SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 16, 2018

More Adventures in the Stupid, Pointless and Geeky

 

Oh, this is just dumb and geeky.

            In 1988, I was working at a used book stand in Philly’s Reading Terminal Market, a sprawling open-air market set up inside a leaky and crumbling old train terminal in the northeast part of Center City. The small book stand was a cash-only operation. We had no cash register, just a legal pad where I kept a record of each sale, a pile of coins, and a small metal box to hold the bills. Since I was the only one working there most days, yes, I was doing a little skimming off the top.

            Depending on how busy we were that day, I was walking out of the Terminal every night with between twenty and a hundred dollars more than I had with me when I showed up that morning. Given I was young and stupid, two or three nights a week while walking home, instead of pausing to deposit the money in the bank, I brought the day’s windfall to a little record store on Chestnut Street.

            It wasn’t a great record store by any means. All the good and weird record stores were down on South Street. This one—I forget the name now—was bright but dreary and decidedly mainstream. Still, I was able to pick up some Ramones there, and Motorhead and Blue Oyster Cult and a Lydia Lunch double album. I even snagged Sigmund Snopek III’s rare WisconsInsane album, which remains a seminal record to me to this day. I have absolutely no idea how such a thing ended up in a store like that.

            One fall evening on my way home from work, an extra eighty bucks in my pocket after a decent day at the book stand, I stopped into the record store as usual to see what was new. While flipping through the bins, honestly not expecting to find much of anything worthwhile,  I spotted a newly-released Sex Pistols anthology.

            At the time, I had a more than extensive Pistols collection. During their brief life as a band, they only had a repertoire of about fifteen songs, so gathering a pretty complete collection wasn’t that tough. Along with the one studio album and the official posthumous releases, I had demos and outtakes, bootlegs of a dozen live shows, and a collection of radio spots, newscasts and interviews. I also had a fistful of books about the Sex Pistols, which only confirmed I had pretty much everything there was to find, Pistols-wise.

            So I wasn’t expecting to find any surprises on this new record. And as I flipped it over in the store and scanned down the track listing, I was mostly right. The same outtakes and demos, together with the notorious Bill Grundy interview. But then I spotted one song I’d never heard of before called “Revolution in the Classroom.”

            I didn’t think much of it at first. Given the limited number of recorded songs, bootleggers had taken to changing the titles on their releases to fool the unwary. Most, if you knew your Sex Pistols, were pretty easy to figure out (“Wanna Be Me” becomes “This is Brainwash,” etc.). This one, though, was a stickler. Standing there in the record store I ran through their entire small repertoire trying to find a possible match, but nothing came close. Maybe, I dunno, it was a live version of “Anarchy in the UK” with new lyrics? Seemed unlikely, but who knows?

            Curious about the possibility that ten years after they imploded, someone might have actually uncovered a new Sex Pistols song, I paid for the record and brought it home. If it was another bit of trickery, well, what the hell? Didn’t really cost me anything, and I’d have a new Pistols album to go with all the others.

            Once home I opened a beer, unwrapped the album, and slapped it on the turntable in the corner. I could tell from the opening notes, a guitar riff on “Pomp and Circumstance” that I most definitely did not have this one. Weird, given it was a polished studio recording. The drums and bass and vocals kicked in, and everything sounded right. That was Johnny Rotten alright, though sounding a bit closer to what he’d be doing with Public Image Ltd. a couple of years later. That they would do a song about how awful schools are made sense, though it seemed a bit more ham-fisted and pedestrian than their usual output. Still, it was mighty catchy. I scoured the sleeve for any more detailed info, recording dates, anything, but there was nothing.

            What the fuck? Comparatively pedestrian or not, it was a great fucking song, so why wasn’t this all over the news, or even the album jacket? Finding a new Pistols studio recording was like finding a lost Beatles recording! Well, to some of us anyway. Why wasn’t anyone making a huge deal about this?

            Then I got suspicious. I had live recordings from their earliest performances to their very last, and they never did this one. I had multiple demos of everything they did, and never heard this one, and this was no demo—it was a finished and polished studio recording. And gotta say, it was a helluva lot better than a few of the finished tracks they did release, so why would they bury it?

            Yeah, something was smelling a little rancid here. But damn it, I still loved the song, and it was there on an at least semi-legitimate release claiming it really was the Pistols I was hearing, and I wanted to believe that.

            In those innocent pre-Internet days, my preliminary research involved looking for ‘zine reviews of the album, to see if anyone else had any historical insight into the song’s origins. A few people mentioned it, but they all simply accepted it at face value. Then I found a review in, I think, B-Side magazine, which, while mostly praising the sound quality of the recording, mentions in passing that the anthology “even includes a song the Sex Pistols never recorded.”

            That was the tip I needed. The question still remained, though, if this wasn’t the Pistols, who recorded it? And how did it find it’s way on to an at least semi-legit Pistols anthology as the real thing? But they were wild and drunken days, I was young and easily distracted back then, and I soon forgot about it.

             I always remembered that song though, which was the only thing off that record I did remember. The album itself soon went out of print and disappeared, but in 1998. The song reappeared on another new anthology of supposed Pistols rarities. That one, too, quickly vanished. I started to get an inkling, just a feeling with no real evidence, that some kind of lawsuit might be behind the disappearance of both albums.

            Suddenly thinking about that song again recently, some thirty years after first hearing it, I went back to give it a closer listen. For the first time the tell-tale giveaways became more clear. First, the production was all wrong. That slight echo was definitely an artifact of the mid-Eighties. Although the vocalist does a very good and convincing Johnny Rotten at first blush, compare it side by side with other (real) studio recordings from that 1975-’78 stretch, and you can tell it isn’t him. Mighty close, but not quite. And as mentioned before, the song writing falls short. Rotten’s lyrics were never that straightforward and obvious.

            No, this wasn’t the Pistols, but the question was still, who was it?

            You go online today and look up “Revolution in the classroom,”  and most of the pages that pop up continue to cite it as a Pistols original. They offer no evidence or citations of legitimacy, of course, because these pages are put up by people who don’t know shit.

            So I finally set myself the serious task of uncovering the truth. It took about ten minutes, given it was never much of a secret.

            In 1979, a year after the Sex Pistols imploded at the end of the Winterland show in San Francisco, Dave Goodman, one time Sex Pistols producer (one of several who were canned) formed a band in London called, yes, The Ex Pistols.

            Far more than merely a Pistols cover band, The Ex-Pistols were a sound-alike band, and a darn good one. This meant Goodman could write new and original songs in the style of The Sex Pistols, like “Revolution in the Classroom” and “Schools Are Prisons.” No, the songwriting was not on a par with John Lydon’s, but they were sonically close enough to fool the unwary.

            Goodman pushed the deception even further by releasing singles and albums whose cover art closely resembled the Pistols’ own, right down to photos of the original band.

            This of course eventually led to a lawsuit filed by John Lydon, who argued successfully that Goodman was not only using his image without permission (though sometimes Goodman used a lookalike), but releasing inferior material designed to, yes, fool the unwary and damage the Pistols, um, reputation.

            The Ex Pistols, nevertheless, hung around until 1992. And given they were releasing records containing both believable-sounding covers together with originals, I guess you can see why some drug-addled fool throwing together a quickie Pistols anthology might be fooled.

            Well, that’s all. Now I can sleep again. And I still like that stupid song.

 

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