She was one half of punk’s most famous couple whose life came to a violent end in a seedy New York hotel room.
Now the story of Sid Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen, who was stabbed to death at the age of 20, will be introduced to a new generation of viewers in a six-part TV biopic about the Sex Pistols from Oscar-winner Danny Boyle.
Photos released yesterday from the set of Pistol show up-and-coming actress Emma Appleton, who plays Nancy, stumbling in fishnet tights down a dreary London street arm-in-arm with the actor playing guitarist Steve Jones.
Jones, whose memoirs provides the basis for the series, claims to have had sex with Nancy, but it is for her relationship with hell-raiser Vicious, the violence-obsessed face of the punk rock movement, for which she will be forever remembered.
Nancy’s body was discovered in the the bathroom of the New York hotel room they shared in October 1978, months after the Sex Pistols fell apart. The notorious case ended with Vicious being charged with his girlfriend’s murder – but dying of a heroin overdose before it came to court.
The tragic story of Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious (together in 1978) who was found stabbed to death in a seedy hotel room at the age of 20, is set to be told to a new generation of viewers in a six-part series about the rockers from director Danny Boyle
Photos released from the set of Pistol show actress Emma Appleton, who plays Nancy, arm-in-arm with the actor playing guitarist Steve Jones (left). Jones claims to have had sex with Nancy, but it is for her relationship with Sid (right in 1978) for which she will be forever remembered
Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), Sid Vicious, Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols
It was a far cry from the charmed start Nancy had been given in life.
Born in 1958 to middle-class Jewish parents in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, there were signs early on that Nancy would be a difficult child.
Her mother Deborah Spungen, believed to be still alive, wrote about life with troubled daughter in a 1983 memoir, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life.
As a baby, Nancy was prone to tantrums, demanding, and discovered early on how to bully her younger brother and sister. By the age of seven, she ‘ran the house’.
‘When she wanted something, no matter how big or small, she hollered and screamed and backed us into a corner until we were the ones to back down,’ Deborah writes.
‘We gave in to her. Why? Because there was absolutely no peace in the house until she got what she wanted.’
At the age of 11, following a string of doctors’ appointments and a hammer attack on her mother, Nancy was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She spent time in a mental hospital and was later sent to a boarding school for troubled children.
At 17, she turned her back on her genteel upbringing once and for all and ran away to be a groupie in New York. By then she was taking drugs and sleeping with musicians.
Nancy’s body was discovered in the the bathroom of the New York hotel room they shared in October 1978, months after the Sex Pistols fell apart. The notorious case ended with Vicious being charged with his girlfriend’s murder – but dying of a heroin overdose before it came to court. Pictured, Nancy at the Roxy Club in 1977, the year she met Vicious
It was Vicious himself who phoned police to say he had found her dead body, and an hour later, in a holding cell at the Third Homicide Division, Vicious famously confessed: ‘I did it because I’m a dirty dog.’ He later retracted the confession but was charged with murder
‘Our morality meant zero to her,’ she writes. ‘She would simply step over the line, draw a new one, and then step over that. We were also revolted.
‘It was ugly and distasteful and we hated to see such a bright child throw her life away—trash it, really. But we were powerless to stop her.’
Nancy reportedly bought drugs to meet musicians and became a heroin addict, funding her habit at one time by working as a prostitute.
Later, she moved to England ‘specifically to get a Sex Pistol for a boyfriend’, recalled a friend. Other contemporaries she came to the UK to chase after Heartbreakers Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, who had left New York.
Regardless, the move to London in 1977 brought Nancy into the orbit of the man who would define her short life.
Sid Vicious, born John Ritchie, was a fixture of the King’s Road punk scene who had been brought in earlier that year to replace original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock.
He could not play a note but he was as foul-mouthed and audacious as singer Johnny Rotten – John Lyndon, now of I’m A Celebrity… fame – often stripping down to his underpants to reveal a skinny torso scarred by self-inflicted knife wounds.
The couple moved in together in London and Nancy reportedly introduced her boyfriend to heroin. She joined the Sex Pistols on their US tour the following year.
Almost as soon as they had arrived, Vicious was photographed injecting heroin in a hotel room and throughout the tour he joined Rotten in blowing the contents of their noses over audiences and stirring them into a frenzy by screaming strings of four-letter insults. At one concert, in San Antonio, Texas, the 2,000-strong crowd let off fireworks and threw beer cans and animal entrails at the band.
Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen at Marylebone Court, London, in 1978, the year Nancy died
When Vicious, clad in leather, chains and padlocks, began clubbing one youth with his guitar, sheriffs armed with revolvers and tear gas battled to keep the audience from storming the stage.
At a gig in Dallas he appeared with the words ‘gimme a fix’ carved into his chest with a razor and both he and Rotten were punched in the face by female fans, with Vicious revelling in his bloody nose.
Photographer Bob Gruen, who joined the Pistols on what would be their final tour with Vicious, recalled in an interview with New York magazine: ‘I remember talking to Sid on the bus, and he really seemed to care for her.
‘He didn’t have any anger or hatred toward her. Sid very much loved Nancy. They seemed to communicate and connect.’
The band collapsed at the end of the tour and Sid returned to London with Nancy to attempt a solo career.
By the end of August 1978, they returned to New York to start a new life, but overdoses were taking their toll and they were still dependent on drugs.
They moved into the Chelsea Hotel, which had once been a Mecca for writers and artists – Dylan Thomas, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan had all once lived there – but by the late 1970s, was little more than a sprawling drugs den populated by users.
On October 12, 1978, Nancy was found dead in the bathroom of Room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel, a trail of blood leading to the bed she shared with Vicious, who had bought a hunting knife a few days earlier.
Witnesses who were at a party in their room the evening before say Vicious was out for the count, thanks to a heavy dose of barbiturates.
Some theories say she could have been killed by a visitor in a squabble over drugs or money.
It was Vicious himself who phoned police to say he had found her dead body, and an hour later, in a holding cell at the Third Homicide Division, Vicious famously confessed: ‘I did it because I’m a dirty dog.’
The police, it seemed, had their man. But Vicious was later to retract his confession, claiming he could not recall anything about the night Nancy had died.
Nevertheless he was remanded in custody, but his manager, the colourful Malcolm McLaren, hired a top New York lawyer called James Merberg to win him bail.
Within days, Vicious was free on a $50,000 licence which had been put up by his record label boss, Richard Branson.
A little more than a month later, however, Sid was back inside the maximum security Riker’s Island jail after glassing a man in a fight in a New York club. He spent nearly two months behind bars in the prison’s detox wing before he was again released on bail.
By then, Vicious had a new girlfriend, a would-be actress called Michelle Robson. On the day of his release – February 1, 1979 – Vicious, his mother Anne Beverley and a few friends went back to Robson’s apartment for a celebration meal.
After eating spaghetti bolognese, Vicious asked his mother – herself a hopeless addict – to find him some drugs.
Unknown to Vicious, this batch of heroin was more than 95 per cent pure and nearly three times stronger than most of the heroin sold on the streets of New York. After taking it, Sid collapsed.
He was revived by his girlfriend and mother, but they decided not to call an ambulance because they feared he would be thrown back in jail for breaking his bail conditions. It was to prove a fatal mistake.
Later that night, alone in the bedroom, he injected more of the powerful heroin. The following morning, he was found dead.
Whether or not Vicious killed Nancy is unlikely to ever be resolved with any certainty, but in her memoir, Deborah Spungen suggests her daughter’s boyfriend wasn’t to blame.
She recalled receiving a letter from Vicious in the weeks after Nancy’s death, in which he declared her passionate love for her.
Mrs Spungen felt it encapsulated her own feelings, even though it was written by ‘the punk monster… the man I feared. The man I should have hated, but somehow couldn’t’.
In her book, Mrs Spungen describes Nancy’s last phone call a few days before she died as ‘spooky… almost as if she was saying goodbye’.
Some weeks after the first letter, she got another from Vicious, this time even more anguished. It began: ‘I’m dying. Slowly, and in great pain. My baby is gone, without her I have no will to live…’
Amid the self-pity, Vicious wrote: ‘Nancy once asked if I would pour petrol over myself and set it on fire if she told me to. I said I would, and I meant it.’
Mrs Spungen writes: ‘From that, it wasn’t hard for me to… visualise Nancy handing Sid the knife and ordering him to prove his love for her by using it on her.
‘By shutting my eyes, I could hear his protestations. And then her screams. No one will ever know for sure what happened that night.
‘It is my belief that she wanted to die so made Sid the instrument.’