“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Johnny Rotten aka John Lydon’s closing words at the last Sex Pistols gig (watch it online) seemed apt this week when Virgin Bank announced their current line of credit cards would feature the band’s signature artwork. That Jamie Reid’s famous cut-n-paste zine-cum-Situationalist aesthetic has turned into a bit of capitalist plastic for your wallet is an irony that the Sex Pistols might never have seen coming back in 1976, when they played the “gig that changed the world.”
Recreated above in a clip from Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, the June 4, 1976 gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall spawned the British punk movement and the post-punk movement that was soon to follow in a scant two years. For in the audience were future members of the Buzzcocks Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley (who organized the gig and opened for the Pistols); a nascent version of Joy Division; the two founders of Factory Records Martin Hannet and Tony Wilson; Mark E. Smith of The Fall, Mick Hucknall of Frantic Elevators and much later Simply Red; and a one Steven Patrick Morrissey, who would form The Smiths. (That’s Steve Coogan playing Tony Wilson in the clip, by the way.)
The Sex Pistols played 13 songs in their set, including covers of Dave Berry’s “Don’t Give Me No Lip Child,” Paul Revere and the Raiders “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”, the Small Faces “What’cha Gonna Do About It,” The Stooges’ “No Fun”, and The Who’s “Substitute.” When asked for an encore, they played “No Fun” again.
Of their originals, their two most famous songs–”God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” had yet to be written–but “Pretty Vacant,” “Problems,” “New York,” “No Feelings” are all here in their raw form.
A few songs never made it onto their first album, but can be found on their heavily bootlegged demo tape they recorded the same year.
Also of note is how non “punk” the members are dressed, not in the sense of how Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood would design, package and sell the fashion. The boys look closer to the working class jobbers of early Devo and the Stooges. Plus: no Sid Vicious. He’d come later. That’s Glen Matlock on bass, who left the band in early ’77 after clashing with Lydon. He went on to form Rich Kids with Midge Ure.
When the Pistols returned to London, everybody in Manchester and beyond had started a band, or at least that’s how it felt. By the time the Pistols got back to London, The Clash and The Damned had formed. And even if you hadn’t been at Lesser Free Trade Hall, you told your friends you had been and picked up a guitar.
The Sex Pistols would return three weeks later to play the Hall again, playing to hundreds this time and solidifying the dawn of the punk era.
Below is a BBC documentary on the famous gig, tellingly titled I Swear I Was There, which has an accompanying book.
On a side note: Lesser Free Trade Hall–named after the radical Free Trade political movement–was the site of another famous moment in rock history. It was here that a newly electrified Bob Dylan was called “Judas” by a very upset folk music fan.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.