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(Credit: Credit: Koen Suyk)

Music

Revisiting the chaotic Sex Pistols show at Chelmsford Prison 45 years later

When one thinks of the scenes that unfolded at the Sex Pistols’ iconic gig at Chelmsford prison in September 1976, you are met with an image not too dissimilar to the one’s near the end of Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born KillersWe’re talking about the scene in which the inmates triumphantly riot and overcome the prison warden and his staff, as our protagonists Mickey and Mallory escape to freedom. 

The Pistols gig is often hailed as a triumphantly raucous affair, with Britain’s premier punks playing to a crowd of 500 prisoners who welcome the music with open arms. After all, they see something of themselves in the band, raging against the machine with a somewhat unhinged worldview. The live album that was released in 1990, Live at Chelmsford Top Security Prison, would have you believe that it was an unquestionable resounding success. What we hear is a crowd galvanised by the punk anthems, with the fire of their inner rage stoked by the Pistols singing of anarchy. The sirens whirring in the background are nothing more than the agents of state oppression coming to shut the whole thing down. Could the band be any more punk?

Well, yes, they could. It turns out that the gig wasn’t so much of a success at all and that the crowd noise, sirens and all of Glen Matlock’s bass, were overdubs. It should come as little surprise that a degree of post-production magic went into the record, as all live albums feature sonic touch-ups in some capacity or another. However, it turns out that the original recording, just like the show, was somewhat of a disaster.

The band’s soundman, Dave Goodman, was the one who made the executive decision to include numerous overdubs. The fact that the recording hadn’t picked up any of Glen Matlock’s bass was a frustrating problem that needed sorting. Furthermore, the crowd were overwhelmingly indifferent to the band, and there even exists reports of boos and catcalls. In fact, the liner notes of the CD edition read: “Their opening number was ‘Anarchy’… at the end of the number, there was a barrage of catcalls, boos and screaming.”

Goodman’s insertion of the angry crowd and sirens is somewhat understandable as they feed into the mythos of the Sex Pistols, which is one concerning the darker side of the human condition. Violence and anger are two sentiments that the band conveyed over their brief existence, regardless of it being intentional or not. More importantly, this mythos is what made the band their money.

That said, it is safe to say Goodman went too far with another element of the overdubs. Any guesses for you Pistols purists? If you get it very well done, you should enrol yourself on BBC’s Mastermind. The strangest part of the whole experience is the second rate Johnny Rotten impersonator he employed to blurt out provoking statements to the ‘prisoners’ in between songs. The entire debacle was designed to strengthen the legend of the early Sex Pistols gigs, but, in fact, it had the opposite effect and ultimately undermines their legacy.

Luckily for audiences who wish to get their hands on the original recordings, to get a natural feel of what the moment was like, in 1995, the unedited takes were issued on the compilation Sex Pistols Alive in their original order. You cannot overlook the absence of Matlock’s bass, and the whole thing seems rather vacuous without the man who was undoubtedly their best musician. Even though it is essentially a very muddy sonic account of the band, ‘Anarchy in the UK’, ‘Submission’ and the gritty cover of The Who’s ‘Substitute’ are stuffed with great performances by Rotten, Cook and Jones, and it offers up a portal back to when the Sex Pistols were in the ascendancy. Additionally, Jones‘ guitar tone drenched in modulation is brilliant. 

It must feel like somewhat of a slight to Goodman that the unedited version is better than the edited one, particularly when you note Matlock’s absence. Nevertheless, this was a sign of things to come. Matlock would be out of the band by February 1977. He was replaced by the notorious Sid Vicious, a hanger-on of the group who had no actual musical ability. It is his off-stage antics that culminated in the band having such an infamous image in popular culture. 

Just like with the Chelmsford recordings, Matlock’s absence would always be felt by the band and fans alike, and it is something Jones has spoke of at length over the years, pondering what could have been. The Pistols only released one studio album during their time, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, which is the only palpable sonic ode to their original brilliance, strange for a band with such an extensive mythos. Jones has also noted this point, suggesting that if Matlock had stayed in the band, they most likely would have carried on, owing to his songwriting capabilities and personal restraint.

The Sex Pistols show at Chelmsford prison is always worth a revisit, even if it only serves as a reminder that even the Sex Pistols, who were so famously DIY and anti-establishmentarian, would eventually be marked by the evils of consumerism and the cloak and dagger tricks of the music industry. It serves as a clear reflection of the futility of the original punk movement. Think less At Folsom Prison and more ‘St. Anger’.

Listen to the unedited version of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ below.