This article originally appeared in the January 17, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
His hands hanging by his side as if he’s unsure what to do with them, Johnny Rotten is staring straight at the audience. A bemused smile – mock wonder – crosses his face. Of all things, he looks like Charlie Chaplin: baggy navy blue pants with a white handkerchief peering out of the back pocket; a tuxedo jacket and vest, shiny from use and several sizes too large; white shirt and fat tie, tousled hair and pale skin. Rotten looks very young, like a little kid about to do his bit for the camp amateur hour. Without any announcement, the Sex Pistols have just walked onto the Great SouthEast Music Hall, Atlanta’s most prestigious rock club. It’s a moment that approximately 40 journalists (including representatives from the three networks), 500 curious Atlanta rock fans, and a full corps of Warner Bros. publicists have been waiting for. The Sex Pistols aren’t oblivious to the commotion – the audience has risen en masse and is screaming at them. In fact, they seem to revel in it, but their acknowledgement is oblique. “My name is John and this is the Sex Pistols,” Rotten says, with another smile that could break your heart – with his black dots for eyes he could be a character in “Little Orphan Annie” – and the band careers into “God Save the Queen,” Rotten’s barbed-wire voice tearing it apart.
I’d like to say that the Sex Pistols’ American debut last week was a revelation, but it wasn’t. The Sex Pistols were good. There were moments of greatness – one understood immediately how they kidnapped the British imagination (part of it, at least) even before they released “Anarchy in the U.K.” – but it wasn’t the coming of the anti-Christ. It was more like meeting someone you only know by correspondence and reputation: tentative and awkward at first, before you get past expectations and accept the exigencies of finally getting together. Though almost everyone at the Great SouthEast Music Hall undoubtedly has his own private image of the Pistols – created by Never Mind the Bollocks as well as what has been said and printed – this analogy is not quite accurate. The Pistols’ concert was not a private meeting, but an extraordinarily public event. Few performances in rock history have been surrounded by so much attention.
The symbolic weight of the Atlanta show – Sex Pistols Arrive, US Still Standing – was not lost on anyone. That’s why most were there. But the reports and rumors that led up to the concert left out one thing: for all the Pistols’ seriousness – and their nihilism is not a chi-chi pose easily dismissed – they treat almost everything, including themselves, as a joke (albeit a cruel one); or, to put it differently, the Pistols’ dead seriousness derives precisely from their viewing the world as a joke. So when the Pistols acknowledged their notoriety, they immediately defused it. “Aren’t we the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” Rotten asked about halfway through the show – and he didn’t care what the answer was. Since nothing the band could do could be as outrageous as what had been predicted – if one believed some reports, a wave of spit and vomit was going to engulf the audience as soon as the Pistols hit the stage – deliberately underplaying their hand was the group’s only option. Considering the presence of the Atlanta vice-squad, this was a practical as well as philosophical solution.
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