|Home | New Issue | Store | Stuff | Vault | Link | Contact|
Back to No Future|
The Latest Sex Pistols Reunion and
"The Biggest Punk Concert Of All Time"
Text and photos by John Nikolai
So there I was with Captain Sensible in the very same public toilet where George Michael was arrested for lewd conduct after doing a solo performance of "Wham! Bam! Thank you, hand!" in front of a stranger who turned out to be an undercover cop. Earlier, I had been driving around Beverly Hills with Captain and Monty the Moron, The Damned's keyboardist, looking for something to do when Captain got all excited and suggested that we find the toilet where George's entire future had almost slipped through his fingers. The day before, September 14, 2002, I'd been up to my ears in No Future, having witnessed the latest Sex Pistols' reunion. They were the headliners at what was supposed to be the biggest punk concert of all time, a show just outside of Los Angeles in the Devore, California desert featuring not only The Damned and the Pistols, but 15 other bands. As Captain and I checked out "the scene of the crime" in the men's room, I felt like I was seeing a much more important piece of pop music's history than the big punk festival I'd seen the day before.
You don't always get what you pay for. Seeing where George got busted cost me nothing, but the all-day, specially-priced, supersized punk package extravaganza, advertised as a "Low Dough Show," cost 35 smackeroos! Hell's bells! And on top of dat, mah mean ol' Ticketmassah hit me with heavy service charges the size of a riverboat paddle! Still, could any amount be too much to pay to see the Sex Pistols shuffle out of retirement once more to play their biggest show ever? What was this? Their first show since 1996? No. Their second. Earlier this year, in July, they played at the Crystal Palace in England at their own silverjubilee of sorts, commemorating the release of "God Save the Queen." The Crystal Palace show didn't even sell out but every last ticket was snatched up for this desert concert and the audience is estimated to have been almost 50,000! The show was promoted as an event that would cram 25 years of punk into one day, a ridiculous claim on several counts. Not a single band represents the New York scene but, still, it's an impressive lineup due to all of legendary, oldschool UK and California bands on the bill including The Buzzcocks, Circle Jerks, TSOL and X among others. Relatively newer "punk" bands include The Offspring, The Vandals and Blink-182 to name a few. The other bands - some punk, some questionably punk, and some as punk as Parcheesi - are Bad Religion, Social Distortion, The Adolescents, The Distillers, GBH (Great Big Hair?), Pennywise, Unwritten Law and New Found Glory. What more could you want for your money? Sunstroke? You got it! The venue, the all outdoor Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, is - after all - in the desert. The temperature goes over 100 degrees throughout the day. You can't bring water in with you past security, so the audience is actually forced to buy bottled water in the desert. This is one punk festival that wears its corporate sponsorship on its sleeve right next to its leather-studded bracelets. The dismally lame title of the show is, get this, "LEVIS' AND KROQ'S INLAND INVASION 2." Personally, the corporate sponsorship gives me the heebie-jeebies. What does one of the world's largest brand-name apparel marketers and a so-called "alternative rock" radio station that's hardly any more of an alternative than it is rock have to do with punk? Absolutely nothing, but Rolling Stone magazine has reported that Inland Invasion 2 raked in an estimated $1.8 million in ticket sales alone. Cash for chaos? Not quite.
Cash for KROQ
"Well," Matlock tells me, "we got offered it and it was coming about and they needed somebody to headline this 25 years of punk thing. And they came to the right place, really. The money was pretty good. John wants to do it because he wants to get some film story of his life going, so he thinks it'll raise his profile. And I enjoy playing with the band. The more I do with the band, the more it underlines the fact that I was pretty pivotal in it all happening. Over the years, that has become sort of looked over a little bit, so I do it for that reason."
As far as he's concerned, he says, he's having the last laugh. He'll laugh all the way to the bank. Enough about the Pistols for now. Onto the concert.
The whole damn thing was colossally disappointing. Admittedly, I spent most of my time backstage and missed many of the bands. MTV was there, backstage, putting together some kinda crappy nostalgia piece on punk and interviewing some of the bands in front of a unbelievably idiotic backdrop they'd brought along with them. A disgraceful piece of work, it was supposed to look like a brick wall covered with "punk" graffiti. Painted on it were cheesy, cartoonish skulls with mohawks. There were giant blackmail-font numbers and letters that said "1977" and "punk." Talk about getting it all wrong. Here they were interviewing some of the greatest talents in the history of rock 'n' roll with the natural scenery being majestic mountains on the desert horizon and this is what they use as a background??? I kept wishing these great bands would refuse to be interviewed in front of it. Captain Sensible did some minor laying into the interviewer about various crappy aspects of MTV but, of course, MTV could edit that out later.
When I initially arrived at The Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, I got there just in time to see TSOL, who - like all of the bands who are scheduled to play in the morning and early afternoon - aren't playing on the main stage. They're on a smaller side stage that provides a far more intimate setting for the bands and their audience than the larger stage will later on.
Through the cloud of dirt in front of the stage it's hard to see Jack Shit and even harder to see singer Jack Grisham or anyone else in TSOL. The dirt that's filling the air and several thousand lungs is being kicked up by the mosh pit that's going while TSOL are playing and although you can't see Grisham, you can hear him, screaming/singing with that voice that one critic (from www.askewreviews.com) once described as sounding like "a punk rock Ethel Merman." Not really a fair assessment, although his vocals can be pretty piercing. Grisham has a fantastic voice and the return of TSOL is one of the best things to have happened to punk rock in years. They play a quick, powerful set and, between songs, Grisham talks to the crowd as if they're several thousands of his best friends. Playfully trying to stir up the crowd's hatred for New Found Glory, who, later on, will play on the larger main stage, Grisham tells the audience that it was New Found Glory that dictated that TSOL could only play for a half hour. New Found Glory, he adds, also said George Washington was a homosexual. Later, but not because of Grisham, New Found Glory will be mercilessly heckled and booed during their set, the worst-received band of the day.
Toward the end of TSOL's set, Grisham thanks various seminal bands who will be playing on the main stage - The Damned, Sex Pistols, X, and Buzzcocks - and says that, "KROQ should be over there sucking their cocks."
By the time TSOL leaves the stage, the part of their audience that's closest to the stage are a pitiful sight. Covered in dirt, many are wearing their t-shirts tied around their mouths and noses to filter their hot, dirty air. The bouncers off to the side are shooting giant arches of water into the air, hosing the crowd down like animals. The fact that this show is taking place in the desert seems, in some ways, even more twisted than the corporate sponsorship.
Overall, throughout the day, there were some good sets by some great bands, but a lot of legendary performers on the main stage weren't at their absolute best and their performances suffered from the fact that real rock 'n' roll, especially punk, is not meant to be played outdoors in the desert, under the bright, excruciating sun and on a huge stage where most of the audience seems to be miles away. The Damned's set suffered from the fact that many of the seats directly in front of them were unoccupied. Due to the early time slot they were assigned, much of the audience who had tickets to the seats right up front hadn't arrived yet. Even though thousands littered the distant landscape, those people's tickets didn't allow them access to come up anywhere near the stage. It may have been the biggest audience The Damned ever played to but I suspect that, for them, it must've felt something like playing to a half-empty club. Regardless, they put on a good show as usual that included a fair amount of material from Grave Disorder, their latest album. Backstage, after The Damned's set, I heard Monty the Moron joking about the Pavilion's seating policy of "Those wearing Levis to the front! Those not wearing Levis, to the back!!!"
The Damned's set contained the biggest surprise of the day. When they first came out onto the stage, legendary punk bassist Pat Bag made her first appearance in decades, coming out with a paper bag over her head. When the bag came off, she disappeared before playing a note and her place on stage was immediately taken by Damned bassist Patricia Morrison.
Guitarist Greg Hetson was the only musician at Inland Invasion 2 to play complete sets on both the secondary stage (with the Circle Jerks) during the daytime and on the main stage (with Bad Religion) at night. The difference between the two, he said, were that, "The small stage was a little dusty, but had more energy crowd-wise. But the main stage was nice because it was dark and less deathly hot."
Once the cruel sun finally went down, some members of the audience were starting to get unruly, setting bonfires in the distance and moshing around them, Lord of the Flies-style. Who could blame them? By the time the Sex Pistols came on, the portapotties had long ago started overflowing with excrement. It must've been boring out there in the distance, so far away from the bands. All day long it was just watching one band after another and drying out in the desert heat like slugs on a salt lick.
Weeks after Inland Invasion 2, I speak to John Doe, who played on the larger stage with X and who has just released Dim Stars, Bright Sky, a good solo album that contains some of his best songs ever. Doe goes so far as to say that he'd have rather have played on the smaller stage at Inland Invasion 2 because the shows that were taking place on that stage are what he considers to be the real, important punk rock. Why?
"Because," he says, "that show was a punk rock show and the show that we were a part of was just some big dumb rock show. I mean, the Buzzocks were cool. The Damned was good. New Found Glory was embarrassing. Offspring was good, but it was just a big dumb rock show. It was like, in the stadium, in the seats, and it was just dull. Very little audience interaction. And the early show where the Circle Jerks and Vandals and - who else? - The Distillers and GBH, I saw some of that and that was a punk rock show. The other one was not."
The corporate sponsorship and KROQ involvement pisses off a lot of the bands. I speak with Jack Grisham backstage after TSOL's amazing set - a major highpoint of the day - and, while he has no issues with Levis', he says he thinks it just weird that KROQ is involved in this show since, if it weren't for DJ Rodney Bingenheimer's show way back in the day, KROQ never would've even played the Sex Pistols.
"I mean, now, 20 years later they'll play it, but that makes me mad. I mean, it's kinda like some guy at school I remember. This guy at school, that he pulled me up when I was at high school and he said, 'You know you're going to hell, don't cha?,' and I said, 'Yeah, I figured that. Right? Whatever.' And he was giving me this lecture on punk rock, and then 15 years later, I see the guy and he's a punk. You know what I mean? So it's kinda like that. I feel like that a little bit."
Patricia Morrison made similar criticisms: "It's ironic to me that you had KROQ and MTV and most of the bands practically never, under any circumstance, get played on either of those," she said. "You know what I mean? It was like, who's taking the piss out of who with this? I wanted to say that so much to MTV too. I thought, 'You're never gonna play us. KROQ's never gonna play us. What is the point of this?' You're using us."
Freakishly cool punk rock legend Billy Zoom, guitarist of X, tells me that Inland Invasion 2 isn't something he'd attend if he wasn't playing, but he passed on Woodstock too. He's not a big fan of playing live music in the first place, he tells me, and he's completely open about the fact that he's only playing in X for the money. But if X are an oldies act (and they are), at least they're still a damn good one, unlike the Sex Pistols. And Zoom's opinion about the corporate sponsorship surrounding the show?
"In general, I've just never been big on corporate rock, you know? I don't know. That's just me. I don't like the huge festivals. I don't like the huge machine thing. I like rock 'n' roll."
Around the date of the show, I email John Holmstrom, founder/editor/Big Kahuna here at PUNK Magazine, what he thinks of the Sex Pistols' latest reunion.
"Since the Pistols got together a few years ago," he writes back, "I don't think this current reunion has nearly the same impact. Also, since I'm one of the only people who saw them on their US tour in 1978, I figure I saw them at their best, so I don't feel a great need to see them now. I'm much more interested in new bands. But I am glad that they're playing so that the guys can make some money and people who want to see them have the opportunity."
Desert Flowers in the Dustbin
This was from John Lydon, a declaration spat out into a sea of tens of thousands of Sex Pistols disciples, first timers and legions of other assorted spectators during "God Save The Queen." It provoked no noticeable reaction from the crowd whatsoever, but, for me at least, it was a dizzying, unsettling moment, the kind of instance that William Burroughs invented the phrase "Naked Lunch" to describe: "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."
The surrealism of this moment - enhanced by my extreme exhaustion and dehydration from exposure to the one-hundred-degree desert heat for much of the day - was instantly overwhelming. I suddenly found it hard to distinguish myself from the massive crowd of an estimated almost 50,000 others who had come out to the desert for what? An all-day, corporate-sponsored punk Woodstock in the desert? To hear this silly little cartoon character who seemed more like a Mr. Punch puppet than a man declare himself to be God? Singing the songs of the Sex Pistols and doing a hopelessly inept impersonation of his younger self, Lydon strolled across the front lip of the stage with a similar vaudevillian sense of theatrics as Pinocchio promenading across the puppet show theater, singing "I've Got No Strings On Me" in the Disney film. Tonight, on the end of Burrough's figurative fork was John Lydon, the false god of punk rock, the once-revolutionary Sex Pistols, and the sad reality of what can happen when someone puts a price tag on their own integrity.
Sporting cropped, yellow hair with a narrow trail of red and green running through it, Lydon mockingly wears a large cross embroidered onto his pajama-like shirt. As soon as he hits the stage, he's determined to look as angry and full of negative energy as possible. He passes for crotchety. The anger is, of course, an act, but he's clearly prepared, for better or worse, to go through the motions and attempt to give the audience the spectacle they've paid for. Part way through the show, he'll actually ask the audience if they've gotten their money's worth. Now, any whore with a thimble-full of professionalism knows that you don't take the trick's money, pretend that you're really into the act and then ask, "Did ya get cha money's worth???" Decades ago, when the Sex Pistols mattered, was Johnny Rotten concerned with customer satisfaction? Eagerness to please is unbecoming of an anarchist. But at what should have been the Sex Pistols' last show ever - an infamously bad concert at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in January 1978 - Lydon's famous last words, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?," before he walked off the stage may have, on some level, reflected a similar concern.
Tonight, throughout the Pistol's set, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook draw little attention to themselves. Hanging back, they basically allow this to be the John Lydon show, which is not, mind you, such a great idea considering that the last time Lydon was given his own show, it was on VH1 and it was cancelled.
Although the four original members of the Sex Pistols are almost exclusively playing original, classic Sex Pistols material, they don't really sound like the original Sex Pistols at all. Something crucial is missing. What the real Sex Pistols, as the band existed in the late '70s, had can't be faked. The Sex Pistols of 2002, especially Lydon, are trying to fake it but they come off like an overly-proficient Sex Pistols cover band who know the lyrics, chords and beats, but who have completely missed understanding what made the band so great in the first place. In 1996, the first time they reformed, the Pistols at least came off as a good rock 'n' roll band. Here in the desert, that much can't even be said for them. The Pistols of 2002 haven't written a single new song and it goes without saying that they're exactly the sort of dinosaur rock band they'd initially set out to destroy.
Things perhaps don't get any worse than when they resurrect the horrible holocaust campiness of "Belsen Was A Gas." Lester Bangs once wrote that this song was one of the most frightening things he'd ever heard. Tonight, when the Pistols replace the refrain of "Oh dear" with "Oy vey" and "Hitler was gay," they effectively turn it into the lamest novelty number of all time.
The once razor-sharp prongs of Lydon's tongue were, on this night, devastatingly dull. The comments, complaints and occasional insults he offered between songs weren't inspired, half clever, or well focused. He had no real target, purpose, or venom. Requesting a safety pin from crowd to hold together the front of his shirt that had somehow come unbuttoned, he had to wait a moment before someone in the audience handed one up to him. Uttering something banal about how at least this person had done something for him while no one else in the audience had, he then pinned the shirt to at least partially cover his gut and sarcastically referred to the pin as "an important part of his punk apparel." When Lydon has the attention of an audience of almost 50,000 and all he can think to speak about is the clichéd importance of the safety pin in punk culture, you know he's run out of things to say. His intros to the oldies were pointless, obvious and sad. Example: "I got a problem; that means you got a problem," to introduce the song "Problems." Wild. At one point, between songs, a heckler in the audience somehow manages to get Lydon's attention. Lydon singles him out and, choosing to attack him as some kind of misplaced metal head, comments on his critic's long hair and calls him "Lemmy."
"You're the wrong decade," Lydon yells at him and then - catching the obvious irony of what he's just said - adds, "Funny me telling you that, huh? Ever get the feeling you've been fucked over, you hippy?"
A major low point (and there are many) is a nightmarish audience singalong of "Anarchy in the UK." Following that, Lydon, Matlock, Cook and Jones end it with a torturous, tedious cover of Hawkwind's "Silver Machine." Like the rest of their set, it sucked, it was old music, and it couldn't have had less to do with youth or, for that matter, punk rock.
Right before walking off the stage, Lydon leaves the his desert disciples with these final words: "And the crowd went mild! And remember, we were underpaid to do this!" The stinking lameness of it hangs in the air above the crowd like a rotting body from the gallows.
The poor prick. They may still be the Sex Pistols and John Lydon will always be Johnny Rotten, but only in the completely uncool kind of way that Jerry Mathers is still The Beaver.
At the end of the night, once the Pistols' set is finally over, it takes me almost an hour to find my rental car amongst the thousands of others. As I drive away from the Blockbuster Pavilion, dying to get away from the desert and back to my hotel room, I remember the famous image of the Sex Pistols tour bus from the late '70s with the word "Nowhere" appearing as the destination on the front of bus. And I can't help but think that they've finally gotten there.
All text and photos Copyright © 2003 John Nikolai. All Rights Reserved.
All contents ©19762003 Punk Magazine, Inc. All Rights Reserved.