Renowned in the U.K. for tearing down rock ‘n’ roll and reinventing it as something thrilling, profane and unpredictable, the Sex Pistols arrived in the U.S. on Jan. 3, 1978, for a tour — not of major cities like New York and Los Angeles but run-down ballrooms throughout the South. The tour was doomed — bassist Sid Vicious had a drug problem, and the band’s label, Warner Bros., had to put up a $1 million bond in order to secure two-week visas.
Thus began a spectacle, “deep in enemy territory” — as tour manager Noel Monk put it in his 1990 memoir 12 Days On the Road: The Sex Pistols in America — of out-of-tune instruments, grumpy Johnny Rotten tirades and band-vs.-audience spitting and jeering that transformed into physical violence and, every now and then, moments of greatness. Two dates were canceled and seven went on, including the biggest, an ill-fated finale at Bill Graham‘s Winterland Ballroom.
To mark the release of FX’s new Sex Pistols series Pistol, now streaming on Hulu, below is a summary of the band’s U.S. tour during that mythically brief period.
Jan. 5, Great SouthEast Music Hall, Atlanta. Located in a former shopping mall above a bowling alley, the 523-capacity Great SouthEast Music Hall Emporium & Performing Arts Exchange Inc emulated the Bottom of the Barrel club in Union, N.J., booking punk bands like the Restraints, Angelust and the Nasty Bucks, one of whose members occasionally performed in trash bags. Pistols tickets, as one of the club’s managers, Sharon Powell, later told Mick O’Shea in 2018’s The Sex Pistols Invade America: The Fateful U.S. Tour, January 1978, were marked with a hole-punch and safety pin, hand-stamped, “numbered, and had to be checked out of the safe.”
Local fire marshals showed up to the gig due to the press attention, says Powell, and “every single person was counted whose head went through that door.” She adds that more press — from the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau to TV reporters from all three networks — showed up than paying fans. “They were pretty much as you would expect punkers to behave: radically punkish with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” says Powell, who today owns an Atlanta entertainment company called Swirl Girl Productions. “On stage, they actually, honest to God, were fairly professional. I’ve had worse trouble on stage with bands than we had with them.” The Great SouthEast Music Hall moved to another location later in 1978, then closed for good after two Arlo Guthrie shows the following year.
Jan. 6, Taliesyn Ballroom, Memphis. Razed in 1979 in favor of a Taco Bell, according to The Sex Pistols Invade America, the 725-capacity Taliesyn was what one fan called “a lovely old mansion originally built for debutante coming-out parties and wedding receptions.” Years of high-school graduation and fraternity parties, though, meant it “always smell[ed] a little like vomit.”
Promoters oversold the show, and fire marshals showed up to tell the late promoter Bob Kelley to restrict the overage and leave 200 unlucky fans out on the cold Memphis streets. (Kelley was said to have undercut the marshals by escorting certain ticketholders to the back entrance, through the kitchen.) Many in the crowd had shown up looking to spit, fight and generally raise hell, but halfway through the loud, screechy concert, the Pistols had driven half the crowd away. “You’ve really done something, in my opinion,” the late producer Jim Dickinson, who attended, said in 2017, “especially in Memphis, where people will basically watch anything — paint dry, or dogs fight, or whatever.”
Jan. 8, Randy’s Rodeo, San Antonio, Texas. Randy’s Rodeo started out as a bowling alley on a “two-lane, no-shoulder paved road.” It turned into a 2,200-person concert venue when soil problems made the ground shift and the bowling lanes uneven.
Billing itself as “the finest western dance hall and night club in San Antonio,” Randy’s Rodeo drew roughly 1,200 people for the Pistols show — a couple hundred punk fans, plus locals and metalheads. “It was instant mayhem,” Jesse Sublett of The Violators told the Austin Chronicle in 2003. “Cups, beer cans, food, trash, spit flew toward the stage. The sound was loud, extremely lo-fi, but the band was tight — for about 10 seconds.” The show was mostly famous for Vicious screaming a homophobic slur at the crowd — “You cowboys are all a bunch of fucking f—–s!” — and hitting an attendee with his bass.
Jan. 9, Kingfish Club, Baton Rouge, La. Another club in a shopping mall, the 1,000-capacity Kingfish took the nickname of former Louisiana Sen. Huey Long and made space for bands who were somewhere between playing bars and arenas., “It looked to us like there was a crying need for such a place,” said one of the owners, Robert Day, in The Sex Pistols Invade America.
The Pistols show, “mostly made up of rubberneckers and jock-types looking for trouble,” as an attendee told O’Shea, included many journalists and a few handfuls of New Orleans punk rockers. The show became infamous due to Vicious allegedly receiving sexual favors onstage from a member of the audience, although accounts differ on whether that occurred.
Jan. 10, Longhorn Ballroom, Dallas. A Dallas millionaire landowner, O.L. Nelms, built this kitschy club in 1950; an early marquee above a 21-foot longhorn statue reads, “America’s Finest Western Ballroom.” Western-swing hero Bob Wills was an early host of the 1,900-capacity club, which had a barbecue restaurant and, over the years, would promote Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, George Jones, B.B. King, Nat King Cole and Al Green. Wills gave up his lease in 1958, and another country singer, Dewey Groom, took it over, partnering briefly with Jack Ruby, who gained infamy in 1963 for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV
Groom’s daughter, Saran Knight, took the call from an agent about the Pistols and agreed to hold the date. The club sold beer in plastic cups, “due to fear of people either cutting themselves or others,” Knight told O’Shea. “Unfortunately, the punk rock band was not favored by their audience of 800,” the now-closed ballroom’s website reports. “They made headlines when a woman head-butted band member Sid Vicious after he taunted the crowd.”
Jan. 11, Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa. Larry Shaeffer, a Jimi Hendrix fanatic who named his Tulsa company Little Wing Productions, had no idea who the Sex Pistols were until friends alerted him that they were touring the U.S. “There were seven shows, and I had No. 6, which was the last good show,” he says. “The agent cold-called me and said, ‘Do you want a date on these guys?’ I said, ‘Heck, yeah.'” They negotiated a $1,000 band fee, until the agent called later and requested $1,500, prompting Shaeffer to raise ticket prices from $2.50 to $3.50 — crossing out the old price with a Sharpie and ensuring decades of collectors’ items.
The club’s capacity was 1,500, and Shaeffer recalls selling 800 tickets. “There was a small segment of pseudo-punk guys, musicians and a lot of regular straights who would come to a Jerry Jeff Walker show,” he says. “It was a mixed crowd, but it wasn’t an edgy crowd.” Although Shaeffer detected a mass of undercover cops at the show, one attendee told O’Shea the band was “blazing hot,” avoiding on-stage sexual favors and head-butting for loud, fast rock ‘n’ roll.
Jan. 14, Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco. The late San Francisco promoter Bill Graham agreed to a Sex Pistols date at his 5,400-person Winterland, renowned for legendary concerts by The Who, Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, after he called manager Malcolm McLaren and requested a show. Tickets cost $5, and one member of the Avengers, an opening act, would claim to O’Shea that the Sex Pistols made just $66 out of the $2,800 in door receipts. Local reviews were mostly positive, and Graham, in his 1992 memoir Bill Graham Presents, recalled it as “pure raw hard core energy” — although Rolling Stone would later say, “The sound was absolutely atrocious, and Johnny Rotten’s voice started to give out.”
After the last number, a cover of The Stooges‘ “No Fun,” Rotten ended the show, tour and the Pistols’ career with this line: “Ah-ha-ha, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night.”