When the Sex Pistols Played at the Chelmsford Top Security Prison: Hear Vintage Tracks from the 1976 Gig

Seri­ous fans of live record­ings well know that such pro­duc­tions are usu­al­ly doc­tored before they reach the mass­es, with effects added to sweet­en the mix, record­ing errors cor­rect­ed, instru­ments and crowd noise over­dubbed, tracks rearranged, and per­for­mances from dif­fer­ent nights com­bined. It’s a com­mon prac­tice and shouldn’t alarm any­one expect­ing absolute doc­u­men­tary fideli­ty. If you couldn’t make the show to expe­ri­ence the band first­hand, they’d at least like you to hear them at their best. (Who could resist the oppor­tu­ni­ty to revise, say, a pub­lic speak­ing gig after the fact?)

When record com­pa­nies are involved, every effort can go into mak­ing a saleable prod­uct, but heavy edit­ing usu­al­ly doesn’t hap­pen to taped bootlegs. One notable excep­tion hap­pens to come from an excep­tion­al gig, when the Sex Pis­tols fol­lowed John­ny Cash’s exam­ple and played the Chelms­ford Top Secu­ri­ty Prison dur­ing their first major tour of Eng­land in 1976 for an audi­ence of 500 pris­on­ers. Part­ly due to a seri­ous record­ing issue—the near total fail­ure to cap­ture orig­i­nal bassist Glen Matlock—and part­ly to a “con­fused idea of what would make for a wor­thy release,” writes Ned Raggett at All­mu­sic, the band’s sound­man Dave Good­man decid­ed to make sev­er­al alter­ations to the record­ing.

These changes, in turn, gave rise to a mythol­o­gy sur­round­ing the show, rais­ing its rep­u­ta­tion to the lev­els of chaos for which the Pis­tols are renowned. That rep­u­ta­tion itself large­ly revolves around Sid Vicious’ lat­er onstage antics, and is at times inflat­ed. The Pis­tols could be a great live band—Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Mat­lock were all more than capa­ble musi­cians, and John­ny Rot­ten was a per­fect punk spec­ta­cle all his own. But the ele­ments didn’t always come togeth­er amidst the band’s unre­hearsed dis­or­der.

The audi­ence at Chelms­ford were, please excuse the pun, a cap­tive one, and there­fore, unable to dis­play the same unbri­dled enthu­si­asm as the band’s usu­al crowds of rub­ber­neck­ers and scen­esters. To play up the gig, then, Good­man dubbed in the sounds of “ran­dom crowd and vio­lence noise” and sirens. He didn’t only see fit to over­dub Matlock’s miss­ing bass, but also added in “an incred­i­bly poor Rot­ten imi­ta­tor goad­ing the ‘pris­on­ers’ on between songs,” Ragett notes, “as well as often singing on top of the real Rot­ten him­self!” That first 1990 release of Live at Chelms­ford does not so much gild the band’s musi­cal strengths as it “plays on the revolutionary/anarchy side of the punk image to no avail.”

Luck­i­ly, the orig­i­nal record­ings remained, and were released lat­er on the Sex Pis­tols Alive com­pi­la­tion, in their orig­i­nal order, and, rearranged, on a sec­ond Live at Chelms­ford Prison CD. It is the orig­i­nals, with min­i­mal treat­ment, that you can hear here. At the top is “Anar­chy in the UK,” below it “Sub­mis­sion,” and a sneer­ing cov­er of The Who’s “Sub­sti­tute” fur­ther down.  The giant hole in the mid­dle of the mix where Matlock’s bass should be is hard to ignore, but over­all, these are some occa­sion­al­ly great per­for­mances, par­tic­u­lar­ly from Cook and Jones, whose pound­ing drums and blis­ter­ing gui­tar come through loud and clear, often bury­ing Rotten’s voice, which is mud­died through­out.

But a good record­ing of half the band hard­ly sells the leg­end of the Sex Pis­tols, espe­cial­ly the Sex Pis­tols in prison. “By all accounts,” writes Raggett, “it was a bit of a har­row­ing expe­ri­ence.” But you’d have to have been there to know it, and you prob­a­bly wouldn’t want to be. So it’s no won­der Good­man saw the need to spruce things up with what Discogs’ notes describe as “a canned audio track of a riot (com­plete with shout­ing, scuf­fles, break­ing glass, etc.)” A lot of peo­ple hat­ed it, but if you’re real­ly curi­ous, you can grab a copy of the over­dubbed ver­sion and hear for your­self. Or lis­ten to the full, undoc­tored, record­ing on YouTube.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sex Pis­tols Make a Scan­dalous Appear­ance on the Bill Grundy Show & Intro­duce Punk Rock to the Star­tled Mass­es (1976)

Watch the Sex Pis­tols’ Christ­mas Par­ty for Children–Which Hap­pened to Be Their Final Gig in the UK (1977)

Watch the Sex Pis­tols’ Very Last Con­cert (San Fran­cis­co, 1978)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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