Valentine’s Day is a time usually reserved for saccharine sentiment and store-bought sweetness but on the 14th February 1976, it was time for the Sex Pistols. Taking to the stage at London’s Butler’s Wharf to deliver a Valentine’s Day punk massacre, Johnny Rotten and Co. were in fine form. The gig’s intensity and the band’s power was exuberantly captured by Derek Jarman and his Super 8 to give us the earliest known footage of the Sex Pistols.
At the start of 1976, there was one band whose name was beginning to send shivers down the spines of parents and authority figures everywhere. A band that combined the frenetic energy of a Duracell Bunny with the growling power of an urban fox. They were scary, they were confrontational, and they weren’t going to ever, ever be quiet. They were the Sex Pistols.
This terrifying band was led by Johnny Rotten on vocals and backed by Glen Matlock on bass (who would later be replaced by Sid Vicious), Paul Cook on drums, and the lovable lout Steve Jones on that famous guitar sound. The Sex Pistols have their roots in the heart of trendy West London, most notably in Vivienne Westwood’s shop ‘SEX’, which at this time doubled as an HQ for the burgeoning formation of ‘punk’.
The Chelsea shop was a cultural melting pot for the art students of London and the bands they encircled. This hive mentality would push punk mainstream in the winter of ’76 when on the Bill Grundy show, members of the Sex Pistols plus ‘SEX’ contemporary Siouxsie Sioux and the show’s host engaged in one of the most shocking TV moments in UK history. Grundy had engaged with a repartee with Siouxsie Sioux and invited to meet her after the show.
Jones: You dirty sod. You dirty old man.
Grundy: Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on. You’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous!
Jones: You dirty bastard.
Grundy: Go on, again.
Jones: You dirty fucker.
Grundy: What a clever boy(!)
Jones: What a fucking rotter.
However, before they could shock the nation they needed to get their names out in the scene. At that time in London, the way you did that was with the fiercest live show possible. But where bands like Bowie and Queen would delight fans with a sense of magic and majesty, the Sex Pistols wanted to scare and challenge the audience at every turn.
The band’s leading man Johnny Rotten could usually handle that all on his own but for this clip, Derek Jarman (the man behind the lens) and his Super 8 add another layer of confrontational creativity. The film is shot in a swirling slow speed at only 18 frames per second. That gives us a wonderfully trippy and agitating viewpoint which is not often used to show the razor-sharp power of the band.
Fittingly so it would seem, as the prelude to this video details via Nick Kent that Johnny Rotten was apparently “on three trips of acid and God knows how many grams of speed”. The hurl-inducing rotation of the camera matching Rotten’s drawling vocal but still amply backed by the worrying punching power of a smaller man, aka Jones’ three-chord chops, shows off the band’s appeal.
The crowd and stage also see an appearance from a young Vivienne Westwood, who was married to not only the punk scene but then-manager of the band Malcolm McLaren, swashbuckling her way through the film. McLaren would later go on to take credit for every major talking point of the band but is more largely-regarded as a bit of a succubus on the band’s natural journey.
It would be a short but lasting journey, which would not only see the band release one the most important albums in musical history with Nevermind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols but alongside other acts such as The Clash, the Buzzcocks, The Damned (and those after them) create the unstoppable movement ‘punk’.
While so much history would come after this moment on Valentine’s Day 1976, this clip still remains the earliest known footage of the Sex Pistols and a moment in pop culture history because of it. The footage doesn’t just show a gig, it shows a band that would liberate so many young lives with their sounds and find homes for them in their community of creativity.
Watch the video below.