Brian Eno once said, “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
The same can be said about the Sex Pistols iconic concert, now known as the “gig that changed the world.” The difference being that when it comes to the mayhem of British punks first incendiary flashpoint the evidence is a lot easier to corroborate.
On February 21st, 1976, a piece in NME written by Neil Spencer ran with the headline: “Don’t look over your shoulder, but the Sex Pistols are coming.” Therein it documented tales of band members cavorting with half-dressed members of the public on stage, chairs and tables being utterly Chernobyled in a seeming mutiny against anything perceived as banal, and a Frenchman shouting to Steve Jones “you can’t play!” and the guitarist flippantly replying, “So what?”
Perhaps most importantly, the article contained a small snapshot of a band who looked like they were on day release from an asylum in the future. A gaunt-looking villainous character with nothing in his eyes barring a clear determination to bedevil everything before him in an angry besiegement of his own sui generis and unfathomable design, centre the piece, and that mad angry wasp looking bastard went by the balmy name of Johnny Rotten, no less! A generation of British music fans were sold in an instant.
The eponymous punk poet John Cooper Clarke was one of them. In his memoir, I Wanna Be Yours, he details his first experience of seeing the band live and the profound impact it had. “After reading the reviews I was expecting ineptitude,” he writes, “That never materialised. All concerned seemed reasonably proficient in their respective capacities… The Steve Jones I heard was a one-man orchestra, a high-voltage practitioner with no visible equal. In fact, the sonic overload had me scoping around for the other nine hundred and ninety-nine guys. The gig couldn’t have been a better introduction to the punk phenomenon.”
If the psychedelic bandwagon was coasting along through the council estates of Britain in Rolls Royce’s touting unrelatable notions of ayahuasca epiphanies and the search for inner peace in the drone of the universe, then punk pulled up alongside it in a Mad Max-style convoy and it had a generation of disenfranchised youth clambering to be there to witness the birth. In a few short years, this snarling omen child was ubiquitous and most of its weird-looking siblings were at one single gig.
In truth, punk had already climbed out of the plashy depths of pop culture over in the States with the likes of Ramones, Patti Smith and even proto-punk acts like The Stooges and New York Dolls, but none of these acts had established themselves as anything more than cult oddities, lucky to get a curious sideways glance from the sedated passing masses of the mainstream. The Ramones’ debut album only sold around 5000 copies in the first year of its release, hardly a figure that can be said to have changed the world. The Sex Pistols, however, found themselves riding the crest of the perfect wave that finally broke upon the shore of pop culture on June 4th 1976 at The Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester.
How many people were there?
Well, according to David Nolan, author of I Swear, I Was There: The Gig That Changed The World, something seems to be amiss on this front: “It’s funny because I think you can get 150 people in the Lesser Free Trade Hall and by my reckoning seven and a half thousand were there supposedly so something must have gone awry with the ticketing, apparently!”
Who was amongst the crowd?
Aside from Buzzcocks and Slaughter and the Dogs who opened the show, the list of notable attendees is as follows:
- Joy Division
- Factory Records founders Martin Hannett and Tony Wilson
- Mick Hucknall
- Mark E. Smith of The Fall
- John Cooper Clarke
What have they said about it?
Morrissey penned an entire epistle to the gig in the NME in which he recalled, “Despite their discordant music and barely audible audacious lyrics, they were called back for two encores.”
Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks seems to disavow my earlier assertion that punk began in the States by remarking, “That was the day the punk rock atom was split, no doubt about it. It was amazing to see. That’s where it exploded from, it changed Manchester and it changed the world.”
Without directly giving credit to the Sex Pistols for the inspiration, Mark E. Smith remarked when recalling the gig that it set in him a mantra. “When I was 18, the vision was to make music that didn’t exist, because everything else was so unsatisfactory.”
Peter Hook told the Manchester Evening News, on the 40 anniversary of the gig, “It’s my 40th anniversary, too, because I walked out of that gig as a musician. I came home with a guitar and told my dad, ‘I’m a punk musician now’, and my father said, ‘You won’t last a week’. Here I am 40 years later.”
Not bad for a show that cost £32 to book and tickets were sold for 50p!