The implosion of the Sex Pistols was one for the rock and roll record books. While today their split is solidified by squabbling over TV programmes, the machine that was the Sex Pistols was running on fumes by the time they started what would be their last stand: a 1977 American tour. An enterprise that was fueled by notoriety and confrontation was starting to stall out under the pressure, and relationships between band members and their team were at a nadir.
The trouble had initially started when bassist Glen Matlock was fired from the group in early 1977. By that point the band were already famous, having caused a stir on the Bill Grundy Today programme and subsequently having been dropped by their label EMI. Matlock wasn’t as gung-ho about the punk image and sound as the other Pistols, and his dissension was seized by John Lydon as an opportunity to assert his autonomy by recruiting his friend John Ritchie, later rechristened as Sid Vicious.
The only problem was that Vicious couldn’t play bass. Matlock might have been a personality clash, but at least he was a talented musician and writer. Upon Vicious’ arrival, the Sex Pistols would now function primarily on attitude and controversy rather than as a functional band. Vicious came down with hepatitis and was laid up in hospital when the band recorded Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, so guitarist Steve Jones played most of the bass instead (Matlock appeared on ‘Anarchy in the UK’, and Vicious’ credits for ‘Bodies’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ are dubious at best).
Conflicts between band members, the increase of Vicious’ drug habits, the meddling of manager Malcolm McLaren, and the constant cancellation of their concerts began to put a strain on the band. Lydon was unhappy with McLaren’s management, and his focus on public spectacle made Lydon feel like a puppet. When McLaren booked the band’s first US tour, he purposefully did so in the south at venues that wouldn’t take kindly to the Pistols. The results were as chaotic as anyone would have expected.
Vicious was acting violently and required constant doses of heroin in order to take the stage. Lydon was ill, and he isolated himself from Cook and Jones, both of whom were simply trying to hold things together. When the band arrived at the legendary Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco for the tour’s final concert, there was a palpable tension as the Pistols rambled on stage.
Due to the fact that the band only had one album and a small smattering of singles, their setlist was relatively brief. The opening song was ‘God Save the Queen’, and the antagonism from the band to the crowd, and within the band itself, was evident. Lydon gets pelted with food the second that the lights come up on him. Throughout the night, he and the other members would hurl insults at the audience, and their collective playing can best be described as “haphazard”.
Remarkably, the band stay on stage for a full hour, bursting through 14 songs in total, including ‘I Wanna Be Me’, the B-side to ‘Anarchy in the UK’ that follows ‘God Save the Queen’ that night. The rest of the tracks are Never Mind the Bullocks songs, including ‘EMI’, ‘Seventeen’, ‘New York’, and ‘Holidays in the Sun’. The entire album is played, with the only outlier being ‘Belsen Was a Gas’, which would later appear on The Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. As the final notes of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ (here sung as ‘Anarchy in the USA’) fade, the group stumble off stage.
When they return, it is for “one number and one number only”, as Lydon declares. The band launch into a final rendition of The Stooges number ‘No Fun’, putting a cap on the group’s miserable experience in America. To drive the point home, Lydon completely gives up on singing and instead rants about how little fun he’s having in a clear, monotone voice. When ‘No Fun’ hits its final crashing notes, Lydon laughs at the audience and sneers: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night.”
Remarkably, the entire concert was filmed for a television broadcast, and the footage now lives forever on YouTube. Most implosions happen behind closed doors, but not only did the Sex Pistols do it on stage, it was also captured on film to be memorialised forever. Without Vicious, the Pistols would occasionally reunite whenever the band members needed money, but now it seems likely that the band is kaput for good. Now we can remember them as a gloriously messy past-tense entity. In other words, what they always should have been after 1978.
Sex Pistols Winterland Ballroom setlist, January 14, 1978:
- ‘God Save the Queen’
- ‘I Wanna Be Me’
- ‘New York’
- ‘Belsen Was a Gas’
- ‘Holidays in the Sun’
- ‘No Feelings’
- ‘Pretty Vacant’
- ‘Anarchy in the UK’
- ‘No Fun’ (The Stooges cover)