“Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were both punched in the face by girl fans as the Sex Pistols performed today deep in the heart of Texas.” That was the lede for the English newspaper The Evening News covering the Pistol’s concert at The Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, TX on January 10, 1978. It proved to be one of the strangest, most contentions shows in one of the strangest, most contentious tours in rock history. You can watch it above. All 37 minutes.
By the time of the concert, the Sex Pistols were already notorious in the U.K. They had released a single – “God Save the Queen” – that called Britain’s head of state a fascist on the date of her Silver Jubilee. The single became a huge hit in spite of – or perhaps because of – it getting banned by the BBC. They famously hurled obscenities at a chat show host on live TV. But to be fair, host Bill Grundy literally asked for it. “You've got another five seconds,” he told Johnny Rotten and company. “Say something outrageous.” They did.
Though the band started out as an elaborate Situationist-inspired performance art piece dreamed up by megalomaniac manager Malcolm McLaren, they evolved beyond just being a stunt. Their music was loud, aggressive and gleefully nihilist with lines like “And I wanna be anarchist, I get pissed, destroy!” That music and that attitude touched some deep simmering well of cultural discontent -- be it lower class frustrations, dissatisfaction with consumer culture or some darker primal urge to burn everything down. Their music resonated.
For their 1978 tour of the United States, McLaren wasn’t interested in building a fan base. He was interested in pissing people off. So the tour completely bypassed seemingly obvious tour stops, like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, in favor of places like Memphis, Tulsa and San Antonio – none of which were exactly hot beds for punk. A famous picture of the marquee of the Longhorn Balloon shows the Pistols listed alongside Merle Haggard, giving you a feel for just how weird this tour was. Prior to the concert, Sid Vicious confessed his fears to a reporter about playing in Dallas. “They killed Kennedy here and everybody has warned us that the people are crazy. I think there’s a real danger that this is the town where I am going to be blown away.” (Weird historical side note: The Longhorn Ballroom was owned for a spell by Jack Ruby, the guy who shot Lee Harvey Oswald.)
The police were also reportedly worried. The Dallas police department had a SWAT team ready just in case the show turned into a riot. It didn’t, but just barely. The audience was equally split between hardcore fans – for example, Lamar St. John, the woman who decked Sid Vicious in the nose, drove from Los Angeles to see the show – and skeptical locals who wanted to see what the fuss was all about. As one Dallas paper wrote, “most of the people last night came to see the people who came to see the Sex Pistols.”
As you can see from the video, Johnny Rotten, who spent much of the show looking like a tweaker in the throes of a demonic possession, wasted few opportunities to ridicule the audience. “I see that we have a whole section of the silent majority around there,” he sneered. As the band worked its way through the set list, culminating in a blistering rendition of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the audience hurled beer cans, tomatoes, garbage and the occasional punch at the stage. It’s not clear if the people who were doing the throwing were fans or irate cowboys. Such is the world of punk. Sid Vicious, the band’s outrageous if utterly untalented bassist, jumped around on stage and occasionally contributed some atonal backing vocals. After the punch, he let his nose bleed and soon he was covered in blood. “The bass player rubbed blood over his face and chest,” wrote the Evening News, “so that he looked like a demented cannibal.”
“Sid was really fucked up. Really drunk,” recalled writer Nick Barbaro. “He played for a while without his guitar plugged in. He played for a while with a fish. I think somebody threw it up there, a bass or something. People seemed pissed at him. He'd spit on the audience; they'd spit on him. That's what you did. There was this element of, ‘You paid to see us play?’”
Four days later, the band broke up. “This is no fun. No fun at all. Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” Rotten wearily said on stage in San Francisco, the Sex Pistol’s final concert, before walking off stage and quitting the band. Vicious was dead a year later from a heroin overdose.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.