Nevermind the Bollocks

By KIT RACHLIS  |  November 14, 2006

What was lost in the pre-concept furor (which began when the Pistols initially were denied visas causing the cancellation of four scheduled dates) was that the Pistols’ tour was intended to be low-key. Lasting a little over two weeks, playing only handful of major markets and avoiding music-industry centers such as New York and Los Angeles, scaling ticket prices to a maximum of $3.50m booking small- to medium-size halls, the Sex Pistols’ tour is a model of how not to market a new band – which, of course, is its point. The Pistols know they don’t have to do anything to attract attention. By breaking the rules (among other things, they insisted that the press pay for tickets), the Pistols are not only snubbing the industry, but anybody who follows its guidelines. Of course, the Pistols were not above using a Warners’ lawyer when their visa problems got sticky, or accepting Warners’ offer to underwrite the Great SouthEast’s insurance when the rates were dramatically increased the day before the concert. The band is walking a tight line, rejecting American popularity as an imprimatur while courting its favors, ignoring conglomerate economics while cashing in on its dividends. It shouldn’t have been surprising, then, that the Pistols would downplay their performance. But it was.

To say that the Pistols’ performance  was low-key is not to suggest that they were decorous or polite – only that they avoided the traps and trappings foisted upon them except to scorn them. “Forget about staring at us and just fucking dance. We’re all ugly and we know it,” Rotten said early on. And later, “See the fine upstanding men Britain’s turning out these days.” He then struck a body-builders pose, raised his eyebrows and added, “Just never join the Army.” For those expecting the claustrophobic cry of Never Mind the Bollocks, the music also came as a surprise. It was lighter, more energetic. It still careened and slammed, blasting out a wall of noise. Rotten’s voice cut through with nasal angularity on top, Sid Vicious’s bass pounded away at the bottom, but it wasn’t just frenetic terror screaming out. The music moved. It made you tap your feet. The Sex Pistols are a rock ‘n’ roll band – and it was something of a shock that I had to remind myself of that.

Seeing the Pistols in Atlanta reduced them to human scale – not because they stumbled through the first three songs obviously affected by the pressure of the event, but because they seemed vulnerable, as scared as they were angry. They were no longer figments of our imagination. Rotten played the amused, puckish master of ceremonies; Vicious the band’s leading fan, the bored impudent punk with the spiked hair and elastic smirk; Jones the matinee idol, brutishly handsome in a neon-red, double-breasted jacket; and Cook the most anonymous, the earnest t-shirted mechanic. None seemed as scabrous and frightening as the record would lead you to believe. Rotten was still raising his middle finger, still demanding of his audience as much as he demands of the Queen. When he pointed at the crowd while shouting “The problem is you,” he made clear what the record only implies – that he’s not just talking about the record-company executives and government censors. And when he pointed toward the lip of the stage during “Holiday in the Sun,” and yelled, “This is the Berlin Wall – do you want to come through it?” there was as much affection in his voice as challenge. But when Steve Jones took his guitar solos during “No Feelings” and “Problems,” he connected with a rock tradition that the band’s nihilism is supposed to reject. He quoted Chuck Berry, as have thousands of lead guitarist before him, turning the solos into a stuttering series of sidesteps at once joyous and fiery. There was sentimentality in Jones’s gesture, and coming as it did (in both songs) right behind Rotten’s shrapnel voice, which want to shred all traces of solace, it made me smile. No band can throw themselves this much into rock ‘n’ roll and not believe in it. In the men’s room before the Sex Pistols appeared on stage, someone said “Is this history?”

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