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music friday: the sex pistols

Last August, I reprinted an essay I wrote for Bad Subjects: "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" It included this early paragraph:

1977: While I'm browsing in Rather Ripped Records of Berkeley, the in-store stereo begins playing one of the most powerful pieces of rock and roll I have ever heard. I stand transfixed until the song is over; when it ends, I go up to the counter and ask the clerk, 'What WAS that?' He sneers at me with know-it-all superiority and says, 'The Sex Pistols.'

It was an excellent essay, if I do say so myself, discussing my life with the Sex Pistols (including seeing them in concert in 1978) and with punk in general. But there was one angle I don't think I've ever written about. The October 20, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone featured a cover story by Charles M. Young (who died a few years ago) that was extremely influential on me. It was called "A Report on the Sex Pistols: Rock is sick and living in London".

I was fascinated with this article. I don't remember if I read it before my visit to Rather Ripped ... probably yes, since my memory is that while I didn't recognize the song being played, when I was told it was the Sex Pistols, I knew who they were. Might have even thought, so that's what they sound like.

To set the article in context, the #1 album at the time was Rumours. The concerts I attended in 1977 included Dan Hicks, a Day on the Green show featuring Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynrd, Santana, and The Outlaws, and another headlined by Led Zeppelin (all before the article appeared), and the J. Geils Band and Rod Stewart in shows I saw after I read the article. Bruce Springsteen was already my favorite, but he had only put out three albums, and we'd only seen him twice.

It's hard to reconstruct what was so appealing about Young's article (and its subject matter). I think it was a combination of the sensationalism he described and my desire to participate in the punk culture (I was a 24-year-old factory worker). It's fun to read it now, and see references that would have meant nothing to me at the time (for instance, The Slits opened one show for the Pistols). Mostly, though, I can recall how exciting Young made a Sex Pistols concert seem:

At midnight, the Sex Pistols finally emerge from the dressing room. The crush around the foot-high stage is literally unbelievable and skirmishes with the security men immediately erupt. The ten-foot stacks of PA speakers are rocking back and forth and are dangerously close to toppling over....

Some kid has put his fist through one of the speakers and a few more have escaped the security men to stomp on wires and knock over electronic equipment. The song is barely intelligible over the explosions and spitting noises from shorts, just the way anarchy ought to sound. The crowd pogos frantically.... Still clad in his swastika T-shirt, Rotten is perhaps the most captivating performer I’ve ever seen. He really doesn’t do that much besides snarl and be hunch-backed; it’s the eyes that kill you. They don’t pierce, they bludgeon.

“You’re bustin’ up the PA,” he says, more as a statement of fact than alarm, after the song is over. “Do you want us to continue?”

Several burly roadies join the security men to form a solid wall in front of the band. Rotten is completely hidden from view, so he climbs on top of a monitor and grabs the mike in one hand and the ceiling with the other for balance. Someone in the balcony pours beer on him....

Grasping a profusely bleeding nose, a kid collapses at my feet. Another pogos with his pants down.... “No Fun” is the encore and, true to its title, blows out the entire PA.

I grab a poster ... and head for the dressing room. Uncool fan that I have become, I ask for autographs. Cook complies; Jones complies; Rotten complies; Vicious asks, “Why should I?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I just wish you would. That was the most amazing show I’ve ever seen.”

Vicious thinks a moment and signs it. “Usually I don’t do this,” he says. “For some reason, I’m glad you liked it.”

The Sex Pistols concert I attended three months later is now famously considered to be awful, and the video footage agrees:

The band broke up the next day. I wrote about the concert in my "Oh Bondage" essay:

Surrounded by the largest display of public nihilism I had ever participated in ('real' or 'fake' seemed unimportant at the time), my thoughts kept going back to my children, not only my two-and-a-half year old son, but the daughter who it turned out was born the very next afternoon. Perhaps it was the thoughts of my daughter-to-be, but in the midst of all that spectacular malevolence, I was happy. To be a part of 5,000 people singing 'NO FUTURE!' in unison seemed somehow both the most negative and most positive statement possible. Camus once pointed out that to refuse suicide is to accept life; in refusing the future we had been offered, we were accepting something more unknown, more frightening, more wonderful.

Here is the video for their first single, "Anarchy in the U.K.":

For a couple of decades, I could say I'd been to the last Sex Pistols concert, but in 1996, they went on the first of several intermittent reunion shows, thus ending my bragging rights. Here's "Anarchy" in 2007: