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On The Trail Of The Sex Pistols

22nd November 2015

With the passing of time, even the most lurid stories become part of the national tapestry.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first gig played by that most incendiary of bands, the Sex Pistols – those pioneers of the punk movement who erupted into the London of the mid-70s; gaudy rabble-rousers who cut a swathe across the capital in a blaze of establishment-baiting, anti-royal sentiment and performances which frequently descended into violent chaos.

In their initial incarnation, they were active for barely three years - but they sparked sufficient controversy that their legacy has endured rather longer.

Listen to the lone album that they produced – 1977’s Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols – and what you hear is not a discordant mess, but a remarkably polished record, packed with big choruses, taut riffs and sharp lyrics.

 The Sex Pistols story began 40 years ago (Photo: Getty)

The Sex Pistols did not out-stay their welcome either, self-combusting just seven months on from that infamous summer on the newspaper front pages, their fire burned out amid exhaustion and in-fighting.

In fact, so brief was their time in the spotlight that, beyond the iconic yellow cover of the album, it can be tricky to trace them in the present day.

But some of the locations that they lit up with the spite and exuberance of youth can still be glimpsed. Especially in a London where they were saluted and reviled in equal measure.

1. Saint Martin's College, London

This fabled London art school was the scene of the first Sex Pistols gig, on November 6 1975 – partly because the band's pre-Vicious bass player, Glen Matlock, was studying there.

It was a support slot below the pub-rock group Bazooka Joe, and consisted wholly of cover versions. Nonetheless, a legend was born.

The building is still there, at 107-109 Charing Cross Road – although Saint Martin's became part of the wider Central Saint Martin's College of Arts and Design in 1989, and vacated the premises in 2011 when the college moved to a new campus in King's Cross. The old structure now houses a clutch of luxury flats, as well as a branch of book emporium Foyles.

 Charing Cross Road, where Saint Martin's College once stood (Photo: Alamy)

2. The Marquee Club, London

The Sex Pistols were far from the only band to play at this London landmark – which had three different addresses during almost four decades of music and mayhem at the heart of the city.

Rotten and his cohorts took their bravado to the Marquee's second edition – at 90 Wardour Street, in Soho – on February 12 1976, following in the boot-steps of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix (and walking ahead of acts as diverse as Duran Duran and AC/DC).

The venue was shut down in July 1988, deemed unstable after 24 years of noise vibrations. The Marquee found a new home at 105 Charing Cross Road (now also gone), but the Wardour Street building was demolished.

It lives on, to an extent, in that the arched facade which marked its entrance still stands as part of the Soho Lofts apartment block – bizarrely, a blue plaque on the wall above picks out The Who's drummer Keith Moon as having played here, to the exclusion of other artists.

But if you want to visit the precise place where the Sex Pistols sneered, you need to eat at Cuban restaurant Floridita, which occupies the site where the stage once stood.

 The site of the original Marquee Club is now a Cuban bar and restaurant (Photo: Alamy)

3. 100 Club, London

Arguably the most famous of the London punk venues, the 100 Club is one of the key sites in Sex Pistols lore – because it still exists.

It lurks – as its name suggests – at 100 Oxford Street, as it has done since 1942, when it opened as a jazz club called Macks.

It changed its name in 1964, but has altered precious little else since – preserving itself as a narrow, sweaty performance space which can hold 350 music fans (standing room only).

The Sex Pistols played a four-night residency here beginning on May 11 1976, and were the main act of the “100 Club Punk Special”, which showcased London's growing punk scene on the evenings of September 20 and 21, 1976.

 Arguably the most famous of the London punk venues (Photo: Alamy)

4. Free Trade Hall, Manchester

The punk movement of 1975-1977 was dominated by London-based bands, but the Sex Pistols ventured north to play the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.

This grand structure, founded in 1853, had already coped with far worse than a snarling band – it was heavily damaged in the Second World War, to the extent that the venue the Pistols played on June 4 1976 was mostly a reconstruction, piled up between 1950 and 1951.

The hall operated as a music venue until 1996, and reappeared as a hotel in 2004 after an eight-year closure. It is now run as a Radisson Blu Edwardian.

 Free Trade Hall, now a Radisson Blu Edwardian hotel (Photo: Alamy)

5. Buckingham Palace, London

Ever a man with an eye for a photo opportunity, McLaren increased the hype surrounding God Save The Queen by arranging for the band to sign what would prove to be a short-lived contract with A&M Records outside the monarch's main London residence – on March 10 1977.

The deal would be cancelled six days later as the outcry around the song became a shriek. It would, of course, be a deeply un-punk act, but the palace has some fine state rooms, and can be toured.

 The band sign with A&M outside Buckingham Palace(Photo: Getty)

6. Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco

The whole mad parade came to a crashing halt at the end of an ill-fated American tour in the winter of 1977-78. It reached San Francisco on January 14 1978, Vicious now lost to heroin addiction; Rotten increasingly disillusioned with the band, and at breaking point in his dealings with McLaren.

At the end of the gig, he delivered a pithy resignation – the line “Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?” – before throwing down the microphone and walking off stage.

The band split three days later. Sadly, like so many music venues of the past, the setting for this drama – the Winterland Ballroom, in the Pacific Heights district of the city – is no more. In use as a gig hotspot from 1966, it closed its doors after a last show on New Year's Eve in 1978, and was torn down in 1985 to make way for new apartments.

But if you stand at the corner of Post Street and Steiner Street, in the heart of California's most beautiful city, you might just hear the echoes of an old punk guitar riff.

This article was written by Chris Leadbeater from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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