Weekend Concert: The Sex Pistols at Winterland, San Francisco, 1978

Last weekend’s performance was the Who from 1970, when they were in the midst of a run of highly successful albums that included Tommy (’69), Who’s Next (’71) and Quadrophenia (’73).

By 1977, the year before this weekend’s concert takes place the Who’s formidable energies were tied up in legal wrangling over royalties.

Finally, one night in March of that year Pete Townsend, the group’s guitarist and principal song writer and in this instance, negotiator walked out of an 11 hour meeting with a seven figure check in his hand.

He headed to a bar called the Speakeasy where a couple of his protégés were playing (John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett). He got drunk on only two shots of whiskey.

(all this is from Dave Marsh’s Before I Get Old, the Story of the Who, p.484) “He began ranting, preaching, punching friends, smashing glasses, and generally going berserk.

At the bar he spotted two punks…

‘Who are they?’ he asked.

‘They’re in the Sex Pistols’ he was told.”

He raced over and accosted the two who turned out to be drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones.

”’Rock & roll’s going down the f*****g pan!’ he shouted. You’ve got to take over where the Who left off – and this time, you’ve got to finish the f*****g job!”

He ripped up the check, threw it on the floor spat on it and ranted on for minutes before he ran out of steam.

Finally, Paul Cook got enough courage to ask; “the Who aren’t going to break up are they?”

The following year, the Who released the album, Who Are You featuring the song of the same name about that night where Townsend accosted the two Sex Pistols.

The ‘Pistols released one studio album (Never Mind the Bollocks), performed one tour and then singer Johnny Rotten left. Essentially, that was the end of the band.

There were other albums released with the Pistols name on them, but they were mostly lame attempts to cash in by the record company and the remaining members of the band (Cook & Jones, as Sid Vicious went off on
his own and died shortly after).


They’ve largely been forgotten or left as a side note but in 1977&8 they were the needle that punctured the inflated rock & roll balloon, full as it was of Rod Stewarts and Elton Johns and other performers
who had ceased to matter artistically.

They showed that the whole business was a farce and they treated it as such. And when they were done making that point, they left the stage.

Musically this concert is awful.

The sound mix features Sid Vicious’ base and he couldn’t play, only having picked up the instrument 1 year or so before. Rotten’s singing is what it is and the satisfying rumble of Steve Jones and Paul Cook is largely lost (get Bollocks for that).

What this concert does have is Johnny Rotten constantly prodding the audience, telling them what suckers they are. Making them question the whole concert experience.

“Do you feel you’re being used – because you are.”  That was a mantra of the Sex Pistols.



Comments | 4

  • After ripping up the check...

    Townsend got over his upset.
    He and the band have cashed in on their early brilliance many times over.

    The Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks attitude was never going to take hold with most bands. As the Who’s example shows, there’s too much money to be made.
    And in fairness there is a large audience that wants that music, will pay through the nose for it- even if they are getting used from time to time.

    I do think the Pistols had an impact, though.
    The excess of the 70’s shrank away quite a bit after ’78. Things opened up musically well into the 80’s, before reshaping into something once again less friendly to band and audience alike.

    The thing that gets completely missed about the punks was that they cared.
    I saw Johnny Rotten in Portland, OR in about 1980 with his next band, Public Image Ltd. (PIL). He had changed back to plain old Johnny Lydon. The spikey hair was still there and the ripped up clothes, but he was showing signs of turning directly from defiant youngster into an old man, skipping middle age.
    During the concert, one young punk was crowd surfing so much (jumping on stage then diving on to the top of the crowd pressing in front of the stage making them support his weight) that the crowd got sick of it.
    Johnny reached out a hand, pulled him up on stage and sat him in a corner where he gazed admiringly up at Johnny for the rest of the show.

    Johnny Rotten cared about the punks, about his audience. It was the industry he despised.

    • it was fun

      That’s a legendary story about Townshend! I haven’t read the book, but I will.

      I never remember punk without a smile. As for what anyone’s motives were, I have no idea and I’ve heard so many cynical stories about that cynical era that. . . well, the truth is out there. In some places for a good amount of people, punk is very much still alive. My friend Raz Drastic is never short of work, and he’s been playing punk since I can remember. He played with Johnny Thunders when he was a teenager. John Lydon is fab as the obnoxious bastard he created to play. And he still gets work playing it. He’s a smart man.

      Fun concert! Thanks.

      • Dave Marsh book

        I’ll lend it to you. Great book, but it is 700+ pages…on a 60’s/70’s rock band…

        Johnny Lydon is a smart man, but I like to think he has/had some principles.
        Maybe I’m fooling myself?

    • Sex Pistols Rock

      We watched some of this and I was really impressed by how good they were as a band, considering they’re the Sex Pistols. I’ve always loved the Sex Pistols — from a distance. When they first came in, they were one of those train wreck stories. Everyone where I lived joked about wearing holes in our clothes and sticking safety pins all over. Then younger people than me started showing up at work with holes in their clothes and safety pins…

      You’re right about Johnny Lyden’s transformation. I saw him earlier this century in a PBS Rock through the ages documentary and they interviewed him at his villa on the Med. I believe he was talking about his career as an art collector. How things change. Then again, I always heard that Malcolm MacLaren approached the Sex Pistols as a kind of commercial art project.

      The other thing that impressed me about this show was remembering the refrain (if that’s the right word) to God Save The Queen: “no future for you.” That line made it more topical since it’s basically what young people get with economic austerity — no future. Ah, the good old days.

      As for being influential, I was just leafing through a youth-oriented fashion mag called Nylon (would have fit right in in the 80s, come to think of it), and there were fashion spreads that were definitely punk and DIY influenced. Punk bands have remained a part of the indie scene throughout. So with regard to music and fashion and probably film too, I think they definitely have had a lasting impact.

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