By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
In September 1994, I scribbled an article for this publication entitled "Come Together--Again"; it was intended to lampoon then-current supergroup reunion tours by acts such as the Eagles and Steely Dan via a supposedly fictional list of other outfits considering get-togethers. Among them was the Sex Pistols, about whom I wrote: "Now that punk rock is suddenly commercial, why not bring back the granddaddies of them all? Their schedule is open: Lead singer John (Rotten) Lydon's latest act, Public Image Ltd., recently lost its record deal with Virgin, drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones have spent most of the nearly two decades since the group disbanded watching the telly, and Sid Vicious is dead--meaning he doesn't have any prior commitments. Besides, Vicious in his present condition probably can play the bass just as well as he did when he was alive."
Be careful what you joke about; it just may come true. On Wednesday, July 31, at Red Rocks, the Sex Pistols appeared together on American soil for the first time since early 1978. (Bassist Glen Matlock wasn't in the group back then; he was replaced by Vicious in 1977 because he supposedly wasn't punk enough. "He wanted to make us fun!" Lydon complained at the time.) The Pistols were so confident of their drawing power--and so sure that they'd be branded sellouts by punks too young to remember that they were always in the music game mainly for the money (ask Malcolm McLaren)--that they dubbed their jaunt the "Filthy Lucre" tour. But the Denver date suggested that the musicians' bank accounts wouldn't be feathered by as many bills as they'd anticipated. Sales were so anemic that ticket prices were reduced to $10.67, a total that corresponds with the frequency of sponsor KBPI-FM, which I never once heard play a Pistols song during its lackluster promotion of the date. Moreover, people who bought full-price tickets were told that they could bring along a friend for free--an extraordinary, maybe unprecedented, deal. Despite these incentives, the upper quarter of the amphitheater remained fairly empty throughout the evening.
The people who bothered to attend fell into a few general categories. There were youngsters clad in vintage punk regalia, including one guy who looked more like Vicious than did Gary Oldman in Sid and Nancy. (Collectively, this bunch called to mind the participants in a punk-dress-up day at a suburban middle school.) There were more generic youths with incredibly bad skin--always a key part of the punk demographic. There were typical post-grungers of the sort you'd see at any modern-rock show. There were thirtysomethings who stood around with arms folded and faces scrunched: Their body language seemed to say, "You're going to have to prove to me that you don't suck." And, strangely enough, there were families: parents with babies or preteens enjoying a night of pure, wholesome fun.
These last fans weren't the only indication of how quaint the Sex Pistols have become. Until the wind at Red Rocks forced their removal, giant reproductions of mid-Seventies headlines decorated the stage. The largest of these called the Pistols "Foul-Mouthed," which they were for their time; EMI dropped them from its roster after Matlock said "fuck" on national British television. But compared with many Ice Cube song lyrics, the profanities uttered by Lydon and comrades seem about as shocking as a performance by Shari Lewis and Lambchop.
Just as lackluster was Reacharound, the second of the four combos on the bill. (I missed the opener, Gravity Kills.) The group's mid-tempo offerings sounded like the Alarm--yawn--while its speedier tracks were reminiscent of...the Alarm, too. These lugs were followed by Stabbing Westward, which on its recordings suggests a watered-down, infinitely more boring Nine Inch Nails. At Red Rocks, however, the combo proved that it's capable of other styles, too. The hit "What Do I Have to Do?," for example, bridged the gap between Depeche Mode and Journey. Still, head Stabber Christopher Hall did manage to get off the evening's best line; as he was leaving, he said, "Some of you have been waiting to see this band since before you were born."
A few minutes later the Pistols emerged, with Jones, Cook and Matlock dressed in pretty much the same kind of duds they favored in the mid-Seventies. Lydon, by contrast, was distinguished by spiked hair dyed red and yellow to match his suspenders, blouse and trousers; he resembled a cross between Phyllis Diller and Bozo the Clown. "We're going to blow this fucking house down," he shouted at the throng before launching into "Bodies," the lead cut on the new Pistols' CD, Filthy Lucre Live. This choice was hardly a coincidence; the set list seemed identical to the roster of tracks on the disc, right down to the running order. As on Lucre, the Pistols presented nothing new; rather, they ran through everything on their one-and-only studio release, 1977's Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, tossed in a couple of ancient B-sides and called it a night.
The versions of these faves heard at Red Rocks were relentlessly de rigueur. The players came across as both competent and professional--terms that should not necessarily be viewed as purely complimentary in this context--and the tempos remained vigorous. Lydon, too, was in decent voice; he generally proved capable of making his nasal yelp heard over the foothills gusts. But these by-the-numbers readings lacked any attempt at commentary or contemporaneity. The Pistols' songs were like broadcasts from the war front when they first appeared, but they don't have nearly the same impact two decades down the line. "God Save the Queen," for one, is almost funny; after all, the only reason Lydon is chanting "no future" again is because he wants to ensure his own, financially speaking. "E.M.I.," a bitter rant about the label's mistreatment of the band, sounded even more ludicrous. Probably even the members of the band don't remember what this petty fight was about, but because they've got so little material, they churned it out anyway.