Rock and roll undoubtedly has its fair share of wild stories, with memories of mesmerising artists, and enigmatic stories of rock history being passed down between fans.
Think about the best gig you’ve ever been to, now, imagine the level of sheer jealousy that your friends feel when you tell them about your experience of seeing this act live.
Maybe it’s gone down in history as one of their most memorable shows. Maybe it featured some unlikely people in the audience with you. Or maybe it was one of the band’s early shows, right as they were on the cusp of making it big.
Or maybe, it was all three, and that band in particular was the Sex Pistols. If that was the case, then you might just be one of the thousands of people who claim they saw the iconic punk act at a single show in Manchester in 1976.
The story of the Sex Pistols is relatively well-known, though to most fans of punk music, the band’s early days aren’t quite as memorable. Most of the band’s members had come together as part of a band called Strand, teaming up with iconic impresario Malcolm McLaren in 1974 to obtain a bit more guidance along the way.
By mid-1975, the group had paired up with John Lydon as vocalist (who later took on the name Johnny Rotten), and before long, they had adopted the famed moniker of the Sex Pistols, and begun touring around the country, attempting to make a name for themselves.
In June of 1976, the Sex Pistols found themselves in Manchester, set to play a gig at the Free Trade Hall.
Already an iconic venue, the hall had played host to a number of iconic groups, including Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Bob Dylan, with the latter’s 1966 performance becoming infamous for the shout of “Judas!” from a disillusioned audience member.
Regardless, the band drew in a modest crowd, each of who paid just 50p to hear the Sex Pistols play through a set that consisted of originals, and covers by the likes of Small Faces, The Who, and The Stooges. All in all, it was ostensibly business as usual for the band and the audience.
Check out the Sex Pistols’ ‘No Feelings’ from the iconic Manchester gig:
Except, well, it wasn’t really business as usual. See, this gig didn’t really become famous for what happened during the show itself, but rather, what happened afterwards.
Despite performing in a venue that could have held a couple of hundred people, only about four dozen people actually showed up. After all, punk was still a burgeoning genre, and Manchester was over 200 miles from the genre’s UK home of London, so it was only ever going to draw a relatively small crowd.
However, if you were to have taken a roll call at the gig, it would read as something of a who’s-who of the punk and post-punk scene that would follow in future years.
The crowd on that June afternoon included the likes of Joy Division’s Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, The Smiths’ Steven Patrick Morrissey, Frantic Elevators’ (and later of Simply Red) Mick Hucknall, Factory Records’ Martin Hannet and Tony Wilson, and the Buzzcocks’ Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, with the latter two both opening for the Sex Pistols and organising the entire gig.
Within a matter of weeks, countless new bands had formed after being inspired by this iconic gig. In fact, by the time the band had returned to London, show on July 6th boasted The Clash and The Damned as support acts, with both making their live debuts after being inspired to start a band thanks to the Sex Pistols.
“The Sex Pistols came on, John Lydon told us all to fuck off,” recalled Joy Division’s Peter Hook of the Manchester show. “It sounded awful, their attitude was like they were messing about on stage, they seemed to be taking it not very seriously – laughing at us. I literally thought, ‘I could do that’.”
As Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten later explained of the gig; “They say everyone who was at those gigs went out and formed a band but that wasn’t our plan – or our fault!”
Check out the iconic gig recreated for 24 Hour Party People:
As the years went by, this gig gained a distinct level of fame, with members of the music industry and its fans looking back on how influential this show was. After all, seeing the Sex Pistols before they hit the big-time in the company of most of the names in your record collection is worthy of bragging rights.
Before too long though, the number of people claiming that they were at the gig skyrocketed, with thousands of people going on to claim that they happened to be one of the lucky few in that crowd.
In fact, this phenomenon took off with such force that two days before the gig’s 40th anniversary, David Nolan released a book fittingly-titled I Swear I Was There, focusing on the influence of this gig and how it affected not only punk music, but the very building blocks of modern contemporary rock music.
Of course, there is a rather simple explanation as to why so many people claim they were at the gig. See, six weeks after the show took place, the Sex Pistols returned to Manchester to play that very same venue once again. This time, hundreds of people were in attendance.
Check out the Sex Pistols’ ‘Submission’ from the iconic Manchester gig:
Maybe they just got the two shows confused? Maybe they just wanted to share in some of the glory that comes with being at such a show?
The fact is, we may never know, but one thing is for sure, and that’s that the Sex Pistols changed musical history back on June 4th, 1976. Cheers to that!