Depending on how you chose to interpret them, John Lydon’s opening words at the Sex Pistols’ show on Saturday (August 17) at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom could have either been a challenge or a statement. “This is the Sex Pistols,” Lydon sneered, as he and his leather-clad bandmates took the stage for the first time ever in Chicago before a sold-out crowd of 5000. Either Lydon was throwing down the gauntlet to the boomlet of young punk bands currently clogging the scene, making it clear that their watered-down take on punk amounts to a pile of shite compared to the big boys (in more ways than one) in the Pistols. Or, Lydon was warning that the circus accompanying the Pistols’ first tour of the U.S. (at the end of 1977 and beginning of 1978) didn’t represent their true talent, and that the sound of the reunited band, including original bassist Glen Matlock, brings the band up to full-speed hate, something they couldn’t achieve with the unplugged, frequently unconscious Sid Vicious.
On Saturday, Lydon was resplendent in a shiny off-black leather suit, his flaming red and yellow plumes of upstretched hair set off starkly against the self-mocking black and white newspaper headlines that served as the backdrop. The band opened the show in the same fashion as on their recent live disc, Filthy Lucre Live , with a run through “Bodies,” “Seventeen,” and “New York,” Lydon pausing only to snicker, “I’m here to have a fucking good time, join me.”
It was clear by the time Lydon hurled his first insult at pretenders to the Pistol’s punk throne–“Out of all the cunt bags you could listen to in life, this is the one that did you no wrong,” he said, before smartly segueing into “Did You No Wrong”–that the Pistols were in fact in fine form. Too fine, actually. Over the course of the unsurprising hour-long show, Lydon pranced, spit and swaggered, all while doing his awkward spider dance, guitarist Steve Jones shed his shirt, splayed his legs and trudged across the stage executing patented rock guitar guy moves and drummer Paul Cook and Matlock just did their jobs and shut their mouths, all very professional-like. Well, you didn’t think they’d stir up so much shit and then fall on their faces, did you? Well…actually…What was most surprising about the show was just how good it was, how slick, how, well, very rock & roll. With 20 years in-between, the big, dangerous, anthemic rumble of the Pistols has morphed from the abrasive, insulting sound of rebellion to a soundtrack for downbeat fun not much different from the arena rock of Pearl Jam or Blues Traveler.
The Pistols, who originally called it quits because they couldn’t live with the idea of just putting on a rock show and not being any different from the Rolling Stones, did all those things a band does to come across to a big room, and then some. “God Save the Queen,” so naughty in its day, was reborn as a pogoing party song, with kids moshing, pumping their fists and shouting along to the lyrics in moronic glee. Imagine a sweaty sea of thousands joyfully shouting “no future,” even as the four businessmen on stage laugh to themselves at the silly irony of the words.
While the kids plead for “no future” the Pistols know that the money they’re collecting from fans like these will be paying their bills for years to come. Armageddon was never so fun. Lydon, as is his nature, found new ways to insult and disgust by wiping his drooping chest, armpits and backside with a towel and then throwing it into the face of a front-row fan. When he modified the lyrics to the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” to read “I’m not your Rolling Stones,” I wanted to shout out “yes you are!,” but with the insane woman behind me bellowing “Roddie Rodman!, Dennis Rodman!,” for no discernible reason, I kept my mouth shut.
“Holidays In the Sun,” rumbled and bulldozed forward on the strength of Jones’ chunky guitars lines and his and Matlock’s brutish backing vocals. Their near lip-lock as they shared a microphone seemed to lend credence to the feeling that the band is actually getting along this time around. Like many of the songs in the set, “Holidays,” with the exception of Lydon’s unique pinched, nasal delivery and unmistakable staccato cadence, bore more of a resemblance to muscle rock than punk, if only because so many bands they inspired have taken the genre into more extreme, blistering avenues.
“Pretty Vacant” was another oddly-ironic song, not just because the audience again sang along joyfully to what was supposed to be a tale of nihilistic rage, but because it was prefaced by Jones’ quip, “I want someone to suck my willie,” as his leather leopard-skin pants began to droop, threatening to expose his ass. “EMI” came and went in a flurry of spit, guitars and more towel-soiling, this time from Jones, and then it was over. Twenty years wait for 50 minutes time at a little over $25 a ticket and not a single person in the audience seemed to care. They’d just seen the Sex Pistols for chrissake!
The band swaggered out for their truest party anthem, “Anarchy in the UK,” which proved that if everybody’s doing it, it much be anarchy. Anarchy is cool. The show then ground to a halt with a bar band version of “Problems,” and that was it. As much as they wanted it, the audience didn’t hate the Pistols. In fact, they loved them, no matter how vulgar and insulting they tried to be. People knew what they were going to get and the Pistols delivered it to them in spades with enthusiasm, style and plenty of (manufactured) attitude. They came, they rocked, they collected their cash and they left their audience satisfied.
What’s the world coming to?Reprinted from Addicted to Noise, August 20, 1996