In late 1975, just after her 18th birthday, Shanne Bradley went to a party at St Albans School of Art in Hertfordshire. Unbeknown to her and her friends, there was musical entertainment: a band from London no one had heard of. She suspects the group had just phoned up and asked if they could play. “They were so bad,” she says. “We were dancing, having a good laugh. We thought they were a piss-take of a 60s band. Someone said they saw the drummer afterwards and he was crying because they were so terrible.”
Afterwards, the singer came over and asked Bradley about her clothes: “If I dressed like that all the time. I’d had a difficult childhood and I think I expressed that through my clothes. I’d butchered my hair: I’d tried to use henna and peroxide and it came out wrong – bright orange. I was wearing ripped fishnets and a holey jumper. I had 11 ear piercings. I asked him what his name was. ‘Johnny Rotten.’ I was like: ‘What?’”
Bradley had just seen one of the Sex Pistols’ first gigs and was about to become one of their first fans. She liked them, terrible or not: “There was an energy, a sense of humour, a dissatisfaction with the world that fitted mine. I went to see them in Welwyn Garden City, but they’d had a row during soundcheck and didn’t play. They used to give me lifts. It was all quite sweet. We were all teenagers. On Valentine’s Day, I walked round St Albans with John, hand in hand, wearing a dustbin liner.”
The story of the Sex Pistols tends to hinge around a handful of legendary gigs in major cities: the Screen on the Green and the 100 Club in London, their horrible last stand at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and especially their June 1976 show at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, famously the spark that ignited Joy Division, the Fall and the Smiths among others – The Gig That Changed the World, as one subsequent book put it, with very Mancunian self-confidence.
But the Sex Pistols played dozens of other shows, many in locations that now seem faintly improbable: way off the map of today’s limited touring circuit and peculiar even by the more expansive standards of the time. It’s hard not to look at their 70s gig listings and boggle: what happened when the Sex Pistols played Cromer, Keighley or Dunstable? What was the impact of their appearances in Whitby, Runton and Northallerton? What might have happened had the infamous Anarchy tour been allowed to fetch up, as planned, in Paignton?
Depending on who you believe, the weirdness of the Sex Pistols’ touring schedule was either a brilliant masterplan by manager Malcolm McLaren to reach disaffected youth across Britain or the result of a clueless manager’s desperation to get a gig anywhere. “There was no strategy involved,” John Lydon complained in his autobiography Anger Is an Energy, “it was all happen-chance, fly by the seat of your pants.”
Sometimes the results were tragicomic. Peter Smith was 19 in 1976, an inveterate gig-goer from Sunderland. His interest piqued by reading early articles on the Sex Pistols, he drove to Whitby to see them. But the staff at the Royal Ballroom had never heard of the band. “They suggested trying a little place around the back. There was a poster that said: ‘Saturday night disco featuring top band the Sex Pistols.’” It was empty, bar the band in a corner. Rotten ordered chicken and chips at the bar. Then the disco fans filed in, dancing to Abba before the Pistols got on stage. “I think they started with Anarchy in the UK. John was wearing a tam and bondage gear, hanging off the microphone, sneering. Me and my girlfriend loved it – the energy, John’s stance, the way he looked, the amateurishness of it, the raw power.”
They were in the minority. “There were people with their hands over their ears, and after half an hour at most, the DJ turns their sound off and the disco back on. The Sex Pistols just stood there looking at each other then walked off. People started dancing and I drove home. I met John years later at a book signing and he said he didn’t remember. He was adamant nobody had ever thrown him offstage, which was quite funny.”
It’s a characteristic story. In Pistols mythology, if these gigs are even mentioned, it’s as provoking hatred, fury and violence. Shanne Bradley recalls a gig in High Wycombe that turned into “a bit of a bundle … there was more of a laddish element. Rotten used to take the piss out of the audience. [The band] started getting a load of abuse, Rotten lent over the stage and somebody jumped on him and thumped him.”
Yet everyone I speak to says the Pistols were met with widespread lack of interest: the most virulent reaction they provoked was confusion. Chris Sullivan had seen them in London, but when they played in his native Wales, at the Stowaway Club in Newport in September 1976, he says: “It was a Monday night, very under the radar. There were maybe 40 people – a load of hippies drinking cider and [future Visage frontman] Steve Strange in a ripped-up rubber T-shirt. People were just bemused.”
But at every gig, there was someone who would end up converted. Pauline Murray first encountered the band in Northallerton in May 1976, at “a small nightclub called Sayers at the end of a row of garages. It was the normal clientele, 30 people sat at tables, waiting for the turn. They were in a state of shock. But for me, the energy really hit, in every single way. It was so primitive compared to everything else I’d seen.”
Two nights later, Murray would see them supporting glam band Doctors of Madness in Middlesbrough town hall. “It was a real turning point, because they absolutely destroyed the Doctors of Madness. It was like they knew that something new had overtaken them. While they were on, the Sex Pistols went through their dressing room and nicked all their stuff.”
Murray was absolutely right: something new had overtaken glam. Talking to people who saw the Sex Pistols play, even in unlikely locations, you can plot their astonishing trajectory. Three months after the Newport gig, Chris Sullivan saw them again in Wales, at the Castle Cinema in Caerphilly, and everything had changed. It was two weeks after the band’s infamous appearance on the Today show, where guitarist Steve Jones called interviewer Bill Grundy a “dirty fucker” and “a fucking rotter”.
Seventeen out of 24 gigs on the ensuing Anarchy tour were cancelled, or rather, banned by town councils and university chancellors. The Caerphilly show went ahead, but pubs and shops in the town shuttered early, and it was picketed by religious groups: huge crowds singing hymns, making speeches, trying to block entry. “When we drove past, we were like: ‘Fucking hell, what’s going on there?’” says Sullivan. “We had to go through a gauntlet of middle-aged women in raincoats with pointy glasses and curlers, singing Onward Christian Soldiers, who were trying to grab us and hit us.”
He laughs. “It’s quite uncomfortable when you’re a 6ft 2in teenager and you’re being manhandled by someone who looks like your granny – what do you do? The gig was great: they were much better than in Newport. But the audience was basically the same – 10 bloody hippies and us lot, Steve Strange pogoing at the front.”
It’s strange, he says: the people outside were angrier than the Sex Pistols, who were supposed to be overturning Britain’s moral order in a fit of nihilistic rage. Maybe the pickets were expressing a similar impotent fury in a very different way. “In Wales in the 70s, there was no work. The mines were shutting, it was really poor. People were angry and they directed it at us. It wasn’t just bible-bashers: it was thugs who specifically came to beat people up. When we left, there was a running battle. Somebody could have got killed.”
Perhaps no band could expect to last long under that kind of scrutiny and pressure, particularly one this combustible. By the time Simon Parker saw them in the Winter Gardens, Penzance, in summer 1977, he says: “They were nearly finished.” The end-of-the-line town had a thriving punk scene and had already hosted the Ramones, the Damned and the Adverts, but “the Pistols gig was almost the end of that, the close of a very brief era”.
By now, the band could only avoid having their gigs cancelled by playing under pseudonyms. But in Penzance, the show – by “A Mystery Band of International Repute” – was dangerously crowded. “The local council were the only people who didn’t know the secret,” says Parker. “They were mythic figures by that stage. There was a guy using the telephone box outside, and Sid Vicious knocked on the door because he wanted to use the phone. That seemed very exciting, that they did ordinary things.”
The “explosive” gig barely lasted 30 minutes. “Johnny Rotten came on stage and glared to get the DJ to stop the music. There was a lot of spitting, which I don’t remember at any other gig. A shower of it, really bloody awful. People further back had brought plastic spoons that they were spitting in and wanging it at the band. Maybe it wasn’t the best gig ever, but it was the best event – there was so much excitement, people queueing up the street.”
These might not have been gigs that changed the world or spawned an era-defining scene, but they each had an impact on at least a handful of people. Peter Smith remained a long-haired hippy but says it opened his mind musically. Pauline Murray formed punk band Penetration; Shanne Bradley – who fell out with the Sex Pistols, and later discovered to her indignation that she was the subject of Satellite, the scathing B-side of Holidays in the Sun – formed the Nips with Shane MacGowan.
Chris Sullivan became a fixture of London clubland, the co-founder of the Wag Club, the capital’s hippest 80s night spot. “Seeing the Sex Pistols and that DIY attitude gave me and Steve Strange the impetus to do what we did,” he says. “Because we saw that people like us could do it. I think that was the most important thing about those Sex Pistols gigs. It gave you the strength to have a go. You saw punk fail miserably after the Grundy thing, but then you think to yourself: ‘At least if you have a go, you don’t go to bed at night saying: I wish I’d tried.’”
• PZ77 by Simon Parker is out now.