The Sex Pistols’ 1978 American Tour Was An Ill-Conceived Run That Ripped The Band Apart

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“You’ll get one number, and one number only because I’m a lazy bastard,” singer Johnny Rotten sneers at the 5,000 punk rock kids gathered before him at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Then, underscoring his apathy while simultaneously introducing the encore number of The Sex Pistols’s final show in America, he decrees, “This is ‘No Fun.’” For the next seven minutes, the room fills with a cacophony of crashing cymbals, razor sharp guitars, and off-kilter bass lines approximating something similar to the Stooges’ 1969 proto-punk classic. Around the middle of the song, while the rest of the band at least attempts to maintain some semblance of musicality, Rotten has plainly had enough. Enough of the song. Enough of the tour. Enough of the Sex Pistols.

For three minutes, he writhes around on the floor of the stage, intoning the song’s title over and over again. “No fun. No fun. No Fun.” He croaks the words. Spits them out. Screams them. Then, after a final squealing bleat, he crouches near the floor, surveying the teenage wasteland convulsing at his feet. Someone throws trash at guitarist Steve Jones. Next to him, with his glistening forearm bandaged from a self-inflicted needle wound or God knows what else, and with his chest laid bare, Sid Vicious tries to keep time on bass with the frenetic pounding of drummer Paul Cook. “This is no fun,” Rotten admits. “This is no fun. At. All.” A look of sad recognition washes over his face as his bandmates bring the music to an end. “Ever get the feeling you been cheated?” he asks before throwing the microphone down and walking off.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Sex Pistols, one of the most violent, virulent, caustic, and vital punk rock bands the world has even known, came to an end. Not with a bang. Not with a promised revolution. Just a sigh and the dull thud of a microphone crashing into wood.

“We were touted as the new Rolling Stones,” Rotten wrote in his memoir. “It was horrible. Once anything got to a level of importance, the Pistols were let down — not by ourselves, but by the people who should have been looking out for us.”

Though Rotten was referring to the shoddy handling of the Winterland gig itself when he said that, and specifically the terrible feedback he was subjected to throughout the duration of the show — “At a major gig like this one, we should have had a professional sound engineer” — the same claim could be made about the Sex Pistols’ career as a whole, and specifically the performance of their manager Malcolm McLaren who booked the run in the first place.

To begin with, the Pistols weren’t exactly in the best shape when the embarked for America at the beginning of January 1978. Due to their criminal backgrounds, and politically charged reputations, a multi-national tour through Europe had almost completely been scrapped just the month before. The band only managed to play a few dates in their native continent, including their final-ever shows in the UK on Christmas Day. Still, demand and interest was high in the US, where people were angling to get their first good look at the most hyped musical group in the world.

Unfortunately for the Sex Pistols, their manager was woefully unfamiliar with the American marketplace, and mostly booked them through a variety of unfriendly locales through the Deep South, including stops in Memphis, Dallas, and the first gig in Atlanta. He later tried to claim this was a purposeful maneuver to try and provoke conflict with a redneck audience, but in reality, it seems that visa issues merely meant the band wasn’t able to make it to a number of show scheduled in the conceivably friendlier confines of Chicago and Cleveland.

“Malcolm’s strategy for the Pistols was the theory of chaos,” famed publicist Danny Fields recalled in the seminal punk oral history Please Kill Me. “It had to do with this phenomenon of terror that was coming over from England.” Rotten felt much of the same way. “Malcolm was a very destructive force on that American tour. He was totally negative, and I really couldn’t see the point or purpose to it.”

Of course, it didn’t really matter where the Sex Pistols played. Whether it was London, New York, Paris, or Tulsa, Oklahoma, the four-some were going to find a way to provoke something out of their audience. Bob Gruen, one of the great rock photographers of the era traveled with the Pistols during this particular run and recalled that, “their shows were complete chaos… the bus would pull up, the doors would snap open, and there would be three television cameras pointing up from the bottom of the stairs. The fans would be gathered around and the madness would start.”

The first show took place on January 5 at Great SouthEast Music Hall in Atlanta, a venue capable of holding something around 500 people, of which a good half was reportedly made of up press trying to catch the band doing something outrageous. It was by most reports a bad show, short on spectacle and long on piss-poor musicianship. Things didn’t improve much from there.

Hanging like a dark cloud over the daily grind of trying to traverse the entire Southern half of the country in just about a week’s time was Sid Vicious’ dark descent into full-blown heroin junkie status. Around the time the band hit Memphis, the bass player wandered off and later turned up in a hospital with the words “Gimme A Fix” written in marker across his chest. In San Antonio, he bashed his instrument against the head of a fan near the front of the stage. In Dallas, he spat blood at a woman who socked him in the face. At a truck stop diner, he drove a family out of the restaurant by purposefully cutting open his hand and bleeding into his plate of eggs. It was insanity of the highest order.

“One of the reasons I stayed with Sid Vicious on the bus during the American tour, driving, rather than flying, from state to state, gig to gig, was to keep him away from drugs,” Rotten later claimed. It didn’t help his own mental state that throughout the entire, two-week run, the singer was battling a case of the flu that put him in a surly mood. Needless to say, Vicious’ addictions and wild behavior, their manager’s self-aggrandizement, the audience’s bloodlust, and the media’s intense glare all proved to be too much. “The minute we hit San Francisco, somehow or other, Sid managed to escape and get himself a whole parcel of heroin,” Rotten noted. “As a result… the Winterland show was a disaster.”

Journalist Legs McNeil concurred with Rotten’s sentiment in the book England’s Dreaming. “The Winterland show was the worst rock ‘n’ roll show I’ve ever seen.” The first song, “God Save The Queen” goes over well, but the more they play, the more out of tune they become; the more Rotten shows visible signs of wanting to be literally anywhere else on planet Earth. It’s become “No Fun.”

After the show, Rotten and Vicious stayed with the crew at a motel in nearby San Jose, while the rest of the touring party took off for the Miyako Hotel down south in Los Angeles. The singer eventually caught up with them and found himself in the middle of a power struggle between himself and the band’s manager. Rotten wanted to carry on. McLaren and the rest of the band, minus Vicious who was going through intense withdrawals and was eventually hospitalized, were more keen to take off for an excursion down in Rio de Janiero to shoot a film project.

Rotten wasn’t down for the idea and said as much. “That’s hardly my idea of big-time success. It wasn’t joyful, witty, or funny. It didn’t have anything to do with what the Pistols were about before that.” Rather than join them, the singer flew to New York, booked himself a hotel room, and publicly declared the Sex Pistols dead. Shortly thereafter, Johnny Rotten got a ticket back home to England courtesy of Richard Branson, became John Lydon once again, and founded a new group, Public Image Ltd.

A little over a year later, Sid Vicious would be dead of a heroin overdose, with allegations that he had murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen dogging him all the way to the grave. After much speculation, the Sex Pistols finally reunited in 1996 and gained induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a decade later. They refused to attend the ceremony however, calling the institution a quote, “Piss stain.”