Sunday in the Park With the Sex Pistols

An eyewitness account

It is a Sunday morning in Newport Gwent, and at 9:15 I board that eastbound train and go. An appointment with destiny. Maybe, even, an appointment with disappointment -- "I am the Anticlimax"? Note a few punks on train, almost certainly Pistols-bound.

Next stop Bristol, and a few more of those dodgy, extravagantly mohawked punks get on. You know the ones I mean: You see them sitting on steps of public monuments guzzling cheap hooch and snarling at the straight world. The "boys" wear tartan bondage trousers, even now, and the "girls" sport elaborately torn fishnet or nylon stockings.

The journey lasts two hours. Every once in a while we stop, some punks get on, clutching beer cans and done up in their best bondage gear. I begin to suspect that there are two or three of these "types" in every town in the U.K. and, today, they are being drawn by the magnetic promise of seeing the one band that has shaped their destiny. Were it not for this particular pop group they may never have rebelled, never have spent their days sitting on the steps of public monuments begging and snarling.

By the time I disembark and make my way to Finsbury Park (which was the stomping ground of the young John Joseph Lydon, architect of anarchy) I find myself in the midst of a Dodgy-Looking People You Cross The Road To Avoid Convention.

Cockney touts unsuccessfully attempt to sell tickets at above face value (u22.50), but everyone got theirs weeks ago. A man with a cider-matted beard crouches, chalking mystery symbols onto the pavement. Punk rockers to the left of me, punk rockers to the right of me ... despite my relatively not-punk-rock appearance, I am not panhandled even once. We weave our way to the park, in as orderly a fashion as possible. Having secured my guest pass (nope, they're not getting any of my filthy lucre) I explore the backstage area. My pass is, thanks to Influential Friends, a very cool one indeed ... if I so desired, I could go into the Sex Pistols' dressing room and spit on their drinks rider. About the only place it won't get me is onstage. Backstage is a chockablock indie princelings meet-and-greet. So far as I can tell, said indie princelings have little or nothing to do with what the Sex Pistols were all about.

The support bill, apart from Iggy Pop, also seems to have little or nothing to do with what the Sex Pistols were all about. It consists largely of re-formed punk bands (Stiff Little Fingers, Buzzcocks) and contemporary "children of punk" (Skunk Anansie, 60ft Dolls, Wildhearts), all either cabaret revivalists or industry punkpets. As the arena remains a Dodgy Characters Convention until later in the day (when folks who weren't that keen on seeing Stiff Little Fingers come trickling in) those of the former category are greeted with the most applause. A good half of those colorful late '70s-early '80s throwbacks are now The Worse For Alcohol and are stretched out semicomatose in the sun. They treat the 60ft Dolls and Skunk Anansie with an indifference bordering on contempt.

Iggy, who is immediately before the Pistols, is just "Iggy Pop by Numbers," which is fine and dandy compared to most things, but I prefer my Pop indoors and at close quarters. It just ain't the same if'n you don't think there's a chance he's gonna leap on you any second.

Who has devised this unchallenging bill? It is tantamount to willfully, immediately consigning the Sex Pistols to a Punk Rock Revival Circuit Museum, a shallow, hollow conservatism, everything they/he used to hate. Why no reggae, no Kraut rock? I am reminded of a rumor I heard, that John Lydon, being pig-sick of journalists constantly bringing up matters Sex Pistol in interviews that were supposed to be about Public Image Ltd., has decided to destroy the legend. Maybe he intends to do this by the act of turning the Sex Pistols into a punk-cabaret-museum-piece. Today's bill certainly looks that way. Of course, they may be Only In It For The Money. There is even the remotest chance that they have Re-Formed For Artistic Reasons. It is even within the realms of possibility that all three options are, in a funny kind of way, true. Whatever.

The way the Sex Pistols come onstage is about as smart as stage entrance gets. Firstly, we are subjected to a half-hour barrage of the most banal '70s bubble-gum nonsense possible, as a giant punk-era newspaper-page collage bearing headlines of the "FOULMOUTHED YOBS" variety is assembled until it forms a huge taut curtain, obscuring every inch of the stage.

Suddenly, a disembodied voice announces punk-soccer star Stuart Pearce (who, having scored a decisive goal in an England vs. Spain match less than 24 hours previously, is currently the No. 1 National Hero). Pearce stands before the huge collage and mouths a few words of tribute.

With this, Jones and Rotten half-stumble, half-burst through the giant newspaper, whilst the opening of the eeriest Sex Pistols song of all, the still-frightening "Bodies," creeps (there is no other word) over the arena. Thirty thousand jaws drop in unison as folks realize, "Hey! this is actually quite good." Almost as immediately, people begin to sing along. To a song about abortion, ferchrissake.

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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