Rock column, Mail on Sunday, November 11 2007
Brixton Academy, London
Earlier this year, BBC2 broadcast a series called Seven Ages Of Rock. It was highly entertaining, but scarcely needed: all of rockís ages are still with us. The Eagles are number one, Bob Dylan is as big as ever, Led Zeppelin are performing next month, and the Sex Pistols are making their fourth comeback tour. If you had predicted this in their brief heyday, you would have been laughed out of your local branch of Our Price Records.
Itís only five years since they last played in south London, at Crystal Palace, but Brixton is buzzing. The touts are asking £70 for a £37.50 ticket, and there are even a few teenagers dotted among the pates and paunches of the Pistolsí original fans. Vera Lynn sings ĎThereíll always be an Englandí over the PA, and a roadie in a Union Jack top leads the band on stage, like a rockíníroll Beefeater.
All eyes alight on Johnny Rotten, now 51, dressed to kill in tweed plus-fours. Ripped tartan and safety-pins have long since been swept into the mainstream, so Rotten has taken a different tack. The attention to detail is impressive: not just a trad checked shirt and tie, but a cartridge belt. He is ready to give us both barrels.
They open with Pretty Vacant, which they have just re-recorded for the video game Guitar Hero III. Itís a classic song, surging with endorphins, but from where Iím standing, near the front, itís just two separate noises, all thud and bleat, with nothing in between. Itís like being forced to listen to ten Tube trains and one light aircraft. Well, punk wasnít meant to be pleasant.
The sound doesnít improve over the remaining 75 minutes. More importantly, the Sex Pistols never feel like a band. At the front, Rotten hurls himself into the task, hamming, leering, gurning, spitting, a magnificently gross Dickensian spectacle. But the other three Ė the guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bass player Glen Matlock Ė go through the motions.
Or rather they go through the set list and forget about the motions. Francis Rossi of Status Quo Ė part of the rock establishment that the Pistols shook but could not dislodge Ė said the other day: ĎIf you don't commit physically, rock'n'roll doesn't really work.í These three donít commit physically, or even look the part. Matlock could be a member of Dollar, and Jones, large and stolid, is more like a roadie than a star.
Twice, Jones has a solo Ė which he plays with his back to the audience. He has been a forceful presence down the years, leading the swearing on Bill Grundyís television show in 1976 and pouring scorn on last yearís invitation from the Hall of Fame, but tonight he is hardly there at all.
Matlock repeatedly joins him in a huddle round Cookís drumkit, sending a message that they want to hide. And itís not as if the music asks much of them: they seldom have to think about both hands separately. What they are giving is a non-performance. Never mind the Sex Pistols: this is bollocks.
Itís striking how Rotten has something to say after almost every song, firing off expletives, insults, one-liners, and even bossy instructions about keeping off the stage. That way, he can play to the crowd without being lumped with the band. The gig turns out to be a very expensive chat show with a lot of noise thrown in.
The barrage continues, and one song smudges into another. The album tracks always were patchy, and the band are too lifeless to lift them: you emerge with a new respect for their producer, Chris Thomas, who somehow extracted a great album from them.
The singles stand up well, though. Holidays In The Sun retains its bite with its prescient warning about the price of tourism. And God Save The Queen and Anarchy In The UK almost make up for the bruised eardrums and shattered expectations.
The crowd surge forward, pogoing, throwing beer, yelling along, and recognising that they are in the presence of history: two pieces of social comment, equipped with such storming brio, and such lasting resonance, that they have become as iconically British as their targets.