In Search of Ronnie Biggs
Issue #46, December 1999
In his autobiography, Rotten, John Lydon pours predictable scorn on the motley efforts of the remaining Sex Pistols to continue as a band after he abandoned them in early 1978. Regarding his erstwhile friend Sid Vicious, Lydon comments: "he contributed zero, apart from the image of it all. That became too show bizzy for me. That was much more Malcolm's field than mine." It is, when you think about it, a strange thing for him to say. This is, after all, the man who was singled out for fame and fortune, not because of any obvious talent or ability in the traditional musical sense, but because as an unknown nineteen year-old he had dyed his hair green and paraded up and down London's King's Road wearing a T-shirts which proclaimed "I Hate Pink Floyd." In other words, Lydon had been recruited as the Pistols' frontman precisely because of his image. In fact, one of the salient characteristics of the Pistols, and of early punk generally, was the affirmation of the importance of image, attitude and style over the tedious technical proficiency of "serious" rock music. Lydon's post-Pistols career indicates that he somehow failed to grasp this point. Next to Never Mind the Bollocks, Public Image and The Metal Box sound like embarrassingly earnest imitations of mid-70's art-rock bands like Can, replete with feeble lyrical attempts at social comment. By the mid-80's Lydon, becoming desperate in his search for authenticity, for respect as a serious artist, was reduced to singing protest songs against nuclear proliferation. This well-meaning peace campaigner was a far cry from the nutter who had proclaimed himself the Antichrist a few short years before.
But there is another passage in his autobiography which suggests that Lydon may have understood more about the real source of the Pistols' appeal than he was willing to admit openly. Speaking of the final American tour, over the course of which the band finally disintegrated, he comments that he and Vicious "felt we were alienated, and I couldn't quite see Malcolm's percentage in allowing that to happen. He found that out to his detriment when he took Steve and Paul to Rio. It was a horrendously bad flop. There wasn't anyone with enough intelligence to carry it off." The "it" to which Lydon refers here is clearly not the record or the movie which resulted from the Pistols' trip to Rio de Janeiro, where they reconnoitered and recorded with the notorious British train robber, Ronald Biggs. This "it", which he says required the kind of "intelligence" of which his own departure had robbed the group, is clearly a scheme, a scam, a con-game. Lydon is not condemning such tactics here. He's mocking his former colleagues' ineptitude in pursuing them. And in doing so, he inadvertently reveals the common ideological ground he shares with his arch-nemesis, Malcolm MacLaren.
After the Pistols broke up, MacLaren went to great lengths to portray the band's entire career as a scam orchestrated by himself. Pouring scorn on their music, he entitled their posthumous album and movie The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, which was an obvious allusion to Great Britain's most famous crime of the century, known to all residents of the U.K. as "the Great Train Robbery." The only participant in that heist to evade justice was the least intelligent and articulate of the colorful selection of London's underworld who came together in 1963 to plan and execute the biggest robbery in European history. He was the hired muscle, the thug who marred the considerable sympathy which the gang attracted from the public by beating the hapless driver of the train with such ferocity that he fell into a coma, and died a few years later. His name is Ronald Biggs and -- a few aging Nazis apart -- he remains to this day the world's best-known fugitive from justice and the only one to have been, for a few weeks in 1978, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols.
Like most of the train robbers, Biggs was captured fairly quickly and sentenced to a lengthy term in prison. But after serving little more than a year of his sentence, he carried out a daring jail-break, scaling the prison wall with a rope ladder and leaping into the back of a waiting truck. He surfaced briefly in Turkey, was spotted in Australia, underwent primitive plastic surgery, and was eventually discovered living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At that time Brazil looked askance at extradition treaties, and other famous fugitive residents of Rio were rumored to include Hitler's deputy Martin Bormann. So Biggs was safe and, barring a couple of attempts by Scotland Yard and occasional bounty hunters to deceive, drug and kidnap him out of the country, he remained firmly on Brazilian soil ever since.
Leaving aside the single episode of his successful escape, Biggs was hardly an interesting figure. He was a very minor scion of the East End criminal fraternity at a time -- the late '50's and early '60's -- when London was teeming with genuinely fascinating underworld personalities. Compared to characters such as "Mad" Frankie Fraser, the Kray twins or even to the twins' final victim, Jack "the Hat" McVitie (executed for the crime of describing Reggie Kray, accurately, as a "fat poof"), Ronald Biggs was a nobody. A small role in a big job, a lucky break and sheer chance turned him into that most postmodern of phenomena, a professional celebrity. In Rio, his cut of the loot long since spent, Biggs charged curious British tourists to attend barbecues in his garden, to take him out to dinner, to have their photo taken with him, to buy him a drink. It is not hard to see how John Lydon felt it as an insult to his integrity as an artist when Malcolm MacLaren thought Ronald Biggs could replace him.
On one level, of course, Lydon was quite right. The record Biggs cut with the remnants of the Sex Pistols, "No-one is Innocent," (it was originally going to be called "Cosh the Driver"), is as good a candidate as any for the coveted title of The Worst Record Ever Made By Anyone, Anywhere. Listening to it today you get a sense of what MacLaren had wanted the Pistols to be, and what they would have been had they not stumbled across the unique genius of John Lydon. Steve Jones and Paul Cook sound as plodding and lifeless as Def Leppard, and Biggs is obviously as embarrassed as hell, warbling away in a strained, campy cockney. The lyrics, which bear all the signs of having been written by MacLaren, sound like a grotesque parody of "God Save the Queen": "God bless Myra Hindley/ And God bless Ian Brady/ Even though he's 'orrible/ And she ain't what you'd call a lady". Lines like these, celebrating a couple of child-murderers whose crimes were committed fifteen years earlier, are an entrepreneur's notion of what the Sex Pistols were about. Compared to the astonishing, uncannily prescient lyrics of, say, "Holidays in the Sun" or "Wanna Be Me" they sound like what they were -- a fifty year-old chancer mouthing a businessman's attempt to cash in on the cheapest and most obvious form of shock value.
And this, of course, is what MacLaren would have us believe was his purpose in creating the group. Maybe it was. Certainly his earlier bright idea of pretending that the Communist vanguard of the proletariat could be located in the New York Dolls -- a band who probably thought manual labor was the President of Cuba -- was a cut and dried case of epater le bourgeoisie, and a singularly unsuccessful one at that. And yet it would be surprising if such a consistently mendacious character as MacLaren was being entirely honest even about his own lack of principle. Greil Marcus, in Lipstick Traces, and Jon Savage, in England's Dreaming, have clearly demonstrated the extent of MacLaren's involvement with and commitment to the Situationist International, the group of European ultra-leftists who clustered around the figure of Guy Debord in the 1950's and '60's. Debord's major work, Society of the Spectacle, is a theoretically rigorous excoriation of consumer society, which focuses on the system of "entertainment" as representing the latest and most heinous phase of capitalist exploitation. The Sex Pistols' vehement rejection of the "star system", their withering contempt for such sacred rock cows as Elvis and the Beatles (one of MacLaren's unfortunately unrealized schemes was to set fire to the waxwork models of the Fab Four in Madame Toussaud's Wax Museum), their denunciation of the charts, the radio, the television and the entire music "industry" was clearly and directly inspired by Debord and, further back, such seminal essays as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's "The Culture Industry." In fact, as Marcus has pointed out, many of the Pistols' lyrics (for instance "a cheap holiday in other people's misery") originated as Situationist slogans daubed on the walls of Paris during the insurrection of May '68.
The essential idea was that late-capitalist "entertainment" was in fact neo-fascist propaganda, which furthered the progressive commodification of all experience and consequent dehumanization of mankind. The "stars" or "celebrities" who perpetuated this evil system were thus contemptible collaborators, enemies of the people to be denounced, arraigned and quite possibly even shot come the revolution. Through some mysterious ideological osmosis, the gist of these ideas somehow filtered through to the California desert where, in the mid-60's, an intelligent and deranged cult leader named Charles Manson was telling his followers much the same thing. The Manson Family considered people such as Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski to be scum, living a life of idle luxury at the financial and spiritual expense of the brainwashed masses who were forced by the irresistible industries of advertising and public relations to enrich their oppressors by purchasing their worthless, soul-destroying product. The Manson murders were intended as an act of insurrection, a Guevarist attempt to galvanize the people through a heroic gesture of defiance. It is not necessary to endorse their methods in order to concede that, theoretically, they may have had a point.
Certainly Malcolm MacLaren thought so. His original idea for continuing the Pistols after Lydon's departure had been to stay in California and make a record with Manson himself, from his jail cell if necessary. Of this episode, Lydon comments: "This was Malcolm's silliness. Nonsense, fantasy, none of it reality based." Which makes you wonder what he thought of the idea of a rock band who could neither sing nor play their instruments, whom it was essentially impossible to see perform live and certainly impossible to hear on the radio, whose records had been recalled and destroyed by their own record company, who provoked the very workers in the factories to walk out on strike rather than manufacture their records, and whose members were immediately physically assaulted whenever they showed their faces in public. Was such an idea "reality based"? Or was it rather a cunning foray into reality of the postmodern phenomenon known as "hyper-reality"? By what right did the character Lydon invented for himself and called "Johnny Rotten" consider himself a serious, authentic artiste, while condemning similar pretensions on the part of Charles Manson or Ronald Biggs?
This was one of the questions playing on my mind as my plane touched down at the Rio airport in August. For anyone brought up in Britain over the last three decades, Rio de Janeiro is as closely associated with Ronald Biggs as with the Sugar Loaf mountain or thong bikinis. As I'd anticipated my vacation there, I'd often found myself wondering how Biggs, separated from the punks by the yawning cultural divide of thirty years, felt about his brief career as singer with the most important rock band in history. Once I'd settled into the hotel room in Copacabana, I was pottering around looking for ways to amuse myself while waiting for my travelling companion to get ready, and I idly flicked through the telephone directory to the letter "B". Nazi Martin Bormann wasn't listed but, to my amazement, Ronald A. Biggs was. Despite our global culture, I realized, celebrity can still be a surprisingly local and parochial phenomenon. If he was ever foolish enough to return to the U.K., Ronald Biggs would stop the traffic dead on any street he walked down. He couldn't go to the pub, buy a pack of cigarettes or list his telephone number without attracting a torrent of unwelcome attention. He is, in short, a celebrity. But not in Brazil. In Rio, Biggs was anonymous: just another Brit in a bar, just another gringo lech on the beach. In Rio, Biggs was just another name in the telephone book: he was somebody, therefore, that you could call up.
I wasn't quite ready yet to make an unsolicited phone call to a notoriously violent criminal celebrity. Arriving in Rio de Janeiro is an overwhelming experience. It takes a bit of getting used to, though not for the reasons you might imagine. The first impression is of a somber, spooky city: downtown is full of crumbling colonial facades and neo-authoritarian concrete blocks. You look for the reputedly beautiful Brazilian women, and find instead an average range of Latina garotas. The traffic fumes turn the air blue. Even in the Southern Hemisphere's winter the heat is severe. Botafogo Bay is too polluted for swimming, and a strong odor wafts inland from the black water. You might be in Mexico City, or even in downtown Los Angeles.
The image that people in the West have of Rio is based upon only two of its multifarious neighborhoods, the adjacent beachfront districts of Copacabana and Ipanema and, once here, your impression of the city changes dramatically. Copacabana, in particular, is like nowhere else on earth. The beach is white, the sea is blue, the waves are huge, and everyone is almost naked which means that the glaring disparity between rich and poor is invisible. A hundred barefoot soccer games are constantly taking place, even at three in the morning. Copacabana vies with Tokyo in terms of population density, and with Manhattan in terms of diversity, but it comfortably surpasses both in terms of vice and hedonism. There is a bar on every single corner, there is a pharmacy rumored to dispense over-the-counter codeine and amphetamine on every single block. As soon as night falls, the Avenida Atlantica swarms with hookers. In the street market the stall-holders peddle crack. Inside Help Discotheque, drunken Western men dirty dance with coked-up Brazilian whores. In the daytime, the smell of marijuana floats past at predictable intervals; everyone is drinking beer. Remarks about the Latin temperament drop easily from the mouths of tourists from the Northern, Protestant world of temperance and labor.
After a couple of days meandering around this strange adult theme park I was sufficiently dazed and disoriented to give Biggs a call. I reasoned that if he'd spent thirty-odd years in Rio, he must be a fairly laid-back guy by now, history of extreme violence or not. Nevertheless, my heart was in my mouth as the phone begins to ring. After a few seconds an unmistakably cockney voice rasped "'Ello." "Hello," I said, "is that Ronald Biggs?" "It is." He sounded happy, flattered to be asked. I'd rehearsed what came next carefully over the last hour. "Ah, of course, nice to talk to you. My friend and I are over here from England for a few days, and you've always been a famous figure to us, so we'd consider it an honor to buy you a drink." Now he was definitely pleased. I got the impression that this didn't happen to him too often. As I'd expected, though, he was pretty wary. This is a man, after all, who was once drugged and bundled aboard a yacht by bounty hunters pretending to be tourists. "Yeah, well... I dahn't drink no more. 'Cos I 'ad a stroke. So drinkings aht." I'd heard he'd had a stroke, but I could tell that he was trying to come up with an inoffensive excuse. I wasn't letting him off so lightly, though. "Well, it wouldn't have to be alcohol, we could just grab a cup of coffee if you'd prefer..." But by now he'd had time to muster his resources. "Well its a bit short notice really, son. I'm busy at the moment with some friends, and tomorrow we're going orf on an 'oliday to this island..." Biggs rambled on for a couple of minutes, not unfriendly and still pleased to be asked, but obviously playing the coquette. I didn't mind. I was thrilled to talk to him. The conversation ended cordially, with me agreeing to call him again in a few days, and Biggs promising to try and "fit me in."
I never called back. One does not put pressure on Ronald Biggs, I reflected. Instead, I began wondering why I had felt this desire to exchange a few words with a man who, though famous, was clearly highly ordinary. The answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the Sex Pistols. Celebrities in postmodern society fulfill the same function as religious icons in earlier era -- they provide a superstitious fascination, and proximity to them brings a specific kind of thrill. And this is true of any celebrity, of celebrity per se. Celebrity culture makes it possible to experience life vicariously, to live through mere representations of life. As Debord puts it: "Media stars are spectacular representations of living human beings.... The individual who in the service of the spectacle is placed in stardom's spotlight is in fact the opposite of an individual, and as clearly the enemy of the individual in himself as of the individual in others." It is already hard to remember that the Sex Pistols originally appeared as a protest against the star system. Only twenty years later, the idea of a rock band -- even a punk rock band -- who not only declared that they had no desire to be stars but also declaimed an excoriating hatred for all stars, and for the institution of stardom as such, is all but unthinkable.
The victory of oppression is total when it begins to seem like liberation -- like "entertainment." The genius of the Sex Pistols, and the reason why the "music industry" loathed them with a palpable terror, is that they recognized, and said, that rock music was the prime example of this phenomenon. Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart were not liberators, or even clowns: they were tyrants, dictators, and fascists. And it is in this sense that, for all his cynicism and avarice, Malcolm MacLaren understood what he was doing far better than John Lydon. As his post-Pistols career testifies, the singer considered himself an artist, different in quality from the rest, certainly, but not different in kind. MacLaren saw things differently; for him the Pistols were not music, they were anti-music. "No-one is Innocent." The lesson of Biggs's liaison with the Sex Pistols was that, in a celebrity culture, a man who becomes famous for being a criminal is no worse than one who becomes famous for being a singer, an actor, or a politician. God bless Ronald Biggs.
The first record David Hawkes ever bought was "Holiday in the Sun."