Sex Pistols – banned but not forgotten
By Sylvie Simmons
14th January 1978, five and a half thousand miles from UEA, the Sex Pistols are backstage at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, an old hippie venue. They've just played to 5000 people, a sold-out crowd. Now they're slumped around a coffee table that's covered with bottles, spilled drinks, discarded food and overfilled ashtrays. They look like cigarettes with half the tobacco poked out, pale and crumpled, impassive. The last thing Johnny Rotten said before they left the stage was, "Ever had the feeling you've been cheated?" The question might have been aimed at the audience - or at himself and the band. This would be their final show. Less than two weeks later the Sex Pistols would disband and Rotten, Sid Vicious, Paul Cook and Steve Jones would go their separate ways.
It was the last date of what had been a short tour to start with and further abbreviated as shows were cancelled on the grounds of moral turpitude. Then, America and its puritans and fundamentalists have always seemed prone to moral panic, from Prohibition to the Bathroom Law, and rock music has been a favourite bugaboo. Decades before punk they banned the filming of Elvis Presley below the waist; there were public burnings of Beatles records. But lest we forget, the British were far from guiltless in this area. Questions were asked about the Sex Pistols in Parliament. They were banned by the BBC.
But far more disturbing and disappointing for me was that they were banned by UEA. The UK tour to promote their debut album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols was scheduled to begin on 3rd December 1977 with show at the university billed as "A Punk Rock Evening". Then the Vice Chancellor Dr Frank Thistlethwaite stepped in and stopped it. Students occupied the administration block, to no avail. I wasn't among the protesters because I'd graduated by then. When I left I became a rock journalist and I moved to L.A., which was where I was when I heard what happened.
There had actually been a protest going on at UEA the first day I set foot in the place. I had come from London for my interview in the English and American Studies building and there was a sit-in. Students were hanging painted banners on the walls. The front door was barred but I was invited to climb through the window. Inside, the professor who interviewed me smiled and behaved as if this were how things rolled at UEA. I liked that idea, having endured seven years at a conservative all-girls' school. I had offers from other universities but this was the place was for me.
Another memory comes to mind, I think it must have been during my first months at UEA. I was at Horsham then, the barracks, my bunk mate a reserved, old-fashioned girl who clearly disapproved of the hours and company I kept. (I don't think she thought much of my guitar playing and singing either, but that's all right, like any self-respecting failed musician I took the time-honoured route of becoming music journalist instead. Although I did finally come out as a singer-songwriter two years ago and got a record deal and made an album. But enough about me.) My roommate made a number of complaints and I thought I might get exiled to the Ziggurat. But there were no vacancies and I was given dispensation to move with friends into a hippie house in the countryside. That's where I was when there was a story in the News of the World exposing the sex, drugs and immorality at UEA, based on the complaints of a first year female student. It wasn't my roommate but it might as well have been.
Yes there was sex and drugs. But there was also a kind of innocence, a questing. A commitment to challenging the status quo, not exactly abandoning or setting a torch to the old ways but seeing things from different angles and making appropriate changes. That seemed to me to be what UEA was about. It wasn't Oxbridge. Yes, the old subjects were taught - one of many things I learned there was Anglo Saxon/Old English - but overall it felt more catholic. And rock music wasn't just a diversion back then, or it did not feel that way to me. It shaped my world view and moral code as much if not more as any other education. In London in my teens I saw a great many concerts. Scrolling through the list of concerts during my time at UEA, I see a lot of folk and progressive rock - not necessarily my favourite genres but I'm pretty sure I went to most of them. I can't swear to it since didn't keep a diary - and there were other things back then to cloud one's memory. I do have recollections of Captain Beefheart, John Martyn and Country Joe & The Fish and liking all three. I seem to remember seeing Loudon Wainwright III play on a bill with his wife and sister-in-law, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, but I can't see them listed.
Back in London I went to some punk gigs, but I didn't see the Sex Pistols until that night in San Francisco. I don't think I realised until further down the line that the Pistols were the punk band that really mattered. They were the great British outrage. They were John Osborne's Look Back In Anger, but really angry. Savage in their attack on institutions, which for them included the rock stars that went before them, the great betrayers. 'Anarchy InThe UK' was their generation's 'My Generation', its spleen even more gleefully infectious. Though Johnny Rotten had been a hippie once, they'd had it with love. Their influence was everywhere, from fashion to drug-of-choice to sound, volume, attitude. UEA should have not closed its doors to a band that so defined a point in time.*
There was rock pre-Pistols and there was rock post-Pistols - the latter beginning a fortnight after I saw them. For anyone interested, here's an abridged version what I wrote. It won't win a Pulitzer but at least I stayed sober long enough to take notes.
The Sex Pistols in San Francisco by Sylvie Simmons
Tonight is the Sex Pistols' last gig in N.America, and their biggest of the tour. It's at Bill Graham's Winterland, a tatty white building, once a hippy haunt, but now the graffiti says "Fuck the Grateful Dead."
All 5000 tickets have been sold and entry's on a first-come basis. By afternoon there's a sizeable queue outside the hall. American punks with plastic macs over their Iggy Pop T-shirts and ad hoc punk regalia brave the storm to guarantee a position within gobbing distance of the stage and to wave at the TV cameras conducting on-the-spot interviews with them.
I joined the queue at 8pm. By the time I was searched and frisked and inside - heavy security tonight, plus police cars patrolling the lines and selecting random punks for individual attention - the first band had been and gone. The place was already full, and if the people in the front 12 rows hadn't been asphyxiated yet it was only through divine intervention. An emcee onstage was organising audience participation, getting all present to give the finger (US version of the V-sign) and to recite shock-the-TV-camera phrases such as 'Fuck You' and 'Suck Your Mother.'
In the interval, a screen above the stage shows film footage of Pistols quotes and interviews that the blurred sound and vision render almost indecipherable, except for the 'Today' theme tune. The band that everyone talks about knowingly and hardly anyone's seen or heard. The audience seems to have read the reports and studied well how they're supposed to behave, spitting and throwing things. A mini smoke bomb is tossed onstage and Rotten is half hidden in smoke. Someone else jumps onstage and pats Sid on the back before being hauled away. The show has begun.
They open with 'God Save The Queen'. Johnny Rotten is a contortionist. He can sing with his head upside-down, playing Quasimodo. Johnny is really the Sex Pistol that scares old ladies, outrages citizens and upsets Tony Blackburn. He also possesses the most positive/negative stage presence of any rockstar ever (and that includes early Mick Jagger). He's as much as a showman as Gary Glitter - but there's something in his eyes, something dangerous, like he knows things. Added to that, he is really very funny. "You're a queer lot" are his first words to the crowd, encompassing the punks, clean-cut kids and the sexual inclinations of some of the men in the room in one little phrase.
Seventeen' is harsh, defiant, no-frills - musically much more what rock 'n' roll is about than the safe middle-of-the-rock that's taken hold of America. It's as subtle as a kick in the balls but this and their - yes - charisma is precisely what makes them such a stunning live band. The crowd is appreciative though not quite as frenzied as you might expect. They continue to toss hard objects at the stage like kids throwing peanuts at caged monkeys, trying to make them mad enough to rattle the bars. A calm-looking Rotten refuses to be baited, merely commenting, "That's not enough presents. You'll have to throw up something better than that." (A master of double-meaning, this man; in event of another interpretation the staff have already sawdusted the floor.) Back to the music with an animated, venomous version of 'EMI'. The stage now resembles a jumble sale. "I could get rich this way", says Rotten.
The rest of the album follows in no particular order: energetic, outrageous, entertaining, all the things you knew it would be, with JR controlling the crowd and maintaining momentum, with a little help from Sid, who has started a saliva battle in the front row with the help of a can of beer. All arrogance and aggression, he kicks the outstretched fans and - piece de resistance - blows snot at the front row. The cameras are having a field-day. Someone jumps the stage and Vicious heads towards him with his instrument raised.
"I think it's funny", chortles Johnny. "Do you want your ears blown out some more?" The audience cheers and applauds. "That's a blow to my pride", says Johnny and introduces the next song, "a song about you, it's called 'Problems.'" Sid and Steve Jones are leaping around onstage like madmen (at one point Sid falls flat on his face), while Rotten stands still in the middle of then with his arms crossed, looking like Peggy Mount. Can't take your eyes off him. The song ends with a hypnotic, echoed chant.
Next up is 'Pretty Vacant', a gem. The old spotlight-on-the-crowd bit results in much frenzied pogoing, with a couple at the front getting dangerously close to Rotten, who is smashing the microphone stand into the stage, rhythmically, of course. "Tell us, what's it like to have bad taste?" is his response to the rapturous applause. Final song: 'Anarchy In The USA'. The crowd predictably goes wild. The ultimate live number. What a singer, what a showman, what a show!
They return eventually for an encore, 'No Fun'. But the sound's going, Rotten's fighting a losing battle with the microphone. Steve meanwhile is competing with Sid in the gobbing stakes. (Paul Cook, apart from laying down a solid beat, has maintained his reputation as the Quiet One.) It's a long number that seems to stop in mid-air, leaving some perplexed-looking punters. Exit band, Johnny with the parting comment, "Ever had the feeling you've been cheated?" Whether it was aimed at themselves or the crowd, who knows.
Word has gone around that there's a party after the show, and there's almost a riot at the backstage door. The Pistols' road manager, scarlet and fuming, is trying to push his way through the crowd. No-one seems to believe he's who he says he is. Meanwhile Sid is back onstage selecting tonight's groupies from among the punkettes who remained behind when the lights went on and pulling them onto the stage and round the back.
The party is in full swing - popcorn, beer and hot dogs used more as missiles than for their food value. Apart from a brief walk-through appearance with assorted young ladies in tow, the Sex Pistols declined to attend, leaving the spitting, screaming, rioting and general obnoxiousness normally attributed to them to the support act, who seemed to be making the most of the amount of press people looking on and pouring food and drink over whoever got in the way. Someone spotted The Tubes at the party. But without Cook or Jones or Vicious or Rotten, the party fizzled out. Time to go home.
Meanwhile, back at the hotel the cops are everywhere, checking up on the unlikely people pouring through the automatic doors. Downstairs in the bar Britt Ekland - one of the many "in" people who flew up to see the band - is dancing to the Japanese disco band. Steve Jones is propping up the bar. Otherwise not another Pistol in sight - no spewing in the corridors, no spitting in the exotic fish tank, nothing. The next stop on the tour, apparently, is down south in Rio, doing some gigs for the notorious Ronald Biggs. Jones stayed at the bar till 2am, the police stayed all night, and that was that.
The Sex Pistols got the top spot on the evening news: "A motley crew that defies description and are renowned for their grossness hit San Francisco. Some say they're no more than musical morons." There follows some film from the concert - Johnny Rotten leering manically at the camera, the crowd evidently having a good time. The woman anchor looks bemused and disgusted. Her male colleague finds the episode even more amusing. "Just goes to show", he says, "that beauty isn't everything."
Postscript. Two weeks later the Sex Pistols broke up.
A link to the setlist:
A link to my website