I’ve always read the Manchester Evening News cover to cover, ever since I was a kid. Don’t ask me why. Same with watching Coronation Street; it’s just something I’ve always done. Home is Becky and the kids, Corrie and the MEN.
Reading the small ads in the MEN was how I found out that the Pistols were playing at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, 50p a ticket.
Now my mates – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – have always been dead normal, so they weren’t interested. But I’d been going to gigs with Terry and Bernard and (apart from the infamous toothache incident) having a laugh, so I phoned Bernard up.
‘The Sex Pistols are on – do you want to go and see them?’
He went, ‘Who?’
I said, ‘Oh, it’s this group. They have fights at every gig and it’s really funny. Come on, it’s only 50p.’
‘Yeah, all right, then.’
Terry was up for it too, so it ended up being me, him, Barney and Sue Barlow, who was Barney’s fiancé. I think they’d met at Gresty’s house when he was sixteen or so. They’d been going out for a few years and used to fight like cat and dog. With the possible exception of Debbie and Ian, they had the most tempestuous, argumentative relationship I’ve ever known in my life. And they ended up getting married . . .
So that was it anyway, the group of us who went and saw the Sex Pistols at Lesser Free Trade Hall. A night that turned out to be the most important of my life – or one of them at least – but that started out just like any other: me and Terry making the trip in Terry’s car; Barney and Sue arriving on his motorbike; the four of us meeting up then ambling along to the ticket office.
There to greet us was Malcolm McLaren, dressed head to toe in black leather – leather jacket, leather trousers and leather boots – with a shock of bright-orange hair, a manic grin and the air of a circus ringmaster, though there was hardly anyone else around. We were like, Wow. He looked so wild, from another planet even. The four of us were in our normal gear: flared jeans, penny collars and velvet jackets with big lapels, all of that. Look at the photographs of the gig and you can see that everybody in the audience was dressed the same way, like a Top of the Pops audience. There were no punks yet. So Malcolm – he looked like an alien to us. Thinking about it, he must have been the first punk I ever saw in the flesh.
Wide-eyed we paid him, went in and down the stairs into the Lesser Free Trade Hall (the same stairs I’d laid down on many years before). At the back of the hall was the stage and set out in front of it were chairs, on either side of a central walkway, just like it was in 24 Four Hour Party People – although I don’t remember many sitting down like they are in the film. I don’t think there was a bar that night, so we just stood around, waiting.
The support band were called Solstice, and their best number was a twenty-minute cover version of ‘Nantucket Sleighride’. The original, by Mountain, was one of my favourite records at the time so we knew it really well, and we were like, ‘This is great. Just like the record.’
Still, though, nothing out of the ordinary. Normal band, normal night, few people watching, clap-clap, very good, off they went.
The Sex Pistols’ gear was set up and then, without further ceremony, they came on: Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Steve Jones was wearing a boiler suit and the rest of them looked like they’d just vandalized an Oxfam shop. Rotten had on this torn-open yellow sweater and he glared out into the audience like he wanted to kill each and every one of us, one at a time, before the band struck up into something that might have been ‘Did You No Wrong’ but you couldn’t tell because it was so loud and dirty and distorted.
I remember feeling as though I’d been sitting in a darkened room all of my life – comfortable and warm and safe and quiet – then all of a sudden someone had kicked the door in, and it had burst open to let in an intense bright light and this even more intense noise, showing me another world, another life, a way out. I was immediately no longer comfortable and safe, but that didn’t matter because it felt great. I felt alive. It was the weirdest sensation. It wasn’t just me feeling it, either – we were all like that. We just stood there, stock still, watching the Pistols. Absolutely, utterly, gobsmacked.
I was thinking two things. Two things that I suppose you’d have to say came together to create my future – my whole life from then on.
The first was: I could do that.
Because, fucking hell, what a racket. I mean, they were just dreadful; well, the sound was dreadful. Now the other band didn’t sound that bad. They sounded normal. But it was almost as though the Pistols’ sound guy had deliberately made them sound awful, or they had terrible equipment on purpose, because it was all feeding back, fuzzed-up, just a complete din. A wall of noise. I didn’t recognize a tune, not a note, and considering they were playing so many cover versions – the Monkees, the Who – I surely would have recognized something had it not sounded so shit.
So, in fact, sound-wise it was as much the sound guy who inspired us all as it was the Sex Pistols, who were, as much as I hate to say it, a pretty standard rock band musically. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that they played straightforward down-the-line rock ‘n’ roll, but it didn’t make them special.
No. What made them special, without a shadow of a doubt, was Johnny Rotten. The tunes were only a part of the package – and probably the least important part of it, if I’m honest. Close your eyes and like I say you had a conventional pub-rock band with a soundman who either didn’t have a clue or was being very clever indeed. But who was going to close their eyes when he, Johnny Rotten, was standing there? Sneering and snarling at you, looking at you like he hated you, hated being there, hated everyone. What he embodied was the attitude of the Pistols, the attitude of punk. Through him they expressed what we wanted to express, which was complete nihilism. You know the way you feel when you’re a teenager, all that confusion about the future that turns to arrogance and then rebellion, like, ‘Fuck off, we don’t fucking care, we’re shit, we don’t care’? He had all of that and more.
And, God bless him, whatever he had, he gave a bit of it to us, because that was the second thing I felt, after I can do that. It was: I want to do that. No. I fucking need to do that.
Tony Wilson said he was there, of course, but I didn’t see him, which is weird because he was very famous in Manchester then; he was Tony Wilson off the telly. Mick Hucknall was there, and Mark E. Smith and everyone, but of course we didn’t know anybody – all that would come later. The only people we knew there were each other: me and Terry, Barney and Sue. I don’t know what Sue made of it all, mind you; I’d love to know now. But me, Barney and Terry were being converted.
The Pistols were on for only about half an hour and when they finished we filed out quietly with our minds blown, absolutely utterly speechless, and it just sort of dawned on me then – that was it. That was what I wanted to do: tell everyone to Fuck Off.