Sid Vicious was just 21 when he died of a heroin overdose in 1979 — but he's still remembered as one of the most controversial punk rock musicians in history.
The virtual embodiment of '70s punk rock was a skinny English kid named John Simon Ritchie, better known to the public as Sid Vicious.
Known for his rebellious lifestyle, his rowdy antics, and his trademark sneer, Vicious did his best to live up to his moniker. In a perfect world, his claim to fame would be his role as the former bassist for the Sex Pistols.
But in reality, Sid Vicious is infamous for being a troubled heroin addict — and, possibly, the man who murdered his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
How Sid Vicious Got His Start — And His Name
John Simon Ritchie was born in the Lewisham area of London, England, on May 10, 1957. His mother Anne joined the British Army after dropping out of high school, while his father John was a guardsman at Buckingham Palace.
The couple did not stay together for long, however, and Anne later married Christopher Beverley in 1965. Though Christopher Beverley died of kidney failure just six months after the wedding, John Simon Ritchie would later take his stepfather's surname, calling himself John Beverley.
Meanwhile, young John's relationship with his mother was extremely strained, as Anne was addicted to drugs like heroin and opioids. Sadly, drugs would eventually become a prominent part of John's life as well.
The future Sid Vicious later attended Hackney Technical College and met his eventual bandmate, John Lydon, there. Lydon described John Beverley as a David Bowie fan and "clothes hound." Lydon is also the reason why John Beverley decided to take on the name Sid Vicious — well, sort of.
As the story goes, Lydon had a pet hamster. This hamster's name was Sid. One day, Sid the hamster bit Beverley. Then, Beverley shouted out:
"Sid is really vicious!"
Thus, the punk icon Sid Vicious was born.
The two young men soon began performing music together in the streets, albeit so poorly that some people gave them money to quit playing.
In another notable pre-Sex Pistols occurrence, Vicious almost married a young Chrissie Hynde. The pre-Pretenders Hynde was dealing with immigration issues after moving from America to England and Vicious knew Hynde from their hangouts at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's clothing store. However, it never came to be. On the day the wedding was scheduled, Vicious was in court himself for an assault charge.
Vicious also played drums for Siouxsie and the Banshees at London's 100 Club Punk Festival in 1976. But his true claim to fame was still in the making.
Sid Vicious' Tenure With The Sex Pistols
While Sid Vicious was banging around London — in and out of bands, and in and out of therapy for his ongoing suicidal thoughts — clothier and band manager Malcolm McLaren founded the punk rock band the Sex Pistols.
John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten, was selected as the band's frontman alongside guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Glen Matlock. Vicious allegedly attended every one of his friend Lydon's gigs, and so when Matlock was out in 1977, Vicious was simply put in.
The rest is punk history.
But there was one problem: Vicious had limited experience with the bass.
"Could Sid play bass? I don't know," mused Keith Levene, the founder of The Clash. "But one thing I do know was that Sid did things quickly. One night, he played the first Ramones album non-stop, all night, then next morning, Sid could play the bass — that was it, he was ready."
Whatever his musical ability, his bandmates allegedly unplugged his amp on occasion. And furthermore, Vicious only played on a couple of tracks of the Pistols' studio album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols. For the other tracks, guitarist Steve Jones subbed in for the bass.
Outside of the studio, Sid Vicious also had a reputation for making horrible choices like shooting up speed mixed with vomit and toilet water, but those who knew him personally spoke to a different side of the troubled rocker.
"He had a brilliant sense of humour, goofy, sweet, and very cute," musician Steve Severin recalled to The Independent. Others have similar tales.
Still, Vicious' tenure with the Sex Pistols was relatively short-lived. Things fell apart during the band's U.S. tour in 1978 as Vicious' drug habit worsened and he engaged in violent antics with fans — like hitting one over the head with his bass. After the Sex Pistols disbanded, Vicious decided to embark on a solo career, this time with a new manager: his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
Inside Punk Rock's Most Dysfunctional Romance
Before the rise of the Sex Pistols, in 1975, a 17-year-old from Philadelphia named Nancy Spungen moved to New York City to become a groupie.
She was accompanied by her own troubled past, and it soon became clear that she was not the typical groupie, according to photographer Eileen Polk:
"She was blatantly honest about it: She bought drugs for the bands. In order to be a groupie, you had to be tall and skinny and have fashionable clothes... And then here comes Nancy. She's not trying to be cute or charming. She wasn't telling people she was a model or a dancer. She had mousy brown hair and she was a bit overweight. She basically said, 'Yeah, I'm a prostitute and I don't care.'"
Spungen's crass behavior didn't win her many true friends. Over the course of a few years, the only people who still fraternized with her were the musicians who scored drugs from her. There was also, of course, Sid Vicious.
Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were inseparable from the time they met in England in 1976.
The rest of the Sex Pistols disliked her immensely and effectively banned her from their final shows. But after the fateful disbanding of the Sex Pistols in 1978 — which happened largely due to Vicious' relationship with Spungen and his ongoing drug problem — Vicious and Spungen holed up in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, where they prepared for Vicious' solo career, with Spungen acting as his manager.
Though many were opposed to Spungen's relationship with Vicious, as her reputation as a troublemaker and junkie preceded her, it's worth noting that she likely suffered from schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. She was troubled since birth, having even once attacked her mother with a hammer.
"Our morality meant zero to her. She would simply step over the line, draw a new one, and then step over that," her mother wrote. Though Spungen's loved ones may have hoped that she would eventually turn her life around when she got older, she tragically never got the chance.
The Brutal Murder Of Nancy Spungen — And Why Sid Vicious Was The Prime Suspect
On October 12, 1978, 20-year-old Nancy Spungen was found dead on the bathroom floor of the room she shared with Sid Vicious in the Chelsea Hotel.
The cause: a fatal knife wound in her abdomen. Though Vicious was the one who called the front desk for help, he attracted suspicion immediately. "Vicious, who was found wandering the hallways in an agitated state, was arrested and charged with her murder," The Independent reported. "Though he initially confessed to the crime, he later denied it, claiming he had been asleep when she died."
Indeed, while Vicious was in a holding cell, he reportedly told the police, "I did it because I'm a dirty dog."
This confession was the nail in the coffin for those who believed he had murdered Spungen, especially since he was seemingly the last person to have seen her alive. And though Sid Vicious later recanted the confession, he gave many conflicting statements on what happened that night.
But while many believed Vicious was guilty, an alternative theory swirled about a possible botched double suicide — as Vicious had allegedly taken copious amounts of drugs the night before Spungen's death. Multiple witnesses later claimed that they had seen Vicious ingest up to 30 tablets of Tuinal that evening, enough to keep someone unconscious for hours.
If this account is true, then how could Sid Vicious murder anyone in this state? And is it possible that one of the many people coming in and out of the hotel room that night was actually guilty of the stabbing?
This is the basis of another alternate theory, that Rockets Redglare, a bodyguard/drug dealer who supplied Nancy Spungen with Dilaudid that night, stabbed Spungen when she caught him stealing cash. That's what Phil Strongman, author of Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk, believes.
"Rockets Redglare casually admitted to several fellow drinkers that it was actually he who'd robbed and stabbed Nancy Spungen — and produced a handful of her blood-stained dollars to prove it," he wrote.
There are others still that believe that Nancy Spungen stabbed her own abdomen in an ill-fated attempt to get Vicious' attention so that he would "rescue" her that night — only to accidentally kill herself in the process.
How The Former Sex Pistol's Downward Spiral After Spungen's Death Led To A Fatal Overdose
Despite Sid Vicious' initial confession to killing his girlfriend, he was soon released on bail after it was paid for by Virgin Records. Vicious then attempted suicide about a week after Nancy Spungen's death by slashing his wrists. Held in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital, he reportedly said, "I want to join Nancy and keep up my end of the pact." However, the hospital staff managed to prevent him from killing himself while he was there.
After his release from Bellevue, Vicious found himself with a new assault charge and his bail revoked. He spent 55 days in prison undergoing enforced detoxification until February 1, 1979, when he made bail yet again.
To celebrate this release, Vicious' friends and mother — who continued to be consumed by her own drug addiction — gathered for a party at the Greenwich Village apartment of his new girlfriend, Michelle Robinson. According to reports, the group made spaghetti and Vicious had a few beers.
But the lighthearted party eventually took an extremely dark turn. Vicious managed to score an unusually strong batch of heroin — which may have been up to 95 percent pure. He subsequently overdosed.
Sometime in the early hours of February 2, 1979, Sid Vicious died at age 21. Because of this, he never stood trial for the murder of Nancy Spungen.
Though many people continued to believe that he was responsible for his girlfriend's demise, others were convinced of his innocence, including his mother Anne Beverley. Reports say she even found a note in Sid Vicious' pocket after Nancy Spungen's death that hinted at the suicide pact theory.
"The word was that he and Nancy had made a pact, but who knows?" said Eileen Polk. "Nancy's murder was never thoroughly investigated. There were a lot of dangerous people hanging around them both back then. If he hadn't died and the case went to trial he may well have been acquitted."
After learning about the tumultuous life and death of Sid Vicious, check out these photos from punk's heyday in New York City at CBGB. Then, read up on the poop-eating punk rocker GG Allin.