While proto punk bands such as MC5 and The Stooges paved the way for the punk movement of the 70’s, it is still argued that the two most influential bands in the genre were the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. In a culture full of fantastic characters and fashion, a pair of young lovers emerged as the punk rock version of Romeo and Juliet. However, It wasn’t romance that warranted the comparison, but the two young lives that were intertwined, and ended in premature death. This is the story of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.
May 10th, 1957
John Simon Ritchie was born to John and Anne Ritchie in Lewisham (LOO ISHEM)- a borough of London England that would later be known for the Battle of Lewisham, when the far right National Front met opposition during a 1977 march.
Anne had dropped out of school and joined the Royal Air Force, where she met John, a guardsman at Buckingham Palace. John Ritchie’s intentions became clear when Anne and her infant son moved to Ibiza, where they were to be followed by Ritchie. He never showed… and the planned financial support he promised never materialized.
February 27th, 1958
Nancy Spungen was born to Deborah and Frank Spungen in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Nancy was troubled from the start. As a newborn, she was jaundiced and needed a blood transfusion. In the following weeks and months, she cried and screamed nonstop for no discernible medical reason. At three months old, she was introduced to sedatives, when she was administered liquid phenobarbital by her pediatrician. It was only a temporary solution, however. Deborah later said of Nancy “I know it’s normal for babies to scream, but Nancy did nothing BUT scream.”
At just four years old, Nancy saw a psychiatrist for the first time. Despite being a very bright child, she had been constantly throwing tantrums and experiencing severe mood swings.
As Nancy grew older, she excelled at academics, but struggled socially. She exhibited strange behavior at home as well. While she was a loving big sister to her brother David, she abused her younger sister Susan. After striking her mother with a hammer and allegedly threatening to kill her babysitter with a pair of scissors, Nancy’s parents sought professional help for their daughter. She was taken to a psychiatrist, who believed Nancy was acting out for attention. Nancy took this as an accusation, and, as if to drive the point home, physically attacked the psychiatrist.
Deborah Spungen later wrote “A 7 year-old ran our household. When she wanted something, no matter how big or small, she hollered and screamed and backed us into a corner until we were the ones to back down. We gave in to her. Why? Because there was absolutely no peace in the house until she got what she wanted.”
Anne Ritchie married Christopher Beverley. The family moved to Kent, England and 8 year-old John took his stepfather’s surname. Sadly, Christopher Beverley lost his fight to cancer just six months later. Once again, John was left fatherless. Both Anne and John were devastated.
11 year-old Nancy Spungen was expelled from school after missing more than two weeks of class. Her parents enrolled her at Devereux Manor, a boarding school for special needs students.
John moved with his mother to Hackney; a borough in inner London. Meanwhile, Nancy discovered recreational drugs for the first time.
Nancy was 14 years old when she ran away from Devereux Manor High School. She slit her wrists with scissors in an apparent suicide attempt.
Chelsea, London- working class teens Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Wally Nightingale formed the proto-punk band, The Strand with stolen instruments. The young band hung out at clothing shops, most notably Acme Attractions and Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. The latter of which was owned and operated by future punk icons Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
Once again using his biological father’s surname, 16 year-old John Ritchie was using drugs, and mainlining speed. When asked by his friends where he was getting the drugs, John replied “Me mum”. Anne was a drug addict and seemingly had no compunctions about sharing drugs with her son.
John attended the Hackney Technical College, where he met 17 year-old John Lydon. David Bowie was the best selling music act in the UK at the time. Many teens modeled their look after the glam rocker, including John Ritchie. To avoid confusion, I’ll be referring to John Ritchie and John Lydon by their surnames from this point going forward.
Lydon had a pet hamster named Sid, after Pink Floyd singer Syd Barrett. Ritchie was petting the hamster one day when it bit him. Ritchie said “Sid is really vicious!”. This struck Lydon funny, given the nature of the soft and cuddly animal. Lydon found a similarly ironic satisfaction in calling Ritchie Sid Vicious. Even though Ritchie initially hated it, the unsolicited nickname stuck.
That same year, 15 year-old Nancy was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and was shooting up heroin.
Nancy graduated from Devereux in April, and moved to Boulder, Colorado, where she attended the University of Colorado. Five months later, she bought marijuana from an undercover police officer and was arrested. Sixteen year old Nancy was then expelled from the University after stolen items were found in her dorm room. Frank Spungen brokered a plea that kept his daughter out of jail, and out of Colorado. One of the conditions of her release was that she was never to step foot in the state again. Getting banned from an entire state? That’s kinda punk rock.
After returning home to Pennsylvania, Nancy seemed willing to embrace her fresh start. She promptly got a job, but the straight and narrow lifestyle wasn’t for her. She was fired her very first day on the job. She began stealing from her family to support her drug habit.
While Nancy was in Pennsylvania, Ritchie was frequenting popular hang out spots around London. One of his favorite places was the clothing store, SEX, formerly known as Too Fast to Live, Too Young To Die. The newly named boutique was still owned and operated by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. McLaren had dipped his toe into music management, overseeing the booking for the New York Dolls. Once his tenure with the Dolls was over, Steve Jones convinced him to manage his band, now going by the name QT Jones and the Sex Pistols.
Meanwhile, John Ritchie lived with John Lydon, John Wardle and John Grey. Apparently, John was a very popular baby name in 1950’s England.
The four Johns, as they were known, squatted together in a house located in the wealthy Hampstead area with a group of older men, which the four considered aging hippies.
It was around this time that Lydon convinced Ritchie to change his style from glam to what would come to be known as punk. The punk style was a direct rebuttal to consumerism and commercialism. Ironically, those very things would later chew up, swallow and regurgitate punk fashion by way of Hot Topic and it’s ilk. But, I digress.
Nancy moved to New York. The 17 year-old heroin addict was inextricably drawn to the trash culture of the burgeoning punk rock scene. She became a hardcore groupie, even modeling herself after iconic American groupie, Sable Starr. Nancy socialized with many of the various bands playing such Manhattan venues as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. She became a go-between for musicians and drug dealers. She became a topless dancer, and when that didn’t pay enough to finance her drug use, she began sex work.
It was around this time that McLaren’s partner, Bernie Rhodes took notice of John Lydon. The 19 year-old was sporting bright green hair and wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt with the words “I Hate” handwritten above the band’s name. Rhodes asked Lydon to join him at a pub to meet Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Jones later said “I thought he had a really interesting face. I liked his look. He had his I hate Pink Floyd t-shirt on, and it was held together with safety pins. John had something special, but when he started talking he was a real arsehole…but smart.”
Despite a lack of any singing experience whatsoever, McLaren convinced the band to rehearse with Lydon. By November of ‘75, he was re-christened Johnny Rotten and became the lead singer of the Sex Pistols. John Ritchie hung out with the band and traveled with them to shows.
Back in New York, tension was brewing for Nancy. She was outspoken, aggressive and a constant presence. Other girls on the scene came to dislike her and called her “Nauseating Nancy”.
The Sex Pistols continued to play pubs in London and began growing their fan base- a core group of followers known as the Bromley Contingent included future punk icons Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol.
Nick Kent was a music journalist for New Music Express, more commonly known as NME- a prominent British music publication. After attending a Sex Pistols gig, he got into an altercation with Sid. The fight ended with Nick left bloody after Sid beat him about the head with an old bicycle chain. The motivation for the beating wasn’t clear, but it may be no coincidence that Nick was dating Chrissie Hynde, who was a good friend of Sid’s.
July 4th, 1976 is an historic date in punk rock history. The Ramones traveled from New York to London to play a venue called the Roundhouse with the Flamin’ Groovies. Sid Vicious, like so many other London punks, attended the show that night. That same night in Sheffield, the Clash played their very first gig, opening up for the Sex Pistols at the Black Swan..
The next night, The Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols all played the same bill at Dingwalls in Camden.
These two performances by the Ramones are credited for the explosion of 70’s punk music. Nearly every band that saw them at the Roundhouse or Dingwalls sped up their music to match the energy and intensity of the Ramones.
Up to this point, Sid was mostly a fan of Iggy & the Stooges and David Bowie. After these shows, he taught himself bass by playing along with the Ramones first album, released just three months earlier.
In New York, Nancy watched Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers play Max’s Kansas City and became infatuated with their drummer, Jerry Nolan. He had been friendly towards her, but ultimately rebuffed her sexual advances. Nancy was persistent and would show her affection by becoming Jerry’s “gopher”, despite the lack of reciprocation.
The day before playing the 100 Club “Punk Special” in London, Siouxsie and The Banshees asked Sid Vicious to join them on drums. The band was one of the opening acts supporting the Sex Pistols. Show goers later described their set as “unbearable”. But Punk wasn’t about musical talent. It was about the look and the attitude. Sid Vicious had both. Both Siouxsie and Sid wore swastika armbands with the intent of being offensive. It worked. For better or worse, Sid and Siouxsie would be remembered after this night.
Over the next few days, Sid rehearsed with his newly formed band, The Flowers of Romance. Sid composed a few original songs, but they mostly played Ramones covers.
The Sex Pistols were signed by EMI Records to a two-year contract.
The Pistols’ first single “Anarchy in the UK” was released.
The band Queen was supposed to have appeared on the English Today show with Bill Grundy, but cancelled at the last minute. A fateful choice was made to bring in The Sex Pistols to replace them. You’ve probably seen the video, but if you haven’t, I’ve linked it in the show description. Opinions differ as to who was at fault, but it seems Grundy goaded the band by challenging their punk ethos when he mentioned their hefty paycheck from EMI. The interview quickly went downhill, with Steve Jones and Johnny Rotten using expletives on the live broadcast. Unfazed, Grundy invited further misbehavior by asking Jones to say something outrageous. Jones obliged by calling Grundy a dirty bastard and a dirty fucker. Grundy retorted “What a clever boy”, but Jones had the last word when he said “What a fucking rotter!”.
Though the Today show was a regional program in London, the incident quickly spread to national and eventually international news outlets. This only bolstered the Sex Pistols’ punk image and paved the road for future success.
EMI, pressured by shareholders, dropped the Sex Pistols and paid out their remaining contract.
Bassist Glen Matlock left and was replaced by Sid Vicious. A move that was made public with the following telegram from Malcolm McLaren to NME: “Sid Vicious, their best friend and always a member of the group but unheard as yet, was enlisted. His best credential was he gave Nick Kent what he deserved many months ago”
The Pistols were signed by A&M Records. The photogenic Sid Vicious was front and center for the promotional photo session of the signing in front of Buckingham Palace. Afterwards the band returned to the A&M offices and promptly trashed the place. Sid smashed a toilet and somehow cut his foot bad enough that he trailed blood through the offices.
After the Pistols got into a fight with another band at a club, one of Johnny Rotten’s friends threatened the life of a good friend of A&M’s English director.
Nancy Spungen was still devoted to Jerry Nolan, despite his lack of interest in her. By all accounts, since Nancy had inserted herself into his life relentlessly, Nolan took advantage and treated her as an unpaid personal assistant. Nancy had followed the Heartbreakers back to London and was squatting in their flat as an unwanted guest.
Less than a week after signing with A&M, the Sex Pistols were let go from their contract. Almost all of the 25,000 copies of the “God Save the Queen” single that were pressed were destroyed. The Pistols were paid 75 thousand pounds for their remaining contract.
Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had enough of Nancy and kicked her out of their flat. Nancy moved in with Linda Ashby- a dominatrix.
That same month, Nancy shifted her attention from the Heartbreakers and Jerry Nolan, to the new band she was following- the Sex Pistols. It was Johnny Rotten that first caught her eye. She came onto him, but when he harshly rejected her, she turned to Sid Vicious, who supposedly felt bad at how mean Johnny had been to Nancy. This was the beginning of the end for Sid and Nancy.
Nancy and Sid had fallen madly in love and shared everything, including needles. Both were in the throes of heroin addiction. Sid was diagnosed with hepatitis after friends noticed his skin looked yellow. He would be admitted to hospital four days later for treatment. Nancy was a near-constant presence at Sid’s bedside during his month long stay.
The Sex Pistols signed with their third label in just a little over six months. This time, it was Virgin Records.
Sid gave his first published interview with the Daily Mirror. He was quoted as saying “I’m not a vicious person, really. I love my mum. She understands me and is glad I’ve found something in life I really enjoy. I’ll probably die by the time I reach 25, but I’ll have lived the way I want to.” Sid later said that he told the reporter the opposite of what they had wanted from him.
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is released. It would be their first, and only studio album.
The rest of the band was fed up with Sid’s behavior. He rarely showed up for rehearsals, and when he did he was practically despondent. They blamed Nancy for negatively influencing him.
Sid showed up for rehearsal, only to discover he was the only one there. He became depressed and extremely intoxicated. He was so distraught that he attempted to jump out of his hotel window. When Nancy stopped him, Sid became violent with her. The two fought… loudly. Police were called by the hotel and arrested both Sid and Nancy. Though no charges were filed, this was the final straw for the rest of the band. They gave Sid an ultimatum. “Get rid of Nancy, or you’re out of the band.”
The Sex Pistols came to America for the first time, playing several dates in the deep south. Road crew manager and Warner Brothers employee Noel Monk took it upon himself to look after Sid. He bit off more than he could chew. After their very first US show in Atlanta, Georgia, Sid disappeared. He was eventually found in a hospital after having carved the words “Gimme a fix” in his own chest with a knife.
In a sold-out show in Memphis, Tennessee, Sid gashed his arm with his knife after being encouraged by fans.
Four days later the Pistols were playing a Dallas Texas show when a member of the audience headbutted Sid. Not one to be shown up, a now bloodied Sid Vicious ripped the bandage off his arm and threw it into the crowd, smiling wildly the entire time. The bandage was from his self-inflicted wound at the Memphis show and had been soaked with pus and blood. The rabid Pistols fans ripped it apart, each keeping a piece as a ghoulish souvenir.
On their way to San Francisco, the band stopped at a truck stop for a meal. They were challenged by a group they described as “rednecks”. When one of them specifically questioned Sid’s toughness, Sid took a steak knife from the table and plunged it into his hand, before casually finishing his meal.
January 14th San Francisco, California.
The Pistols finally made the last leg of a poorly executed tour. Before playing what would be their final show at the Winterland Ballroom, the band was interviewed by various local radio stations. During one interview, Sid said “We’ll probably be dead in two years.”
The Pistols took the stage, but instead of the anticipated high energy introduction to british punk music, the performance was lackluster at best. The four members barely acknowledged each other during their set and Johnny Rotten ended it by saying into the microphone “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
The Sex Pistols split up when Steve Jones and Paul Cook decided they didn’t want to work with Johnny or Sid any longer. That night, Sid overdosed on heroin and was turning blue when he was found by Malcolm McLaren.
Three days later, Sid OD’ed again while on a flight to New York. He fell into a coma and was rushed to a hospital. While recovering, he spoke to photographer Roberta Bayley. When she told him she was happy to hear he would be okay, Sid said “I probably will die in six months, actually”.
Again, on April 8th, Sid told the Record Mirror “I’ll die before I’m very old. I don’t know why. I just have this feeling. There have been plenty of other times that I’ve nearly died.
Sid’s cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” is released as the b-side to a Sex Pistols single. When reviewed by NME, the reviewer wrote “Just a thought; the last person to record “My Way” died soon after.” He was referring to Elvis Presley, who performed and recorded a live version of the song in June of 1977, before dying just two months later. It seemed everyone saw the writing on the wall.
Sid and Nancy moved into Room 100 at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City.
Frank Spungen visited his daughter at the Hotel to deliver some of her belongings. Sid and Nancy were laying in bed in the dark watching cartoons on TV. They were surrounded by garbage, dirty clothes and drug paraphernalia. They were both too strung out to even notice that Frank was there.
Nancy called her mother, complaining of kidney pain and asking for money. This was nothing new to Deborah, so she told her daughter to make a doctor’s appointment and have the bill sent to Frank and herself. It was at this point that Sid took the phone from Nancy and started yelling at Deborah before hanging up.
Nancy called her mother back later and admitted that Sid had been beating her and was not himself because of his drug use. Nancy seemed more lucid than normal, and made sure to ask after her grandmother as well as asking her mother to deliver messages of love to various family members before hanging up. It felt to Deborah as if her daughter was saying her final farewells.
Knowing that Sid had a fascination with knives, Nancy bought 5 inch folding knife with a jaguar carved into it’s black handle.
During the early hours of October 12th, the front desk of the Hotel Chelsea received a phone call from Room 100, alerting them that someone was injured and needed help. The caller was unidentified but is believed to have been Sid Vicious.
Nancy was found in the bathroom, wearing nothing but a bra and underwear. She was sitting under the sink.in a pool of her own blood. She had been stabbed once in the abdomen and had apparently bled to death where she sat. Sid claimed to have found Nancy when he awoke from a drug fueled stupor. There were two different drug dealers that had visited room 100 shortly before Nancy’s death. One of them claimed to have last seen her alive at 4 or 5 AM that morning.
Sid was arrested under suspicion of murder with bail set at $50,000. While interviewed, he gave wildly differing stories about what had happened. He first claimed that he had argued with nancy but wasn’t in the room when she was killed. He then said he did stab her and that he was a “dirty dog”. He was held at Ryker’s Island and kept in the medical wing for drug detox.
Nancy Spungen was laid to rest in Philadelphia. That same day, Sid’s mother, Anne Beverley arrived in New York after being paid $10,000 by the New York Post for her story.
Meanwhile, Malcolm McLaren had already been selling t-shirts that featured Sid’s face and the words “I’m alive, she’s dead, I’m yours”.
McLaren convinced Virgin Records owner Richard Branson to send him the $50,000 for Sid’s bail. Sid was released on bail the following day. .
Sid Vicious attempted suicide by slitting his wrists and trying to jump out of a hotel window. His mother stopped him, and he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation.
It is claimed by Nick Kent that Sid confessed to using a knife to poke at Nancy during a fight and that Sid claimed they had made up quickly, but in their drugged state neither of them realized she was losing blood from her small wound.
Deborah and Frank Spungen received a letter from Sid. It read “We always knew that we would go to the same place when we died. We so much wanted to die together in each other’s arms. I cry every time I think about that. I promised my baby that I would kill myself if anything ever happened to her, and she promised me the same. This is my final commitment to my love”
Sid was out with his new girlfriend, actress Michelle Robinson when he was got into a fight with Patti Smith’s brother and struck him in the face with a bottle. Sid was arrested for felonious assault and was sent back to Rykers. While he was there, he was put into detox again.
February 1st 1979
McLaren posted bail again for Sid. That night, Sid stayed at Robinson’s apartment, but spent his time with his mother, Ann, who had bought heroin for him. When it was gone, Sid demanded more. Ann obliged.
The morning of February 2nd
Ann found her son dead in Robinson’s bed. He had injected a lethal amount of heroin.
Sid Vicious was cremated on February 7th.
It was after this that Ann Beverley discovered a suicide note in the pocket of Sid’s leather jacket. The note read “We had a death pact. I have to keep my half of the bargain. Please bury me next to my baby. Bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motor cycle boots. Goodbye”.
To this day, an argument persists that Nancy was murdered in a drug deal gone wrong. While Sid’s own words seem damning, It seems that Nancy Spungen’s death will forever remain a mystery.
Hotels of Death by Gordon Kerr
‘Punk Diary 1970-1979’ by George Gimark.
‘Vacant – A Diary of the Punk Years 1976-79’ by Nils & Ray Stevenson.
‘I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol’ by Glen Matlock with Pete Silverton.
‘Vicious – The Art Of Dying Young’ by Mark Paytress.
‘The Sex Pistols’ by Fred & Judy Vemorel
‘The Dark Stuff’ by Nick Kent.