Sex Pistols

Aragon Ballroom, August 17

By Daniel Sinker

Standing directly behind me in the sweltering Aragon Ballroom is a gorilla.

Towering a full head above my six-foot frame and weighing in at about 270 pounds, this guy looks bigger than Binti-Jua–and saving children is definitely not on his mind. “Dude,” he yells to a nearby friend over–of all things–the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A!” “When the Pistols come out, I’m going straight into the mosh pit.” His cohorts chortle and “dude” him back.

As much as I would like to not be in this guy’s way when he heads to the pit, I have nowhere to go. The cavernous space also known as the “Aragon Brawlroom,” thanks to the seemingly endless chain of speed-metal bands that played there during the mid-80s, is filled to the rafters with the strangest assortment of people I’ve ever seen at a show. In addition to the basketball jersey-wearing mud flaps like the one in back of me, there are–as expected–hundreds of 15-year-old mall punks with their newly dyed Mohawks perforating the thick smoke, their newly bought army jackets accessorized with shiny safety pins. They’ve acted quickly–MTV has only been playing “Pretty Vacant” for a couple of weeks. Most of the guys here, however, seem to have lost their hair to time, not the clippers. I stand back with all of them and wait for the Pistols to take the stage.

Sex Pistols fans are good at waiting. It’s been 18 years since the Pistols self-destructed midway through their first (and until now only) tour of the United States. I’m sure there are a handful of people in the room who actually had tickets for the originally scheduled show in Chicago, but most of the people here–myself included–discovered the Sex Pistols after they had already broken up. One thing is sure: this was everyone’s first and probably only chance to see them–arguably one of the most important bands in 20th-century music–in the flesh.

And finally, 20 years after they formed and two hours after the show started, the Sex Pistols take the stage, ripping into “Bodies.” The ape flings me aside as he dives headlong into the swarm of arms, legs, and heads that make up the dance floor.

It’s a nice idea, but something is terribly wrong. Everything is terribly wrong.

The Sex Pistols–the Sex Pistols from 1976–contributed many things to rock ‘n’ roll, the most important of which was that they reminded people what rock ‘n’ roll was all about: anger and a steady backbeat, in that order. Against almost impossible odds–arena rock, disco, awful PAs, and Sid Vicious–the Sex Pistols were able to reinvent popular music. Sure, they didn’t sound like much: Steve Jones’s chord structures were simple, Paul Cook’s drumming was little more than kick and snare, the bass lines penned by Glen Matlock (who was later replaced by Vicious, who couldn’t play bass) were clunky, and Johnny Rotten sounded like a nasal buzz saw. As Marshall McLuhan (not to be confused with Malcolm McLaren) said, the medium is the message. The Pistols message was loud and clear: Fuck You.

Perhaps that’s the problem here. These Pistols sound too good. I’d like to blame it on the Aragon, but you can’t blame it on the hall, which is famous for being acoustically horrible. No, it’s that Steve Jones is playing–really playing–guitar, that there’s reverb on the vocals, that Glen Matlock is singing harmony (harmony?!). In short the Pistols sound as big and bloated as they look. Add to this an overblown stage set–made up of huge newspaper clippings from when the Sex Pistols were actually regarded as a threat to society–and a light show complete with audience spots that blink on during the choruses, and you get something closer to Def Leppard than the Sex Pistols.

It is this band that is playing all the hits of the Sex Pistols. And I do mean all the hits. In about an hour they rip through 15 songs. Considering that the only full-fledged album the band released (discounting the throwaway Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle), Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, had only 12 songs on it, the band would be hard-pressed to play any longer.

Lack of material, however, isn’t the only reason the Pistols can only play for an hour. These new Pistols are, in their own words, “fat and 40.” Johnny Rotten, sporting ketchup-and-mustard-colored spiked hair and dressed in a silver suit obviously cut to hide the fact that the years have been good to him and failing miserably at it (he vaguely resembles a sausage cased in Mylar) is sweating so much that after each song he has to towel himself off–not just wipe his face down, but actually stick a towel under his shirt and wipe down his chest, wipe under his arms, wipe everywhere.

This break every three minutes is important not just to let Johnny towel off and catch his breath, but also to allow Steve Jones to hike up the leopard-print stretch pants dangling precariously from his love handles. Jones, who always just wanted to be a rock star, has made the unfortunate mistake of dressing like one. Regardless of whether the stretch-pants-and-no-shirt look is a good one for Jones (it isn’t), the pants have to be skintight to do the trick.

These pants start off the show sagging a bit. This predicament is further compounded by Jones’s insistence on striking all the standard guitar-hero poses: guitar slung low, legs as far apart as possible; guitar off to one side, one leg up on the stage monitor; guitar and body in flight, legs splayed. Unfortunately, each one of these poses stretches the pants out even further. Midway through the Pistols’ set, I find myself barely listening to the music. Steve Jones’s pants are commanding my full attention; sometimes I think that it is my psychokinetic power alone keeping the pants aloft. Each song ends just before the pants take the big plunge, giving Jones just seconds to grab onto the waistband and pull them up.

Had Jones only taken a lesson from bassist Glen Matlock, he would not be in this position. Matlock, as if attempting to demonstrate why he was booted out of the band in exchange for the far less talented Sid Vicious, stays trancelike in a three-square-foot area for the entire show. He takes two steps back, takes two steps up, sings harmony (harmony?!) into the mike, takes two steps back, and begins again. There’s no posturing from Matlock, just intense concentration on this two-step throughout the night. So intense, in fact, that when a plastic beer cup–full, mind you–comes flying from the audience and smacks audibly into Matlock’s head, he doesn’t even look up.

Far be it from me to deny anyone such an entertaining evening, but the sad truth is that now more than ever we could really use the old Sex Pistols. People are less involved in politics than they were in 1977; the gap between the rich and the poor is wider; and music, after a few promising years, has once again become safe enough for the likes of Hootie (not to mention “Macarena”). Johnny Rotten, in his autobiography, says as much: “It’s extremely sad that, economically, ‘no future’ [the final chorus of “God Save the Queen”] is even more relevant and timely today than it was when the Pistols first played it. I’m not very happy about that at all. Frankly, I would have liked for ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ to be seen now as a joke.”

Unfortunately, the version of “Anarchy in the U.K.” played tonight was a joke. With only a week before the Democratic National Convention, a crowd of 5,500 people chanting “I want to be anarchy” or “Get pissed, destroy!” should have seemed promising, scary even, but neither the people in the audience nor the people onstage could muster anything but nostalgia.

As the Pistols end their set, Jones turns around, revealing that he has lost the war with his pants.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, by Nathan Mandell.