We gave it a B
It wasn’t quite anarchy in the Rockies, but the Sex Pistols’ first American concert in 18 years, on July 31 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver, was a chance for a generation weened on Pistols descendants Green Day and Rancid to check out some bona fide punk heroes — at New Age schlockmeister John Tesh’s fave venue, no less. The 21st show in an intensive five-month-long, continents-spanning tour (which opened in Helsinki, Finland, on June 21) found the Pistols anything but rusty. The irony of these punk pioneers performing in the beauty of a natural amphitheater carved from the side of a mountain wasn’t lost on their notorious frontman. ”This is Johnny Rotten, not Johnny Denver,” quipped the 40-year-old singer at one point.
Not that anybody needed to be reminded. Time (and gangsta rap) may have blunted the shock value of Rotten’s onstage spitting and feigned masturbation, but it hasn’t diminished the power of that voice, which still oozes a venomous disdain for seemingly everyone and everything. Nor has it softened the brute force of the Pistols’ music — guitarist Steve Jones’ wall-of-powerchords attack, Paul Cook’s bash-your-head-to-putty drumming, bassist Glen Matlock’s steroids-enhanced bass lines.
Opening with ”Bodies,” their infamous anti-abortion (or is that anti-woman?) song, the Pistols had the crowd — a diverse assortment of high school and college kids, biker types, punks, post-punks, and rock-show regulars — on its feet for the duration of their hour-plus set. Fists pumped air, people pogoed in place, and a sizable portion of the audience shouted out the lyrics to every tune — even, surprisingly, those to ”Did You No Wrong,” an obscure B side. ”It’s sing-along-with-Johnny time,” sneered Rotten, before launching into ”Satellite.”
Prowling the stage in what seemed to be a Day-Glo waiter’s uniform, Rotten cut a marvelously absurd figure, with twin tufts of hair — one pink, one yellow — shooting straight up from his head for that debonair Don King-cum-Bozo the Clown effect. Forced to resort to an oxygen mask regularly (”It’s f–kin’ hard to breathe up here,” he complained, alluding to Red Rocks’ location 6400 feet above sea level), Rotten otherwise seemed in full control of things. Jones struck a classic guitar-hero pose — legs spread wide apart while carving sheets of sound from his instrument — for most of the set, then reemerged for the encore shirtless and wearing a blue brassiere. Meanwhile, original member Matlock (taking the place of bassist Sid Vicious, whose 1979 heroin-overdose death had till now provided the sordid coda to the Pistols’ saga) plunged ahead stolidly, presumably trying not to remember all the nasty things Rotten and Jones have said about him over the years.
One could quibble about small disappointments. For some reason — to save some breath, perhaps? — the ”you sons of bitches” chant from ”Holidays in the Sun” was abbreviated to ”You-so, you-so,” and the Pistols passed on their punishing version of the Stooges’ ”No Fun.” But on the whole, the show was a resounding vindication, two grubby fingers up the noses of naysayers.
It’s no secret that many people view this comeback — dubbed the Filthy Lucre Tour — as a betrayal, a cynical attempt by the band to cash in on their notoriety. Which, of course, it is. As Kiss (who titled their 1977 album Love Gun in apparent acknowledgment of the Pistols’ impact) know, staging a middle-aged comeback tour may not be what becomes a legend most, but it’ll do wonders for your bank balance. Although the Pistols have come to occupy an almost mythic niche in rock history, the truth is they never saw much money on the first go-around. (If they’d figured out how to convert the reams of rock criticism written about them into hard currency, they probably wouldn’t be on the road now.)
At the time of its release in 1977, the Pistols’ only official album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, was a shot heard round the, uh, rock community; today, it’s considered a classic, a punk primer on a par with Ramones, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and Iggy & the Stooges’ Raw Power. Adding to the appeal of the Pistols reunion is the fact that few Americans have ever seen the band live (their only prior Stateside visit was the chaotic 12-date club tour in 1978 that culminated in their dissolution). Considering the somewhat iffy state of the Pistols’ solo careers (Rotten, performing as John Lydon with Public Image Ltd., is the only one who has enjoyed any measure of post-Pistols success), only a churl would begrudge the band a chance to cash in.
Filthy Lucre Live, a concert album recorded at Finsbury Park in London last June 23 and rush-released (it hit retail July 30) to coincide with the American leg of the tour, provides a good idea of what the 1996 Sex Pistols sound like. Indeed, it’s a veritable duplication of the set they played at Red Rocks (and, probably, of every other set they’ll play on the tour). Comprising all of the songs from Bollocks, plus a couple of rarities (like their cover of the Monkees’ ”[I’m Not Your] Steppin’ Stone”), Lucre Live is a worthy souvenir for those inclined to treasure such things. Those who persist in viewing the comeback as heresy need to lighten up. Perhaps Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (of all people) best summed up the contradictions of the Pistols’ second coming when he retooled the lyrics to ”Anarchy in the U.K.” in an interview: ”I am the anti-Christ/Please buy our merchandise.” Now, that’s punk. B