It’s a quarter of a century since the Sex Pistols played Finsbury Park. John Robb was there opening up the day with his band Goldblade…and witnessed something truly special
Can it really be 25 years since the Sex Pistols comeback gig at Finsbury Park?
At the time the idea that punk was twenty years before seemed mind boggling and yet its another historical epoch since that punctuation mark in our endlessly rushing lives. Now were old these memories are like golden moments of thrilling sonic defiance of life’s cruel rush but at the time it could have been the biggest car crash in music history and I’ve seen a few of those!
Goldblade had been in Finsbury Park all day. We were the opening band. A cruel and unrelenting midday slot where we were tasked with dragging the early revellers to the front. A task that we somehow how managed. At the time we only had one single out and were barely on the map so it was cool to move around the big stage and share the space with a host of other punk rock vets.
After a night staying on my brother’s floor round the corner from the venue we turned up at the cavernous venue for our first ever big gig at some ungodly unlocks roll hour of quarter past breakfast. We had only been bunged on the bill a couple of weeks before so we didn’t even make the poster but having a big stage to blast through our thirty minutes felt pretty natural and it was a rush.
When the idea was initially mooted of the Sex Pistols reforming and would we play on the bill we were surprised. Baffled. At the time there was zero expectation of the Sex Pistols reappearing and it seemed a strange notion of them even being able to pull it off. Surely punk was a relentless surge forward into whatever happened next – of course it still is but the Pistols proved that day that the past played with this kind of intensity and power is as vital as the future.
The support bill was a rock n roll who’s who – Iggy set the bar super high with his set full of PVC kecked danger little stranger, SLF was were as full of fire and brimstone passion as ever, the Wildhearts were then youthful troubadours full of vim and melody, Three Colours rEd were the brave new noise and Fluffy were a brief flicker of glam punk power and so on – there were no slacker on the undercard. The Pistols had better not be boring and lumpy – they could be wild and dangerous or not turn up and that would have all worked but if they had been solid and boring it would have been a disaster. The wild eyed crowd was fell of tension – each support band stoked up the anticipation with their firebrand sets…would the Sex Pistols deliver or would our punk rock instigators let us down once and for all?
Back stage the Pistols turned up in a fleet of cars and loaded out towards the stage looking like miniature, lurid cartoon characters – I thought that was good start – all great bands look like cartoons or look like people who could only be playing in a band. They swaggered and wandered towards the stage as we let on. They were surrounded by an entourage of vicarious and victorious England players who had just won that day led by the lion with a punk rock heart, Stuart Pearce. We watched them mount the stairs to the stage and then slipped out front wondering just what the hell was going to happen next…I’ve never felt that at a gig that size – normally it’s assured that headline act will do its thing – like the Foo Fighters – a well oiled machine with all the party tricks but the Sex Pistols were from a defiantly different tradition. We were willing firebrand rock n roll celebration with side order of surging sonic maelstrom but feared a fizzy lager belch…
‘We’re fat 40 and back’ sneered Rotten as the Pistols cascaded into an avalanche of glorious sound of the intro to ‘Bodies’. I still clearly remember the surge of hair raising excitement as the band’s sound tsunami surged through the song. Expectations had been low. Would they even turn up? Do the Sex Pistols do normal stuff like play full sets ha ha!. After all the Sex Pistols didn’t even need to bother being any good. It was enough that they had appeared out of the ether. They could have done an hour of morris dancing on the stage and still brought the house down – that would have been conceptually perfect :) When you are that iconic you can get away with anything – well nearly as the last few years have been testing for any fan of the band but at the time they were the heart and soul of British culture – as quintessential as Blackpool tower and, ironically, the royals and we loved them dearly.
But when that surging cacophonous outrage of high decibel noise exploded from the speakers as Steve Jones did his guitar hero thing it all made super sonic sense. The Sex Pistols meant business and the band’s engine room were throwing down a studded gauntlet.
Obviously fed up with being called a hype and not that important to the scheme of Pistols things they had a big point to prove and proved it magnificently. The Guardian reviewers were not keen – they thought the Pistols were ‘just a rock n roll band’ but that was missing the point. The culture and the outrage around the band as well as the styling, the clothes, the attitude and the sheer anarchy of youthful freedom they snarked in 1977 was, of course, all key but none of it would have worked without the huge tsunami of unique sound that the band created.
I often wonder if Malcolm really understood just how good the band really were. Him and Vivienne were extraordinarily brilliant pop culture players but the Sex Pistols were one of the greatest rock n roll bands this country has ever produced defying everything from gravity to rock history. Their comeback was one of most delightfully leering and dangerous ghosts rattling its chains that you could ever see and hear. At Finsbury Park they proved themselves a million fold. You could see it in the eyes of the audience as Bodies churned away and the whole field exploded. It was like 35 000 people saying all once ‘fucking hell!’ As they rushed to the front to immerse themselves in the glorious and devilish racket.
Bodies was the trump card – the ugliest and most dangerously dirge like surge of foul and dangerous Pistollian power – not one of the hits but a twisted freak slice of sonic danger. Only a lunatic would throw that one down first but it showed that the band still had attitude and as it exploded the collective surge of breathing out was a tidal wave of high octane.
I’m not sure I’ve felt anything like that at any other gig. The rush of excitement, relief and then sudden expectation. They rattled through their handful of classics and it was utterly sublime. The set surged by, Rotten sang everything higher and in his ‘Pil voice’ but it felt right that day, Paul Cook proved he was one of the finest drummers these island’s have produced delivering thundering, heartbeat power and Glen was mod cool – the melody man with the delicious bass fingers and Jonesy was Pistols incarnate dressed like a wild pirate ‘slag’ and sounding like a panzer division – his guitar sound it totemic rock roll – no-one has got close to it – it’s like lava and it’s like liquid gold and it’s totally fucking exciting. Like all great British bands each member was a cornerstone and you can name them all.
The past was now a shadow – they had done their culture shape shifting in their youth, they had started a revolution and changed lives and we now knew that Anarchy In The UK was about the anarchy of wild youth – that brief flicker of time when you are alive and free before the jail doors of reality come crushing down and that ideas is as politically charged as anything.
The band had come to grab the limelight back from the countless bands who had stolen a career from their own wreckage and it was a glorious and defiant moment.
God save the Sex Pistols!