It’s depressingly easy to rile up millions of people these days with the click of a mouse. Billion-dollar industries and political campaigns are built on such technology. But before the empires of social media, there was television, a one-way medium and, prior to cable, an extremely limited one. In those bygone days, you really had to put your back into it if you wanted widespread attention. The Sex Pistols—including their manager and promoter, visionary huckster Malcolm McLaren—worked hard to cultivate infamy, using television as a primary means of generating shock value.
Although the band members, at least, never made any money, they were highly paid in notoriety on both sides of the Atlantic. Their image as violent junkies who couldn’t play their instruments owed mainly to Sid Vicious, who replaced competent bassist and songwriter Glen Matlock in 1977, a move that boosted the band’s ability to freak people out while simultaneously setting them on a course for certain demise within the year.
The spectacular self-destruction occurred, as every fan knows well, on a tour of the US South that McLaren booked with the wickedest of intentions, springing the band on cowboy bars in Texas, for example, for the sake of sheer provocation. Their final show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom was caught on film, complete with the last song they ever played together, a cover of the Stooges “No Fun.” After the one-song encore, Johnny Rotten sneered “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and dropped the mic, disgusted with the whole “ridiculous farce,” he later wrote.
Before embarking on their comically disastrous US tour, the Pistols got a heavy dose of free publicity from an American news media as eager then as ever to chase after a sensation. In the vintage Today Show clip above, see how US viewers were introduced to British punk. “Whether naturally or calculatedly so,” says NBC’s Jack Perkins after reporting on Vicious and drummer Paul Cook’s refusal to grant an interview unless they were each paid $10, “the four young men are outrageous. They’re also vile and profane.”
Perkins then walks viewers through the hardly shocking details of rudeness to hotel staff and bit of a mess left in their room, shaking his head sadly. No band could hope to top Led Zeppelin when it came to this most cliched of rock and roll stunts. But Perkins pretends it’s the first time anything like it had ever happened. McLaren could not have scripted better finger-wagging outrage to inspire American gawkers (some of whom give brief post-concert interviews) to come out and see the Pistols flame out on their final tour.
Then there are the record execs Perkins gets on camera, including A&M’s Kip Cohen, who sized up the situation astutely: “There’s a case of an act and management and intelligence behind an act, brilliantly utilizing the media, cashing in and creating a whole hype for itself.” Cohen, a seasoned industry man who had previously managed the Fillmore East, predicts great things for the Sex Pistols. But he expresses some skepticism about whether their savvy media manipulation was a new phenomenon, citing the Beatles and the Stones as having already broken such ground.
One could go back even further to Chuck Berry and Elvis, who pushed many of the same outrage buttons for what constituted “clicks” in olden times. But as Perkins points out—shaking his head in disapproval, before cutting back to a snickering Jane Pauley and very serious Tom Brokaw—the Pistols pulled it off by looking like they couldn’t possibly have cared any less about being good at what they did, which took an entirely different kind of talent.