Revisiting when The Sex Pistols performed a bizarre concert at Chelmsford Prison in 1976
The Sex Pistols didn’t even have an album out in 1976 and, as an entity, they were not the world famous names they would go on to become. So, with that in mind, their decision to emulate Johnny Cash’s iconic prison concerts in Chelmsford while delivering a dosage of raucous punk to bewildered inmates makes for one of the strangest shows you’re ever likely to witness.
The gig would take place in front of 500 prisoners in September, 1976, and even featured original bassist Glen Matlock in the band’s line-up that evening. Matlock would famously leave the band before the Sex Pistols released their one and only studio album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols the following year.
There was a lot of mystery surrounding this gig in the years that followed and, when it was released as a live album titled Live at Chelmsford Top Security Prison in 1990, the material largely contained sound that wasn’t from the show—a factor which fabricated how wild the show actually was. In reality, the prisoners were largely indifferent to the Pistols.
‘Matlock’s bass wasn’t picked up at all by the recording equipment so, instead of just releasing the bootleg in its original format, soundman Dave Goodman intervened and added bass to the tracks. However, that wouldn’t be the only meddling that Goodman would get up to. The sound engineer wanted to make the shows become a thing of legend when, in reality, it was a far more mundane affair than the 1990 release would have you believe. His main aim from his intervention was to build a narrative that made it sound like Lydon was trying to start a riot, with the inner notes from the CD even reading: “Their opening number was ‘Anarchy’… at the end of the number there was a barrage of catcalls, boos and screaming.”
However, all the crowd noise heard on the record was unauthentic and the reality was a world away from the riotous nature of what they would have invoked from an audience at The 100 Club. Goodman decided to dub the recordings with the sounds of an angry crowd as well as sirens to create this sense of violence in the newly edited audio.
The bass dubbing is acceptable and, perhaps necessary, but the most absurd addition by Goodman was his decision to hire an impersonator to perform a second rate impersonation of Johnny Rotten and order him to blurt out provoking messages to the ‘prisoners’ between songs. This whole debacle was designed to strengthen the legend of the early Sex Pistols gigs but, in fact, it had the opposite effect and ultimately undermined their legacy.
Luckily, the unedited version is available which reigns supreme to the edited version by Dave Goodman even if it is missing bass. Listen to ‘Anarchy In The UK’ from the infamous show, below.