Taking a look back at the Sex Pistols’ career it is all too easy to focus on their incendiary beginnings, wild as they were. The moment the flame encompassed not only a set of kids from London’s West End but the whole nation, is an intoxicating one. So it’s no wonder that people’s attentions are drawn toward the moment the band sparked into life.
Yet we’ve found their last performance as the iconic Vicious line up to be far more interesting than going back to the beginning again and again. As Rotten steps up to the microphone and says the words “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and he made a statement nobody had been privy to. As the words ring out across the crowd, little did they know they were at a moment in history—the final time the Sex Pistols would take to the stage.
Having begun as an explosive act milling around the west London scene back in 1975 the Sex Pistols were soon falling to the ground around the music industry as drifting pieces of ash just three years later. This performance on January 14th, 1978, at the former hippie haven of San Francisco’s Winterland, would be the last time the band would play together as the poster boys of punk.
Taking to San Francisco’s Winterland the band were ready and raring to tear things up. Not just the stage but the rest of the band too. As infighting reached fever pitch and the infamy of the band was making it almost impossible to perform as a group, it seemed as though nothing was going right. Simply put, their first U.S. tour had not gone as hoped.
Malcolm McLaren had picked a series of alternative venues for their first foray over the pond. Avoiding cities like Los Angeles and New York and aiming for the Deep South may have worked today as a deliberately obtuse tour but in a pre-internet age, it kind of fell flat.
The fire of punk was beginning to wane already, just a few years after it had sparked into life. While Sid Vicious’ drug problems had continued to swirl, Johnny Rotten was becoming tired of the scene altogether. In his autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dog, Rotten revealed that at the time he “felt cheated, and I wasn’t going on with it any longer. It was a ridiculous farce. The whole thing was a joke at that point.” With a run of poor performances already in the bag, the chance to play at the counter-culture capital, San Francisco, held a lot of promise for the group to buck the trend.
The evening would take place at the hallowed ground of Winterland, and kick off with two of the cities brightest stars of the time, the Avengers and the Nuns. Both played with aplomb but the real rock stars were about to walk out. “Welcome to London!” vomited Rotten, snarling and spitting his way out to the spotlight, the band soon jumped into the anthemic ‘God Save The Queen.’
While Rotten was clearly on the way out of the band already he was not on his way out of music altogether. The frontman was at his growling, staring, and ferocious beast, clearly seeing his future. He was still as vibrant as his first moments on stage and was clearly determined to make a name for himself, with or without the band.
The band though were not at their best, while Steve Jones and Paul Cook kept their musical pride throughout, Vicious was clearly inhibited by only the pursuit of drugs. Rotten was even reported to have said, “If you can put up with that, you can put up with anything,” after a song had finished, his sneering now becoming an involuntary reaction to his situation.
It was the beginning of the end for the Sex Pistols. Rotten would not return back to the U.K. as part of the band, leaving the group before they left the U.S. with his words, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated” etched into the crowd’s collective mind.
The last encore of the infamous Sex Pistols would be as demonically ironic as their whole career. A career filled with humour, anarchy, aggravation and antagonism would be capped off in the most perfect fashion. The Sex Pistols last song on stage would be their track ‘No Fun’. Rotten changed the lyrics, “This is no fun, no fun / This is no fun at all, no fun,” he sang. Meaning every single word.
Watch below the last full Sex Pistols performance as their iconic line-up from 1978.