The One Reunion I Don’t Need To See…
It should not be any more possible for me to miss the Sex Pistols playing live on the Jay Leno show than it would be for a Brit to miss them playing live on the Jonathan Ross show, but clearly I don’t watch enough TV to notice these things. It wasn’t until yesterday, when our Pub Landlady Shona linked to a YouTube video of their recent performance on America’s premier late night chat show (from October 30), that I saw the band playing live – for the first time in thirty years. (You can see the clip below.) It tells you how far we’ve come technologically, and how quickly, that there were no instantaneous video clips of the group’s last reunion, in 1997, which means that the footage I’ve always lived with, and thereby my visual image of the group, has dated almost exclusively from 1976 and ‘77. It should go without saying that I never got to see the group in concert – I only turned 13 in 1977 – and I envy those few who did.
And yet the Sex Pistols are the one group I have no interest in seeing in concert. It’s not that I begrudge them their right to cash in on their prior infamy; everybody has a right to earn a buck. It’s not that I have anything against ageing musicians playing the songs of their youth: I’m off to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tonight, I’d like to see Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler from The Jam playing together again, I’ve seen the Buzzcocks in their old age, I go to see the Who more often than I ever mean to. But, because the normal rules of existence did not apply to Rotten, Cook, Jones, Matlock and/or Vicious, so the rules of the reunion do not apply either.
The Sex Pistols changed my life personally, – as they changed millions of others – and not in a way I can hope to replicate in live performance thirty years later. I could write whole essays about that summer of 1977, the very genuine threat the Pistols posed to the ruling classes and all that ludicrous Jubilee bunting, the front page news stories, the excitement on the streets and at school about this very real thing called punk rock, and about how it felt to hunt down a copy of “God Save The Queen” (which half the record shops in the UK refused to stock) or to play Never Mind The Bollocks at full volume. The Sex Pistols also changed my life indirectly, inspiring all those thousands of other bands to form and similarly change the rules and make musical accessible again. I can’t imagine a life without the Clash or the Jam, and if the latter may have had a semi-successful existence as a pub rock band without punk rock, the former would never even have come together had Joe Strummer not opened for the Pistols in one of those pub rock bands and experience a musical epiphany. That one’s a fact. So, the Sex Pistols didn’t just change my life and that of other people, they changed popular music – popular culture – almost single-handedly. There aren’t too many groups who can claim as much.
That’s why the Pistols had no problem selling out a five-night stand at London’s Brixton Academy, of which the last performance took place last night. But still, I didn’t wish I was there. I had the chance to see the group play Finsbury Park in 1996 when they reunited for the Filthy Lucre and I passed that one up. I didn’t go see them when they played the States a few years later. I definitely don’t need to see them in a London hall mostly full of fat, drunken, balding Brits trying to relive a youth they never actually experienced.
And yet… Watching that clip of the Sex Pistols play “Anarchy In The UK” on the Jay Leno show is, really, something else. Your average group taking the coveted promo slot on an American (or British) chat show does so politely and gratefully, an attitude reflected in their generally modest volume. The Sex Pistols were more like the Who of old, playing at an ear-splitting level and with a power that invited that same question we so often asked of Townshend, Moon and Entwistle: How can you make so much noise out of just three instruments? As for Mr. Lydon/Rotten, I endured him through some pretty bad PiL years (I well remember the package tour where Mick Jones’ Big Audio Dynamite blew them clean off the stage); if he’s going to still waggle his arse at people, it may as well be at Presidential Candidate Ron Paul. Watching that performance via a tiny window on my laptop computer, I felt a shiver go down my spine. Whether it was a shiver of nostalgia – for what “Anarchy” once meant to us all, before it became an over(ab)used classic rock anthem – or an involuntary spasm provoked by the sheer majesty of the performance, I’m not entirely sure. Even Steve Jones managing to slide out of tune doesn’t detract from the song itself. If their whole live show is like that, it may yet be that I’ll regret never seeing the Sex Pistols in person. But in 1977, it never seemed like it would be an option anyway, and so it’s something I’m willing to live with.