The Sex Pistols in Caerphillytop
Last updated: 14 December 2011
On 14 December 1976, the most notorious band of the era swung into Caerphilly with a tour collapsing round their ears, thunderous tabloid moral criticism ringing in their ears and two soon-to-be-legendary bands in support. The Sex Pistols were in town, and it was the Anarchy Tour.
Earlier in the year they had played three other Welsh shows with barely a raised eyebrow; punk rock was getting on with the business of tearing down the edifice of old-fashioned rock with a sneery confidence, but with no indication that it would provide the tumultuous turning point of musical history that it later proved to do.
The defining moment had happened two weeks earlier when, following a last-minute cancelation by Queen, The Sex Pistols - plus various Kings Road hangers on - appeared on the Tonight Show, presented by Bill Grundy. Famously turning the air blue, John Lydon, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook came across as uncouth, ill-mannered oiks to millions watching, and as a fantastic anti-establishment breath of fresh air to a few. The incident cost Grundy his job, and made the Pistols front page news. 'The Filth And The Fury!' bellowed The Daily Mirror the next day; Paul Cook and Steve Jones, quoted in Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, says that their manager Malcolm McLaren's first reaction was to relieve himself.
Suddenly they found venues already booked for their Anarchy Tour reneged on deals, and local councils pressured others to cancel shows. So many venues cancelled on the band that they ended up going twice to some of the venues that would have them. Cardiff's Top Rank was one of the shows cancelled, but a south Wales promoter called Andy Walton stepped into the breach and offered a show at the town's Castle Cinema.
A campaign was waged in the pages of the south Wales press organs, urging the gig to be abandoned. A typical letter can be found in the archives of the South Wales Echo: "...we feel bound to protest against the decision of our local Castle Cinema management to engage a 'punk rock group' already notorious for its dependence on obscenity, blasphemy and open violence." But to no avail. The gig went ahead, not least because, according to gig-goer Dave Smitham, "the Castle Cinema's elderly lady owner... refused to be bullied by Caerphilly's worthies."
Smitham's recollections appear on the fascinating God Save The Sex Pistols website and it's his photo of the gig that appears above. He recalls the night of the gig, after some days of fearful conjecture about what would happen when The Sex Pistols, Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers and The Clash decamped from their tour buses. As it happened, not a lot: "The little valleys market town braced itself for the arrival of riotous punk hordes. No chance of a pre-gig pint - all pub doors were locked and windows boarded up in anticipation of mayhem. Hastily-scrawled signs directed regulars to back door entrances.
"Having survived... demonstrating carol singers, the few who turned up... shivered in a ragged queue. From the opposite car park, against the backdrop of Caerphilly's ruined 13th century castle, a vengeful Pentecostal preacher spat fire and brimstone, threatening eternal damnation to those who dared watch the spawn of Satan."
There was a lot of religious objection to the band and the gig. A leaflet handed out in the town that night said, "Even though apparently just a passing fad... such trends are clearly part of the fulfilment of Jesus' prophecy that before his return to earth, wickedness would multiply beyond all previous limits". (You can see the full leaflet at www.thesexpistols.co.uk.)
Also among the people who had arrived outside the venue to protest - albeit less apocalyptically - were carol singers, providing a festive counterpoint to the bilious rhetoric of the articulately disenfranchised inside the cinema, A local rock fanzine, Penarth's Buzz, conducted an interview with Johnny Rotten and Paul Cook. It is reprinted by the brilliant Babylon Wales blog. Asked to comment on the collection of carol singers, preachers, sceptics and the merely curious, Rotten told Buzz, "Well I'm just surprised that many grown-up adults can behave so ludicrously childishly. Don't they know their papers tell them lies? I don't think they do - they live in a twilight zone. That's alright, they can be happy in their own way, but I don't think they've got the right to interrupt my way; each to their own, God loves all kinds."
Asked about their appearance on the Tonight show, which had sparked the episode, he said, "We just done it on the spur of the moment, it wasn't premeditated or anything; it just happened you know? We forgot about it the next day but I couldn't believe it when I woke up."
It's hard to understand the press reaction of the time, as in the intervening three decades music, language, culture and what society accepts has become more extreme. But for the conservative world of the mid 1970s, four letter words on TV were a shocking abuse. One councillor, representing that shock and anger articulated to him by his constituents was Cllr Ray Davies, who still represents a ward in the town.
Speaking to BBC South East Wales in 2006, he admitted that his point of view has now changed. He said he was "very sorry" for his part in attempting to ban the Pistols, adding it was "because the young mothers were against it and I just wanted to represent their point of view". Footage of the front of the cinema, taking in the carol singers (as can be seen on the Sex Pistols' own film documentary The Filth And The Fury), shows Cllr Davies leading proceeedings. "I was conducting the carols and when I look back now and can see the couple of young people creeping in there I feel absolutely and thoroughly ashamed of myself.
"I've got some great regrets when I look back at it because who am I, a fuddy-duddy councillor, to tell youing people what they should listen to, what they should enjoy and how they should conduct themselves and their lives?"
Perhaps being harsh on himself, Cllr Davies was merely the most local political figure to jump on the bandwagon. The band and then 'punk rock' were betes noirs for some years afterwards, until the scene became a parody of itself. The prime movers had moved on and 'punks' were left as nothing more than London tourist attractions, more akin to Beefeaters than social rebels.
But he makes reference to the characteristic of the gig that few people know abuot: the paucity of people actually attending. Dave Smitham again: "Valleys punks and the curious gathered themselves in the cinema's seven front rows. Row upon row of empty seats tiered to the back of the unheated, seedy auditorium... In marked contrast to the anticipated mayhem, everyone was exceedingly well-behaved. These were the days before appreciative gobbing. Punk garb was in rare evidence - some zips and safety pins, some graffiti'd fatigue jackets, definitely no mohicans, but one exotic Merthyr punkette in black plastic trousers and pink t-shirt."
One of the people there was Wales' own Steve Strange, famously declared 'south Wales' first punk' by The Western Mail. Being a massive Pistols fan he led the timid pogoing in the venue as Rotten spat out the tracks from Nevermind The Bollocks across their set and two encores. The gig was as you might expect - the Pistols were shambolic but powerful.
The wider cultural impact was not only to be seen in retrospectives like The Filth And The Fury, but also in its influence on the younger generation of the time. Gareth Potter is a Cardiff-based DJ and musician who was very much influenced by what he saw that night. "I was a week and a half away from my 12th birthday so was too young to go, but it was on the news and everybody was talking about it. Caerphilly was on the map! In chapel the following Sunday the concert was mentioned in the sermon. This is the only time I remember pop being preached about in my chapel. It awakened me to the playful possibilities of pop music, that grown-ups could be awept away by a pop cult as well as teenagers seemed amazing. It was the first time I became aware of the joys of the generation of the 'generation gap'.
"It definitely had a wide cultural impact on the Caerphilly area. Local bands started forming and kids started dressing in a 'punk' away. I think the kids started to take control of thing in the wake of punk; DIY culture became more prevalent. That something so exciting could happen on my doorstep opened my mind to a lot of possibilities. By the time I was 15 I had recorded a single and was playing regular gigs with my band, Clustiau Cwn." It was the instant that sparked Potter's enthusiasm for music and culture which now sees him going out with a stage show about his adventures in Welsh pop, Gadael yr Ugeinfed Ganrif.
The last word - and it's a long one, but justifiably so - comes from Wayne Nowaczyk, who reported on the gig for a local newspaper at the time. He has a view on the episode in the wider context of the time. "Punk arrived as Britain was going into recession and - after teddy boys, mods and rockers and flower power - was inconoclastic: there was a feeling among some young people that the old ideas had to be challenged in a different way, that smashing things up might clear the ground to start anew.
"After the three day week, oil crisis, power cuts and the Winter of Discontent, that anarchy perhaps should be allowed to rule. A bit. And the Sex Pistols were the loudest, brashest tip of that feeling, cunningly moulded by that 'Simon Cowell of his day' Malcolm McLaren. He was delighted to have his boys "scapegoated" daily as Page One news.
"In turbulent times, the dwindling number of churchgoers cling to traditional values like masts in a storm. They had been whipped up by frankly hysterical TV, radio and print output, so punk was cast generally as proof of Britain's terminal and moral decline.
"It goes in generational cycles, I'm sure middle-aged Victorian parents felt the same when their children abandoned skirts for table legs, jazz was deemed Devil Music and Elvis Presley a sexual degenerate.
"Okay, for someone raised on The Beatles, Beach Boys, The Byrds, Fleetwood Mac and the Stones, Punk's lack of musicality was jarring and unsatisfying but, like most of the silent majority, I could dislike Acker Bilk without suggesting he was in league with The Four Horsemen.
"During the gig itself, punk's overwhelming raw energy and passion from The Clash was impressive though the Pistols's performance was shock-and-awe rather than a choreographed firework display.
"Their infamy didn't impress me - I'd heard much worse than the f-word from girls and kids on streets from London to Swansea. And, when I interviewed them on the stairs of the theatre for the local newspaper, the Pistols seemed somewhat caught in the headlights of it all. As bemused by the furore as the rest of us.
"Johnny Rotten and co were not the Devil Incarnate, as I'm A Celebrity etc went on to prove. And the world never did come to an end."