshend-sanctioned arena show?—and imagined that it would be impossible to find a seat after arriving so late. But was I ever in luck. I had my pick of seats—of thousands of seats. What if you sold out and no one was buying?

Looking up at George Mason’s scoreboard, I spied a scrolling advert for a bank, then “Another Universe: There’s intelligent life out here.” At the same time, the once and future John Lydon was slipping into some duds that would make complete his metamorphosis into a punk-rock Steve Urkel: hiked-up black shorts, red suspenders with two red elastic straps joining the braces in front, and a see-through chartreuse nylon jacket (quel nips!).

As the new Johnny Rotten, Lydon assumed Urkelesque mannerisms as well. The hunchbacked slump of the scrawny, wiry, Reddy Kilowattlike Rotten of yore was replaced by a swaybacked pigeon-walk, herky-jerky dance movements, and uncontextualized pelvic thrusts. The microphone stand the undernourished, angry Rotten used to drape himself over was rendered obsolete by the stout frame of the now tanned and well-fed Rotten—and a spiffy wireless setup.

(If anyone is already feeling sorry for missing the show, I assure you it goes downhill from here and suggest Virgin Records’ spanking new Filthy Lucre Live, which not only presents the same 15-song set in the same order—well, they switched No. 4 with No. 5 and No. 10 with No. 11, just to keep things lively—but was recorded June 23 in London before a more sympathetic audience, so Rotten’s stage patter is merely flat, instead of desperate, uncomprehending, and flat.)

Not only does the new Rotten not look like the old one, he doesn’t sound like the old Rotten, either. As Lydon’s tenure in Public Image Ltd. developed his road legs, it forced him to build up his voice. To sustain PiL’s grueling touring schedule, Lydon’s vocal manner evolved into a lower-pitched trilling bellow, a different beast entirely from Rotten’s scabrous screech. A friend who thought Lydon faked it pretty well on Lucre Live but nonetheless declined to make the trek to Fairfax commented, “I’m not sure if you can be Johnny Rotten, quit being Johnny Rotten, and go back to being Johnny Rotten 20 years later.”

But the band has downshifted to compensate for Rotten’s vocal mutation. Switch back and forth between any track on Never Mind or a contemporary live bootleg and its Filthy counterpart and you’ll notice that the new versions are pitched lower. And while the Pistols were never a band to monkey around with tempo, what with Cook’s stolid thumping, the new versions invariably seem bloated and grandiose in comparison with the brittle, prickly ’76-’77 takes.

“I hear your president’s in the house tonight….I mean your real president—Hillary!”

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Sadly, Rotten has forgotten that the only thing that dates faster than comedy is scandal—and he has lost his touch for both. With his crowd taunts limited to flabby jabs even the dippiest conservative would consider obvious, hoots at “the sissies in the seats,” and exhortations to “get off those doughnut butt-ocks,” he was one anxious vaudevillian. The tabloid-patterned set, which memorialized the time the Pistols—heavens!—cursed on live television, made a sorry backdrop for such tomfoolery.

Not only couldn’t the Pistols incite a crowd, they couldn’t even rock one. There was a sizable contingent of moshers, fist-pumpers, and finger-flippers (although no gobbers), but as many people sat it out as stood up, apparently satisfied to get a glimpse of some genuine rock ’n’ roll museum curiosities. A despondent Rotten was reduced to begging his charges to have a good time: “As far as I know it’s not against the law to have fun….Fucking wake up!”

Rotten isn’t quite the hellion he once was, though he’d sure like to be. Throughout the set he guzzled mineral water, but each time he pretended to get into a bottle of hooch he reliably spat the stuff on the floor. Apparently no one thought to tell him that you look much more the badass if you just say, “No, man, I don’t drink anymore.” One concertgoer later chuckled, “I felt like I’d crashed his wine tasting.”

As the Pistols trudged faithfully but uninspiredly through every song on Never Mind, plus “Did You No Wrong,” “Satellite,” and the Monkees’ “Steppin’ Stone,” I speculated as to what each bandmember expected of the reunion—aside from some of that filthy lucre, of course. I suspect Rotten wanted only the lucre; notoriety means nothing to him now. His ex-Pistol status had already prolonged his PiL career long past the point at which people would’ve stopped caring had he been a nobody. Cook wanted what he always wanted—rock-rock-rock—Bananarama, Edwyn Collins, Johnny Rotten, he don’t care. And if anybody was ever in it for the piss-up and the birds, it was Jones, and since he’s no longer as desirable as he once was (he stripped to the waist to confirm this), perhaps this tour will help him secure a Gibson endorsement.

Matlock, the lost Pistol, sought credit. He wrote the songs that made the whole world pogo, and he—not Sid—was the bassist who could actually play, and he wrote all of “Pretty Vacant” himself—except for part of the second verse, which John did much better—and he thought up the chords for “Anarchy in the U.K.” Now that he’s back in, what Matlock wants is for the Pistols to be seen not as a galvanizing sociocultural event, but as a band of hard-working musicians, a group of seasoned professionals. He got that.

What Lydon and Co. have failed to learn is that the Sex Pistols don’t belong to them anymore—either as commerce or art. The former was driven home by a $23 concert tee whose slogan was censored with a strip of paper and masking tape and which couldn’t be sold to patrons under 18, as well as by the fliers handed out at the exits: Oops, I missed Def Leppard, but the Scorpions are playing on Friday!

The latter comes into focus when you consider the typical American experience of the band: The Sex Pistols existed as a brief media circus (as a dumbfounded 12-year-old, I watched news reports of the Pistols’ ill-fated January 1978 invasion of the U.S. and marveled at punk’s self-mutilatory style). And they existed as one singular album. The seeming permanence of the band’s breakup, cemented by Sid Vicious’ death, ensured that as media figures, the Pistols were gone, their story entirely over. Never Mind the Bollocks was the one part of the band’s legacy that remained new and that could always be checked for verification of the truth. It is the reason the Pistols can never challenge their past: Anyone who can’t make those songs carry the force of that record—and that means anyone who isn’t the Pistols at precisely that historical moment—can’t be the genuine article.

All quasi-literate participants in the original Pistols phenomenon (meaning not Cook and Jones) have weighed in with attempts to cast the band’s history as each would prefer to have it remembered. Both Matlock’s 1990 I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol and Lydon’s 1994 Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs unwittingly achieve poignancy as the one-time firebrands are reduced to grubbing for proper recognition and reassuring themselves that it wasn’t all a fluke.

More canny than either, however, is the utterly fraudulent 1979 film The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, which though scripted and directed by Julien Temple is pure Malcolm McLaren in conception: McLaren understands the importance of myth (meaning outright lies) to the Sex Pistols legend, which, with its better-to-burn-out-than-fade-away moral, stands up better to the heedless glorification of youth than to the brooding introspection of middle age.

The customary line is that the Pistols were actually dangerous, that they posed a threat to British classism and classicism. But musically they were hardly revolutionary, although temperamentally they were; they defined punk as a departure in terms of attitude and delivery rather than structure or sound. Broad political claims also seem ill-advised when you consider what other punk bands, such as the Clash, or even Crass, would attempt.

In fact, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” for all the original’s youthful energy, has virtually no political content. And “God Save the Queen”’s rallying cry of “No future!” is more the embodiment of the here-and-nowness of a stellar rock performance than an articulate social protest. In a rare perceptive moment, Matlock observed that the Pistols “were political in the sense that we didn’t even entertain the idea of politics, it was below us. It was anarchy in its purest sense: self-determination.” The Pistols were about liberation one punk at a time.

In other words—Marlo Thomas’ words, in fact—the Pistols made us free to be you and me. And since they can’t even do that anymore, you’ve got to wonder why they couldn’t wait just a little bit longer to re-form—at least until the shock that the old fools could do it at all registered a bit more vigorously—say, until their own Silver Jubilee.CP