Despite an initial career that lasted less than three years and produced only one album and a handful of singles, no group is more responsible for fueling the English punk rock movement than the Sex Pistols. Now regarded as one of the most influential bands in the history of rock, they quickly became notorious not only for the tension and hostility of their music, but for the mayhem they intentionally created everywhere they went. Encouraged by their manager, Malcolm McLaren, the group began their assault by rebelling against social conformity with their 1976 single “Anarchy In The U.K.” This continued when the band intentionally attacked Britain’s royalty and governing factions with their 1977 single, “God Save The Queen,” engaging a new generation of England’s youth in the process. Rebellious lyrics were nothing new within a rock music context, but unlike previous groups, the Sex Pistols lyrics reflected a nihilistic, highly politicized stance. Johnny Rotten’s sneering attitude and shrieks of “I am the anti-christ” and “There’s no future” became a politically charged manifesto for the English punk movement. The Sex Pistols’ music rapidly became an ideological weapon and controversy and violence naturally followed them everywhere they went.
In October of 1977, the band’s debut album, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, was released. Although the band despised the established rock and roll journalism found in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine, they were praised for playing “with an energy and conviction that is positively transcendent in its madness and fever.” The highly influential magazine also claimed the album to be “just about the most exciting rock and roll record of the Seventies.” Despite being condemned by England’s record industry distributors and being banned from radio, advance sales of the album made it a #1 album on the U.K. charts, further fueling the press and controversy surrounding the group.
Following a brief run of controversial concerts in the Netherlands and Britain during the latter months of 1977, the Sex Pistols’ manager, McLaren, who had designs on America, booked the group on their first tour of the United States. Intentionally facilitating an atmosphere of tension and hostility, both on stage and within the band, McLaren primarily booked the band into clubs and bars in the Southern states, guaranteeing belligerent audiences and openly hostile situations everywhere they went.
During this two week assault on America, which was plagued by poor planning and predictably violent reactions, the group’s bass player, Sid Vicious, paved the way toward a whole new level of decadence. During the band’s engagement in Memphis early in the tour, Vicious, now addicted to heroin, went in search of a connection and was later found in a local hospital with the words “Gimme a fix” carved into his chest with a razor. He engaged in numerous fights both on and off stage, sustaining numerous other injuries as the tour progressed. Vicious even wound up getting his ass kicked by one of the band’s own bodyguards, who were not immune to his hostile challenges.
The tour eventually culminated in a high profile gig in San Francisco, where concert promoter Bill Graham convinced McLaren that the band was popular enough to play Winterland, dwarfing any performance the band had previously attempted by far. This now legendary concert, the biggest of the group’s career, would also turn out to be the Sex Pistols’ last. Headlining a triple bill that included local punk bands the Nuns (featuring a young Alejandro Escovedo) and the Avengers (featuring a young Penelope Houston), this night would prove to be an extraordinary theatrical event and the Sex Pistols’ final gig before a sold-out audience of 5000. Due to local demand, the Sex Pistols set was also simulcast on KSAN radio, where it would be heard live by thousands of additional listeners and would soon circulate far and wide, becoming the most ubiquitous bootleg recording of the group.
Evaluating this Sex Pistols’ performance in terms of music is a relatively pointless exercise, as the band had no desire to please the audience in terms of music, nor could they even play well in any traditional sense. The performance, devoid of pacing, range, tempo, or melody, is instead an onslaught of rage, rebellion, and release, which is relentlessly ragged throughout the set. Despite this, and the fact that Sid Vicious’ bass was little more than a prop, the group seethes with an undeniable raw energy and raises contempt for an audience to a new, almost artistic level. Between songs, Johnny Rotten keeps a running commentary on exactly what the group is doing, antagonizing and provoking the audience all along the way. Shouts of “fuck you” and projectiles being hurled at the stage are taken as encouragement, confirming the purpose of this performance. The group expresses total contempt for their audience and demand the same in return.
Despite all this, guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook are extraordinary, literally carrying all the musical weight on their shoulders alone. They are the driving force here and what they lack in technical ability, they more than make up for in raw energy. It is Jones’ monstrous guitar sound and Cook’s pummeling unadorned drumming that provides the sonic onslaught over which Rotten can snarl his vitriolic lyrics. After a decade of rock music becoming safe and apathetic, the Sex Pistols made it frightening, and in the process, fun again.
The set begins with the band lurching onto the stage, Sid Vicious with his bass hanging down to his knees and Johnny Rotten sneering “Welcome To London!” at the San Francisco audience. The audience responds with insults and by hurling objects at the stage, which the group encourages throughout the performance. They kick off the set with their signature song, “God Save The Queen,” a seething attack on the British monarchy. Loud and uncoordinated (due in part to stage monitor issues that plague the entire set) this song actually comes across as a curious form of British patriotism. This is followed by the hard driving “I Wanna Be Me,” the B-side of the group’s first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.”
Other than the unexpected encore and a thoroughly horrifying live take of “Belsen Was a Gas” later in the set, the band proceed to play every song on the Never Mind The Bollocks album, continuing with their celebration of laziness on “Seventeen,” followed by “New York” and then “E.M.I.,” the group’s middle finger salute aimed at the record industry and label that fired them out of fear of their lyric content. Although not nearly as shocking in retrospect, these songs were all breaking new ground at the time and Rotten’s vocal delivery was creating the mold for countless punk singers to follow. The Sex Pistols didn’t care what the audience (or anyone else for that matter) thought and that point clearly comes across.
Amidst the onslaught of debris being hurled at the stage, which included coins intended to inflict pain on Rotten, he is undaunted and provokes even more of this behavior by saying, “Any more presents?” The group next surges forward into “Belsen Was A Gas,” with its taunting lyrics of “Be a man! Kill yourself!” The thrashing “Bodies” is next, featuring some of Steve Jones’ most inspired guitar work of the night. Here Rotten denounces a society that forces its women to seek illegal and potentially life-threatening abortions. Drummer Paul Cook next leads the way into a chaotic “Holidays In The Sun,” which begins with an annoyingly long repetitive thud of his bass drum, but when the Pistols launch into the song proper, it is remarkably well played, with even Vicious managing to contribute to the unstoppable force. Continuing to provoke the audience, Rotten next inquires “What just hit me in the head?” before casually continuing the taunting dialogue with, “Didn’t hurt a bit.” Asking if the audience is ready for more of this “racket,” they plow on into the blatant honesty of “Liar,” followed by their homage to self-absorption, “No Feelings.”
The stage monitors go out completely at this point and while the tech crew scrambles to fix things, Vicious aims a kick at someone pressed against the stage that was annoying him, Steve Jones hurls a gob back at the audience who have been spitting on him throughout the set, and Rotten sneeringly informs the audience that “The next song is about you—its called “Problems.” Although he has been stuffing anything of value into his pockets throughout the set, he also requests the audience toss up some cameras, complaining that what has landed on stage so far isn’t good enough.
They wind the audience into a final frenzy with the anthemic “Pretty Vacant,” followed by further inquiries from Rotten, who exclaims, “What’s it like to have bad taste?” This prefaces the final number of the set and the band’s signature song, “Anarchy In The U.K.” Here the band get one last chance to vent their frustration and this final number is fueled by Rotten’s snarling power as he spews venomous lyrics in all directions, and in the process, defines the raging force of British punk.
One might expect the group to leave the audience totally frustrated, by refusing to do an encore, but amidst roars for more, the Pistols return to the stage and launch into a cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun.” This eventually culminates with Rotten hunched on the stage, screaming “No Fun!” over and over. The song comes to an abrupt halt and in his most insinuating manner, Rotten poses the question that has by now become infamous, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” before smirking a final “Goodnight” and the band leaving the debris-strewn stage… for good.
Whether you loved them or hated them (and there were not many who fell between those extremes), the Sex Pistols were a force that would change the course of musical history, uniting music and politics in a manner far more rebellious than anything that occurred before. These were true anarchists who were revolting against conformity and they were prepared to fight their way out of the social injustice and economic oppression surrounding them in Britain. Unlike everything that came before them, their music was clearly focused on destruction, anarchy, and chaos in a literal sense and not as any popular trend. Despite releasing only one album during this tumultuous era, the Sex Pistols created one of the great paradigm shifts in modern music, forever changing the landscape of the music industry.