Jonesy's Jukebox

The Sex Pistols guitarist turned DJ made a name for himself in LA spinning old TV themes and punk. This was his first British interview on the subject.
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The Sex Pistols guitarist turned DJ made a name for himself in LA spinning old TV themes and punk. This was his first British interview on the subject.

Steve Jones, the Sex Pistol, was lying prone when the call came that would change his career and propel him to the status of Los Angeles' most-talked-about radio DJ.

"I was in bed recovering from back surgery. I'd had a herniated disc, and was mainly on the PlayStation," he recalls. "Anyway, this guy I knew way back calls. And I don't know why I said it because I'd never thought of doing it before, but I said, 'I'd love to be a DJ on that station.'"

The station in question is Indie 103.1, a straightforward outfit that drip-feeds Ramones and Strokes records to an audience of punk junkies. But his show, Jonesy's Jukebox, is now attracting far wider attention. "The station launched on Christmas Eve," explains the man once described by Iggy Pop as the Robert Mitchum of punk. "I heard about it by word of mouth about two weeks later. I thought: this is good, lots of old stuff, no commercials then. When they approached me I thought: this is a regular job, I'm not doing anything else. So I told them I'm not gonna do it if it's like other stations, playing a list of set songs. None of that bollocks: I said if it comes to that at some point, if the station gets bigger, I'll walk. Three weeks later I was on the air."

American radio is a firestorm of big hits, old classics, in-your-face advertising and endless promotions for multi-lettered channels. Amid this sonic chaos comes Jonesy's Jukebox, broadcasting softly spoken witticisms, laughter and superb music every weekday lunchtime for two hours. The mix of songs could be described as eclectic, or just mental - imagine Harold Steptoe doing the John Peel Show.

In addition to David Bowie, modern bands, punk classics and glam rock, there are the novelty songs Ed Stewart played 30 years ago at weekends on Radio 1. "Be My Wife" by Bowie, "Theme from The Sweeney", "Buffalo Stance" by Neneh Cherry and "White Riot" by The Clash are followed by Mud, The Sweet, Primal Scream, Doves, Franz Ferdinand, The Cure and Third World - and then to confound it all, The Wurzels' "Combine Harvester" or Benny Hill's "Ernie (the Fastest Milkman in the West)". And, strangely, it works, because Steve Jones has the same nonchalant enthusiasm for what he's doing that has driven John Peel for so many years.

"He lives in Beverly Hills and is famously the centre forward with Hollywood United, whose line-up includes Billy Duffy of The Cult, and occasionally Vinnie Jones."

"It's a great job. It's great to have the opportunity to have so much fun in music at this stage. I could play Sex Pistols songs all day if I wanted. In the studio the lights are down low, and I'm just listening. I love it." What about the trashier songs he drops in? "Well, 'Ernie' by Benny Hill is a classic. The film guy, Tarantino, puts songs that are normally cheeseball into his films and makes them cool. I'm doing the same thing on my show. At first, when I dig something out and decide to play it, I wonder if people are gonna think I'm a wally - but fuck it, I like it, so I'm gonna play it. I'm not playing these things to be amusing, it's just what I like."

You can only wonder what all the movie stars and aloof social X-rays of Hollywood make of it all. "I grew up listening to Radio Caroline, Emperor Roscoe, Tony Blackburn, Alan Freeman: they were all kinda amusing at the time. Back then I preferred to listen to them than Peel. He played better stuff, but they were jokers, alluring - plus you saw them on TV. The influence now, though, is John Peel more than anything else. I'm being myself. Mind you, I've probably had more birds than him. People are so starved and sick of the same 10 songs day in day out. Because I'm playing different stuff my show's getting a lot of listeners." The nearest Jones comes to jingles are his peculiar renderings of lines such as "Jonesy's Jukebox; the cod-liver oil of radio". His enthusiasm peaks with his trademark song introduction: "Take it away, sunshine..."

But it's not just his west London accent that's pulling them in, it's his total disregard for the conceit of performance. One minute he's moaning about how fat he is, the next he's recounting the time he robbed the artist he's about to play. His producer, Mark "Mr Shovel" Slovel, admits: "We expected him to be controversial, being a Sex Pistol, but he's turned out to be charming and hilarious. It's amazing how many good stories he's got and it just all seems to work." Jones adds: "The only thing I can't do is swear."

Of course, he has a significant track record on that front. Back in December 1976, it was Jones who shot the Pistols on to the front pages of the tabloids and had truck drivers kicking in their television screens when he called Bill Grundy "a dirty fucking rotter" live on his teatime show, Today. Infamously, it was Jones's teenage career choice of kleptomania that provided the band with their earliest equipment. With his drumming mate Paul Cook, Jones was the backbone of the Pistols, inventing the name (QT Jones and The Sex Pistols) and providing their distinctive guitar sound, one that has rarely been bettered.

He has (according to legend, press clippings and interviews) stolen stuff from a selection of rock stars and legends almost as complete as the playlist on his show: from Roxy Music came gold discs and fuzzboxes; Bowie lost microphones and the Spiders From Mars lost their amps; Rod Stewart had a couple of guitars nicked; Ronnie Wood lost a fur coat; and Jones helped himself to Keith Richards' TV set. But there appear to be few hard feelings among his victims.

"When I dig something out and decide to play it, I wonder if people are gonna think I’m a wally – but fuck it, I like it, so I’m gonna play it."

Every Friday on Jonesy's Jukebox he rolls out guests of the highest calibre. They visit the studio or phone in, quite happy to help out. "Most of the guests are out of my phone book," he says. "It's called 'Fun with a Face on a Friday'. On week one I had Ian Astbury of The Cult, then Johnny Ramone, John McEnroe - I'm getting Pamela Anderson on. "McEnroe was a real pro. He started interviewing me. I was surprised he was such a big fan of the Pistols; he was asking me things like, 'Why did you play bass on "Never Mind the Bollocks"' - it threw me that he knew stuff like that. Other guests have been Blondie, Vincent Gallo, The Darkness."

Once the Pistols had exploded, Jones and Cook started a new band, The Professionals, and took to touring the States. But, like his former bandmate Sid Vicious, Jones developed a serious heroin habit and after the end of one Professionals tour he simply decided to stay on in the States, thereby breaking the band up. What do you do after founding the band many music critics consider to be one of the best ever? At the worst of times, Jones, by his own admission, was using heroin, crashing on friends' settees and then robbing them and moving on. I'd guess that the last thing you'd want after making friends with a Sex Pistol would be to come down in the morning and find he'd gone - and so had your stereo.

Steve Jones and butter lover John Lydon.

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Since cleaning up 17 years ago, Jones has bobbed along, becoming the man young punk bands want to be produced by and older hands turn to for some lead-guitar credibility. He lives in Beverly Hills and is famously the centre forward with Hollywood United, a Sunday league football team sponsored by Puma, whose line-up includes Jones's friend Billy Duffy of The Cult, and occasionally the actor Vinnie Jones and the former US World Cup and Derby County star John Harkes. Based as it is in Hollywood, it would be rude for Jonesy's Jukebox not to nod the old Union flag-handkerchiefed head in the direction of the movie industry.

One of the best bits of Jonesy's Jukebox is the between-song snippets of movie dialogue that he uses - a snippet from the gang movie The Warriors, for instance, might run into Gary Glitter's "I'm the Leader of the Gang (I am)". It's performed with a precision that contrasts with Jonesy's own deadpan ponderings and laid-back joking. Who puts them together? "The sound bites I tape myself. Sometimes I give them a theme that makes sense, other times there's no sense at all. A lot of the time I like to keep them English, from the films I liked as a kid, like Alfie, The Long Good Friday, A Clockwork Orange. The music is my own, too. My living room looks like a crack-house full of CDs. I just sit there and go, I'll play that one, play that one, write it down in a book, slip them in a portable CD case and go down the studio. I live on me own, so the mess doesn't bother anyone."

"The nearest Jones comes to jingles are his peculiar renderings of lines such as “Jonesy’s Jukebox; the cod-liver oil of radio”.

Unlike contemporaries such as The Clash or The Jam, who wrote numerous hit singles and albums, The Sex Pistols only really recorded one iconic album, and for years the radio industry wouldn't play it, so the royalties are probably far lower than people imagine. As a musician, Jones is still a gun for hire. As a guitarist he's worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Don Johnson to Johnny Depp. He gets together with ex-members of Duran Duran and Guns N' Roses for jamming sessions and is still frequently name-checked and invited to guest on records by whoever this year's new American rock rebels are. With all this, it would be easy to note his tattoos and 10 years of riding Harleys without a helmet, and to use his iconic status to portray a Beverly Hills yob. But the reality is that Jones has hit middle age and appears comfortable with it, spiritually if not physically.

The Jukebox reflects a love of music and an honesty about it that wasn't cool during punk. Back then he namechecked his heroes such as Johnny Thunders and Mick Ronson, but "More Than a Feeling" by Boston or the guitar riffs of Brian May of Queen were unmentionable, no matter how much he liked them. Jonesy once told Kick Down The Doors, the excellent website dedicated to him and Paul Cook, that the only thing he was sentimental about was money. The strange thing about Jukebox is that it appears to have given the Sex Pistol job satisfaction. He's far more serene than the punk caricature he and the rest of the Pistols have been made out to be.

"I'm 48, not 20," he says. "I'm not a mug doing what I do. I can't be something that I'm not. It takes a long time to find out who you are. I wanna get old gracefully. When I see blokes in England my age, they look 90 years old. It's hard living in England, it's a battle. I've really grown. I love warm weather, the easy lifestyle. I'm not into getting to the train station and it's closed, and this ain't working and that ain't working. It's easy; you get homesick at first, but I've been here a long time. It's 5.45pm now, I think I'll go for a swim in the pool. I live in Beverly Hills. Here there's plenty of work, land of opportunity - but don't tell anybody."