Banjo speaks to ex-Pistol Paul Cook about his past and his present.
Paul Cook is someone who has almost been frozen in time as the young man who was, for two and a half years, a Sex Pistol.
Despite this, he’s had a long and varied career, including a few projects that may surprise people. Following the Pistols’ split, Cook formed The Professionals with fellow ex-Pistol Steve Jones and released two solid albums, 1980’s self-titled debut and 1981’s I Didn’t See it Coming.
After The Professionals, Cook & Jones became punk guns for hire, playing with Johnny Thunders, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joan Jett and The Greedy Bastards, a hobby/joke group that was an unlikely pairing of the Sex Pistols and Thin Lizzy.
Cook also helped launch the career of Bananarama, producing and playing on their debut single before returning in the late 80s with the Chiefs of Relief with three members of Bow Wow Wow. Cook’s longest lasting association is with for Edwyn Collins, who he has been playing with since 1994.
It must be frustrating then for such a musician to be mainly known for what he did for these few years as a 19 – 22 year old. This is completely understandable of course, seeing as Sex Pistols changed the course of cultural history, kickstarted the punk movement and were, for a good while, widely regarded as public enemy number one.
In conversation, I found Cook to be very focused on the future, while not particularly wanting to dwell overmuch on the past . And really, with the Sex Pistols’ debut album having celebrated its 40th birthday, there can be very little left to say and no questions left to ask that he hasn’t been asked before. Rightly pleased with his new record, he says “if people ask me to specifically go and have a gas about [Never Mind the Bollocks] 40 year anniversary and The Pistols, I’d probably give it a pass”
Nevertheless, once he starts to talk about The Pistols, his reticence seems to vanish and his answers are open and straightforward. He also offers an alternative viewpoint on matters which have been heavily documented down the years and it becomes apparent that, while his bandmates, friends and acquaintances have had their version of events made available in book, film and newsprint, Cook’s story remains largely untold.
But, to return to the present, Cook has a new album out with The Professionals. Originally formed in 1979, after the Sex Pistols’ split, the band released two albums before splitting themselves in 1982. Following the release of a 3 CD box set of Professionals recordings, the band reunited to play a gig at Cook’s old stomping grounds, the 100 Club. More dates were added, and it seemed The Professionals were back in action.
New Album What In The World is something of a stormer and another worthy addition to Cook’s canon of work. Featuring a stellar cast of musicians alongside the band’s backbone of Cook, Paul Myers and Tom Spencer, it fairly bristles with killer hooks, power chords and a very modern rock sound. Also featuring Steve Jones, Duff McKagen, Billy Duffy and Marco Pirroni amongst others, What In The World is an essential purchase for fans of good, driving rock music.
Opening track You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down sets out the albums’ feel. A fast-moving rock song, starting with a very Steve Jones-esque riff, it manages the trick of sounding both familiar and new. Next track, Let Go, is a punk/rock crossover with a killer chorus and some further sterling guitar work.
Cook’s drumming has often been overlooked, but he has always been rock solid and was one of punk’s most impressive musicians. He provides a solid backbone for The Professionals here. Standout track Extremadura is a classic in waiting – these are songs that are crying out to be played to packed audiences the world over.
We spoke to Paul about his new album, his time with Sex Pistols and life in general.
So how did it happen that The Professionals got back together again?
“Well, a couple of years ago, Universal released a box set of The Professionals, the singles, albums, out takes, etc. and it did quite well. And the original band, me, Ray McVeigh and Paul Myers, we all live in London still, quite close to each other and Steve Jones, as you may know, lives in LA. So the three of us who live here said ‘why don’t we have a little knock about in the studio and see how it goes?’ So we did that, it went well and it was great playing those old songs again, we hadn’t played them for ages.
Then we got a friend of ours in, Tom Spencer, on lead guitar and vocals, taking Steve’s place basically, and that worked out good as well. So we ended up doing a gig at the 100 Club and everything really just seemed to roll from there. Things didn’t work out with Ray, so consequently we got Chris McCormack in on guitar, who used to be in Three Colours Red. So that’s the lineup at the moment.“
There’s quite a lineup on the album isn’t there? A good roll call.
“Yeah, you could say that I guess. Well that happened because, like I say, we parted company with Ray and there was a situation vacant there, for a guitarist to add a different flavour to it. We recorded the album as a three-piece and we found ourselves needing another input. Initially I got Steve Jones in to do it, that was the obvious choice. He was happy for us to carry on doing the band and he played on a couple of tracks.
And then I thought ‘let’s see who’s around’ and I got the old punk rock address book out and rang around to see who was up for it. And that’s how it happened that we got all the guests on there. And they were all willing to do it which is great, because they’re all old Pistols and Professionals fans anyway, so they were all willing to do it. And it worked out great, we thought we’d let them get on with it, do what they wanted and then we sort of chopped it all up in the studio and it’s worked out great.”
And how was it working with Steve Jones after all these years, you must have built up an almost telepathic bond by now?
“Well we didn’t actually put any tracks down together, he played over the rhythm tracks that were already there. But when we play together every now and again in Los Angeles and we just click in like we’ve never been away really, we just lock in there. And he did that on the tracks on the album really.”
Over the years, you have had quite a varied career, which record that you’ve played on are you the most proud of?
“Well at the moment, I think that this Professionals album is the best thing I’ve done since the Pistols to tell you the truth. I’m really pleased with the way it’s turned out, the graft we’ve put in and the getting people involved in it. It’s been a bit of a process and we’ve been quite hands on with the production and the artwork. I’ve been more hands on with this album than on anything I’ve ever been involved with. So I think it’s got to be this one really.”
How have you enjoyed your time working with Edwyn Collins? Musically it must have been something of a departure for you.
“Yeah it was, which I enjoyed. It was a different style of music obviously, but great songs. Before Edwyn, with the Pistols, The Professionals and a bit of Chiefs of Relief, it was all pretty full on rock really. But with Edwyn, he’s such a great songwriter there’s all sorts of flavours going on there and it kind of improved me as a drummer really, learning his old songs and recording his new stuff, it was great.
I really enjoyed playing with Edwyn, I still do really. He’s got a new album out that I didn’t have the time to play on, which was a bit of a drag, but we’re still in touch.”
He’s a bit of a hero isn’t he really, coming back from what he’s come back from?
“Yeah, he’s a real inspiration really, he nearly died when he had that terrible stroke. But I think this is his third album since then and they’ve all been really good. He’s quite disabled down his right side still and he can’t play guitar, so it’s amazing that he’s written three albums and done live shows as well. He is a real inspiration.“
October saw the 40th anniversary of Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bollocks. When you were recording it, did you realise how important it would be and that we’d still be talking about it 40 years later?
“People ask that question, but it’s hard to answer really. The answer’s got to be no really, because when we were recording we were so in the moment, so immersed in it all that we didn’t really have time to think of the bigger picture, or how it was going, where it was taking us.
So the answer is no, of course we didn’t realise…it wasn’t contrived or anything like that, we weren’t thinking that we were making a big masterpiece and it was going to last forever, we were just being ourselves with all the anger and the energy that was going on at the time.
And we really captured that in the studio and I think that’s what’s stood it in great stead down the years, it’s still got that energy and anger. And of course the songs were great as well, and the production. Everything sort of came together to give it a lasting legacy, everything just worked out perfect.”
I think you can say that about The Pistols really, everything just came together, sometimes the planets seem to align and you get the right people in the right place at the right time.
“Yeah, there was definitely some of that going on with the members of the band and the Malcolm [McLaren] situation, the times we were living in and the artwork and the clothes. It was just one of those moments in time, you can’t plan it. I know Malcolm liked to give the image that it was all contrived and part of his great rock n roll swindle, which is the biggest load of bollocks, to coin a phrase [laughs].”
Do you ever wish you’d made more records?
“Yeah, I do actually, that’s one of my biggest regrets with the Pistols, we didn’t have time to progress to even a second album. Even without Glen [Matlock]. I think we were moving into a not so poppy, more of a dark area, I think we would have made a great second album, but that wasn’t to be.
It’s a big regret really. And even when we got back together in ’96, I remember that no-one could sit around and write a few more songs, it would have been great. I don’t know why, still personal issues going on and personalities and we just couldn’t get together and do it, which is a drag.”
So what’s next for Paul Cook? We’ve mentioned the focus on The Professionals, but what does the future hold in store?
“Well I have been concentrating on The Professionals for the last year or so. I thought I’d spend a bit of time on something that involves and that’s personal to me for a change. I’ve been working with Edwyn and I’ve done some work with Vic Goddard, and last year I got together with The Sharks, which was great.
And they’re all great things, but I thought let’s put a bit of time into me for a change, and see what happens there. So that what I’m doing at the moment, but who knows where this will go and what will happen.”
So are The Professionals more of a Paul Cook band?
“Well I don’t want it to come across like that really, It’s like a new Professionals for me. It’s like we’re moving forward; we’ve got a new album out, it’s a new lineup and new songs. I didn’t just want to get this band back together and play all the old songs, I thought if we’re going to do this we’ve got to write some new songs and just move it forward, which is what we’re doing really. It’s kind of like a new venture for me.”
Are there any plans for a book? Glen, John and Steve have written theirs, is there going to be a Paul Cook book. A Cook book if you like?
Paul Cook: “[laughs] A Cook book? Oh, like erm, Squid Vicious? Or God Save The Cream? [laughs] It has been mooted, but not at the moment. I think there’s been so much out about it, you know?
John done his book a few years ago and Steve’s just done his book, which sort of mirrors my childhood as well, and I don’t want to keep going over that stuff. But in the future who knows? People keep asking me, but I don’t know how many times you can keep going over it. It’s amazing how fascinated people still are by all that, the punk era of music. So never say never, but I’ve got no plans to at the moment.”
It sounds like you’re almost fed up of talking about it. I know you must get asked this kind of thing all the time, but is it something you’d rather just forget about or move on from?
“Not forget about, but I know it’s the 40th anniversary and people have been asking a lot about it, but I tend not to do all those talking head programs about ’76 and all that, but after a while I do find it, erm, I don’t know what the word is, but it’s just going over old ground. Glen’s good at that stuff to camera, and John, but I’m not like that, I like to keep my own counsel
I don’t mind, for instance, how we’re talking about it now, now we’ve also got The Professionals to talk about, but if people ask me to specifically go and have a gas about the 40 year anniversary and The Pistols, I’d probably give it a pass.”
Finally, do you ever look back at your life and think “we changed the world”?
“Well I don’t know about that, I don’t get so grandiose about it, but it is quite weird when I’m out and about, like playing with The Professionals, people come up to you and say “You know what, you changed my life.” You just think ‘Wow, that’s a bit of a statement to make’, you know.
There was no Pistols manifesto or anything, but we did go out to shake things up and we weren’t happy with what was going on. But I don’t think in our wildest dreams we realized just how much we would influence people and their lives and everything. Right across the board as well, not just music but people from all walks of life. I prefer ‘inspire people’. I don’t like to say we changed people’s lives, it sounds a bit dramatic, but it was an inspiration for a lot of people I think.”
And with that our conversation ends.
Despite all he’s been through, Paul Cook is a humble person who only likes to inspire people. He is also still a man in love with music and, after all these years, is not afraid of being a grafting musician. It is easy to imagine that most people who can boast his pedigree would have been affected by it all and may think of themselves as rock royalty, with attitude to match, but this does not seem to be the case at all.
Personally I enjoyed speaking Paul Cook enormously and would have liked to continue our conversation longer. But he still has music to make and people to inspire. And as the opening track on his new album tells us, you can’t keep a good man down.