Artsy’s Bob Gruen page

Sex Pistols in Memphis

When the Sex Pistols blitzed into Memphis on a very cold Friday night in January (the 6th) 1978 probably not one in ten people in the audience had ever heard one note of their music. Only days before the concert Warner Brothers Records released their atom bomb of a record, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, stateside in a hot pink cover with the iconic torn graphics that came to symbolize everything about the British punk movement. Prior to that the Sex Pistols had received no airplay in Memphis and an import version of their LP, which had a Dayglo yellow cover instead of hot pink, was available at none of the Memphis-area record shops.

A tiny section in the back of Peaches Records on Park Avenue had some imported singles and it was there that I found “Pretty Vacant,” as far as I know the only Sex Pistols anything that was available prior to the news that the most controversial band in history – way more reviled than Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones or anyone else you would care to name – was actually coming to Memphis and six other cities. I was 23 years old, newly married and was by far the oldest person I knew with any interest at all in the band. I subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine and was as shocked as everyone else when I read a cover story by Charles M. Young about a new rock and roll movement in England called “punk” that was spearheaded by a spike-haired group of angry working-class misfits called the Sex Pistols. The name alone seemed calculated to outrage the status quo including the staid rock press.

I immediately wanted to check them out.

The Rolling Stone article didn’t exactly endorse the band or their music, but it was a powerful advertisement for an indefinable something that they were selling in their attitude. I had no idea what to expect when I gave “Pretty Vacant” its first spin, but from its first repeated guitar signature followed by a thunder of drums then the nastiest-sounding power chords this side of the Who’s Live at Leeds I was completely hooked. My wife, predictably, hated it as did every friend I pigeon-holed into listening to the song. As I say, the music of “Pretty Vacant” could be compared distantly to other rock music I had heard and, indeed, loved such as Live at Leeds. But nothing prepared me for the raw, screaming, snarling mess that was the utterly unique voice of Johnny Rotten.

As a teacher, at various times I’ve tried to explain to my students just how revolutionary the Beatles were when they first appeared in America. I was in the fourth grade and because my parents were strictly-observant Southern Baptists, I never got a chance to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. (We attended church every Sunday morning and Sunday night.) I had no idea that a rock and roll group called the Beatles had even made an appearance on the Sullivan Show. However, the next Saturday I was at a friend’s house; his sister was watching American Bandstand. The whole show was devoted to the Beatles and when I asked innocently who the Beatles were a whole group of kids turned to look at me and said in unison, “you don’t know who the Beatles are?”

Before I left that house I not only knew all the Beatles by name but I was already practicing my sales pitch for getting Mom and Dad to buy me one of their records. The way they looked, their hair, their clothes, their sound, their photos, the graphics on their album covers – nothing about them was familiar ground. It was as if a flying saucer from Planet Cool had deposited four of its subjects on Earth to change all the young people. Elvis was instantly passé.

The Sex Pistols were similar in many ways. Their look was new, their sound different, and they brought with them a whole new aesthetic. Even their album graphics, as mentioned, were revolutionary. They brought danger back to rock and roll and we in Memphis knew they were going to be a force to be reckoned with.

As I recall, the tickets for the concert cost $3.50. I bought three – one for myself, one for my wife, and one for a friend. They still haven’t forgiven me. The concert was going to be held in a dilapidated former ballroom (the Taliesyn) attached to the 20th Century Club on Union Avenue. I do not recall any rock concerts being booked there prior to the Sex Pistols. The ballroom supposedly held 900 people, but no one mentioned that this was to be the highly dangerous festival seating, where concertgoers are herded like cattle into an open room and made to stand without seating for hours. Police Director Buddy Chapman, already worried that the Sex Pistols might instigate some sort of riot, along with Fire Marshals, declared the festival seating arrangement unsafe (they were dead right about this) and required the promoter to put seats in the room. In so doing at least 200 people holding tickets – astoundingly, the concert was a sell out – were left outdoors in the freezing cold drizzle and did not take kindly to the notion that they weren’t going to be admitted inside. But more on that in a moment.

Being a lifelong Memphian, I knew it was best to show up early to get a good seat. As we arrived I heard the sounds of “Pretty Vacant” shaking the building; the Sex Pistols were inside doing a sound check. Not being able to yet enter from the front, we ran around back to try and catch a glimpse of them. A very small crowd gathered and suddenly there were shouts of “Sid! Sid!” “Johnny! Johnny!” They were hustled out quickly, enough so that only a few people sighted them and they were not to be seen again for several long hours. (note: Sid wandered away from his Holiday Inn room to try and score a heroin fix. It took his handlers several hours to find him.)

Fast forward: The ballroom was packed, cameras hovered everywhere, and a lot of the crowd obviously were from the media. Only one kid was dressed punkishly – he was the only one who got that memo apparently – and when he half-heartedly threw a piece of ice at some bright camera lights the cameraman WENT OFF and the kid, obviously no street fighter, slunk down in his chair and didn’t stir again until the band came out. A warm-up band, Quo Jr., played first, and they got a very nasty and rude reception from a crowd that was totally amped-up for the Pistols. I have never felt such anticipation and electricity in a crowd before or since and it was both exhilarating and very frightening. The feeling was as if we’d been soaked in some inflammable juju and were waiting for the first spark to ignite us. Quo Jr. was a local, all-black punk band led by the charismatic Roland Robinson (now deceased) who at one point screamed “Man, we can’t communicate!”

Then he launched into a high-volume song of the same title. However, the crowd was composed mostly of thrill-seekers (by the way, the crowd was entirely white) who seemingly didn’t give a damn about the music, especially that of a black warm-up band. All night long the audience threw ice from soft drink cups – the only refreshment for sale – and the cups themselves. (note: Years later I had the pleasure of reminiscing with Roland Robinson about that night. He was amazed that I could remember the name of that song.)

After Quo Jr. left the stage the wait seemed interminable. I went to the restroom and right above my head a window shattered and a rock tumbled to the floor. The ticket holders outside were nearly rioting and I could hear someone on a bullhorn (Police Director Buddy Chapman) trying to calm the crowd down outdoors. After about an hour and a half with the tension thick enough to slice the lights dimmed and out strolled the band who quickly fired up the stage. There were no giant video screens and I could lie and say how small they seemed from my seat midway back. But they seemed HUGE. The crowd seemed stunned. At one point Johnny Rotten even said, “Why are you all staring at me?” They had nowhere near the amplification firepower of someone like the Who but MY GOD when Steve Jones and Paul Cook thundered down I thought the Taliesyn Ballroom would fall to pieces. Steve Jones looked as if he had stepped out of Don Pedro’s hair salon. He had a sculpted coif that didn’t look punk in the least, but his white Les Paul shredded all notions of a fancy boy. Paul Cook, a stunning drummer, rooted the band’s sound to his rhythmic, powerful pounding. The t-shirt he wore contained a close-up photo of a woman’s bare breasts.

Sid Vicious, none of us knew at the time, could not play bass guitar at all. His sound was so thick and muddy you could not distinguish notes; all you could hear was a huge, earth-swallowing throb. Sid was shirtless and had red markings all over his torso. I didn’t know until much later that he had carved a message into his chest with a knife: “I need a fix.” He wore leather pants and his hair was spiked as was Johnny Rotten’s. Sid attempted to talk several times between songs but his accent was impenetrable. Something else no one has mentioned previously is that Johnny Rotten’s voice was heavily reverbed, so much so that in one particular instance when he began to speak to the crowd all you could hear was echo. He gave a deadly look to someone off-stage who corrected the problem and we could then hear him speak.

What did he say?: "I'm not here for your amusement, you're here for mine. So behave yourselves and don't throw things at me. I don't like it." I seem to also remember some quips about Elvis. Johnny wore a blue tartan suit and in the spotlights his blue eyes blazed like pilot lights on a stove. He mimicked some of the Shakespearean mannerisms of Sir Laurence Olivier, particularly Richard III, hunchbacked, rocking back and forth as he sang dementedly, appearing ape-like at times, deliberately of course. Sid’s bass was slung lower than I had ever seen anyone play a musical instrument. At one point a member of the stage crew held a bottle of Heineken for him to drink while he played. He looked like a baby nursing.

Few people in the audience knew any of the songs, as I mentioned. But that didn’t stop the crowd from wanting an encore when the Pistols left the stage. I’ve read that Memphis was one of the few times the band ever gave an encore, in this case “No Fun,” a song originally by the Stooges.

My ears rang for days. My wife complained every time I played the Sex Pistols album, which I managed to finally buy a couple of weeks later. “It was history, baby” I kept telling her. She scoffed.

Some weeks later I met a worker for the telephone company, a big Southern bubba-type, who told me he and some friends had been hired as bodyguards for the Sex Pistols. “Yeah,” he laughed, “that damn Sid guy. That scrawny little bastard kept wanting to fight everybody.” “What did you do?” I asked. “Aw man, we just laughed at him and pushed him away. He wud’n gonna hurt none of us.”

And you know, I was right. It was history.

Folks I know for sure were there that night:

My now ex-wife Denise Graves
Friend Chuck McCall (where did you go Chuck?)
The late Jim Dickinson
The late Roland Robinson
Writer John Floyd
Record man Ward Archer Jr. (who gave me his photographs of the event…thanks Ward)
And outdoors unable to get in…writer Rick Clark