Happy Birthday, Sid Vicious

Sid Vicious, photo by NYCPDFifty years ago today, John Simon Ritchie was born. For most of the world, he was better known as Sid Vicious, the less-than-competent bassist for the Sex Pistols.

It was easy as a teenager to appreciate, or at least romanticize the notion that Sid Vicious was somehow relevant. He had the look and attitude that seemed to epitomize the punk movement and his image has remained synonymous with punk rock nearly three decades after his death.

For me, the time since his passing has shined a new perspective on Vicious himself and how unoriginal his caricature actually was. Death may have bequeathed him an iconic image, but the reality of his short life was nothing more than a punk tragedy filled with the same clich├ęs found in any conventional rock star.


Ultimately, Sid’s stupidity was also the biggest proponent of his downfall. This was glaringly obvious when he was asked to replace Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols. Provided with the opportunity to play bass for the band he admired so much, Sid quickly adapted to the decadence that fame provided him without considering that he should probably learn the instrument he was hired to play.

An argument can also be made regarding his contribution to punk’s image as well. Vicious could be seen wearing the standard issue garb of the punk rock community, ironically ridiculed by Rotten himself during points in the Pistols documentary movie The Filth And The Fury. Even in regards to fashion, it seems, Sid was too mindless to think for himself. Rotten addresses it better, calling Sid a “complete, gullible fashion victim… He didn’t get that what we were doing was our culture.”

As good as the movie Sid & Nancy was at examining unconventional junkie love; it didn’t adequately examine girlfriend Nancy Spungen’s opportunistic tendencies. While everyone around him understood her motives, Sid was apparently too dimwitted to understand how bad this hydra was for him.

This is probably the biggest reason why I don’t subscribe to the idea that he killed Spungen. When one takes into consideration Sid’s dysfunctional upbringing, it’s clear that he was comfortable around women who didn’t have his best interest at heart. He shared drugs with the two most influential females in his life (Nancy and his own mother, Anne Ritchie) and he allowed them to determine his own path towards self-destruction.

The unfortunate relationship that he had with his mother probably made it easier to tolerate someone like Spungen, to the point where he ended up needing her bi-polar leadership, particularly with the scope of fame that he was presented with around the time of her murder. This isn’t to suggest that he should have been in a relationship with her, but it certainly points to a fairly legitimate alibi: By the fall of 1978, Sid Vicious was so far gone that he needed Spungen’s manic direction in order to get by. This dependency, both chemical and emotional, makes it unlikely that he would have the desire, the motivation, or the heart to commit such a violent act, in spite of the clever moniker he was bestowed with.

Three years ago, I took down the Sid Vicious poster that was hanging in my basement/studio/rehearsal space. It was a black and white picture of him, taken from the scene in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle where he was on stage singing “My Way.” The act of taking down this picture, it seems, was almost a symbolic gesture, hinting at the notion that I had “outgrown” such teenage worship.

Sid Vicious, as we later learned, contributed next to nothing on Never Mind The Bullocks. In fact, his lack of musical ability and the numerous accounts of him not even playing during live performances, placed the band in the dubious position of being more aligned with manufactured groups like The Monkees instead of a legitimate groundbreaking rock act. Thankfully, the band’s implosion saved them from having people notice Sid’s serious liability as a “musician” and manager Malcolm McLaren’s penchant for press-worthy drama.

The drama followed Sid during his own fall from grace, as the press seemed eager to paint this obnoxious brat with an aggressive stage name as a sadistic murderer. This young man learned quickly enough how little empathy people had for him and how any semblance of the truth would probably be lost in the fiction that he himself helped create.

Instead of manning up to address the charges against him, Sid shrunk down to a shell of his former self, wallowing back to another bad influence to shelter him: his mother Annie. And like any good parent, she provided her son with the heroin that would ultimately take his life on February 2, 1979.

In the twenty-eight years since his death, my mental impression of Sid Vicious has gone from a the snarling, cut-up skinny boy with spiked hair and a bass guitar draping down, to a single interview scene in The Filth And The Fury.

The question, posed to him after being charged for the murder of Nancy Spungen, was “Where would you like to be?”

After considering the question for a moment, Sid replies, “Under the ground.”

“Are you serious?” The reporter asks, trying to determine if this was a response of the nihilistic Vicious of old, or the answer of a man who really considers death as a better alternative.

Sid nods and with immediate seriousness mutters, “Oh yeah.”

That image of him, a twenty-one year old staring down with dead eyes and an acute feeling that his life was no longer worth living, has stuck with me more that any other image of him since.

I’ve found that, even though it’s a fairly dismal image to keep, it’s at least a more sincere than the one originally manufactured for me.

Happy birthday, Sid Vicious… You poor sod.

12 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Sid Vicious”

  1. Great piece, Todd. It’s funny to revisit the punk thing with a little experience and a few years under your belt. That quote from Rotten perfectly captures the problem with so many “part-time” punks in that the fashion outweighs the ethics (as naive as some of those might be). To see spiked collars and tartan pants in American suburban malls may be a natural condition of culture as a commodity, but it still sucks.

  2. Yeah, it’s sort of like re-reading Catcher in the Rye as an adult, and realizing that Holden was just a dopey kid, not the rebellious badass you thought he was when you were 15.

  3. good reading is And I Dont Wanna Live This Life by the woman who birthed mean Nancy… Kid was crazy destructive in the womb

  4. yeah sid was not smart but i still like him for some reason. he was alright.i think it was the things he said sometimes.

  5. While all of what you said is true and said well, it’s not all of what’s true. Without Sid (and his death) the Sex Pistols would not be remembered as they are today nor, sadly, would they have been as influential. Sid provided the Sex Pistols with their vital Spinal Tap ingredient, and postmortem mystique. Sure, he was a hack, and a talentless schmuck. He was a reckless, talentless schmuck that provided the Sex Pistols with much of their hyperbole bad-boy press (hey, as long as they spell your name right). If he had not joined the Sex Pistols, we wouldn’t be discussing the merits of his fame and the circumstances of his death today, but nor would so many people likely still be discussing the Sex Pistols.

  6. Great piece. Sid’s whole life was sad. The drugs, the posing, the relationships with Nancy and his mother, his death, and all the rest of it just make me sad. He wasn’t a musician. He was a walking billboard for what every idiot came to see as “punk”. He was so young and so naive that he just got swept out with the tide.

    The interview that Todd mentioned in the piece is very striking. It becomes even more so when you consider he was only 21 years old. The other Sid related piece in The Filth and the Fury that is amazing is Lydon breaking down crying while he talks about his inability to help his friend kick heroin. Sid was his good friend and he lost him to the dead end of drugs and Nancy. The futility of Sid’s whole lifestyle and the glorification of it that has led to many other impressionable people doing the same things is truly tragic.

  7. a top read. today 31 may 2007 my 8yr old son asked me if i was a PUNK and what is one. i am 41 and i said yes i am and the answer to “what is one”, well i said without even thinking “SID VICIOUS”. WHY well he is my hero. i dont do drugs, but that was sid` life from birth. the lad was PUNK. sid and johnny BOTH made punk. SID NEVER KILLED NO ONE NOR DID HE O`D. he was set up then later killed off. R.I.P sid

  8. Sid was and always will be an icon in the punk community it wasnt because he dressed the same as everyone else but because his attitude was the embodiement of the punk image he was rude,loud,obnoxius,nihilistic,badass etc…back then and to this day punk needed that, punk is not about sounding good or being great, its about the message behind the music, standing up for what the band believes in and voicing their opinions out about what they feel is right, or what they are feeling at that time its suppose to come from the heart and be something that someone else can relate to or believe in…thats what true punk is,, now a lot of punk bands that are big today arent true to the punk rock idea.

  9. Sid was and always will be an icon in the punk community it wasnt because he dressed the same as everyone else but because his attitude was the embodiement of the punk image he was rude,loud,obnoxius,nihilistic,badass etc…back then and to this day punk needed that, punk is not about sounding good or being great, its about the message behind the music, standing up for what the band believes in and voicing their opinions out about what they feel is right, or what they are feeling at that time its suppose to come from the heart and be something that someone else can relate to or believe in…thats what true punk is,, now a lot of punk bands that are big today arent true to the punk rock idea.

  10. sid was a show pony. being rude, lound, obnoxious, nhilistic badass… wait, isn’t that vivian from the young ones? that’s not punk, that’s comedy. it’s a chariacutre. a cartoon.

    i like the sex pistols for what they were. i like their legend. hell, i still listen to their music from time to time. and i will always enjoy watching an interview with lydon.

    for me, grown zero for punk rock was the minutemen. mike watt, d.boon, george hurley, and a van. they had a message. they had the machines. they had the music. it wasn’t about haircuts, safety pins, funny t-shirts, or interesting shoes. just getting in the van and getting to the next town to spread their message.

    and though i admire lydon for recreating himself in pil and in later days as a social critic, i admire mike watt more for holding to his ideals and kicking it out night after night whenever and wherever he has a chance.

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