The Sex Pistols famously flared briefly and brightly: The group released their debut single in the fall of 1976, helping to spark England’s punk movement, and dissolved less than 15 months later when John Lydon officially quit the band, leaving drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones in the lurch.
“After the Pistols split, Steve and myself were going to carry on in a band; that was obvious,” Cook tells Billboard. “We were looking for a singer, but we couldn’t really find one after the force that was Mr. Lydon fronting the Sex Pistols. Everything else just seemed a bit lame [in comparison].” Jones took over vocal duties, and the Professionals were born. But they didn’t last much longer than the Sex Pistols, releasing just one album before breaking up in 1982.
“We was touring the States, and we had a serious car crash in the middle of the tour,” Cook explains. “We managed to recover from that and went back to finish off the tour a few months later. It was a pretty crazy time. Steve was getting more and more out there with various things [drug use], and the band disintegrated after that American tour. We just couldn’t hold it together.”
But after re-forming for a reunion gig in 2015, a slightly altered version of the Professionals — Cook working primarily with his old comrade Paul Myers on bass, new singer Tom Spencer and a rotating cast of star guitar players — are returning with a satisfyingly trenchant new album, What in the World, due out Oct. 27. (Pre-order here.) “We wanted to carry on playing; I didn’t just want to re-hash the past,” Cook says. So working with Spencer, he wrote a slew of songs he describes as “fast, guitar-driven, punky — same as the Pistols really, maybe a bit poppier.” He adds, “The album is about growing up disgracefully.”
Jones contributed guitar to several songs, but he was no longer interested in the band life. “We lost Steve in New York [at the end of the Professionals’ Eighties tour of the U.S.] and he ended up staying in the States ever since, and that was over 30 years ago,” Cook explains. “He didn’t want to tour and be part of a band again. So he just said, ‘you carry on.'”
In place of Jones, “I had the bright idea of getting my address book and phoning all my friends and seeing who wanted to play on the album,” says Cook. “They were all Pistols and Professionals fans, so it was a bit of a no-brainer.” Cook’s rolodex includes Mick Jones, formerly of the Clash. “I’ve known Mick forever, back in the early days,” Cook notes. “He’s a bit of a recluse. He doesn’t come out or do much recording any more. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get him into the studio.” But he ended up playing on the song “Extremadura.”
Def Leppard‘s Phil Collen also appeared on What in the World, lacing “Monkeys” and “Rewind” with his typically stirring, arena-sized riffs. Cook and Collen previously played together in the band Man Raze. “He’s a great guitarist so it was obvious I was going to ask him to play on a couple of tracks,” Cook says. “Rewind” kicks as hard as anything on the album, but all the vigor serves as cover for one of the album’s most wistful tracks. “It’s about trying to remember the old days, losing your memory, basically,” Cook explains. The video for the track is premiering today exclusively on Billboard.
The shifting alliance of guitar players on What in the World doesn’t alter the album’s texture. Everything here moves at a pace between brisk and blistering, wrapping up before it has time to out-stay its welcome; the rhythm section is tidy but bullying; solos are executed with the minimum of drama; Spencer’s voice is appropriately scabrous. The album’s opening track serves as a manifesto of sorts — “You can’t keep a good man down in the underground,” Spencer sing-shouts — and it closes with “Monkeys,” an indictment of modern culture aimed at those who don’t bother to think for themselves.
Coincidentally, What in the World arrives a day before the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. “We didn’t think it would last 40 days, let alone 40 years,” Cook says. He doesn’t listen to the record anymore, though he sometimes hears tracks from it on the radio and allows that “they still sound great.”
Rock’s place in the cultural lexicon has shifted markedly since 1977, but Cook’s devotion has never wavered. “I think it will always be popular,” he says. “There will always be a place for rock music. I still like it, anyway.”