When the Sex Pistols arrived in New York City for their first visit to America in January 1978, few people, apart from rock critics and a coterie of fans, took notice. A motley British quartet of unskilled musicians and juvenile delinquents packaged by promoter Malcolm McLaren, the band had created a cultural upheaval in Britain. In the U.S., though, they were still largely unknown.
They played seven shows in 12 days, ending their tour — and the band’s meteoric career — with an appropriately apocalyptic concert at Winterland in San Francisco. As veteran rock tour manager Noel Monk and journalist Jimmy Guterman describe those now legendary dozen days in this artless but revealing new book, 12 Days on the Road: The Sex Pistols and America, the Sex Pistols — whether off stage or on — pretty much followed the same punk recipe: They were ugly, they were crude, they were menacing.
Calloused veteran though he may have been, Monk was unprepared for the behavior of his thuggish new clients. It quickly became obvious that he would have to baby-sit the group’s bassist, Sid Vicious, who frequently erupted in random acts of violence and was ever on the alert for ways to score heroin. In Memphis, he managed to escape from Monk; after making a connection, he took advantage of his freedom to borrow a knife and carve a defiant memo onto his chest: gimme a fix.
Malcolm McLaren meanwhile carefully avoided both the bassist and the band. Monk reports that he skipped all of the live shows save for the last one, and implies that the storied svengali was afraid that Vicious might actually try to murder him. For his part, the Pistols’ lead singer, Johnny Rotten, relentlessly taunted his bandmate, calling Vicious a ”pathetic junkie” and ridiculing his lack of musical talent.
Onstage, the bickering temporarily drew to a halt and the demons got up to dance. Transmogrified through the ritual of performance, the Sex Pistols’ seething blend of cruelty, aggression, and petty meanness erupted in a musical cacophony of jubilant power, weirdly sexy, darkly seductive. ”It left me cold,” one fan told the authors, ”but it also got me excited.”
It is not a pretty story — but then, as anybody who has heard the music already knows, it was not a pretty band. C+