The Sex Pistols’ gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 was recently voted one of the most influential gigs of all time. Seen as a critical moment in the emergence of the British punk movement and the proceeding post-punk scene. Despite hundreds of people claiming to have been there, in fact, there were only around 40 people in the audience, with tickets having been advertised in the small print of the Manchester Evening News for 50p each.
Despite the small attendance, it was who was in the audience that mattered. Seemingly everyone in attendance was inspired to form a band. Peter Hook recalls attending with Bernard Sumner and making the decision that night to form Joy Division – “If they can do it, we said, meaning the Pistols, then so can we. We decided to follow the rules of punk…Rule one: act like the Sex Pistols. Rule two: look like the Sex Pistols.” Steven Morrissey, or simply Morrissey as he is known globally, of the Smiths was there and recalled that “the audience was very slim. It was a front parlour affair.” Why, then, did this Sex Pistols gig have so much influence on the future of Britain’s music scene?
Dave Nolan, author of I Swear I Was There: The Gig that Changed the World, claims that the audience there that night simply looked at each other and said, in typical Mancunian fashion, “That’s rubbish! We could do so much better than that.” And that’s exactly what they did. As Hook’s memoir, Unknown Pleasures, reveals: “I could do that. Because, fucking hell, what a racket.”However, I believe that the Sex Pistols were also so inspiring because they were relatable. John Lydon was a child of working class Irish immigrants and came from an impoverished area of north London. In his autobiography, Rotten – No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, he remembers his family being treated as “the Irish scum”. The Sex Pistols’ anti-establishment attitude and nihilistic lyrics resonated with the anger of the working-class, that the would-be British punks felt in post-war, pre-Thatcherite Britain. For Lydon, none of his lyrics were abstract or intellectual, but instead, “working-class life at its grimmest”. Caroline Coon, one of the first champions of punk in the press, believed it was only ‘natural’ that a group of “deprived London street kids” such as the Sex Pistols would produce music “with a startingly anti-establishment bias”. Thus, it seems not only that those in the audience at the Lesser Free Trade Hall felt that they could do what the Sex Pistols had done, but it was also that they felt they had to.