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London Crystal Palace, 27/7/2002
Anyone who came expecting trouble at tonight's show would have been in for a big surprise. Much of the predominantly male audience-the tattoo clad rockers ; the flamboyant Mohawks with their metal and chains ; the beer bellied forty something 'lads' in their football strips -look hardened and tough, but this, however, is an oddly gentle and docile crowd.
A young punk feeds rusks to his toddler in her push chair at one side of the stage. One joker has turned up in what looks like a pair of his Grandad's best striped pyjamas, and happily enjoys a ribbing from his mates. A drunken girl stacks up an assortment of half drunk beer cups into a small, swaying tower and then drop kicks them up into the air, soaking in the process an enormous, passing skinhead with a spider's tattoo printed on his head. Rather than beat her to a pulp, however, as might have been expected, he just laughs. A three or four hundred group of die hard fans bob up and down enthusiastically at the front, but the majority of the audience, even long after the headliners have come on, are happy to stand or sit on the pitch, drowsily enjoying the last of the mid evening sun, and pensively supping on their beer.
If it wasn't for the swastikas and the safety pins, and the occasional worn t-shirt still proclaiming after all these years that 'Sid was innocent', this could almost be a Pavarotti concert, rather than the first gig in six years from the most notorious and most controversial punk act of all time.
The one true incitement for the crowd to riot comes from a smirking older man who has scrawled across his white T-shirt in black marker pen the words "£32.50 plus booking fee". He has then written beneath it in slightly smaller letters "Ever feel you've been cheated ?", John Lydon's oft-used quote from the Sex Pistols' final gig in San Francisco before their initial disintegration in January 1978. He is, of course, quite right. £32.50 plus another £5 or £6 in booking fees is an astronomical fee to pay to see a group who, despite their notoriety , recorded only one album together during their original life time. The Sex Pistols have, however, repeatedly made the point in the interviews building up to this one-off gig that the reasons they have got back together are purely financial. In another of the many ironies of the night, we really, therefore, have nobody but ourselves to blame.
Fault can be found elsewhere too. The venue is difficult to get to. Trains in and out of central London are few and far between, and many punters have to leave long before the end. A lot of the toilet facilities are basic, and the support bands , hand picked by Lydon himself, one can only presume so that he doesn't have to worry about anyone upstaging him, are simply awful.
Irish punks the Dropkick Murphys have brought a bagpipe player with them. It is an idea that probably seemed good on paper, but in practice the merging of the pipes, never the prettiest-sounding of instruments, with the Murphys Pogues-style punk thrashings creates a terrible cacophony. The much touted And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead are even worse. The Texan band are clearly under-rehearsed, and their singer, Jason Reece, by one of his guitarist's admission has had "too much of the Red Bull". The bulk of their shambolic forty minute set is based around an improvised and dirge like new song, named as 'Fuck You ! Fuck Everything ! We're All Gonna Die', over which Reece self-pityingly and increasingly embarassingly rants and wails about his love of the Pistols, and his hatred of the audience, which momentarily rouses some of its from its indifference to spray him with beer. These lame, dreadful proceedings are brought to a thankful close by DJ rapper Mellobostic, whose Ali G style attempts at crowd warming ("Do you want the Sex Pistols to rock da palace ?") neverthless quickly over extends its welcome and falls flat.
Appearing on stage shortly before nine, the Sex Pistols prove, in contrast , to be capable of still being magnificent. Well-rehearsed, far more than they ever were in their brief, chaotic heyday, and playing to an audience four or five times the size of their then biggest gigs, they put on a surprisingly sleek show to the two thirds full Crystal Palace crowd of 20,000.
Steve Jones nicks his hand halfway through 'Holidays in the Sun', the group's second number, but struggles on valiantly, his guitar playing having lost none of its muscular swagger in the twenty five years since 'Never Mind the Bollocks' was released.
While Jones wears a scruffy green t-shirt with the word 'California' embossed across it, signifying his and Lydon's home for the last twenty odd years, the much maligned and under rated Glen Matlock in comparision is dressed in a designer leather jacket and neatly pressed blue jeans. Always an outsider, and ever youthful, he still looks like a nervous teenager never quite allowed to join in fully the older, rougher lads' games, but bullied and cohesed into joining their band because of his superior talent. His sturdy bass-playing provides a solid backdrop to the rest of the group, giving it much of their sense of ringing melody. One realises all over again, watching his performance, how much the Sex Pistols lost themselves when they replaced it with the cartoon punk antics of El Sid.
Paul Cook, stripped too down to a t-shirt, continues to be an energetic drummer, banging his skins and rattling cymbals with a steady, but gleeful childlike enthusiasm.
Playing up at being Rotten to the hilt, it is, however, Johnny's show. Despite his early assertion that he is as "fat as fuck and I don't give a shit", he is at 46 still a remarkably agile performer. Dressed in a designer black skateboarding outfit with 'Sorry !' printed across it in big white letters, he struts up and down the stage like a hungry tiger just released out of its cage, bellowing out the lyrics, and taking mocking swipes between songs at Tony Blair, David Beckham, the Queen and the Cure, who playing Hyde Park on the other side of the town, are probably in part responsible for the Crystal Palace gig not having sold out. It is obvious that he is having the time of his life.
'Holidays in the Sun', 'No Feelings', 'Pretty Vacant', 'Bodies' and 'EMI' all sound as vibrant and as powerful as ever. Contracted to play for an hour and a half, however, it is obvious from the beginning that the Pistols have, in contrast to their last 'Filthy Lucre' tour of six years ago, little intention of sticking simply to the tried and tested formula of the 'Never Mind the Bollocks' track list, and they prove, after all these years, still capable of pulling the odd surprise. The show is opened with a note perfect, ironic cover of Hawkwind's cover 'Silver Machine'. The band's version of the Who's 'Submission' is movingly dedicated to bassist John Entwhistle, who died the month before. 'Don't Give Me No Lip, Child' and 'Steppin' Stone' are there too, and in perhaps the biggest shock of the night, the first encore is a cover of the Sid cover of 'My Way', which Lydon wisely turns over to the audience after the first chorus.
Yet it is perhaps inevitable that the Sex Pistols, polished as they are, should at some point screw up, and when they do, they do so badly. 'Belsen Was a Gas', which appears two thirds of the way into the set, takes the element of surprise too far, and, despite all its irony, proves as stupidly noxious and puerilely offensive as ever before. The end of the show is also something of a let down.'Anarchy in the UK', which follows 'My Way' , turns into another sing-a-long, but it is too much of a good thing, and, with Lydon's vocals largely drowned out by the enthusiastic fans down the front, is a disappointment. The final ' God Save the Queen' is a predictable enough choice to finish the concert in both the Sex Pistols and the monarchy's Jubilee year, but, after all that has gone before and the group's attempt to really try and do something different, is too safe and obvious an option, and brings the gig to a limp, unsatisfactory close.
"I love you....but I fucking hate you at the same time" yells Lydon at the audience as the rest of the band leave the stage, capturing in a second all the contradictions of the night. "If the Sex Pistols can reform, you can make this country great again"he adds as a final piece of sage-like advice. The Sex Pistols as zealous social reformers ? Who would have believed it ? They remain as always the greatest and the worst band in the world.
Set List :
Holidays in the Sun
Wanna Be Me
Don't Give Me No Lip, Child
Did You No Wrong
Belsen Was a Gas
Through My Eyes
Anarchy in the UK
God Save the Queen
Commenting On: London Crystal Palace, 27/7/2002 - Sex Pistols
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