As Sex Pistols gigs go, it was not one of the more notorious. By the late spring of 1976, the band’s reputation was just beginning to grow. Having made their debut in November 1975 at St Martin’s School of Art, performances in and around London had begun to serve notice that something was happening. ‘Punk’, at this time, remained more adjective than noun, used in Neil Spencer’s NME review of February 1976 to describe the Pistols’ stripped down rock ‘n’ roll and to make tentative alignments with the New York bands that had already made claim to the term. The Clash had yet to perform live; the infamous ‘Grundy incident’ – when Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones swore live on Thames Television’s Today programme hosted by Bill Grundy – was months away. The only stirrings of a future ‘moral panic’ came with a fracas at the Nashville on 23 April, in which band and audience fought as the music press cameras snapped. A day later, the Sex Pistols received their first major feature (in Sounds).
Nevertheless, threads were coming together. The Sex Pistols’ appearance, mixing Johnny Rotten’s urchin attire with the provocations designed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren for their shop – Sex – on the King’s Road, ensured they stood out from the denim-clad long-hairs or be-suited pub rockers doing the rounds. Their sound was rough and raw, rubbing against the prevailing musical grain. More importantly, their attitude – antagonistic, irreverent – gave signal of generational change. Here was a band not playing to please the audience but to incite them.
By May 1976, therefore, what would soon become universally recognised as ‘punk rock’ was in the process of becoming. At each gig the Sex Pistols played, one or two new recruits were made, inspired to form their own bands or adopt their own style. The so-called ‘Bromley Contingent’ that later spawned Siouxsie and the Banshees was in place by early 1976, codifying what became punk’s ‘look’ and forming the core of the Pistols’ early audience. Also in February, two friends excited by Spencer’s NME review resolved to travel down from Manchester to London to see what all the fuss was about. Their names were Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish, later rechristened as Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, organisers of the Sex Pistols’ seminal gigs in Manchester (June and July 1976) and producers of one of punk’s most significant DIY moments, the Spiral Scratch EP (1977).
So where does Reading come in? On deciding to come to London, Trafford and McNeish called a friend who had previously moved down south. Richard Boon, soon-to-be Buzzcocks’ manager and custodian of the New Hormones label that released Spiral Scratch, was studying Fine Art at the University of Reading. It was he who put Trafford and McNeish up on their foray to see the Sex Pistols play in High Wycombe and Welwyn Garden City on 20 and 21 February 1976. He joined them, too, on their venture down the King’s Road to Sex. It was in Boon’s Reading digs that excited post-Pistols conversations led to Buzzcocks becoming a reality rather than a vague idea of making music for fun. It was Boon, moreover, who a week before the Sex Pistols played Manchester to stimulate punk’s spread to the North West, booked the band to play in the Reading fine art department.
A ticket stub from the Sex Pistols performance at Reading, 30th May 1976
‘Back in the day’, Boon recalled, ‘the Art Department had a thing – Art Exchange – as one of the many Students Union groups that had a bit of funding. I persuaded the then AE chair, that putting on the Pistols for £50 (I think) in a painting studio as part of that year’s AE events would be memorable. It may well have been, for the 20 or so who attended. Support was one of The Kipper Kids, a performance art duo who used to work their way through a bottle of whiskey while bantering, cracking jokes, occasionally punching one another (or themselves) in the face.’
At the time, Boon was writing a dissertation on the function of art. As a result, he was aware of the Situ-references that peppered McLaren’s and Westwood’s designs (and later Jamie Reid’s graphics). The ideas that fed through the Pistols were as important – if not more important – than the music. ‘[I] first encountered the Situs’ work at Dylan’s Isle of Wight gig – a book/pamphlet stall run by a wild-eyed hippy (as tabloids may have had it). [I] bought a badly roneo’d bootleg copy of Dylan’s (then unpublished) Tarantula. Him: “Hey kid, if you dig that you might dig this” … reaches under the counter to proffer an equally badly repro’d copy of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Which I dug. Back in Leeds, producing a proto-fanzine (I guess), Bullsheet, out of the back of the Leeds Anarchist Bookshop, meant free access to another bad roneo (or Gestetner), where I found Leaving the 20th Century. I was more Vaneigemist than Debordian; my Art History dissertation was titled after his ‘The Transformation of Everyday Life’ (French title: ‘Treatise on Living in the Manner of Young People,’ I believe) and was liberally sprinkled with Situ shit, a bit of Mao, Ivan Illich, Ernst Fischer and other nonsense I was informed by at the time. My Art History tutor, Caroline Tisdall, was heavily promoting Beuys at the time and called me later: “Joseph was very taken with Vaneigem’s statement: ‘When people realise they are imprisoned, it’s not enough to change the wallpaper’.”
Not much has been revealed about the gig itself. Boon recalls cajoling the Pistols from the bar to take the stage, only for Rotten to offer a suitably acerbic greeting: ‘Art students? We’ve seen your “paintings” – is this what we pay our taxes for?’. The band’s set was yet to feature such soon-to-be-standards as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ or ‘No Future’ (‘God Save the Queen’). But those in attendance would have heard ‘Pretty Vacant’, ‘No Feelings’, ‘Submission’ and ‘No Fun’. What mattered to Boon was that he had contributed – he had helped spread the virus. Less than a week later, in Manchester, the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall and the wheel turned. More bands formed, the virus moved beyond London’s surround. As for his Finals exhibition, Boon’s tutor, Tom Barrett, mentioned the gig to his external examiners and the job was done: Pass: 2.1.
A year later: the Sex Pistols performing ‘Pretty Vacant’ on the June 7th 1977