The Sex Pistols were a live act to such an extent that however influential and seismic Never Mind the Bollocks proved to be its very existence is almost a contradiction. As Patti Smith once said of punk, “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.”
Sex Pistols were extolling the same thing in their own unique snarl. Their live shows said that the movement of youth culture in music wasn’t about sitting around a slowly spinning vinyl musing on the high-end acetate engineering of a progressive violin solo from some cheese-cloth shirted wanker who knew more notes than Mozart and made every one of them dull. They quite literally kicked and screamed a revival into action. Not to make a slight at their only studio record, but Never Mind the Bollocks did have hellfire in heaven’s chance of capturing that, how could it?
This revival was announced in earnest 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 dystopian 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 formed the manic centrepiece, and that mad angry wasp looking bastard went by the barmy name of Johnny Rotten, no less! A generation of stilted British music fans were sold in an instant.
But with live shows set to destroy everything in their path, the road was always going to be a bumpy one and it was always going to hit a dead-end—the Sex Pistols were travelling too fast for construction to catch up. Between the back end of 1975 and the death of Sid Vicious in 1979, it is hard to know exactly how many times they played, but it is certainly a figure dwarfed beneath the legacy of said shows.
As a band, they had their own problems to contend with and these issues were confounded by their own reputation. Nevertheless, love them or loath them – and it will most certainly be one of the two as they actively defy indifference – their impact on British culture and beyond cannot be denied. Below we have traced a brief timeline of the band at its best: snarling a new wave of adrenalised energy afore an invigorated audience.
A timeline of the Sex Pistols live:
After years of pestering, Glen Matlock decides to join Steve Jones and Paul Cook in their band called intermittently The Swankers or The Strand and they tentatively begin playing shows.
Temporary guitarist Wally Nightingale leaves the band and is replaced by Steve Jones on lead guitar.
Malcolm McLaren becomes their manager. The shows take a distinct turn towards the snarling as the influence of the Ramones is felt.
John Lydon is spotted on London’s Kings Road in a homemade “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt with green hair and is asked to join the band.
He soon makes his live debut at St Martin’s College of Art in London on November 6th, 1975. They played around 15 minutes in front of 20 people.
Westwood’s ‘Sex’ shop
The Sex Pistols follow their St Martin’s College with a further 7 shows in London, during which they earn a reputation as Lydon continually attacks PA systems and wearing clothes from Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Sex’ shop.
After hearing about the antics of the band throughout the emerging punk scene, Neil Spencer of NME attends their most riotous show yet at the Marquee Club in London, and later publishes his piece bringing them early mainstream attention.
A punk reputation!
After continuing to play shows a further 12 shows in the London area and furthering their reputation as a riotous live act, on June 17th, their first show is cancelled due crowd trouble at Screen on the Green in Islington.
Hitting the north…
Two days later, the band play their first big show in the north in Northallerton, Yorkshire.
A small band of the first punk converts attend in a very small crowd. They play in Scarborough the next night and Middlesbrough after that before returning to London.
A momentous moment…
After a relatively lengthy lay-off of five days for the otherwise nearly constantly touring band, they play a gig organised by the Buzzcocks at the Lesser Free Trade Hall.
Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, Joy Division and others were in attendance for the show dubbed ‘the night punk changed the world’. Since then seven thousand other liars have claimed to have been crammed into the 150 capacity venue.
Their debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’ is released. The band then embark on 24-date UK tour.
The band manage to play eight of those gigs, the others are cancelled by the authorities as riotous punk crowds swell in the UK.
Issues at the top…
Touring grinds to a halt in Holland after EMI sack the Sex Pistols after tabloid press label the band a lurid shock cult and authorities continually intervene with planned shows.
Some unannounced gigs were played under pseudonyms were reportedly played during this period.
A Vicious era…
Glen Matlock leaves the band and is replaced on bass by Sid Vicious (who could not play the bass, Lemmy’s words not mine).
The alleged incognito gigs continue, but no official performance goes ahead until late March in London.
A battle of The Damned…
The band embark on a Scandinavian tour increasing their overseas following.
However, inner-band tensions increase and arrests are made after an attempted glassing the band The Damned ends up blinding a girl in one eye.
Under the radar
The band return to the UK and this time the alleged secret gigs are made official.
They play six gigs throughout the UK, often rocking up to venues in separate vehicles. They perform under the names ‘S.P.O.T.S.’ (Sex Pistols Secretly on Tour), Tax Exiles, Special Guests, Acne Rabble, The Hamsters and A Mystery Band of International Repute.
Fighting the law…
After a string of UK and European shows, the Sex Pistols embark on their first ever US tour.
The opening date in Pittsburgh is cancelled as a result of the band travelling with criminal records, as a result, most of the gigs are played in the Deep South.
This is no fun at all…
Rotten opens the gig saying: “You’ll get one number and one number only ’cause I’m a lazy bastard.”
They play a cover of the Stooges ‘No Fun’ and Rotten finishes the show shouting: “This is no fun. No fun. This is no fun—at all. No fun.” After the last show in San Francisco the band split up. The Pistols as we know them are over for good.