The Sex Pistols Riotous 1978 Tour Through the U.S. South: Watch/Hear Concerts in Dallas, Memphis, Tulsa & More

The Sex Pis­tols “start­ed out as an elab­o­rate Sit­u­a­tion­ist-inspired per­for­mance art piece dreamed up by mega­lo­ma­ni­ac man­ag­er Mal­colm McLaren,” wrote Jonathan Crow in a post here at Open Cul­ture about one of the band’s sto­ried, dis­as­trous final shows in Dal­las of 1978. After begin­ning as the cre­ation of McLaren and part­ner Vivi­enne West­wood, how­ev­er, they “evolved beyond just being a stunt.”

The state­ment is objec­tive­ly true by music his­to­ry stan­dards. The band’s ear­li­est gigs were direct­ly respon­si­ble for almost every major band that took British punk in sub­se­quent post-punk, goth, new wave, dub, etc. direc­tions, includ­ing the Buz­zcocks, Siouxsie and the Ban­shees, The Clash, Joy Divi­sion, Wire, and too many oth­ers to list.

Lat­er came the huge­ly influ­en­tial post-punk of John Lydon’s (for­mer­ly Rot­ten) own project, Pub­lic Image Lim­it­ed, which reflect­ed his seri­ous inter­est in mak­ing exper­i­men­tal, cere­bral, music with oblique lyrics deriv­ing as much from sym­bol­ist poet­ry as the “deep sim­mer­ing well of cul­tur­al dis­con­tent” he’d tapped into with the Pis­tols.

Lydon retired the char­ac­ter of John­ny Rot­ten when the band broke up at the end of their first and last U.S. tour, famous­ly end­ing things at San Francisco’s Win­ter­land Ball­room by sneer­ing “ever get the feel­ing you’ve been cheated?”—a bit­ter com­ment on the band’s col­lapse, its very exis­tence, and a press and audi­ence will­ing to buy the act. No mat­ter how influ­en­tial they may have been, the Sex Pis­tols’ archi­tects always main­tained they were a cyn­i­cal prank to the end.

The “one-time hip­pie haven of the Win­ter­land in San Fran­cis­co,” as Ulti­mate Clas­sic Rock describes it, may have been the per­fect venue for their demise, a final screw you to the self-sat­is­fied 60s rock cul­ture Rot­ten loathed. But it was their tour through Atlanta, Mem­phis, San Anto­nio, Baton Rouge, Tul­sa and the for­mer­ly Jack Ruby-owned Long­horn Ball­room in Dal­las that made the most press, just as McLaren had designed it to do, book­ing coun­try & west­ern venues express­ly to pro­voke, enrage, and scan­dal­ize.

Rot­ten had more com­pli­cat­ed feel­ings about what would become a series of vio­lent spec­ta­cles. He seemed half in on the joke, and half hop­ing that “real peo­ple” out­side of coastal cities would become real fans. “We’re play­ing these cities because these are the peo­ple who will either accept us or hate us,” he said at the time. “They’re not as pre­ten­tious as they are in New York.”

He main­tained in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy that McLaren had also fore­seen the U.S. tour as savvy mar­ket­ing. “It wasn’t a ques­tion of throw­ing the band to the wolves when we chose to just play the South…. We felt that if we were ever going to be tak­en seri­ous­ly in Amer­i­ca, it would be from a base we built down south. The cow­boys seemed to take it for the joke it was meant to be. We weren’t there to destroy their way of life or any­thing like that.”

Of course, he must have seen the U.S. press accuse the band of doing just that before their arrival—corrupting the youth, etc. Did he real­ly hope for a warmer wel­come from “the cow­boys”? Was it all the glo­ri­ous train wreck every­one thinks it was? Reports from eye­wit­ness­es vary wide­ly, as Alt­press and The Dal­las Morn­ing News point out, with some express­ing seri­ous dis­ap­point­ment and oth­ers awe. Noel Monk’s book 12 Days on the Road describes “out­ra­geous behav­ior, and con­certs that fre­quent­ly degen­er­at­ed into near-riots.”

You can see for your­self what those unprece­dent­ed, at the time, shows looked and sound­ed like in the record­ings here from the entire sev­en-city run. (Begun after a can­celled Decem­ber 1977 gig in Pitts­burgh). At the top we have “Anar­chy in the U.K.” from the Jan­u­ary 1978 tour open­er in Atlanta; then audio of the entire show in Mem­phis days lat­er; film from Randy’s Rodeo in San Anto­nio (in which Sid Vicious hits a fan with his bass); audio of the Baton Rouge con­cert; film of the entire per­for­mance at the Long­horn; film from Cain’s Ball­room in Tul­sa, OK, with audio from the Win­ter­land finale, and, final­ly, the Win­ter­land itself.

After their flame-out in the first month of 1978, and Sid’s alleged mur­der of Nan­cy Spun­geon and his over­dose and death, John Lydon “claimed the Pis­tols had ‘killed’ rock and roll,” notes the site Randy’s Rodeo (named for the riotous Texas show fur­ther up). The whole tour “was a per­verse, provoca­tive joke.” McLaren’s “intent was not to sell tick­ets, but to incite con­tro­ver­sy and may­hem.” The band, frac­tious, burned out, and eager to escape McLaren’s machi­na­tions, would have been more than hap­py to make some mon­ey for their trou­ble. Ever get the feel­ing you’ve been cheat­ed?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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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Comments (3)
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  • Richard says:

    It’s incred­i­ble now to think that they out­raged so many at the time.
    But they real­ly did.

  • UKpunk says:

    Quite sim­ply the band! The most influ­en­tial ever: musi­cal­ly, fash­ion­ably, polit­i­cal­ly. Peri­od.

  • Shawn Smith says:

    They may have been a slop­py band as far play­ing instru­ments, but THAT DIDN’T MATTER!. They had some unfor­get­table songs with songs & lyrics that were SO pri­mal (along w John­ny’s singing / per­for­mance, which amped the audi­ence mood over the top)! Even now if I hear “Anar­chy”, my heart pumps faster, I need to Move, my thoughts turn toward every offi­cial or gov­’t that has held me down over the Many years. It wakes me up Again! Would have been a per­fect time for them to have been Here & Now in the USA. With­out explo­sions like this in Any Art thru the ages peo­ple were becom­ing, then & now (2021) bland, stuck in a rut, repet­i­tive­ly liv­ing their lives with­out orig­i­nal thoughts of their own, just what they were told, day after d!ay after, numb­ing day The Sex Pis­tol­s’s music was not made to be ana­lyzed. It was made to go over the top, wake peo­ple up from their change­less no hope futures. And they got part of their attempt to “Wake the Mass­es” accom­plished. Peo­ple Did start real­iz­ing how their lives could be, not what they were told to do, but what They them­selves want­ed to do. But no one came for­ward to car­ry the momen­tum for­ward & far­ther. Some bril­liant music burst out from the punk atti­tude, but much of the scene was became fash­ion. God Bless the Sex Pis­tols! Who will car­ry the flag now?

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