January 8, 1978 seems like a hell of a long time ago, but I truly can remember events just like it was yesterday. Recently I discovered a YouTube clip and it brought back a flood of those memories, from a period in my life that I thought was all but lost to time. The video featured the Sex Pistols playing the song, New York, from their infamous appearance at Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio, Texas, the third stop on their brief, but legendary, tour of hostile southern U.S. venues. But even better, at the end it tacked on footage of the notorious incident where Sid Vicious smashes his bass guitar over some hellraiser’s head. Check out the end of the video – they interview the guy who was on the receiving end of Sid’s guitar. It was the type of spontaneous event that left a lasting impression. My life actually changed in so many ways that day, and it altered the course of my remaining time in Texas for the next several years.
Their first and only U.S. tour was announced in late 1977; the curious choice of venues caught all parties off-guard. The British media had done an amazing job of painting a villainous portrait of this out-of-control band but, in retrospect, it became apparent that the band's equally infamous manager, Malcolm McLaren, was playing the British press like a finely tuned Stradivarius. He did a real P.T. Barnum job on England's finest. and then he brought the Pistols to America and did the same damn thing! I later read that the first two stops on the band’s tour, Atlanta and Memphis, had capacities of around 500 and 700, respectively. Randy’s Rodeo, a converted bowling alley, could hold up to 2,200, almost double that of the Atlanta and Memphis venues combined! “Certainly”, I thought, “this has the potential to become a raucous train-wreck of a concert.” I bought my ticket early.
I pulled into the parking lot of Randy’s a little before noon, confident that I would be first in line. To my dismay, there was not one, but two people already there. As I walked up to claim my spot for the 8:00 pm concert, I asked, “How long have you been in line?” “We got here a little after 11:00” Damn. Now that’s dedication! We introduced ourselves and, little did I know that Frank and Becky would go on to become my best friends for the next several years while I lived in Texas, and I would join them in going to dozens of other concerts during that time. As we settled into our spots by the entrance, we started discussing the upcoming concert, asking each other: “Why do you want to see the Sex Pistols?” “What all have you heard about them?” “Why in the heck are they playing at Randy’s Rodeo, of all places?” Randy’s had been many things over the course of its existence: bowling alley, honky-tonk, and currently a bingo parlor run by a Catholic church. A punk nightclub is something none of us had ever envisioned.
Our real introduction to the Pistols was reading all the fervent press that had been written about this curious, controversial band who had somehow managed to offend just about every living person they had come in contact with. Or at least that's how it was being played up in the trades. Our curiosity had definitely been piqued. San Antonio had a reputation as being one of the most fervent hard rock/heavy metal hotbeds in the U.S., and Frank and Becky were veterans of the concert wars. We were all interested to see just what type of reception awaited the band. As we were talking about our impressions of this circus that was rolling into town, lo and behold…here was the Pistols tour bus pulling into the parking lot and heading over to the side entrance. Becky held our place in line as Frank and I ran around back to check out the bus and get our first glimpse of the infamous band, whose members had been christened with provocative surnames like Vicious and Rotten. They opened the windows of their bus and sneered and briefly engaged the handful of people who were there to greet them. After a few minutes, they closed their windows and it was our time to get back in line.
Speaking of, a few more people had shown up during our brief sojourn. Slowly, the line grew longer. And longer. There were a lot more people showing up for this show than I had anticipated. In retrospect, I don't think any of us truly realized the historic nature of this event. By 5:00, the line had wrapped out-of sight around the building. Speaking with others in the crowd, we gathered that the general consensus was that most people were there to see if someone was going to be killed. We were just hoping that when they opened the doors there wouldn’t be a stampede. Anticipation was at a fever-pitch, with people yelling for the doors to be opened. Almost as if on-cue, they did! And of course the mob rushed the stage. Armed only with a small Minolta camera and a roll of film, I claimed a spot center-front at the edge of the stage, along with my new friends plus some of the journalists and photographers who were covering the band. The stage was pretty small and it only rose up about 4 feet above the floor. At that time, the place was only about half-full. The early arrivals weren't limited to curious folk like myself, or the throngs of drunken rednecks looking to make headlines themselves. We were also joined at the front of the stage by then-Rolling Stone magazine beat writer, Charles M. Young (story published in the Feb. 23, 1978 edition) and internationally renowned photographer Annie Leibowitz. They were both very friendly and chatty and, frankly, caught up in the moment as were the rest of us. And there I was, a 22 year old -- nerd, I guess -- a little in awe of the company with which I found myself surrounded. I asked Annie if I could take a picture of her and Charles. She said, "Sure", and proceeded to insert the 'trick' safety pin in her nose in preparation of the shot. I was nervously preparing to take her picture, and I hear:
"You might want to take that lens cap off first"
I could have fallen through the floor I was so embarrassed. But, ever the pro, she was gracious and understanding. And I'll never forget that (plus she gave me her faux safety pin as a memento). I hate that their photos turned out so crappy.
There was a huge press contingent there: television stations and newspapers from all over sent crews to cover the event. They had even roped off a section at the far end of the stage for all the photographers and journalists. And we were all waiting for one thing, and one thing only. I had mentioned earlier about remembering this event like it was yesterday, but that’s not entirely true; in researching a few articles from the show, I was a little surprised to learn that there had been two supporting acts (local bands The Vamps and Ultra). No offense to them, but that’s exactly how insignificantly they were viewed by virtually the entire audience. Cries of “BRING ON THE SEX PISTOLS!! WE WANT THE SEX PISTOLS!!” rang throughout the small but packed-to-the-rafters club. This crowd was out for blood. The makeup of the audience was almost entirely heavy metal fans, and they were split, with about half being curiosity seekers (and music fans in general) and the other half comprised of redneck troublemakers who wanted nothing more than to antagonize the band and see what happened. Little did they know what was in store for them.
It was actually getting to be pretty late when finally the house lights finally went down. As the Sex Pistols took the stage they were greeted with a deafening chorus of boos and catcalls that muted the less-negatively offered applause. Sid immediately shouted, “You cowboys are a bunch of fuckin’ faggots!” as he and the rest of the band were dodging the plethora of projectiles – bottles, hot dogs, beer cans, garbage, popcorn, whipped cream and, on at least one occasion, a pie -- being hurled their way. Looking back, it was uncannily like the scene from the Blues Brothers film where they play a county & western bar behind the safety of chicken wire. Unfortunately, the Pistols had no such luxury. After a brief exchange of insults temporarily abated, the band launched into a spirited version of God Save the Queen. If you had asked any two random people how they sounded you likely would have gotten two different answers. However, they would have agreed on one point – it was loud as hell. And throughout the course of the evening, a few things became apparent: Johnny Rotten was a shit-stirrer whose “singing” was more of an afterthought. But holy crap, what an incredible stage presence he had! Steve Jones and Paul Cook could actually play (Jones in particular was solid most of the evening).
And the big question: could Sid actually play bass? In a word, no. Sid couldn’t really play a lick. But he did seem to enjoy holding his Fender Precision Bass and posing while he went through the motions of playing, usually with his mouth contorted into a contemptuous sneer. Although it was equally obvious that his bandmates weren’t too keen with the fact that Sid frequently opened in the wrong key, and continued to play off-key. But how much of that was due to Sid’s state of impairment that night? He seemed pretty wasted from the beginning, but it appeared to be mostly the result of heavy alcohol consumption. After he had removed his shades and leather jacket, you could read the words that he had carved into his chest: Gimme a Fix. Sid was so busy dodging all the beer cans that were thrown his way, it was almost understandable that playing bass guitar was not first and foremost on his mind. People spat on him. Sid was happy to reciprocate. And then suddenly, the incident that would forever immortalize this concert in infamy occurred. I don’t remember the song, but it was sometime early in the show, before Sid had removed his leather jacket. A confrontational fan threw and hit Sid in the head with a beer can. And the guy was taunting and laughing at Sid after he did it. Sid quickly slipped the guitar off and lifted it up over his head before smashing it down on the guy (and surrounding audience). I heard that it was just a glancing blow, as there was a roadie in front who was trying to push the crowd back, and some say the roadie’s shoulder took the brunt of the force. Either way, it was lucky for Sid, 'cause he could have seriously killed the guy. The instigator was tossed out of the concert, but he is briefly interviewed at the end of the YouTube clip posted above (and yes, you can clearly see Sid making every effort to crack this guy's head wide open with his guitar). Suddenly the lights went dark and the band left the stage while some semblance of order was restored. After being escorted out of the concert by security, the agitator said, “I don't like what they stand for. They are just sewer rats with guitars.”
The neat thing about discovering that YouTube clip (apart from bringing back all kinds of memories) was scouring the internet to see if I could find a picture of the incident with Sid. To my amazement there wasn't a single one to be found (although I did find a couple with Sid holding the bass over his head in a threatening manner).
But there's only one picture that I've ever seen of that infamous scene of Sid going upside somebody's head with his bass guitar.
And it's the one I took.
Although the "victim" is obscured by some guy in a hat (“Have a shitty Christmas” indeed, pal – thanks for ruining my shot!), Sid and his guitar-as-weapon are clearly shown (you can also see how close I was to the action):
As you could imagine, things had gotten a bit chaotic and out-of-hand. After a brief “cooling-off” period that lasted about 10-15 minutes, the band (along with a slightly sheepish Sid Vicious in tow) returned to finish their set. However, just because Sid was now somewhat less combative (though only a little bit), Johnny Rotten seemed determined to make up the difference. Nothing had changed with him, except a renewed rage. Simply put, Johnny was electrifying. He was constantly in motion, whether spitting out the lyrics to New York or stopping altogether to glare at and engage the audience with insulting asides (sometimes while the band continued to play). He was wearing a t-shirt with what looked like two Tom of Finland cowboys facing each other with their dicks hanging out, underneath his plaid, oversized jacket. Between songs, it became a contest of insults. The audience would yell, “Cocksucker!” and “Go home, asshole”, while Johnny would berate them about their funny accents and how they liked to have sex with farm animals. Strangely enough, the exchanging of insults had almost turned into a game of one-upmanship, with some of the anger toned down. It’s as if the crowd was understanding how to appreciate the abuse a bit more. However, that didn’t stop them from throwing literally everything that wasn’t bolted down at the enemies on stage. All night long the band members were constantly having to dodge cans that were thrown at them. Sometimes they didn’t bother to move as they were pelted with food (just get a load of all the crap on Johnny’s face and jacket) and assorted garbage.
As the band continued rather quickly through their set, one observation that was easy to make was the noticeable difference in demeanor between the band’s musical anchor, Jones and Cook, with that of the two bad boy front-men. More than once, Jones and Cook looked uncomfortable in the same environment that Rotten and Vicious seemed to relish. While they were apparently happy to be relegated to the role of second fiddle behind Sid and Johnny, you could tell that someone on that stage, at least, wasn’t too pleased with having to duck and dodge projectiles while they made their way through the set. The look on both their faces said, “Let’s hurry up and finish this and get the hell out of here while we still can.” And really, you could hardly blame them. It was no surprise to later learn that the fractured relationships had become so bad that Jones and Cook refused to travel on the tour bus, opting to fly to the remaining shows.
This was their set list:
God Save the Queen
I Wanna Be Me
Holidays in the Sun
Belsen Was a Gas
Anarchy in the U.K.
The band was on-stage for an hour or so, though it seemed much, much longer than that. They finished off with Anarchy in the U.K. and then promptly left the stage.
There was no encore.
The lights abruptly came back on. With the band now offstage, you could easily see the mountain of beer cans on the floor that surrounded Paul Cook’s drum kit. Everyone was spent, yet they were mesmerized by what they had just been a part of. Nobody wanted to leave. The irony that this concert had taken place on Elvis Presley’s birthday was noted by more than a few. For the longest time, people just milled about, sharing their thoughts or looking for a piece of memorabilia with which to commemorate the event. I said goodbye to Frank and Becky, got in my car, and started back up the interstate to my home in New Braunfels.
As I drove home, I reflected on the day’s events. The concert was being written up in a national magazine, Heck, even Frank and I were interviewed by the Austin American-Statesman for their Monday edition. The icing on this cake was the memorabilia that I came away with. I managed to take some decent photos including lots of close-ups of Rotten, a pic of Rotten and Vicious just after some "admiring fans" had pelted them with garbage, and that awesome pic of Vicious going upside a rowdy redneck's head with his bass. I enjoyed taking the pictures, but even they didn't measure up to the most memorable moment of all: earlier in the day, before the concert began, my newfound friend and I had gone around back to check out the Sex Pistol's bus as it arrived. Like a couple of giddy fanboys, we approached the windows of the bus, hoping for a glimpse of the infamous duo. Rotten opens a window and I manage to shove a card and a pen up to him. He signs it, I get it back, and admire the signature, "Johnny Rotten". Frank did the same to Sid Vicious. Sid signed it with a sneer, handed it back to my friend, and promptly disappeared back into the safety of the bus. My friend looked at the signature and, slowly, a big grin spread over his face. He handed it to me.
It said, "Fuck you".