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Dead on Arrival: An Oral History of the Night the Sex Pistols Invaded Memphis

[Last Friday was the 39th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ Memphis concert, which I didn’t notice at the time. But seeing some stuff about it over the weekend reminded me of this piece, my first cover story for The Memphis Flyer, circa summer of 2000. It doesn’t seem to exist online anymore, so I’m republishing it here. If I had it to do over again, I would probably edit down some of the repetition, and I guess I do, but I left this mostly as it was originally published.]

The Sex Pistols, the band that launched the British punk scene, released their first single (“Anarchy In the U.K.”) in November 1976. Fourteen months later, the band was no more. Amid the wreckage of their meteoric lifespan lay only one U.S. tour, which lasted 12 days and covered a mere seven performances. One of them was in Memphis, on January 6, 1978, at the Taliesyn Ballroom,1447 Union Avenue. It was only the second concert the band had given in the United States. A Taco Bell now stands on the site.

It’s no small testament to that night’s legendary status that, in a city with as storied a music history as Memphis, only early Elvis shows at the Overton Park Shell and Ellis Auditorium could be considered more famous concerts. At the time, it was like invaders from Mars were coming. The local media went bonkers: The Commercial Appeal ran five stories in four days about the show; the Memphis Press-Scimitar ran four stories in three days. Local authorities were no less on edge: The Memphis Police Department sent investigators to Atlanta to scout the previous night’s performance and held a press conference on the day of the show to explain their position on the event.

But the band was more than a traveling circus. The music they made, and the movement they fostered, changed popular music and culture in irrevocable ways, even if much of its impact was in simply opening up the margins. Their sole album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, may sound less than revolutionary today (the record’s three singles, however, remain thrilling) next to still-ferocious punk touchstones like The Clash and Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, but, more than any other band of their time, the Sex Pistols inaugurated a fundamental shift in the sound, style, and content of rock-and-roll. The dissonance and revulsion (pointed at both self and society) that had been peeking out from the work of artists such as the Who, the Velvet Underground, and the Stooges came bursting out of Johnny Rotten’s filthy mouth and focused glare, from the possessed ravings that close “Holidays In the Sun” to the cold-blooded chants of “no future” on “God Save the Queen” to the vocal-chord-shredding “r-r-r-right now!” of “Anarchy In the U.K.”

I tracked down eight present and former Memphians who were in attendance at the band’s Memphis show to tell the story: In January 1978, veteran music writers Tom Graves and John Floyd were 23- and 12-year-old Sex Pistols fans, respectively, while Stacy Hall was exploring punk as a 19-year-old art-school student. Walter Dawson was the pop music columnist at The Commercial Appeal, and one of the few daily critics to respond positively to the band during the tour. Jim Dickinson was already an established musician and producer with close ties to Warner Bros., the Sex Pistols’ American record label. Roland Robinson sang and played bass for QUO Jr., the local band that opened the show. E. Winslow “Buddy” Chapman was the Memphis police director, while Clyde Keenan was the legal advisor for the detective division of the Memphis Police Department.

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The Coming of the Storm

Walter Dawson:  I thought it was great. I thought it was the first shot of real rock-and-roll to come along in a long time. And, on the other hand, the fact that it was a joke was nice too. And the people who didn’t get the joke included the Memphis Police Department and city leaders, who actually sent police officers to [the previous show in] Atlanta. They had all these ideas that the Sex Pistols were going to come in and jerk off on stage and all this stuff.

Winslow Chapman: We had heard that they were a pretty wild group in regard to their interaction with the crowd, and that there might be problems. We knew that they were headed to Memphis, and we had been given information that there’d been a near riot somewhere else [where they’d played]. The place they were going to be immediately prior to Memphis was Atlanta, so I sent a couple of people down there from our intelligence unit, just to see what we might expect.

Clyde Keenan: The reason I went to Atlanta was that there was concern about violence that had occurred at previous venues, so the question really was: How incendiary are these guys in terms of causing people to get violent? So I did go to Atlanta and spend two or three days with the Atlanta vice squad, attend the concert, and talk to the Sex Pistols themselves.

The Venue

Dawson: Originally they wanted to play Tupelo, but there was no place to play there, so they chose Memphis. They did not want to play big cities. Of course, they didn’t want to play the Auditorium or Coliseum. They wanted to play some small place where they could cause some trouble, I’m sure, which is why they chose Taliesyn.

Jim Dickinson: It was just a rental venue, where they did high school parties and little old lady tea parties. It was a venue they knew they could oversell.

Tom Graves: I had never been to a concert at the Taliesyn Ballroom. I don’t know who found it, but, ordinarily, I don’t think they used the place for concerts. So it was a strange venue to have it at in the first place.

Dickinson: It was like a building that would have come out of the Ole Miss campus. It had Southern columns in front of it. It looked like a library or something. It did not look like any rock-and-roll show was going to go on there.

Dawson: It was old and pretty decrepit. It wasn’t a rock-and-roll venue at all. It was a rather sedate venue for rock-and-roll. But once the people got on the floor and started dancing and the band started playing, they made it their own. And for what the Pistols were doing you didn’t need good acoustics anyway. It didn’t matter at all.

Stacy Hall: I think Taliesyn was about right. It was like a weary old lady down on her luck, and it seemed like a pretty good place for a band like the Sex Pistols to be — glamorous but shoddy at the same time. I thought it was a pretty good match. And you couldn’t hurt it. It was a pretty durable venue while it was there.

The Crowd

Dickinson: I was surprised at the turnout. I kind of expected to be there as one of few people. There’d been no real exposure here.

Graves: The whole punk thing hadn’t really happened in Memphis at this point. It was a brand spankin’ new phenomenon. The crowd was a mixture — there were a lot of curiosity seekers and lots of good ole boys who seemed to be there for malicious fun.

Dickinson: Maybe 30 percent — and that would probably be a high estimate — knew what they were going to see.

Chapman: The crowd was very young, very punk, very zoned.

Hall:  [My friends and I] played that album nonstop for an entire month before the show came. Everyone at art school was doing the same thing, and listening to Elvis Costello and the Clash — so we were all geared up for it. But I remember no one being exactly sure what to dress like, and I remember buying The Face, that fashion magazine, so we could go through it and make sure we got the look right before the show.

Graves: There was only one guy I remember who was dressed the part, and he was right down on the very front row. He had the look, the spiked hair, this cadaverous look like he was something out of Night of the Living Dead.

Hall: Number one, I think that everyone was busy looking at each other, because it was a bit of a costume party. Like, I remember having my mother pierce my lip with a safety pin before the show.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On

Chapman: I had not initially intended to go, but I had gotten a call that they’d had a confrontation, and that the confrontation was partially with the promoters and partly with the fire marshals, but what it amounted to was that they had like 10 times as many people as could get in. They already had the ballroom full and there were a whole lotta people on the sidewalk — people who had tickets. It was grossly oversold.

Dickinson: I had friends there from the company, and they had limousines parked outside. The opening band was QUO Jr., and, although I was interested in seeing QUO and they were friends of mine, I stayed outside in the Warner Bros. limousine as long as there was any potential for violence, frankly, ’cause I was interested in seeing what was going to happen. I had every pass known to man; I had them stuck all over me so that I’d be sure to get in when the time came.

Dawson: There was a big crowd of people outside trying to get in, and the fire marshals pretty much told Bob Kelley at Mid-South Concerts [who was promoting the show], “This is it, shut the doors.” It was funny.

Graves: They shut out about two to three hundred people from getting in who had tickets, and I think the tickets were only about $3 or $3.50, or something like that, which were dirt-cheap tickets.

Keenan: The only real problem we had was on the outside. We had to call in a lot of officers for crowd control because people started breaking windows.

Chapman:  It was a madhouse. It was an absolute madhouse, people screaming and throwing things and mad. It was spilling over into the street. It was pretty much out of control.

Graves: I remember at one point, before [the Sex Pistols] came on, going to the bathroom, and you could hear the chief of police outside with a bullhorn, and people were throwing things and breaking windows out. It was scary — this was going on outside and you didn’t know if it would cause a riot inside, you just didn’t know.

Chapman:  Part of my issue with the bullhorn was to calm them down and say that this was not a police issue, it was a safety issue. That it wasn’t a question of fire marshals being unreasonable, but that, and I remember telling them this over the bullhorn, there was literally no more room. You just couldn’t get in there.

Keenan: I was in the lobby when the glass started breaking. The fire marshal’s office had to be concerned about the capacity of the theater and we quickly found out that there were a lot more tickets sold than there was capacity to put those people. You couldn’t have gotten any more people in there in any way, shape, or form, so we basically closed the doors. And, unfortunately, there were still hundreds of people with tickets.

Chapman:  I know that [the locked-out ticket-holders] wound up being confrontational with my officers, and I knew that there might end up being some arrests made. It was obviously a situation that could have precipitated into something that was out of control.

Keenan: It wasn’t like they were throwing bricks or things like that at the windows. What they were doing was pressing to get in, and the club had to go ahead and lock the doors, and in the course of all these kids pressing up against the windows, they shattered the glass.

John Floyd: I had a friend who was a bit older than me. She had a car and she took me down there. I didn’t have a ticket or anything, and it was complete mayhem. Some of the front windows were smashed through. When I got there, the Sex Pistols were already on. But I just kind of wormed my way through one of the window areas.

Roland Robinson: We barely got our stuff out. Almost every time we’d try to get our stuff out the door, the cops would make us take it back. We just wanted to get our stuff out of the club and loaded up. We didn’t even think about leaving it out there, where it was visible. It wasn’t worth it to me to see [the Sex Pistols] play and lose my equipment.

Anarchy on the Inside

Dawson: I think Johnny said something to sort of set the mood for the evening within the first few songs: He told the crowd to quit spitting on him or throwing stuff at him and he said, “I’m not here for your amusement, you’re here for mine.”

Hall: I was at the front of the stage when the Sex Pistols came on. At first I was really squished against the stage, but by the time they finished playing there were hardly any of us standing there, mostly because of Sid, who was being pretty abusive to the audience. He spat on me — it landed on my cheek.

Dawson: The people down front wanted someone in the band to spit on them, and they didn’t get disappointed.

Graves: There was no booze or anything at the concert, so what people were doing was taking their cups of Coke and taking the ice and throwing it at Johnny Rotten.

Floyd: You know, when you go to a show at the Coliseum everybody there wants to hear that band. But when the Sex Pistols played, you had a lot of people there out of sheer curiosity. You had a lot of rednecks there wanting to throw things at them, wanting to spit on them.

Graves: When they came on, there were people — I remember in particular a couple of people behind me who must have been in their 30s or 40s, you know, just good ol’ boy rednecks, and they were throwing the ice, and you know the only reason they were there was for the spectacle.

Hall: It was so hostile. A lot of people who came would have been more interested in beating up the band. It’s a Memphis thing to actually pay money to go and try to beat someone up.

Dickinson: I was riveted, utterly riveted to the stage, for maybe 45 minutes, and when I turned around, the auditorium, which had been packed to overflowing, with people on the outside trying to get in, was half-empty. And if you can drive half the audience out, especially at the beginning, you’ve really done something in my opinion, especially in Memphis, where people will basically watch anything — paint dry, or dogs fight, or whatever.

Chapman: I went in as far as I could get, to watch part of it. The show didn’t really amount to much to be honest with you. I remember the main reason [part of the crowd] left was that it wasn’t much of a show.

Dickinson: Maybe half the crowd was gone [but the ones that were left,] they were really into it; people were angry and screaming. They almost knew what to do, but not quite.

Floyd: I just remember mayhem. I was just a kid and I had never seen a crowd like that. I’d never been in a crowd that was just so angry — angry in part and baffled in part. Here’s this horribly mangy, lousy, bad band onstage, and it was just a complete “fuck you” to the musical ethos of [professionally trained musicians]. That’s probably the hostility that even as a goofy 12 year old I could sense. I remember people walking past me and just saying, “That was the biggest load of garbage I’ve ever heard. These guys are terrible.” I was only in there for about 20 minutes or so, but I remember when I left, walking across the street to my friend’s car, just hearing so many people expressing so much rage. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced at a music event. It wasn’t as simple as someone leaving a Rod Stewart concert and complaining because he’d fucked-off during “Maggie May.” This was a group of people extremely upset at what they’d just seen.

The Show

Dawson: I mean, the Sex Pistols couldn’t play. Sid Vicious was a joke, and the whole Pistols thing was a joke, just a sneer in the face of everyone who didn’t get the joke.

Dickinson: Of course, the story is Sid Vicious. I’ve done a couple of interviews for the book [12 Days on the Road] and for the film [D.O.A.], and both people told me that I had the opposite response from anybody else they talked to. But I’m sorry. I do this for a living. I understand band dynamics, and I know music when I see it. And it was all him. The rest of the band was just holding on. They may have thought that he didn’t know what he was doing; he may well have not known what he was doing, but he was not playing with them, they were playing with him. The best way I can describe it is that he was beating the bridge of his bass with his left fist and zooming up and down the strings with his right hand, basically playing all four strings at once, which, the way a bass is traditionally tuned, isn’t even a chord.

Robinson: Steve [Jones, the guitarist] and Paul [Cook, the drummer] were the real musicians in that band. You could unplug Sid and just the guitar player and the drummer had the energy level to keep that band going, and Johnny Rotten had the energy level. Those three were the focal point and Sid was just the amusement.

Graves: The sound of the Sex Pistols was basically Steve Jones and Paul Cook; they were the instrumental focus of that band. They were that raw, slashing guitar and very hard, pounding drum unit — they were like the Who to me.

Dickinson: [Jones] was playing through two small Fender amps that were linked. He had the tremolo set up so he could play quarter notes and eighth notes would come out, with a constant pulse.

Graves: Johnny Rotten, I’m sure, was heavily reverbed on his vocals, and I remember he would say things to the audience, and he would start to talk and it was all echo. You couldn’t hear anything, he must have gotten it off his monitors too, and there was this glance he shot at the sound guy that was like, “Turn the damn reverb off “ Then they’d turn it down so he could talk.

Dickinson:The PA was terrible. The drums weren’t miked; I mean it was like a high school gymnasium dance.

Floyd: What I remember most was barely being able to see them and just the awful, awful sound. I could barely make out the songs,and I knew the record really well. You couldn’t hear Sid Vicious’ bass at all; I’m not even sure if he was plugged in.

Dawson: They sounded as bad as they should, but nobody gave a shit how they sounded anyway. It was just to see what they would do.

Dickinson: I’ve heard a lot of people say it was a short set, but I thought they played plenty. I doubt if they knew any more.

Graves: It was a weird experience, but I loved it. The music, I thought, was played pretty well. They kicked ass as far as I was concerned. Just this incendiary music.

Dickinson: I was musically unimpressed at everything at the event, except Sid Vicious, but a couple of weeks later, when I realized I couldn’t get the sound of the drums and the guitar out of my head, I started to get it. Hearing them play live was utterly unlike the record, which was basically bubble gum, overproduced pop crap, and what they played on stage was just raw, offensive energy.

Pretty Vacant

Dickinson: When they walked in [Sid] was fully clothed. At that point, he wore what looked like a black suit, a white shirt, and a tie. Just as they got to the front of the hall, at the stage area, the house lights went out. And when the lights came back on, Sid had ripped his clothes off, had nothing left on but his pants, the tie around his neck, and a bandage on his left arm that was dripping what appeared to be blood. And he had scratched across his chest “I need a fix.” You couldn’t really make it out, but you could see it was letters, and it turned out to be “I need a fix.”

Floyd: I remember scabs [on Sid]. You could tell he’d been slicing himself, especially on his chest. I don’t remember if he had the bandage on his arm or not. But I do remember some fresh-looking wounds.

Hall: Sid had a lot of fresh cuts on his stomach that night. I do remember fresh blood, which I thought was rather glamorous.

Robinson: Sid was totally out of his mind, man. I was sitting there [after the sound check] and he’d be grabbing and shaking me. He’d get up, walk around and pace, then sit back down and start doing it again. When he first came in and started talking, I turned to the other guys and said, “You see this guy? That’s the picture of a dead man.” He looked like somebody who had either just escaped death or was about to see it very shortly. He had that pale look, like he was a shell that walked and talked like a man.

Final Thoughts

Dawson: Because of that show, a lot of people were drawn together who might not have found each other, and it showed that there was a scene for that kind of music here. I think the Sex Pistols coming was a real shot in the arm for the punk scene [in Memphis]. Pretty soon you had a lot of bands playing around, and some of them played as bad as the Sex Pistols. It was great.

Chapman: To be honest with you, and this is my personal opinion, I thought the show itself was an anticlimax. Firstly, there was barely room to move in there, and, secondly, because both the group and the audience well, the group was definitely zoned out on something, and the audience, well, a lot of them were too.

Dickinson:  It was a life changer for me — easily one of the 10 best rock-and-roll shows I’ve ever seen.

Dawson: The whole thing about the Sex Pistols was that they drew a line in the sand and you had to decide which side you were on, which is what all good rock-and-roll does anyway. Music that can piss off that many people? Attention must be paid.

Hall: I thought it was a really incredible show. They were kind of desultory, though. If I were to look at that show now I’d say that they didn’t have much enthusiasm, but at the time we just all bought the whole attitude as part of what was appropriate. We were so full of irony at that point that they could have come on the stage and meditated and we would have thought it was profound.

Graves: There was tension and electricity at the same time. You didn’t know if the show was going to be totally great and historic, which it was, or if it was going to be a total riot disaster, which in a way it was too. It was this weird clash of everything. I’ve never been to a concert, as many as I’ve been to, that had the same feel, and I don’t expect I ever will.

Chapman: That was probably as unnoteworthy a thing as ever happened in this city.

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