Why Sex Pistols’ First Show Ended in a Fistfight
On Nov. 6, 1975, a small group of music lovers filed into the Common Room of Saint Martins School of Art. Most were there to see headlining act, Bazooka Joe, but it would be the opener, a band called Sex Pistols, who’d go on to make music history.
This was the first performance for the upstart punks, comprised of singer Johnny Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock. It was Matlock, a student at Saint Martins, who had secured the gig.
Things got off to an inauspicious start, as Sex Pistols arrived for soundcheck with instruments but no equipment. “They pleaded with us. All they had was their guitars, and they wanted to use our amps and drums,” recalled Bazooka Joe guitarist Robin Chapekar in a conversation with The Independent. “We felt sorry for them, we related to them, it had happened to us before.”
During their set, Sex Pistols charged through a series of cover songs, including the Who's "Substitute," the Small Faces' "Whatcha Gonna Do About It" and "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," which was made famous by the Monkees. “We set up and played for 20 minutes,” Cook recalled. “Total chaos. None of us knew what we were doing.”
“I'll never forget it,” added Stuart Goddard, Bazooka Joe's bassist who’d later change his name and became famous as Adam Ant. “They came in as a gang; they looked like they couldn't give a fuck about anybody.”
“It was fucking wild,” Jones recalled. “I was so nervous I took a Mandrax. When we started playing, the Mandrax was hitting me and I cranked the amp up. It was a 100-watt amp in a little room with no stage, and it was great. Everyone was looking at us. It seemed like millions of people at the time.”
Estimates of the actual audience size have varied - though it certainly wasn’t millions. Most believe the crowd was somewhere between 20-40 people.
Standing to the side was Danny Kleinman, Bazooka Joe’s guitarist, who wasn’t very impressed with the opening act. “There was a little bit of not-too-competent playing,” he explained to GQ. “They seemed okay until they started smashing up our equipment.”
Yes, it took only a few songs for Sex Pistols to launch into the antics they became famous for. The punks began smashing the equipment they had borrowed from the headliners, much to the chagrin of their fellow musicians. “I was watching from the sidelines, and Johnny Rotten turned around and started kicking the speaker cabinet, which we still hadn’t finished paying for,” Kleinman remembered. “I was thinking, ‘What’s going on? You’re not Pete Townshend, mate.’”
Rather than sit back and watch their gear get destroyed, Kleinman did something about it: “I got a bit irate about it and ran in and manhandled [Johnny Rotten] a bit just to stop him kicking our cabinets.”
Legend of the fight between Sex Pistols and Bazooka Joe grew over the years. While Kleinman has insisted it was nothing but a minor scuffle, others claim it was a brawl.
“It was like one of those school-playground kind of fights,” opined Paul Madden, a photographer who attended the show. “The antagonism had been building up all afternoon, mainly due to the fact that the Pistols had borrowed Bazooka Joe's backline. Their attitude was so snotty that Bazooka Joe had said, ‘Get your own amplifiers.’"
Even though Johnny Rotten admitted there “was not a single handclap” following the Sex Pistols' debut performance, the gig served notice: The wild punks were arriving, and with them came an antiestablishment attitude that would eventually help cement the group as one of rock’s most influential artists.