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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