A fabled tale of excess, personality clashes, and managerial manipulation, the Sex Pistols’ seven U.S. shows in January 1978 reward revisiting even at so many decades’ distance.
The Sex Pistols’ 1978 U.S. tour looks like attempted homicide. Malcolm McClaren, the band’s 31 year old manager, was hungry for the photogenic controversy that might arise if — instead of playing America’s liberal cities — he sent the world’s most controversial group to country ‘n’ western venues across the Deep South. This was less than ten years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and yet, relying on stereotypes of Bible Belt religiosity and conservatism, McClaren wanted to acquire audiences who might protest, attack the band, maybe even riot if he was lucky!
From the perspective of 2020, the level of callous disregard for his 20-to-22 year old charges is pretty breath-taking. Even on home turf McClaren knew the band’s reputation made them a lightning rod for violence. Back in June, frontman John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), was stabbed in the hand and knee, and had his face slashed; drummer Paul Cook was attacked by a gang wielding iron bars; then Lydon was assaulted again outside a night club. All Sex Pistols’ management learned was this was a trusty approach for the acquisition of press coverage. If it occurred to him that his strategy for the U.S. could wind up getting someone seriously injured, it was of only passing concern.
The band — Lydon, Cook, Steve Jones (guitarist), Sid Vicious (bassist) — went along with it. Suffering from both the naivety and the idealism of youth, they agreed to put themselves at an unknown level of risk for obscure rewards. The tour itinerary perhaps felt reminiscent of Sex Pistols’ parochial rambles around the U.K. where — after starting off playing London colleges, then the minor club circuit — the band strayed way off the beaten path into small towns like Whitby, Dunstable, Cleethorpes, Penzance, Keighley, Cromer. There was some method to the madness: Sex Pistols’ notoriety short-circuited the traditional route to legend status because few people ever saw them play.
McClaren was also relying on the band’s ability to make the law enforcement community a co-conspirator in the stoking of publicity. In a single year, Sex Pistols had been ordered to leave Guernsey after one night; their celebration on a boat in the Thames was halted; their first album wound up in court charged with obscenity; and Lydon and Vicious had been arrested in separate drug busts — all of which was deemed a manageable cost of doing business. These were bizarre lessons to draw from Sex Pistols’ experiences in late 1976 through 1977 and only made sense if no one really cared about being a real band anymore.
Sex Pistols had certainly started out with genuine intentions. The arrival of Lydon in August 1975 made the band a functioning entity able to rehearse. Playing their first gig on Thursday November 6, they were industrious with as many as ten shows under their belts by Wednesday December 10. At that first show they played a set of rough covers and just two originals — ‘Did You No Wrong’ and ‘Seventeen’ — impressively pulling together three more — ‘Pretty Vacant’, ‘Submission’, and ‘New York’ — by end of the month. From then on song-writing proceeded steadily, if unspectacularly, with set-lists beefed up by as many as half-a-dozen covers. Going by their live appearances, ‘Problems’ appeared on February 14; ‘Satellite’ and ‘No Feelings’ on April 3; ‘I Wanna Be Me’ and little-known improvised noise opener ‘Flowers Of Romance’ entered the set on June 29; ‘Anarchy In The UK’ debuted on July 20; ‘Liar’ appeared on August 14; ‘God Save The Queen’ by December 6…
But Sex Pistols’ September-October tour would be their last moment of calm. An already flammable reputation was ignited on December 1 by the appearance with Bill Grundy on the Today show. 17 of their 24 December dates were canceled and they were hounded across Britain by press and protestors; signed on October 8, they were dumped by EMI in early January; Glenn Matlock left the band in February and they had to start teaching Vicious the bass; they signed to A&M on March 10 and were dumped within the week; signed with Virgin in mid-May. After a short run of shows in The Netherlands ending on January 7, the band only played another three times before mid-July.
After writing ‘E.M.I.’ with Matlock somewhere in January 1977, Sex Pistols were overwhelmed by events and essentially over as a creative entity. At least they managed to end the tedium and repetitive sessions and get Never Mind The Bollocks recorded in fits and starts between March and August. The final year of the band would see only two new songs emerge: ‘Holidays In The Sun’ whipped together in April-June, then a revived song from a former band of Vicious’ called ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ which was rehearsed in September. Nothing is predestined, but by the time the band hit America and Lydon was trying to persuade them to attempt a new song in soundcheck, to accompany his lyrics under the name ‘Religion’, no one wanted to know.
Banned, sacked, assaulted, arrested, protested, shell-shocked, and fed-up — Sex Pistols had had sufficient drama in a single year to last other artists a lifelong career. And on a personal level it was just getting worse. Vicious had become a heroin addict, the rest of the band had more than a casual penchant for various drugs, the Lydon/Vicious versus Cook/Jones axis of the band had split again with Vicious aligning with his girlfriend and dealer Nancy Spungen. In the background, McClaren was both a focus of annoyance, and busy maintaining his position by spreading lies and gossip to poison the air between the band still further.
The tour was a predictable mess from the start: the four shows scheduled from December 29 to January 3 had to be canceled because the band’s criminal records caused Visa issues. These shows would have been in Homestead, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; and Alexandria, Virginia — which makes the claim of a ‘southern strategy’ look like retrospective justification for the silliness of the remaining week-and-a-half tour program. On the other hand, the intention to play a 600 capacity venue in Chicago — when this and San Francisco were the largest cities on the tour — looks like an attempt to guarantee a riot. The desired publicity had an effect too in that the Holiday Inn chain pre-emptively declined the band.
The frayed logic of the tour was on full display when contemplating Winterland. Prior to their departure for the U.S., Sex Pistols had never played for a crowd of more than a few hundred. Now, a mere week after touchdown, they were going to scale up to a 5,400 capacity venue. One could maybe credit a ramshackle attempt to prepare the band, with venue capacity stepping up from 500 in Atlanta, to 700-800 in Baton Rouge and Memphis, to 1,800-2,200 at the other three venues…Except the original tour schedule would have thrown them on in front of 2,000 attendees a night (with the exception of Chicago). It’s more likely an absence of mid-sized venues, rather than managerial benevolence, that gave Sex Pistols some vague hope of acclimatising.
Meanwhile Sid Vicious came undone. It’s hard not to feel a degree of pity for a young man, battling heroin addiction, being challenged to live up to his stage name again and again. There’s a ‘boys don’t cry’ sadness to his actions as he becomes the focus of so much violence and stays dry-eyed trying to prove he could take it, daring people to do their worst. This doesn’t make him any less stupid or indiscriminately violent — he embraced his role with self-destructive gusto. In Atlanta he headed to the hospital after slitting his wrist with a letter opener; he wrote ‘Gimme A Fix’ across his chest (rumours state he cut it in with a razor but there’s no sign of it by Winterland which makes that unlikely); in Memphis he disappeared again — another hospital visit plus a knife wound to his arm; in Dallas he assaults a photographer and security before being beaten by his own bodyguard; before Winterland he stuck a steak knife into his hand when accosted while eating a meal, then after the show he OD’ed in a shooting gallery on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.
McClaren busied himself making things worse. There’s suspicion that he gave Vicious money for heroin, and he relentlessly egged on Vicious’ worst instincts while refusing to get his hands dirty by intervening to look after Vicious either. He also put Jones and Cook on planes between venues — though the two of them behaved so badly on a flight from Tulsa that they were banned by American Airlines — while Vicious and Lydon continued on the bus which felt like favouritism to band members already used to being wound up. There was also resentment of apparent favouritism in the matter of which hotels or motels band members would wind up staying at. By the time of San Francisco, the band knew their shows in Finland weren’t going ahead, there was a grim rumour stirred by McClaren that Charles Manson would produce their next album from prison, now the hairbrained whim of flying to Rio De Janeiro to meet with the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs.
The one thing that remained undimmed, however, was the innate talent within the band. Steve Jones is comparable to Ron Asheton in terms of having such a colossal, immediately recognisable, and oft-underrated guitar technique. Similarly, Lydon sounds simultaneously incandescent, hilarious, and thoroughly pissed off at every show — a quintessential frontman. The Sex Pistols in America are reminiscent of the Terminator in the finale of the 1984 film: stripped down, falling apart, still relentless and unstoppable. There are audio recordings, and even video, of quite a substantial quantity of the tour and they remain fascinating documents of that rarest of things in the music business — genuine unpredictability.
January 5, 1978: The Great Southeast Music Hall — Atlanta, Georgia
In front of an audience of 500 primarily made up of journalists, the bating and the technical issues kick-off from the very first minute. Jones’ guitar cuts out, feeds back, and requires interminable pauses for tuning throughout the show. The solo on ‘God Save The Queen’ is perfunctory, the drums are a methodical clattering din, then the guitar cuts out during ‘I Wanna Be Me’ while ‘Seventeen’ has a false start. At times Lydon’s vocals run headlong into the slightly panicked rush of the other instruments, everything coexisting rather than coalescing, he seems to be straining to keep up. Vicious’ bass seems to have been turned down, at its loudest it’s a dull clumping in the background of a song — occasional cussing (and the cracking line “this one’s about you, it’s called ‘Problems’”) is the biggest impression he makes. “That’s God that is and he don’t like us,” Lydon announces while — to his credit — trying to cover for the band’s issues. Things stabilise from ‘New York’ onward — ‘Bodies’ is pure exuberant nastiness including an incongruous ‘step up’ where the anti-harmonising of Vicious and Jones backs Lydon’s pleas — but then the guitar dies again during ‘Submission’, returning beset by feedback. At their best, there are moments like the solo on ‘Holidays In The Sun’ which is like sheet metal tearing, or the final pairing of ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Anarchy In The UK’ which sounds like gaskets exploding somewhere inside Chernobyl. There’s no way the band could have lived up to their reputation but instead they stooped down and undermined it by the simple virtue of being just another band, albeit one that was undeniably above average.
Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:
“Now. We came to dance. What did you come for?”
“See the fine upstanding young men Britain is chucking out these days? Just never join an army.”
“Aren’t we the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”
January 6: Taliesyn Ballroom — Memphis, Tennessee
The audio source for Memphis is in such wonderfully dissolute condition that the sound from the stage is a thick fug, splintered moments penetrating consciousness through sheer volume while an incoherent blizzard pushes and shoves. Ironically, in that light, at the start of ‘I Wanna Be Me’ Lydon asks for more monitors because “I can’t hear myself! Hello, ‘ello, ‘ello…” Most songs become untamed cyclones that twist and whirl through the speakers. The show itself further stoked Sex Pistols’ reputation for chaotic events with the police sending investigators to Atlanta to check on reports of the band having live or simulated sex on stage, the fire department telling the crowd outside that the show had been oversold and was cancelled, a small riot among the couple of hundred attendees who couldn’t get in and began smashing windows, and the band getting on stage substantially late. Hammering rhythm is the most visible feature throughout with most songs on the tape compressed down to a juddering roar. Lydon’s vocals would feel at home in the poesia sonora scene. The tape seems to cut or pause at points so there’s barely any visible conversation with the audience, which perhaps contributes to the sense of pace and a band back on track after a bad first show, except a good portion of the audience walked out — amusing in light of the battle outside to get in.
Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:
“I’m not here for your entertainment, you’re here for my entertainment.”
January 8, 1978: Randy’s Rodeo — San Antonio, Texas
Near constant whistling and hassle, San Antonio was the kind of nastiness that must have sent McClaren into raptures. Vicious shouting “you cowboys are all faggots!” hardly helped matters and likely served to increase the hail of material hitting the band and the accompanying verbal goading. What’s tragic is it’s one of the few gigs where Vicious’ bass work seems coherent and things are moving forward with intent…For a grand total of four songs. Then Vicious yells, “you faggot fucker!” hauls his bass strap off, inverts the guitar and chops it down into the crowd just missing his intended target — Brian Faltin who attended specifically to protest and provoke the band. Billowing clouds of bass-heavy pulse reduce Lydon’s voice to a scratchy edging with one’s memory of songs filling in the indistinctness of the lyrics, then the second half of the tape he’s suddenly more audible while the instrumental clarity disintegrates. The drum sound is remarkably separated with the cymbals a lightning clash of static, while everything else is a distant rumble. The marching beat that opens ‘Holidays In The Sun’ is gloriously leaden and it’s the most straightforward moments, like Lydon’s screaming during ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ that penetrate.
Sid bass incident: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXCvQDCc0Zc
Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:
“I see we’ve got a lot of real men out there tonight…”
“Oh dear, Sid’s guitar fell off!”
January 9, 1978: Kingfish Club — Baton Rouge, Louisiana
A sub-1,000 venue formerly part of a grocery store, the atmosphere at the Kingfish Club is hostile with audience members screaming “fuck you!” and “throw something at them!” Normally live albums are a grotesque way of fleecing fans into paying for inferior copycats of studio tracks, by contrast, this bootleg quality studio recording buries you somewhere in the crowd with blown out walls of overdriven electricity billowing on all sides. It’s wonderful seeing the rough outline of a well-known song still visible but cracked and pulled apart. The band are on a high all night despite the usual rain of coins and object hitting the stage (and the band), indeed Lydon ad-libs less because there’s so little dead time between songs. Cook shows himself to be the powerful and stolidly dependable core of the band, while Jones is feeling secure enough he can toy with feedback on the outro of ‘Seventeen’. The bass-heavy recording even flatters Vicious on songs like ‘New York’ where there’s no audible indication of the attempt by one fan to give him an on-stage blowjob and he keep stolidly strumming. Lydon is deluged by the band’s raw power, working hard to be heard amid the torrent smacking down on the audience. ‘Belsen Was A Gas’, for all its bad taste, shares a military precision and thuggish pummelling with ‘Holidays In The Sun’ which makes one wonder what the post-Matlock Sex Pistols could have done if they’d made it through January 1978.
Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:
“I’ve had it with coins!”
“This song is by an old hippie…” (The Stooges ‘No Fun’ follows)
“That’s all because I’m too lazy to do anymore. Good night.”
January 10, 1978: Longhorn Ballroom — Dallas, Texas
Another ugly atmosphere awaited in Dallas with the venue owner (whose most notable predecessor was Jack Ruby) trying to cancel — Warner Bros. sternly warned him they would sue — while the police kept a SWAT unit on standby. The night is all about Vicious. Suffering withdrawal and woozily drunk, he drifts about the stage oblivious to his bandmates’ glares. Jones has another night of guitar trouble — he breaks a string early, there’s a plethora of errors, and his usual chunky power is subdued — and he’s increasingly antagonised by Vicious. During ‘Bodies’ he has to stop playing to storm across and plug Vicious’ bass back in, he shouts at Vicious during ‘Belsen Was A Gas’, then resorts to his mic, “Look what you’re doing, not at them!” Every time the band come close to achieving momentum something derails it. After ‘Holidays In The Sun’ Vicious is sucker-punched in the nose and, in their disgust for Vicious, this is the only time Jones (“See the wanker fall over? Big tough Sid falls over!”) and Lydon (“Look at that, a living circus!”) seem to acknowledge one another or agree at any point in the tour. For the next 25 minutes Vicious looks like he’s wearing lipstick, is pink-tinted down to the waist, and engages in spitting contests back-and-forth with the audience. There’s a resurgence as the band rallies on ‘Bodies’ — Jones’ finest solo of the night with Lydon skanking in the middle of the stage — before audience-winning runs at set stalwarts ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Anarchy In The UK’. For the encore, Vicious, whose face is so blood-spattered it looks like warpaint — is flicking V’s while being tailed onto the stage by a minder. ‘No Fun’ looks like finishing the night on a raucous high then suddenly a visibly angry Jones is launching himself at someone in the audience with his guitar and gets at least a shove in before bouncers intervene. The rest of the gig plays out with a man-mountain stood squarely at centre-stage monitoring the crowd and, even after the song ends, Vicious is in a shoving match with security who are simultaneously handling the crowd and him.
(For the full audio including the opening numbers missing from the video check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMq26X3RaK0)
Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:
“Any more free gifts?”
“I see that we have a whole section of the silent majority over there”
January 12, 1978: Cain’s Ballroom — Tulsa, Oklahoma
Unfortunately, only a single minute of audio from the Tulsa show has surfaced along with a few minutes of visuals from the film D.O.A. A Rite Of Passage which is as much focused on the religious protests taking place outside and the police presence both in the parking lot and inside. The venue now has a framed portion of the green room wall with a hole supposed punched by Vicious. The opening band, Bliss, was essentially there because the owner of the venue wanted to give his friends exposure, not because they were simpatico with Sex Pistols — they apparently played the ‘William Tell Overture’ as part of their set. On the day of the show, the ticket price increased because, unsurprisingly given the ridiculous logistics and barely viable sizes of the venues, the band needed more cash. Apparently Lydon started the show by asking: “all you rednecks have come to see the circus?” But then the show itself was apparently tight — a shame it hasn’t survived.
January 14, 1978: Winterland — San Francisco, California
Winterland was neither the ultimate desecration of rock ‘n’ roll, nor the freak show anyone might have hoped for. Police patrols up and down the ticket lines outside, meticulous frisking by the security before entry, a DJ orchestrating audience participation in the form of swearing, and a screen projecting Sex Pistols’ quotes, it all heightened the drama of the night…Then the band walked on and sleepwalked through the show. A large space to fill given Sex Pistols’ impact came entirely from their unique stage presence, it was significantly harder to make a dent when the band were all sick. The flu subdued Jones; Vicious was smacked up (though as a consequence it’s actually the sprightliest he’d looked all tour); while Lydon was visibly exhausted and periodically wiped his nose or face on a spool of tissue or in the crook of his arm. The band were further hemmed in by professional staffing: bouncers led audience members out calmly across the stage, at one point in the encore a member of staff cleared things away from Vicious’ feet. A greater separation from the crowd confined the usual antagonism to a tsunami of nuts, bolts, coins, pantyhose, and spit. Sex Pistols were further plagued by technical issues with Jones breaking strings, his amplifiers cutting out altogether to suck the energy from ‘Bodies’ and ‘Liar’, while every pause was filled with interminable tuning. Possibly a deliberate act by snobby venue personnel, the PA was a mess and Lydon had to call out from the stage, “the monitors are completely off…Hello, they’ve just come back on.” This is the rare recording where the bass is genuinely audible and Vicious, while posing constantly, holds his own more than adequately. There’s a disconnect, however, between the sheer energy of the songs which carries the first half of the show, versus the descending arc in Lydon’s enthusiasm. The band’s figurehead on stage, his usual physical gyrations are suppressed, he clings to the microphone stand, or hangs an arm over it as if struggling to stay upright. ‘Problems’ seems to telegraph trouble and he sings much of it with his arms firmly crossed, maintaining his statue-still stance, his look of intense boredom, until well into the introduction of ‘Pretty Vacant’. For the encore, ‘No Fun’ becomes utterly pointed as Lydon essentially curls up into a ball and croaks out whatever’s left of his visibly shredded vocal chords. But then that moment of brilliance. It’s exceedingly rare an artist says anything from a stage that isn’t trite or uninteresting, few words spoken into a mic have had such resonance they’ve become legend: Lydon’s last words at Winterland are the rare exception and the perfect casual punctuation closing Sex Pistols’ wild ride.
(The soundcheck has also become available in recent years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GX-PZNig70)
Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:
“If you can put up with that, you can put up with anything.”
“There’s not enough presents. You’ll have to throw up better things than that, this ain’t good enough…That’ll do. Can we have a couple of cameras?”
“I think it’s fun. Do you want your ears blown out some more?”
“Tell us, what’s it like to have bad taste?”
“Ah haha, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night.”