Sunday in the Park With the Sex Pistols

An eyewitness account

Cannily timed to commence just as the sky starts darkening (like they were Led Zeppelin or something), their set is just Greatest Hits. Everyone here knows every one of these songs and sings along. They even do their Monkees cover, "Stepping Stone." Although most Sex Pistols songs can be summed up in Lydon's parodic soccer chant "We're the Pistols / We're the Pistols / No one likes us / We don't care," those few songs that incorporate temporal and cultural references remain unaltered. "New York" is still "four years on you still look at the same ..." (oh, the irony); they are now, once more, signed to "EMI"; and "Holiday in the Sun" again has Rotten wanting to look over/go over the Berlin Wall (um, go ahead).

Rotten is palpably nervous. You can tell because he falls back on obviously prepared banal announcements ("You look a little tired. You could do with a 'Holiday in the Sun' ") and, several times, repeats, "It's sing-along-with-Johnny time" (which it is) and "Thank you for coming to my garden party." From a man of such legendarily awesome waspish wit, from the Antichrist, the Vomit Squirm, this is pretty poor stuff. In the old days (oh, what it was to be alive and on the dole in that hour), he was seldom lost for words and, if he was, he would just shut up and hang off the microphone stand and stare and stare, and his stare would say more than words could ever. We both are and are not seeing the Sex Pistols. Rotten sings like Lydon, he postures like he is in PIL -- you know, that version of PIL when Keith Levine had left and he had some session guys behind him, and they did "Anarchy in the U.K." This, I am reminded, is not the first time Lydon has destroyed his own ruins.

A family square-dances behind me. They keep on bashing into me. I let it pass a few times, but on the fourth or fifth occasion I turn and admonish them. A nearby punk rocker with a Newcastle accent taps me on the shoulder and tells me that I should "respect people's freedom." I tell him I do not respect people's freedom to crash into me repeatedly, and he laughs.

(When did punks turn into hippies? When did that happen? I must've missed that one.)

A great pop thing happens toward the end of the evening. The band departs the stage, having yet to play "Anarchy in the U.K." The entire audience susses it out ("Hang on, they haven't done 'Anarchy' yet -- this is Fake Encore Time"). Instead of clapping, foot-stomping, chanting, "Pis-tolss!" as is expected of a stadium-rock crowd (God save the Sex Pistols, becoming everything they used to hate), we all just applaud politely and stand there, awaiting commencement of fake encore. Lydon re-emerges, looking sheepish ("We have to come back on for that?"). Second-guessed by 30,000 people. I remember a time when no one could second-guess this man. Have we gotten better or has he gotten worse?

Peculiarly, they follow "Anarchy" with the lesser "No Feelings" and depart once more. This must be the end, we guess incorrectly, and begin our shuffle out the arena. We are just about to get to the gate (some poor sods must actually have been outside) when, perhaps as a response to having had their first fake encore second-guessed, the Sex Pistols return and do "No Fun."

I saw them once before. In the old days. The Glen Matlock Sex Pistols, before they achieved fame and became creatures of outrage. Three months prior to their becoming "foulmouthed yobs" and a nation kicking in its metaphoric collective TV screen. It was just on the mid-'70s cusp of prog-hippie and punk-gimmick bands, cod country and western, rockabilly, daft cabaret-comedy. My impression then was that the Sex Pistols were a gimmick band, and that their gimmick was Hate. As time went on, as a nation abused them verbally and physically for swearing and mocking the royal family, as they trained their Hate on legitimate targets, I warmed to them. They were saying "fuck off" for me, and I, from a similar unemployed, underclass background, was grateful. Nowadays, when mocking the royal family has become a national pastime, and "swearing" grows more and more commonplace, I walk away from Finsbury Park and mounted policemen politely direct a crowd that would have created a moral panic in 1977 to the tube station. As those who have had their lives touched by the Pistols go back to begging, beer, and being the only three punks in their towns, I once more think that the Pistols are a gimmick band, and that their gimmick is Hate. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. As the Situationists never said.

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