It was almost four decades ago that Johnny Rotten declared Great Britain’s “future dream is a shopping scheme” — and thanks to Richard Branson, it appears the future is now.
Virgin Money, the banking arm of the record company that originally issued the Sex Pistols’ first and only full-length album, announced today the release of a series of consumer credit cards emblazoned with artwork from the seminal punk band’s early recordings.
The cards — one featuring uncensored graphics from the cover of “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,” and another proclaiming “Anarchy in the U.K.” — come with an introductory rate of 18.9 percent, something every single press report seems to include because, you know, nothing says “iconoclast” like a steep APR.
The twittersphere was mostly (and mostly predictably) up in arms. “Punk is dead,” declared @LucasMansell98 — and about half the industrialized world — but others spotted the ironic take on the irony. @gilfer tweeted “Never mind the @VirginMoney bollocks. The truth is, the Sex Pistols were as much a commercial manufactured product as any 90s boy-band.”
Give or take, true dat. As Rotten sang in “EMI,” the band’s one-fingered salute to their first record company (which unceremoniously dumped them after releasing only one single), “And you thought that we were faking / That we were all just money making / You do not believe we're for real / Or you would lose your cheap appeal.”
While the music was, through the magic of audio tape and some good session work, undeniably real, the band, the posturing and much of the outrage was very much a commercial project, if perhaps one grafted onto the thrashing guitar lines and pounding backbeats of a couple of teens from Hammersmith.
That would be Steve Jones and Paul Cook, respectively. The addition of vocalist John Lydon (redubbed “Rotten,” reportedly because of his dental hygiene, but just as likely because it sounded more “punk”) and, later, “bassist” Sid Vicious (Sid was many things, but an accomplished musician was not one of them) had as much to do with the promotional savvy of then-boutique owner Malcolm McLaren.
Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, the King’s Road clothing store McLaren ran with designer Vivienne Westwood, was a hangout for pre-punks in the mid-1970s, including Jones and Cook. Soon thereafter, McLaren and Westwood moved from Rock ‘n’ Roll to S&M-inspired wear, changed the shop’s name to SEX, and McLaren eventually joined forces with Jones and Cook to rep and rebrand their band, as well.
McLaren was at least part of the story that brought Lydon/Rotten on board. And it was as much because of his look, as the story goes, as anything. “Everyone had long hair then, even the milkman,” recounted Glen Matlock, the Sex Pistols’ original bassist, in the book Punk Rock by John Robb, “so what we used to do was if someone had short hair we would stop them in the street and ask them if they fancied themselves as a singer.”
The marketing angle was not lost on the band’s new, shorthaired lead singer. “Malcolm and Vivienne were really a pair of shysters: they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto," said Lydon in Punk Rock.
McLaren died in 2010, but that was after a career that spring-boarded from his association with the Sex Pistols, and all the shopping schemes associated therewith. In 1996, the Sex Pistols reunited — with Matlock jumping back in for the long-dead Vicious — for a cash-sucking 78-date reunion concert series titled the Filthy Lucre Tour.
"We still hate each other with a vengeance," Lydon said at a presser announcing that tour. "But we've found a common cause, and that's your money.”
“But don’t judge a book just by the cover (unless you cover just another)” — as the music will tell you — try to find the irony in the straight-faced proclamation by Virgin Director of Credit Cards Michael Greene: “In launching these cards, we wanted to celebrate Virgin's heritage and difference. The Sex Pistols challenged convention and the established ways of thinking — just as we are doing today in our quest to shake up UK banking."
And by shaking up, he means, one might guess, putting the word “bollocks” on a card you might swipe to, say, buy nappies for your baby or a tea set for your mum. Because, as best as one might guess, Greene doesn’t mean by developing a product that doesn’t add to the metastasizing amounts of credit card debt crushing consumers on both sides of the pond.
“We don’t want Anarchy in banking,” said a release from Virgin Money's Jayne-Anne Gadhia. Godforbid! Instead, according to Gadhia, Virgin wants “to get rid of the bollocks in banking and to be simple, open, transparent and fair.”
Fair ... enough.
For their part, the remaining Pistols came to an agreement with Virgin Money to license their work for “an undisclosed sum.”
For Lydon, the jump from art to commerce and (maybe) back to art is not an alien one. In recent years, he served as a spokesmodel for Country Life butter, reportedly plowing the money into his decades-old, off-and-on band, Public Image Limited.
Perhaps the most fitting assessment comes from Branson, whose Virgin Records became the multi-headed moneymaking hydra that birthed today’s plastic progeny. “I can't think of anything more appropriate than Virgin Money adopting the Sex Pistols on their credit card,” the mogul said in a promotional video.
“Oh Lord God have mercy” — because the last word should belong to the Sex Pistols — “All crimes are paid.”