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HIGH FREQUENCIES: Anarchy In the City

After 40 years, memories of the Sex Pistols Atlanta debut haven't mellowed with age

Pistols
Photo credit: Rick Diamond
SEX PISTOLS: From left, Sid Vicious, Paul Cook, Steve Jones and Johnny Rotten at the Great Southeast Music Hall.

Forty years? It seems like yesterday. It certainly was another time and place when the Sex Pistols made their U.S. debut in Atlanta, January 5, 1978. Atlanta was a different city. Especially musically. Other than for a handful of local bands playing original music, it was a bar band town, musicians making a living churning out the latest hits heard on Top 40 radio. If you were a musician, you spent hours practicing and rehearsing to get the songs just right, because that’s how people wanted to hear them. A band’s popularity would rise and fall by such a gauge.

Punk rock, bred in working class England, for all its cultural ramifications, was also a threat to all that aspiring musicians strived for — a recording contract, a hit record, and the chance to tour the world, insulated in a bubble of promoters and publicists, groupies and hangers-on and idol worship.

The Sex Pistols were the antithesis of that. They certainly weren’t “stars,” nor did they want to be. They were the embodiment of all that was punk. Unlike the Ramones, the closest thing America had to punk rock at the time, the members weren’t from the suburbs, nor did they want to “sniff some glue.” They wanted to create “Anarchy in the U.K.” They wanted to “destroy.” And many Americans took them at their word. The four members of the band might as well have been the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse riding into town, so strong were peoples’ reactions and emotions to their performing here. There was fear, anger, outrage, and uncertainty in the days leading up to their show at the Great Southeast Music Hall, then located in Atlanta’s Broadview Plaza at Piedmont Road near Lindbergh.

Would the Music Hall survive these anarchists? Would Atlanta survive the dangerous and destructive vermin that were the Sex Pistols?

In retrospect, it seems almost humorous, the overreaction of so many regarding the Sex Pistols. But at the time, they were unlike anything that had happened in music, in pop culture, in the world. They mocked the Queen and her “fascist regime” during the Silver Jubilee. They spewed vulgarities at presenters on the BBC. They showed disdain for the major record companies that signed — and dropped — them. Singer Johnny Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Sid Vicious and drummer Paul Cook may have been having a laugh, but those they left in their wake were confused, and those yet to experience them were afraid.

It was a media circus, for sure, when the band finally made it to America — and the Sex Pistols were the ringmasters. Local and national newscasters were in over their heads as evidenced by their broadcast reports. Commercial radio wasn’t playing the band’s records. Most daily newspapers either ignored or dismissed them. Murray M. Silver, Jr., Creative Loafing’s then-music editor, viewed them with contempt. Only Joe Roman, the music writer for Atlanta’s other alternative weekly at the time, the Atlanta Gazette, seemed to give them any credibility.

Most people hated the Sex Pistols with a vehemence that was only matched by the love for the Beatles during the height of Beatlemania. The difference was, the Beatles offered escape, a respite from the realities of the Cold War and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Sex Pistols reflected the realities of the time: the missed opportunities of Harold Wilson’s second Labour government, the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the Conservative Party, the increasing rise of inflation and unemployment in the UK. For those growing up in England, there was no future, “No Future,” indeed!

If the Beatles showed what could be done with talent and ambition, the Sex Pistols wanted none of that. The dinosaurs that inhabited FM radio playlists were just that: old and bloated, coked out and unaware. The Pistols’ punk rock shot heard ‘round the world was one of attitude and anger. Nothing else.

After having visa problems resolved, the Sex Pistols were finally cleared to perform in the United States. That still didn’t mean the tour would go smoothly. Set to make their debut in Pittsburgh, last minute complications forced them to cancel the gig, meaning Atlanta would be the site of their American debut. The tour was one of primarily markets where the Pistols might create the most controversy. Places where they wouldn’t be accepted, like Atlanta, followed by Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Tulsa, and San Francisco.

At the time, I wrote about music at the Georgia State University Signal. I reviewed the Sex Pistols’ performance for the Signal in the January 16, 1978, issue.

“The rumors surrounding the event were endless. Some were that the Great Southeast Music Hall’s insurance had been cancelled because no one knew if the building would be standing after the event. Others claimed that the hall had to pay triple their insurance premium for what could be an apocalyptic night.

“At the ticket booth, hundreds were turned away, many of whom had made reservations weeks before, by a woman who kept shaking her head side to side, saying. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry,’ and a sign that read, ‘SOLD OUT COMPLETELY.’

Sex Pist TicketSOLD OUT COMPLETELY: Ticket to the Apocalypse, 1978.Tony Paris“Outside, those lucky enough to have tickets to the show stood in line, many since early afternoon, waiting for the doors to open. One person decided the wait wasn’t worth it and walked away with a roll of bills he claimed to total $300 (about $1200 by today’s standards) in exchange for the pair of safety pinned tickets he bought for $7.”

Filing into the Music Hall that night were music journalists from the British press, Robert Christgau from the Village Voice, John Rockwell of the New York Times “and an assortment of UPI and AP reporters and photographers, including a film crew from High Times magazine documenting the tour. Also on hand were the Atlanta Vice Squad as well as the Memphis Vice Squad, and rumors of the GBI, FBI, and CIA. Most were there to see the Sex Pistols be disgustingly vulgar and/or obscene, spit, vomit, and maybe even get arrested. They didn’t get any of it.

“What they did get were pictures of drag queens in glitter drag circa 1972, with platforms and long shags. True, most had updated their outfits with safety pins but they weren’t the poor punks that wear pinned-up clothes and keep their hair cropped short to keep the lice out. They were, for the most part, outdated — and the media loved it,” focusing on them, along with the glam rockers and art school students dressed in pre-Goth black, mixed in among the frat boys, rednecks and the curious.

“As for the Sex Pistols, they gave the people who came to see them one of the most high-powered rock ’n’ roll shows to ever hit Atlanta. No spit. No vomit. No violence. Just a lot of energy. And a lot of disappointed newspeople.

“One ‘fan’ had come to the Music Hall for one reason — and one reason only. To out-punk the punks. About 6’1” and weighing probably 280 pounds, he stood in the middle of the audience before the show, screaming to anyone within earshot that he was a firm believer in ‘country punk, you know, the kind that Dickey Betts has been making.’”

“He claimed that ‘the first one of them English assholes that walks onstage is gonna get it’ with the beer bottle he wielded in his right fist. He didn’t want the Sex Pistols to bring their 'English punk shit' to Georgia. As the crowd yelled for him to sit down, his neck got redder, and he turned around to give them a piece of his mind and the finger. When he did, he blew his reason for being there. The Sex Pistols ambled onstage and the crowd rushed forward, making him lose his beer bottle and his balance in the frenzy.

Johnny Rotten1TOTAL SUBMISSION: Johnny Rotten in Atlanta, 1978.Rick Diamond

“Between songs, singer Johnny Rotten would stare out into the crowd with his head leaning on his shoulder, looking like the forsaken Christ on the Cross, while the hysterical crowd threw cups, cans, anything they could find at him. Sometimes he would address the crowd in a self-deprecating manner. ‘So impressed … alright, look, forget about staring at us. Just fucking dance and have some fun. We're all ugly and we know it.’”

“Other times, he would challenge them. ‘You could take this whole place over if you wanted to,’ he said, gazing out from the stage. ‘There's enough of you here’”

The pallid Rotten also taunted the audience, whether they were there to abuse him or to hear to the band. He was caustic. “A lot of fun to know we're all going to die, innit?” he chastised the crowd at one point. “Aren’t we the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” he questioned another time.

Yet, for all the musical chaos onstage, Rotten was in complete control. He waddled about, looking disheveled and unconcerned, but nothing escaped his watchful eye. "This one’s about you,” he tossed off to the crowd, “it’s called ‘Problems.’”

“No matter what he says or does, Johnny Rotten holds a certain charisma that is not readily found in most stage personalities today. It has a lot to do with the look in his bright, vacant blue eyes that look over and through his audience. It also can be attributed to his nonstop energy and youthfulness. 

“Rotten and his Sex Pistols opened their 45 minute set with ‘God Save The Queen,’ which Rotten called ‘the new British national anthem’ and closed with ‘Anarchy In The UK,’ in which he changed the lyrics for their performance in a new locale: ‘I am in anti-christ/I am an anarchist/Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it/I want to destroy the passersby /Because I want to be anarchy/Now don't worry/Anarchy for the US of A/It's coming sometime maybe.’

“Whether total anarchy is coming is doubtful, but one thing is certain, the Sex Pistols are making their mark on a record business Rotten once said he wanted to destroy. They received sensational news coverage for allegedly spitting and lewd behavior onstage, and received just as much when they didn’t do anything more than play their music. Those at the Music Hall who were upset and disappointed that no one got vomit spit at them are probably the same people who stop and stare at fatal car accidents. The people who went to see and hear the Sex Pistols perform had no complaints.

“They were great.”

Contact Tony Paris regarding upcoming gigs, or, if you just want to say, “Hi,” at cl.highfreqs@gmail.com.

 



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