In the first week of 1978, the city was only days away from an infamous San Antonio Express-News headline; its January 9 front page would read in black capital letters: "SEX PISTOLS WIN S.A. 'SHOOTOUT'." "The Sex Pistols," the news story would report, "England's notorious punk rock group, had a 'shootout' in San Antonio Sunday and won - a pie in the face was exchanged for a whap with a bass guitar."
Across the Atlantic, the English tabloids gave their own version of the night's events at Randy's Rodeo, a Country and Western bar on Bandera Road: "Sid turns Vicious as the Sex Pistols battle with U.S. Fans," and "Police Storm Stage as Pistols shoot down the Texans." Punk rock as practiced by the Pistols had hit America, and San Antonio soon found itself in the middle of the now legendary rock 'n' roll anarchy.
Since the band's formation in 1975, the Sex Pistols and its brief and infamous punk rock story have provided rich and wonderful grist for theory, inspiration, influence, and gossip. It is a story as well-known as it is fascinating: how manager Malcolm McLaren discovered 19-year-old John Lydon wearing an I HATE PINK FLOYD T-shirt in McLaren's clothing boutique, Sex; how Lydon won a spot in the band by covering Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen"; how Lydon changed his name to Johnny Rotten; how the band quickly gained a following along with other seminal English punk bands such as the Clash and the Damned at London's 100 Club; how EMI signed the band; how the Sex Pistols appeared on a live national TV show and shocked the nation by calling their drunk host a "dirty old sod" and a "fucker"; how EMI dropped the band; how A&M Records subsequently signed them; how days later, A&M dropped the band when the lads terrorized the record company offices; how the band's first single "God Save the Queen" reached the top of the English charts despite a BBC radio ban; how bassist Glen Matlock (accused of liking the Beatles) is replaced by number one Pistols' fan Sid Vicious, who, depending upon who you ask, may or may not know how to play his instrument; how the band came to America; how the band broke up; how Sid sang "My Way"; and how Sid killed his girlfriend Nancy.
By the time the Sex Pistols arrived on American shores in January 1978, they had been banned in their native England, unable to play live - except in unconventional venues such as strip clubs, and always under an assumed name or listed as a giant question mark. The shows invariably sold out.
The Pistols' tight and furious one-hour set consisted of songs from the band's only album, Never Mind the Bollocks - Here's the Sex Pistols. The set included "Holidays in the Sun," which sampled the sounds of marching jackboots and talked about how visiting the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen "was a gas"; "Bodies," about a girl from Birmingham who just had an abortion; and of course the No. 1 hit, "God Save the Queen," released to coincide with England's Silver Jubilee, a national celebration honoring the Queen's 25 years on the British throne. In the song, the Pistols accuse the Queen of "not being a human being," of lording over "a fascist regime," and illustrate the sleeve of the single with the official royal photo of the Queen but with a large safety pin through her nose.
Here in America, Billboard Magazine's Top 10 singles of that week 25 years ago include the Bee Gee's "How Deep is Your Love" (No. 1), Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" (No. 6), and Linda Ronstadt's "Blue Bayou" (No. 3).
The usual strategy of English bands trying to crack the U.S. market was to storm the major media centers such as New York and Los Angeles. Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's idea in touring the States was to avoid those cities and to take the band to what he believed were the "real" people. Shows were set up in "real" places such as Atlanta, Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Tulsa, and San Francisco.
By the time of the San Antonio show on January 8, unconfirmed media rumors circulated that live sex acts were part of the punk rock antics. The day before the Randy's show, San Antonio Police Captain James Depress assured the public that he and his officers would make sure the Pistols would not "break state obscenity laws concerning exposure and sexual conduct." As for the spitting, cursing, and other acts of indecency also expected, Depress admitted he and his vice officers' hands were tied: "There's not much you can do to control `Johnny Rotten` vomiting," he said, "I imagine, though, the people going to hear the group expect that sort of thing."
Tickets for the Randy's show were $3.50. More than 2,000 people showed up on the near-freezing Sunday night. In contrast, attendance at the Atlanta and Memphis shows barely reached 600. Following the graffiti-strewn tour bus with the destination "NOWHERE" affixed to its top were reporters from Newsweek, Time, and national newspapers. English journalists, FBI agents, and countless sheriff's deputies and state police rounded out the entourage.
The band hit Randy's stage around 11 p.m. Johnny Rotten wore a T-shirt depicting two cowboys having sex. Sid Vicious, experiencing withdrawal pangs from his heroin addiction, scrawled "Gimmie a Fix" on his bare chest. Rotten taunted the crowd, calling them all "fucking cowboy faggots." Aluminum cans and Lone Star Longnecks instantly rained the stage and continued throughout the entire set. One irate fan attempted to climb the stage and assault Vicious. Sid cracked his bass guitar over the fan's head. The Pistols blasted through their set under the no-nonsense bright white stage lights. It ended after one brief hour. Jesus freaks passed out end-of-the-world religious pamphlets to the exiting fans. The exhilarated Pistols, happy for the first time since arriving on American soil, finally talk to the press.
Later, it would be written, the San Antonio gig was the finest moment - live - for "the world's most influential band." The Sex Pistols broke up in San Francisco a week later.
It would be easy, both then and now, to reduce the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock circa 1978 as lurid side show. But punk's liberating anarchic sensibility and nihilism as political statement endures in the countless bands that have formed since.
Twenty-five years later, you can buy a DVD about the Sex Pistols in a neat and tidy Barnes & Noble next to a shelf selling the latest Meg Ryan movie - this would be absurd if it wasn't so punk rock. But, then again, along with anarchy, wit, contradictions, class consciousness, and expressive, semi-articulate gestures of rage, absurdity was a valued punk quality. "It's so fucking stupid," the Clash's Mick Jones once said about punk, "what a great idea it is."
Twenty-five years ago at an obscure bar in San Antonio (which now showcases Tejano music), it was possible to witness just that. Forget the Alamo. On January, 8, 1978, real San Antonio history was made.
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