In the history of British popular culture, June 4, 1976 is a significant date. The Sex Pistols played at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall to a small room of people. It is one of their first gigs outside London. Like the saying about the first Velvet Underground LP, nearly everyone in the audience that night went on to have a cultural impact on Britain (and beyond). Here is a collection of what several people have written about that gig.
From Tony Wilson, 24 Hour Party People: What the Sleeve Notes Never Tell You (London: Channel 4 Books, 2002) pp. 23-24:
4 June, 1976. Lesser Free Trade Hall. People dotted around. Desultory. Strange.
A thin, handsome mekon appeared on the small proscenium stage. ‘Hi, we’re the Buzzcocks but we’re not ready yer, so we’re not playing tonight, but this is the Sex Pistols.’
A band emerged. Who knows what the drummer, bass player and guitarist looked like. The guy who took centre stage took the mike, took your mind. A swagger to make John Wayne look a pussy. A sneer so dismissive of everyone and everything, of God and civilization, in just one pair of twisted lips. And then they started playing…
They stared, open-mouthed, transported to a place where you didn’t need to pogo (it wasn’t invented till three months later). That place was real life; that place was the clearing in the undergrowth where meaning and elucidation live, that place where the music came from and the place it would take you back to.
But they knew nothing, these forty-odd strangers, gathered by chance and chat, they just knew their world would never be the same again. A past obliterated and No Future.
From Peter Hook, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012) pp. 35-37:
Reading the small ads in the MEN was how I found that the Pistols were playing the Lesser Free Trade Hall, 50p a ticket…
So that was it anyway, the group of us who went and saw the Sex Pistols at Lesser Free Trade Hall. A night that turned out to be the most important of my life – or one of them at least – but that started out just like any other…
There to greet us was Malcolm McLaren, dressed head to toe in black leather – leather jacket, leather trousers and leather boots – with a shock of bright-orange hair, a manic grin and the air of a circus ringmaster; though there was hardly anyone else around… Look at the photographs of the gig and you can see that everybody in the audience was dressed the same way, like a Top of the Pops audience. There were no punks yet. So Malcolm – he looked like an alien to us…
The Sex Pistols’ gear was set up and then, without further ceremony, they come on: Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Steve Jones was wearing a boiler suit and the rest of them looked like they’d vandalized an Oxfam shop. Rotten had on this torn-open yellow sweater and he glared out into the audience like he wanted to kill each and every one of us, one at a time, before the band struck up into something that might have been ‘Did You No Wrong’ but you couldn’t tell because it was so loud and distorted…
We just stood there, stock still, watching the Pistols. Absolutely, utterly, gobsmacked.
From Mick Middles & Lindsay Reader, Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis (London: Omnibus Press, 2009) p. 35:
In the summer of 1976, Terry [Mason] convinced Barney [Bernard Sumner] and Hooky [Peter Hook] to go along with him to the Sex Pistols gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.. Although some believe that the importance of the Lesser Free Trade Hall Pistols gigs have been somewhat overstated, they were almost certainly a trigger for the musical ambitions of many in attendance.
Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto famously shelled pout the necessary £32 to hire the hall on FRiday June 4, 1976, and, to more poignant effect, on Tuesday July 20 where they would make their debut appearance as Buzzcocks. The first gig… saw Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, clad in black rubber, accosting pedestrians on Peter Street like some downbeat and desperate spiritual street hawker. Even when he succeeded, many of the wary Pistols gig goers were immediately swamped by the music of the support band, a progressive rock act called Solstice.
From James Nice, Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records (London: Aurum Press, 2010) pp. 8-10:
Situated upstairs from the much larger Free Trade Hall, the venue was small, seated and salubrious, yet sufficiently unorthodox, and city central. The Sex Pistols date was set for 4 June 1976…
Lacking a regular bassist and a drummer, Buzzcocks were unable to perform at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June, and instead drafted ina local heavy rock group called Solstice to open for the visiting Pistols. Most present number the audience at around forty, although Devoto maintains the figure was closer to 100… Future musicians present in the room included Mark E. Smith (of The Fall), Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (Joy Division) and Steven Morrissey (The Smiths), then a New York Dolls obsessive, who afterwards sent an ambivalent ‘epistle’ to NME describing ‘discordant music’ by ‘bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire.’ Others included Steve Diggle, soon to join Buzzcocks on bass, fanzine editor Paul Morley, photographer Kevin Cummins, Eddie Garrity (better known as Ed Banger) and Alan Hempsall, a progressive rock fan later to form Crispy Ambulance.
From Morrissey, Autobiography (London: Penguin Classics, 2013) p. 115:
Back on Manchester’s inscrutable streets I find a tatty leaflet stuck on a Peter Street lamppost telling me that the Sex Pistols will play the Lesser Free Trade Hall. They are not the saviors of culture, but the destruction of it – which suits me quite perfectly…
Morrissey also wrote a ‘review’ of the gig as a letter to NME (reproduced on the Passions Just Like Mine website):
Review by Steven Morrissey of a Sex Pistols concert: “I pen this epistle after witnessing the infamous Sex Pistols in concert at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire had those few that attended dancing in the aisles despite their discordant music and barely audible lyrics. The Pistols boast having no inspiration from the New York / Manhattan rock scene, yet their set includes, “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”, a number believed to be done almost to perfection by the Heartbreakers on any sleazy New York night and the Pistols’ vocalist / exhibitionist Johnny Rotten’s attitude and self-asserted ‘love us or leave us’ approach can be compared to both Iggy Pop and David JoHansen in their heyday. The Sex Pistols are very New York and it’s nice to see that the British have produced a band capable of producing atmosphere created by The New York Dolls and their many imitators, even though it may be too late. I’d love to see the Pistols make it. Maybe they will be able to afford some clothes which don’t look as though they’ve been slept in.”
People might also be interested in this paper written by cultural studies scholar Sean Albeiz on the popular memory of this gig, and my article on how the Manchester music scene (including this gig) has been portrayed in film.