The Professionals: "We didn't want to do this as a nostalgia trip"

a press shot of the professionals
(Image: © Will Ireland)

Malcolm McLaren loved a soundbite. He’d generously deploy succinct pearls of wisdom at every given opportunity. Paul Cook, recalling his flaming youth at the epicentre of the punk firestorm over a bracing cup of tea, recounts one of his late manager’s absolute favourites: “He’d say: ‘You’ve got to destroy in order to create, boy. You’ve gotta destroy.’”

As situationist rhetoric goes, it’s a classic; when stencilled on to a shirt, a design for life. But in the real world – or at least the music business – what do infamous iconoclasts do for an encore? The Sex Pistols were a hard act to follow. Especially for the Sex Pistols.

“It was pretty tough,” Cook, the band’s drummer, admits of the year he and guitarist Steve Jones spent in limbo following the Sex Pistols’ irreparable split of January ‘78, “wondering what to do with ourselves after being in such an iconic band. In the end we thought we’d better knuckle down and carry on as The Professionals, otherwise we were just going to fade away.”

Obviously, once you’ve torn down the temple, you can’t really expect too many invitations to rejoin the choir. As if alienating their industry wasn’t enough, the Pistols had apparently set out to destroy rock’n’roll itself, so rebuilding a career in its ruins was never going to be easy. Consequently The Professionals’ initial incarnation careered, as if cursed, from chaos to catastrophe. Now they’re back, with heavy friends, for a second crack. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For every ‘happily ever after’ there’s a ‘once upon a time’, and ours occurs in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.

“Me and Steve have known each other since we were ten years old,” says Cook. “He was a terrible influence on me, but a good one as well. He was a wayward boy, a loose cannon. Always the one making things happen, leading everyone astray, getting us into trouble or excitement. He stayed at my house a lot. We were like brothers.”

Jones frequently stayed with friends, and for good reason. As he recently revealed in his startlingly frank autobiography Lonely Boy, his home life was tumultuously toxic, defined by a combination of neglect and abuse. It stole his childhood, bequeathed intimacy and chemical addiction issues, along with a predisposition toward petty crime that resulted in frequent spells in reform school. A prolific burglar of his favourite rock star’s homes, it was only a matter of time before Jones recognised music as the only feasible off-ramp from his life’s on-going downward spiral.

Cook nearly avoided the drums. At first it was Jones who took to the stool when their schoolboy gang decided to emulate the Faces, but as “the obvious outward-going, show-off frontman-type”, Jones was cattle-prodded reluctantly upfront.

“Steve never felt comfortable being the singer, ever,” Cook continues. “He always felt more at home on guitar. Even in The Professionals. I ended up on the drums by accident, really, but once I had the mission, that was it. Full steam ahead.”

Even under full-steam, a life in rock was a far from foregone conclusion. Paul Cook: “We were just normal working-class kids, and it [rock] was all quite college-y and art school-y back then. We used to go down the King’s Road, hang around Malcolm’s shop and I guess he saw a hunger in us. He was the only one who’d listen. So eventually we thought that we’d better stick in here. Steve used to be there all the time, he was never at school and would end up doing a bit of work for Malcolm. Then Glen Matlock joined, who fortunately worked in the shop, so then there was all three of us cajoling Malcolm to get involved as manager, saying we needed a singer, and that’s when it started getting serious.”

Enter John Lydon with ‘Rotten’ teeth, a notebook full of game-changing lyrics, and the rest, as they say, is some of the most familiar history ever fine-tooth-combed for column inches.

Spooling forward through the Pistols’ rapid dissemination of the punk message to a coming generation (from its tabloid-driven Grundygate recruitment drive to its ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ final denouement), we find a shell-shocked Cook and Jones, adrift in San Francisco in the wake of a chaotic Sex Pistols US tour so catastrophically ill-conceived that it ultimately saw Rotten bail, smack catastrophe Sid Vicious (Matlock’s replacement) overdose on the dressing room floor and the band unravel.

“It was horrible, a shambles,” shrugs Cook. “Sid was totally out of control. It was very dark. I thought someone was going to get killed. It was heavy, really scary. Malcolm booked us to tour the south to cause maximum press and carnage. I wasn’t surprised it all imploded at the end, I was relieved.”

Meanwhile, McLaren had, somewhat naively, sunk all of the band’s capital into a far-from-finished movie, The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle, which desperately needed a soundtrack if it were to ever see the light of day. Along with the Sex Pistols name, Cook and Jones had also inherited the band’s responsibilities, which they had to honour before moving on.

With no one particularly keen to return to England, and a proposed Pistols Swedish tour pulled due to “the state Sid was in”, McLaren’s next cunning plan involved cutting a single in Rio with Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. “God knows what we were doing there. We went from one mad scenario in the States to an even madder one in Rio,” Cook says.

Still reluctant to face the post-Pistols media frenzy unfolding at home, the pair remained in Brazil on their sun-loungers for six weeks. But their tans came at a cost. Every day that the unfinished Swindle debacle meandered on, with Jones co-opted as its star by default, their next move, The Professionals, were missing their moment.

The first Professionals single was meant to be Silly Thing. A version with Cook singing was originally contrived to flesh out the Swindle soundtrack, while a superior version featuring Steve’s vocal was earmarked to be The Professionals’ debut A-side, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Silly Thing was released under the name Sex Pistols and hit UK No.6.

“Nobody knew what was going on,” Cook recalls. “Everybody was going: ‘What’s this? It’s the Pistols, but Steve’s singing on it. Have they finished or are they still going?’ That whole era of the Pistols was a real balls-up. We should have just drawn a line under it.”

Silly Thing’s success also impacted on the band that The Professionals became: “Because Steve sung on it, he was forced into being the singer, a position he never felt comfortable with,”says Cook.

The band’s first batch of original songs, meanwhile, came courtesy of yet another movie.

“At the end of the Swindle me and Steve started writing songs for this mad film we did in Canada called The Fabulous Stains. We played the band – Paul Simonon was on bass and Ray Winstone was the singer – and that was the beginning of our songwriting. All the songs we wrote in that era went on The Professionals’ first album.”

Signing to Pistols label Virgin in 1980, Cook and Jones’s Professionals (then using Lightning Raiders bassist Andy Allan for sessions) released a brace of modestly performing singles: Just Another Dream and 1-2-3. But just as their debut album was set for imminent release, Allan sued Virgin for credits and cash, and as a consequence the all-important first album was shelved. Once again, impetus lost.

“We was our own worst enemies,” Cook admits. “Virgin were willing to give us this big deal to carry on after the Pistols, which we signed eventually, but we put it on the shelf for ages. It all came back to Steve not wanting to be the singer. We were writing, but it wasn’t until Paul [Myers, bass, formerly of Subway Sect] and Ray [McVeigh, second guitarist] joined that we thought: ‘We’ve actually got a proper band together now so we’d better crack on.’”

Getting serious at last, The Professionals engaged Dave Hill as their manager. Hill also represented The Pretenders and Johnny Thunders. What could possibly go wrong?

Initially, Hill’s connections brought only opportunities: Cook and Jones, both fans of Phil Spector, hooked up with Chrissie Hynde to record a sumptuous (still unreleased) wall-of-sound version of The Ronettes’ Do I Love You. They had also worked briefly with Joan Jett. As well as contributing to Don’t Abuse Me and a version of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me for Jett’s debut solo album, they played on and arranged a B-side version of The Arrows’ I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll which, latterly re-recorded (“they copied our arrangement right down to the last detail, guitar solos, everything”), provided her with her biggest hit. The pair also appeared on Johnny Thunders’ So Alone album, the sessions for which have since passed into notoriety. “It was a pretty dark time all around that scene,” Cook recalls, “Considering all the drugs stuff that Thunders, The Pretenders and Steve were involved in, I’m amazed he got the So Alone album together at all, really.”

Within a year, seven months of which was spent securing a release for the band’s Join The Professionals single (which didn’t chart), Dave Hill had quit to concentrate on the rapidly ascendent Pretenders. Bassist Paul Myers had seen it all before: “You can’t manage two groups. It was like Bernie [Rhodes] with The Clash trying to manage us in Subway Sect, it never really works. Dave managed us for about a year, but we weren’t easy to manage.”

“And with Steve going off the rails at the time,” Cook adds, “he thought: ‘I don’t need this.’ We were still finding our way: we recorded tracks, didn’t like them, did them again. Virgin were going: ‘Come on,’ and we just let it go on and on.”

The Professionals’ eponymous debut was finally released –17 years too late – in 1997.

With John Curd enlisted as manager, the band set to work on their second attempt at vinyl immortality, I Didn’t See It Coming, with producer Nigel Gray. Unfortunately the production rapidly went awry, and Steve Jones remained off the rails – and he wasn’t alone.

“It sounded pretty weird,” Cook considers before turning to Myers: “Was you even there?”

“I was there in body,” Myers admits, “if not in mind. I was totally fucked up.”

Popular myth has it that Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers arrived into the London punk scene at the close of ’76 as smack evangelists; that the sudden prevalence of heroin within the punk scene was all down to them. “Everyone blames The Heartbreakers,” says Cook. “But it’s too easy to blame them.”

Paul Myers, in many ways the voice of experience, having cleaned up and subsequently worked in addiction counselling, has his own theory.

“Back then, a lot of American bands were overdosing all over the place because the heroin in London was so much stronger than in New York. Even before The Heartbreakers came over there was a heroin scene in London. Then when the Iranian revolution happened in ‘79 there was a sea change. Until then, all that was available was white heroin you had to inject. And a lot of people wouldn’t cross that line. After the revolution a lot of wealthy Iranians came over to London and brought brown heroin you could smoke. Suddenly brown heroin was widely available to people who didn’t want to use needles, and within a matter of months you had a massive addiction problem in London.”

Cook nods in agreement. “It decimated the scene,” he says. “A lot of people got into it.”

On a personal level, Steve Jones turned to heroin because, as Myers succinctly puts it: “Steve’s not a frontman, ended up being a frontman, and didn’t like it”. The I Didn’t See It Coming sessions soon foundered because Nigel Gray (“Who’d rather have been riding his horse”) soon lost interest and, while Steve was absent scoring, “let the engineer take over”. The album, its strong material emasculated by inappropriate production, fell short of the chart. The Professionals, it seemed, had missed their moment. Again.

Punk was old news and much of their core home constituency had moved on. They played one show in the UK, to a disinterested Futurama Festival in Leeds (“We played Leeds?” Myers deadpans) before trying their ‘luck’ in America.

Inevitably, things didn’t quite go as planned. “The album came out, nobody was interested because they were expecting the Pistols,” says Cook. “So we went to the States to do a six-week tour, and some drunk came down the freeway and smashed right into us.”

Predictably, the Steve Jones ‘cloak of invisibility’ meant he was not in the car at the time. “That’s typical,” Cook tuts. “We all end up getting bashed up and nearly killed, and he’s having a whale of a time in a hotel somewhere, scoring drugs with some bird.”

“Steve was lucky,” Myers considers. “But I felt really lucky being smashed up, because it was absolutely fantastic. All these nurses pandering around me. Six weeks after, I left the hospital and I cried, I wept, because I had to come home. I was so happy in that hospital. It was one of the happiest times of my life.”

As the band recuperated, the writing was on the wall. The battered, bruised Professionals eventually returned to the road to honour the US dates but, as Myers remembers: “Even though there were some good gigs, it seemed the group didn’t have legs.”

Cook: “Which was a shame, because we were really getting good. Steve was clean while we were on the road, getting his act together, but his heart wasn’t in it. At the end of the tour we were supposed to come home but he ended up staying in the States, and he’s been there ever since, and that was the end of that.”

Following The Professionals’ original demise in 1982, Steve Jones joined Michael Des Barres’ ill-fated ‘supergroup’ Chequered Past (with Clem Burke, Nigel Harrison and Tony Sales). After finally removing the debilitating spectre of heroin from his life, he recorded a couple of poorly received solo albums – Mercy (’87) and Oil And Gasoline (’89) – made a series of cameo appearances with everyone from Iggy Pop to Bob Dylan and, in the mid-90s formed the Neurotic Outsiders with Duran Duran’s John Taylor and GN’R’s Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum.

Paul Cook resurfaced in ’85, replacing Dave Barbarossa in Matthew Ashman’s post-Bow Wow Wow project Chiefs Of Relief, which accounted for the better part of five years but ended in familiar circumstances, as Cook remembers: “A good little band that never really went anywhere. Matthew was getting more and more fucked up as we went along. Drugs again, the same old story.” He has also enjoyed a 20-year plus association with Edwyn Collins and made two albums with Def Leppard’s Phil Collen and Girl’s Simon Laffy as Manraze.

And Myers?

“I had a serious drug problem for many years, so I didn’t really do anything other than steal and rob. I tried to be a manageable addict. I did gardening work but sold all the equipment. I started with a load of mowers and a year later was down to a pair of secateurs. Everything went to pot. They eventually locked me up in Wandsworth prison for a while and it got even worse from there.”

Cook: “I think that was Jonesy’s influence.”

Myers: “I wouldn’t say so, because you have to remember I came into The Professionals addicted, and I just met another addict, and two addicts in a band is just a no-no.”

Ultimately cleaning up in 2000, Myers got a call from Vic Godard, his former compadre in Subway Sect, asking him to return to the stage. He wasn’t sure. “I was nervous. But when he said ‘Paul [Cook] is on drums’ I thought why not give it a go.”

After a relatively short stint playing together behind Godard, the pair were left at a mutual loose end and, taking a long hard look at the elephant in the room, Myers suggested to Cook they put The Professionals back together again. “Even when I was saying it I knew it was mad.”

Mad or not, soon the idea gained momentum and former members were approached.

As label Universal geared up to release The Complete Professionals compilation in October 2015, a Professionals line-up was in place to launch the album at London’s 100 Club. The two Pauls were joined by Ray McVeigh (who subsequently parted company with the band. Cook: “It didn’t work out. Different dynamics”), and vocalist/guitarist Tom Spencer in place of the absent Steve Jones.

Despite the fact that Cook and Jones have remained firm friends, and returned to tour the world twice (in ’96 and ’07) with a re-formed line-up of the Sex Pistols, Steve Jones wasn’t about to walk away from his burgeoning second career as a successful radio presenter (of the Jonesy’s Jukebox lunchtime slot on Los Angeles KLOS) to re-form and front a band that, for him at least, held only bad memories. Thankfully, though, in Spencer, Cook and Myers had found exactly the right frontman with whom to move forward, write fresh material and record an album worthy of their reputation.

Cook had met Spencer through Ginger Wildheart: “I sang Pretty Vacant at Ginger’s birthday gig with Cookie on drums,” says Spencer, a Pistols fan since acquiring Never Mind The Bollocks when he was 10. “They got in touch a while later asking if I’d come sing and play guitar at rehearsals. They were still trying to tempt Steve Jones over, but by the time it became obvious he wasn’t going to travel to the UK the rehearsals had got better and the new line-up had taken on a life of its own.”

Witnessing the new, dynamic Professionals line-up live, Spencer is also far more suited to his role as frontman than Jones ever was. “Tom loves it,” says Myers, “while Steve was a reluctant frontman. Tom puts a hundred per cent into it and he’s a natural.”

Cook: “Tom’s enthusiasm’s great. It’s led on to us writing some songs together, which is great, because we didn’t want to do this as a nostalgia trip. Losing Ray opened up other avenues, having different guests playing. That wasn’t the plan, it wasn’t contrived, but once we was back to a three-piece it opened up the spare guitar parts.”

With an address book like Cook’s, it didn’t take long to fill the vacant guitar tracks on the album that became What In The World’s 10 songs. It’s consequently something of a star-studded affair, featuring Phil Collen, Duff McKagan, The Cult’s Billy Duffy, ex-Clash Mick Jones, ex-Ants Marco Pirroni, ex-3 Colours Red Chris McCormack (who has taken on the role of live second guitarist at all the band’s recent dates), and even shy, retiring Steve Jones has been coerced into adding his trademark Bollocks to three tracks.

“I was in Los Angeles not long ago, “ says Cook. “I tried to cajole him into doing some vocals as well, but getting him to do guitar was hard enough.”

Dave Draper’s ballsy production (with significant assistance from both the two Pauls and NMTB’s midwife Chris Thomas, who popped down to Zak Starkey’s studio on the day of this interview to cock an expert ear and suggest tweaks to the final mix) has finally captured The Professionals sounding exactly as they should have always sounded.

With their unfinished business having reached a satisfactory conclusion and their ultimate statement finally into shops and on to turntables, where next? Have these particular Professionals got sturdier legs than their former incarnation?

“Well we’re having a bit of fun doing it,” Cook understates. “We might even make a few bob. Because he’s broke, aren’t you?” he says to Myers. “You need the money.”

“I’m being made redundant,” says Myers. “I’m an addictions counsellor, and with all the cutbacks in health, the job’s going… At the best possible time, funnily enough.”

“You might even be able to become a professional musician,” Cook retorts. “Hopefully earning money, if things pan out.”

“I’m not sure if I wanna be a professional musician like him.” Myer’s concludes wistfully. “I quite like the idea that I’m a very non-professional musician… Cup of tea?”

And why not? Maybe there’ll be better luck in their leaves this time around.

What In The World is out now via Automaton.

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