How the Uptight Today Show Introduced the Sex Pistols & British Punk to American TV Viewers (1978)

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.

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’ Very Last Con­cert (San Fran­cis­co, 1978)

The Sex Pis­tols Play in Dal­las’ Long­horn Ball­room; Next Show Is Mer­le Hag­gard (1978)

John­ny Rotten’s Cor­dial Let­ter to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Next to the Sex Pis­tols, You’re ‘a Piss Stain’

Mal­colm McLaren: The Quest for Authen­tic Cre­ativ­i­ty

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

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