I’ve been reading, on and off, Greil Marcus’ fascinating, rambling account of May 1968, punk, dada, and a bunch of other things besides, Lipstick Traces: The secret history of the twentieth century. It’s a liberating experience, when most history books are focused on a reasonably discrete set of dates, themes or spaces, to be carried along on a stream of consciousness from medieval heresy to Guy Debord’s collage art, seemingly on Marcus’ whim. A journalist rather than academic, his prose is by turn sapocalyptic, wistful, incendiary, questioning, hectoring – perhaps just like the young individual he foregrounds as the starting point for his secret history: one Johnny Rotten.
As a young turk I was something of a wimpy sub-punk. My acts of rebellion extended to playing A-level music recitals in a NoFX t-shirt and sticking Rancid stickers all over my guitar, much to my Metallica-loving teacher’s bemuseument. Musically, I tended to The Clash or Joy Division rather than the Sex Pistols. Seeing the reformed Pistols on Top of the Pops was a fascinating experiment in watching TV with your parents, rather than the formative experience of seeing The Saints sneering their way through a lipsynced This Perfect Day on TOTP2.
But there’s something still so… era-defining about Johnny Rotten that Marcus captures so well, and here’s where my world’s overlap. Matt Houlbrook recently posted on the vast amount that he learns from his students and how that’s just as much research as the formal research that he does. I’ve not undertaken any teaching (yet) but I have done local history talks and walks, and I completely agree – I’ve learnt so, so much from the people I’ve met, about what matters to them, about the Black Country, about history in general. When doing some walks around The Area Formerly Known As Carribee Island in March, one of the most commonly-pointed out features was a nondescript white building in Thornley Street, now used as a Muslim community centre, I think. One of my walkers casually said, oh, I saw the Sex Pistols there. What? Really?
All spaces have their history, of course. This spot 150 years ago was a motley collection of lodging houses and beershops on Back Lane, soon to be demolished under the 1877 Wolverhampton Improvement Scheme. When the new road layout was put in place, the older houses were replaced with a new mixture of industry and housing, which by the 1930s had been replaced with a large dairy.
After the war, the building on the corner of Thornley Street and Whitmore Street was the Percy Thomas Hall, playing host to the Blue Flame club for all the r’n’b hits of the day. It was taken over by the Astra Agency (based not far away, above the Criterion at the top end of Broad Street) and opened as Club Lafayette in September 1968. Bev Parker has some full reflections on his website, but suffice to say it fitted well within Wolverhampton’s persistent tradition of being a great place for a live concert – acts performing at the Laff included Black Sabbath, Scott Walker, Thin Lizzy, John Lee Hooker, Stevie Wonder and Led Zeppelin, who performed for £40 on account of Dudley man John Bonham’s sister working behind the bar. Small world.
In the early 1970s The Laff became a major part (along with the Catacombs, the Milano and elsewhere) of the Wolverhampton branch of the Northern Soul scene – big trousers and crazy dancing no doubt in abundance. On the evening of 13th October 1976 though, something new happened – and almost nobody realised. Seven weeks before the infamous Bill Grundy interview, the Sex Pistols had hardly crossed into national consciousness, and the gig at the Laff was fairly uncontroversial and thus barely recorded. Dave Goodman, who did early PA for the Pistols, describes Wolverhampton as “up North”, where just a few were into it, but those fanatically – they may have travelled to London to see the group, they had the safety pins, knew the songs in advance.By contrast, the Pistols’ Manchester Free Trade Hall gig from this time has gone down in legend – perhaps this history fits Manchester’s self-aggrandising swagger better than a small town in a famously self-effacing region. But actually this was the first of three Pistols appearances at the Laff, a venue therefore equal only outside London to the Woods Centre in Plymouth.
In December, the Pistols went ballistic and the majority of their subsequent Anarchy tour was cancelled. At the end of May 1977, they released God Save The Queen which was to become the most-censored single in British history, and almost certainly rigged to prevent it being number one during the Jubilee celebrations. By Friday 19th August though, just prior to their album launch, the SPOTS tour hit Club Lafayette.
Spots, as those in the know knew, meant Sex Pistols On This Stage (or Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly?). Elsewhere, they appeared as the Tax Exiles or the Hamsters, but on the first night of the tour, here in Wolverhampton, they were the Spots. Rolling Stone‘s Charles M Young was there, a guest of Malcolm McLaren, who promised him a ride to “Wolver Hampton[sic], a suburb of Birmingham” but stood him up, leaving Young to get the train from London. An American filter is evident in his description of the town, a representation from a very outside viewpoint of a town described elsewhere as “full of nutters and a nasty place to be”. It’s always interesting to see what non-residents make of the Black Country, right from the days of Dickens‘ description and Queen Victoria’s childhood diary.
Wolver Hampton turns out to be an industrial sumphole, resembling Cleveland if Cleveland had been built 200 years earlier. The Club Lafayette is in the middle of a tough, working-class neighborhood. Word has obviously gotten out, as a line five to eight wide extends around the block.
Charles M Young, Rock is sick and living in London. Rolling Stone 20/10/1977
It was raining heavily, “dirty Wolverhampton rain that rusts your ears and sends you bald” according to the Record Mirror‘s Barry Cain, also in attendance (Barry Cain, SPOTS: the arch enemies are back, Record Mirror, 27/8/1977). “Tiny stage. Rectangle disco floor stained by Donna Summer whinings. Carpeted smooch skirting that area.” The venue was already packed when the band arrived from their meeting point at JB’s in Dudley, pogoing (as Young notes) with greater intensity than in the capital. Although this first wave of punk was very London-centric, you can definitely detect the importance of this moment to the even-more-afflicted youth of the provinces. The lengths a Wolverhampton punk has to go to, usually, are more extreme and more intense than a London punk, and Young notes that intensity evident in crowd behaviour at Pistols gigs. More intense, more violent, even more vital perhaps. A town like Wolverhampton in the late 70s was a post-industrial and post-employment Ghost Town, scarred by concrete improvements and a history of boom industry that just gave up and died in that very decade. What hopes did the youth of 1977 for their careers, their adult lives? “No future” meant something very tangible to them. “No dogsbody” was especially prophetic – the biggest employer around here now is surely the mass of minimum-wage-paying retail outlets at the Merry Hill shopping centre.
The band arrived with hardly a soul in the massive queue outside noticing. The crowds are baying for Johnny Rotten without realising that he’s standing next to them, according to Cain – in every interview and every report, it’s Johnny Rotten that is the focus of the nation’s disgust and fascination, but in this pre-instant media generation, he’s just another spotty punk.
Young describes the spatial practice inside the Club. Far more intense than the US version of punk, a gig is characterised by violence, jeopardy and motion; inside everyone’s personal space, bouncing back and forth: “one battle seems to swirl around the entire floor, bodies tripping like a line of dominoes until it stops at the foot of the stairs in back, directly below Malcolm McLaren.” On the 18-foot stage, the band has no need to bounce around the stage to create energy: Sid Vicious is mostly concentrating on staying awake and hitting vaguely the right notes, and Rotten hunches over the microphone (allegedly stolen from David Bowie) leering. “He really doesn’t do that much besides snarl and be hunch-backed; it’s the eyes that kill you. They don’t pierce, they bludgeon.”
This footage has a clip at the beginning of a sign from Wolverhampton, but is labelled as Penzance a few days later. Judging by the order of songs described in the reviews, I think that’s probably correct, but you can get a sense of the atmosphere of the tour.
Both Cain and Young (and the Express & Star’s John Ogden) are captivated by one thing. Johnny Rotten, the icon of a generation and, it seems, a fairly unlikeable sort, smiles. A self-proclaimed antichrist, a threat to the nation, and all of the above traded on apathy, distate, disgust with all around, and he smiled. It turns out that for all the rage, the wasted youth, the self-expression and community, the Pistols enjoyed themselves. Yes, the Stooges came first, yes the Damned released the first punk single, yes Malcolm McLaren had been tarting bands for years already but the Pistols changed everything still. They ripped up the rule book and made it OK to be what you want, to vent and let off steam, they opened the tidal gates for a world of new music whether you enjoyed the Sex Pistols yourself or not. Even Johnny Rotten found himself in his Situationist “moment”, as Marcus, Lefebvre or Debord might put it, when the drudgery of everyday life was disrupted and something exciting happened; and he enjoyed it.
Forty minutes later they were off, next stop Doncaster. Wolverhampton has always had a great reputation for live music, usually focused around the ace Civic Hall, but in 1976-77 the Laff was the focus of a generation and a world for forty minutes, and no-one even knew. The Pistols returned in December, having rescheduled at the last minute (reported on by the national press of course, and causing no end of grief for less-than-honest teenagers) by which time the punk staple of gobbing on the band was in full force, which must have been lovely for the cleaners the next day (see the review for an unnamed fanzine by Peter Don’t Care, December 1977). By the next year, the Pistols were no more, and the world had changed. For this part of Wolverhampton, with its history of all the brutal ills of urban life, it seems only appropriate to have hosted the one band that has symbolised that more than anything.
Ladies and gentlemen, that was the end of a very wonderful evening. Thank you very much and drop dead.
Johnny Rotten, 21st December 1977, Club Lafayette, Wolverhampton