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On Tour With the Sex Pistols

In 1978 Punk magazine sent photographer Roberta Bayley to Texas to chronicle the band’s tour through the South. Her photos of the two Texas shows capture the surreal collision of two radically different cultures.

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Photographs by Roberta Bayley

The Sex Pistols’s notoriously ill-conceived 1978 tour of the U.S. was one of the more surreal moments in American pop culture history. The band had spent the previous two years violently yanking on England’s stiff upper lip, making international news by, among other things, dropping f-bombs on a London suppertime chat show and timing the release of a single “God Save the Queen”—which declared the prim monarch was fascist and inhuman—to coincide with the silver jubilee celebration of her 25 years on the throne. Though some considered them the embodiment of underclass unrest, the prevailing perception was simpler: that the band’s only interest was offending any and everyone. And so, after being banned from the radio and concert halls at home, singer Johnny Rotten (now John Lydon), bassist Sid Vicious, guitarist Steve Jones, and drummer Paul Cook set out for the States. But Malcolm McLaren, the band’s manager and mastermind who created the Pistols in the mold of an intensely profane, anti-Monkees, had no interest in building the audience. His goal was conflict and the free press it would generate. So he booked the tour throughout the South, and over nine days that January—36 years ago this month—the Pistols played in places like Memphis, Baton Rouge, San Antonio, and Dallas. Trailing them was a phalanx of now-famous photographers—names like Annie Leibovitz and Bob Gruen—who were charged with memorializing this world-class culture clash.

For those of us who were old enough to be aware of the Pistols but too young to attend—I was in the sixth grade in Austin, and my mom wasn’t going to drive me to anything in San Antonio but the Alamo or the zoo—the images are still mesmerizing. There’s heroin addict Sid Vicious onstage in San Antonio, unable to get drugs on the trip, with “Gimme a fix” carved into his chest. Or constitutionally disgruntled Johnny Rotten hunched over and leering at the crowd in Tulsa (or anywhere, really). But one of the most well-known images from the tour doesn’t show any of the band members. It was taken in the parking lot outside Dallas’ storied Longhorn Ballroom, onetime home of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, by a young New York rock photographer named Roberta Bayley. It’s a remarkable yet simple photograph, extremely subtle compared to the balance of the coverage. Against a wan, blue sky, a large, barn-shaped sign announces the honkytonk’s name. Closer to the ground, an eight-foot-tall statue of a steer is flanked by two wagon wheels. And in between, a marquee reads “Tonight Sex Pistols, Jan 19 Merle Haggard.” The message is immediate: this was a surreal collision of radically different cultures. Just a glance at the picture and you imagine that, shortly after the sun dipped below the horizon, somebody got his ass kicked.

It was one of the first photographs I looked for when, three years ago, I started Sponglr, a Tumblr examining perceptions of Texas. The blog’s purpose is identified in its subhead: “On Texas: How y’all think we look, and what we actually look like.” Under that rubric I’ve posted or reposted images of Texas icons, stereotypes, and everyday life, some acknowledged and to be expected, others goofy and out of the blue. The Longhorn Ballroom shot is a little of all that, an X-marks-the-spot intersection of exactly what one would and would not expect of Texas.

With a little online digging I found more of Bayley’s pictures from the tour, including some wonderfully incongruous shots of the Sex Pistols drinking Lone Stars, and a host of other, instantly recognizable images of seventies-era New York punk. So last week I called her to talk about that time. A California native who grew up in the sixties in San Francisco, she lived in London in the early seventies, where she worked in a boutique owned by McLaren and his partner, Vivienne Westwood. In 1974 she moved to New York and soon thereafter into an East Village apartment where she still lives—and which is still around the corner from Richard Hell, one of punk’s founding fathers. As the punk scene came together, she took a job working the door at CBGB’s, becoming friends with and photographing all the local players—Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television—and every punk act that passed through town. In 1976 she shot the cover of the Ramones’ seminal first album.

On January 7, 1978, she was working as principal photographer for Punk magazine when she received what she refers to now as “a mysterious phone call” telling her that a first-class plane ticket was waiting at the airport to take her to San Antonio the next morning to meet up with the Pistols. (Controversial High Times founder Tom Forcade was paying for her and John Holmstrom, the editor of Punk, to make the trip, but he preferred for that fact to be kept under wraps.) “I didn’t ask any questions,” she told me. “Everybody in New York was pissed the Pistols weren’t coming here. I was thrilled to get to go.”

She still sounds excited talking about it now, and she was generous with her recollections and other photos from the trip. She looked over old contact sheets while we talked on the phone and had an easy time telling where the photos of her first trip to Texas began. The night before the flight, she said, she’d shot a Ramones show at a club called the Paladium. “The last picture from New York is of some guys with a chimpanzee on Fourteenth Street that I saw on my walk home. The first one I took in Texas was of stacked cases of glass bottles of Coke that I saw at the airport. We didn’t have bottled Coke in New York.” That little taste of culture shock would soon seem quaint.


That San Antonio gig was really scary. Those weren’t fans up in the front. Half of the people were there for curiosity, but the other half were there to cause trouble. People spit on the band. They threw cans of beer at the stage all night. It wasn’t like the shows I was used to. The Ramones played for Ramones fans. They didn’t take a lot of opening slots because when they played with other bands, they played for people who didn’t get it. But Malcolm’s intention was confrontation. He specifically chose not to send them to Austin because Austin was aware of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.

 

My photos in San Antonio are from the back of the room. I’d come to meet the tour on the same flight as Annie Liebovitz, and she went right in the middle of all that. I chose not to. There was a feeling of . . . menace isn’t the right word. But there was a definite sense of violence. That was the show where Sid swung his bass at that guy.

 

 


John Lydon kept to himself. Punk had covered the band and run a long interview with him, so I knew he was intelligent. But he was not sociable. When I got on the band’s bus briefly in San Antonio, he just said, “That’s highly unadvisable, young lady.” 

I took this photo that night and don’t think it’s ever been published, except maybe in Punk in 1978. It’s from after the show, after the crowd had dispersed and the band came out to mingle. That was a big part of the punk ethos: the band wasn’t separate from the audience. So the Pistols came out to check out the space, to admire all the beer cans on the floor and talk to the contingent of English press that was following them. The Sex Pistols coming to America was a big British press story. 

They looked terribly unhealthy. They had skin like reptiles that had been underground their whole lives, like salamanders, beyond even the standard English pasty look. And they looked freaky, especially for Texas. You didn’t see orange spikey hair back then. They were young, like 21 or 22, and this was their first real tour. When they went on the Anarchy Tour in England, most of their shows were canceled, so they’d just travel to a city and not play. But by now they were starting to feel manipulated by Malcolm. He didn’t have their backs. He was an intellectual, a provocateur, and in America he realized they were “becoming a rock band.” That wasn’t interesting to him. And they were getting fed up with being Sex Pistols.

 

Sid was sitting on the bar in Dallas, and I was lecturing him. He’d said, “I want to be like Iggy. I want to die before I’m thirty.” So I had to explain that Iggy was past thirty. And he was still alive. But Sid was just so self-destructive. Going on tour when you’re strung out and can’t get any drugs must have been miserable. Malcolm couldn’t get him any heroin, so he drank heavily. He was just a mess. I think he was a nice guy, but he got caught up in this punk thing and started acting out, doing what he thought he was supposed to be doing.

 


I had just flown into Dallas with Malcolm, Steve, Paul, and John [Holmstrom] and gone to the club. I figured the band would do a sound check and was hoping for access. But Sid and Johnny were riding on the tour bus, and it wasn’t there yet. So I took some pictures. We thought that sign was cool. It was ironic. We knew who Merle Haggard was. And it was just a nice shot. The sky is a nice color of blue. I like that truck in the parking lot.

 

Steve had this cowboy hat he’d bought in Memphis or San Antonio. He and Paul thought it was so funny to be in America and Texas. “Hey, there’s a bull! Let’s go get on it!” What else were they going to do?

 

Roberta Bayley with Sid Vicious. (Photograph by Bob Gruen.) To see more of Roberta’s work, click here.

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  • it’s one of those legendary gigs that you wish you had seen, like Woodstock, even if the reality didn’t live up to the legend

    • Dog

      But the reality did exceed the legend. I was there. Due to problems in San Antonio there were more police than fans. Many were undercover.
      Though no long necks were allowed, someone managed to get one in and throw it at the band. Sid broke it and gashed his stomach several times until one of the crew tackled him. He bled, not punk blood, the real stuff.
      Earlier some, actually many fans began hocking into their spiked hair of the band. It was surreal, especially with the pictures of country icons hanging all over the ballroom. It got weirder when the band spit back. The spittle was well received.
      One super hot blonde moved up in front of Johnny, he promptly leaned over, gagged himself, and yakked all over her. Instead of recoiling, she reveled. That’s when I moved toward the back…but not one minute sooner.
      I’d forgotten how sickly they looked, thanks for the memories.
      Ah, those were simpler times…

      • Jax Max

        Uh, got any photos of that?

        • OhSoRight

          Actually, I’ve seen a video of the girl being interviewed about it later. Check around YouTube.

  • bchildress

    So I talked to someone who channeled Sid Vicious and he did say he wanted to die at 25 but didn’t make it. In previous lives he was always an entertainer but this was his first time as a musician. Previously a court jester, Shakespearean actor, vaudevillen as song and dance man and then Sid. He wanted to come here totally soulless and devoid of morals and commented to us, isn’t it interesting that I achieved greatest fame in this role. He’s still not a nice guy even while dead.

  • Cj Clontz

    I was at The Randys Rodeo show in San Antonio…i was in High School and went with a friend and her mother. Her mom had to call my parents and tell them she was escorting us to a concert (my dad was a preacher). It was a wild show and yes it was very very tense. I will never forget it….i remember Sid smashing a bottle and cutting himself and all the spitting and people started throwing things…i left that show covered in beer and who knows what else!! People were just waiting to riot…it was in the air…there was no stopping it…and i am glad i was there and was part of it.

  • Captain Flabulous

    How was Merle’s show?

    • OhSoRight

      He opened with Bodies.

  • SpeakTruth

    But wasn’t this really about mocking us, goading us into provocation, and using us (Texas and Texans)? The point was the visual image — not the music — hence the gaggle of photogs whisked along to document every stop. We were the rubes in this play. Kinda like when Louie Gohmert appears on The Daily Show.

  • roadcat

    Roberta Bayley took one of the best photos of the Ramones on the first album cover . Read all about the Ramones in the book “On The Road with the Ramones”.

  • Punk Fan

    Have you seen Nancy Gray’s shots from the San Antonio Show? They have been on The Current cover and are also on RandysRodeo.com. Check Nancy’s out at NancyGray.webs.com

  • So-Tired-of-Idiots

    “Her photos of the two Texas shows capture the surreal collision of two radically different cultures.”

    What unmitigated bullshit! The pictures show a band on stage. Could be anywhere.
    EDIT for clarity: ‘Bullshit’ term aimed only at ridiculous subheading, not article and photos!

    • A.Z.

      I and others I’m sure can assure you, it could not have been anywhere and never will be again. Love ’em or hate ’em – it happened, THEY happened. And love ’em or hate ’em – they made music history.

      And the shooting comment under this one? tell that to all the fans of the “new” (what might be considered outrageous) bands/musicians/artists that shake people up today…decades later…after the Pistols.

      Every generation has to have their “thing” — Get over it.

      • So-Tired-of-Idiots

        I think you rather missed my point, which was was simply taking issue with the ridiculous subtitle: “surreal collision of two radically different cultures”, and how the pictures showed nothing of the sort. They just showed the band onstage. There is no collision, subtle or otherwise, and outside of someone personally knowing that venue, I say again, it could be anywhere; it’s just a scruffy-looking stage, the likes of which can be found all over the world.

        • A.Z.

          Ok, you’re right. I’ll deal with just that opening statement at the top of the story. ” “surreal collision of two radically different cultures”, I’ll just give you my take, it’s totally subjective & I don’t expect any/everyone to agree.

          When the Pistols came through the U.S. on that soon-to-be- ill fated tour, which the band broke up in San Fran. on the last show. Back in Texas in the late 70’s, honky tonks/dance halls used to only booking balls-out country acts took those stages.

          When good ol’ Malcolm, their manager booked them at all the 7 U.S. clubs, he knew/thought there would be chaos. That’s what he wanted. No one died. “Cowboys/kickers” maybe didn’t mingle w/the punk crowds per say in any of the 7 shows, but to them too, it was a spectacle. It was, even if THEY couldn’t put it into words, “a surreal collision not only of two radically different cultures”, but the kids/young adults into those bands couldn’t care less and it was history in the making.

          I know personally I could not have seen photos of the Randy’s Rodeo/Ballroom in S.A. and the Longhorn in Dallas (their only 2 “redneck” show venues) with the Pistols??? What irony! We all had to go, and it was great, and I was glad to be there. Glad I got to witness that wonderful “Surreal collision of two radically different cultures”. Sid had a collision w/a few things at the Randy’s show, but you can read all about that on the interwebs as you know. If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.

          Sincerely, A.Z.

          • So-Tired-of-Idiots

            Once again, I was complaining that the pictures showed nothing except the band. No pictures of them interacting with the locals, no pictures of amazed or outraged Texans.
            That was my only complaint. You seem to think that I’m knocking the ‘subtle collision’; I just really wanted to see some pictures of it.

            That’s all!

          • A.Z.

            I don’t think you are knocking the subtle collision that actually didn’t happen. It was more like a firestorm of new music coming from England w/promoters who were brave enough to take it on, esp. in the southern U.S. What I took issue to more than that was your quote “The pictures show a band on stage. Could be anywhere”.

            No other band did what they did before or since.

            The Randy’s banner & former venue (which is still standing, same location is, at last report a church/bingo hall) alone is iconic and the fans, whether @ the show or not, know it. Most ppl who are into them now or weren’t there either say they wish they were there or knew someone who was. I say show me your stubs! And the photos! Randy’s is well-known as their most infamous of the tour. You might have to ask one of them to be sure.

            You can watch the bashing of Sid’s guitar – supposedly – near/on someone’s head. Also, other footage of some of the other U.S. 7-tour gigs (originally 11-tour) can be found. Peruse YouTube.

            If you Google/Bing Sex Pistols Texas tour and hit “images”, you will see quite a bit of interaction w/the band, roadies, crowd, press, chicks, managers, etc.

            Roberta’s photos are not affordable to all for a reason, they are worth it to the collector in the iconic fashion and time in which it happened. They are stellar. So are Bob Gruen’s shots. You’ll see a lot of interaction photos w/Bob’s stuff on Google images. Probably other people who took photos of them too. Facebook is full of them.

            In my opinion, Sex Pistols coming through Texas was anything but subtle, what with Lone Star bottles/pie/guitar throwing collisions and all. Those poor country people coming in after thought they were animals. That’s just what the band and Malcolm McLaren wanted. That was their goal…anarchy. It worked. Everyone I know had a blast. We witnessed something we never will again, even if we were folk music fans.

            I suppose I was offended by the “unmitigated bullshit” comment you made too. They don’t hire chump writers @ Texas Monthly, you gotta be Texas tough. Roberta’s & others photos stand the test of time and will live on long after they are gone.

            That is all…take care…tip o’ the Texas hat

          • So-Tired-of-Idiots

            Ah, now I see the problem! I was unclear on what I was actually referring to as unmitigated bullshit. I was referring only to the title, the subtle collision thingie!

            My fault, I can see reading it the way I wrote it, the UM term could equally be referring to the photos and content.

            Well anyway, thanks for the personal history on that, I saw their effects in the Uk and west coast, but never even thought about the effects in other parts of the country.

          • Jennifer Ormsby Schallehn

            Not sure why A.Z. is not getting the point, but I just wanted to say that I agree with you. I am digging Ms. Bayley’s photos of the Longhorn Ballroom marquee, and also Johny with a can of Lone Star. However, that is the full extent I see of the “clash of cultures”. Very subtle. You are correct in that all the actual show pics could have been anywhere, even the pics that come up on Google. I did see one photo with some locals, but as they were female, and obviously fans, and as they were not exaggerated stereotypes in spurs and ten gallon hats, the incongruity didn’t really ring out. I get you, dude.

          • So-Tired-of-Idiots

            Thanks Jennifer, I realized from AZ’s last post that I had been ambiguous in my original post, and it could be read as calling the article and pics bullshit. I think he read it

            that way, but we got it all sorted out 🙂

  • Howard Treesong

    The cops would probably just shoot them to be be sure in today’s America.