The influence of punk might extend as far as Bromley but that was about it’s geographical limit for
the first half of 1976. Punk was the sound of London, punk accents were working class London accents.
With no social media the only way for a band to get word out that they existed would be to play gigs and the Pistols were no exception. Initially they played around London, maybe a jaunt out to High Wycombe, but initially the band were exploring the pub and club circuit well-trod by minor league bands.
The great thing about playing London is that’s where the press is and already the Pistols were starting to get a bit of attention, initially in the NME in a short review by Neil Spencer. At the Nashville in April an incident happened which was to become iconic for the Sex Pistols, It was a couple of days after an interview in the sub NME paper Sounds and that had raised the profile of the band significantly. In the audience were stars in waiting such as Mick Jones and Adam Ant as well as inevitably reporters and photographers. Finding the gig going a little flat Vivienne Westwood took it upon herself to slap a girls face who was watching the band, her boyfriend then attacked Vivienne and McLaren and the band piled in resulting in a bit of blood and some great photos. The Pistols profile was raising rapidly, they had a reputation for things happening at their gigs and you wanted to go along just to see what might kick off.
In May McLaren sent his boys off for a tour of the North. It was woefully organised with the band playing places like Barnsley and Scarborough to disinterested or hostile crowds and having to steal (luckily they had Steve Jones) to get food. The North was uncharted territory, London was dangerous enough with its various football allegiances but it wouldn’t take a lot for a Northern crowd to turn against a bunch of upstart southerners. The band made some impression, in Nothallerton Pauline Murray saw them blow the Doctors of Madness off stage and sowed the seeds for her own punk (ish) band Penetration, but generally the Pistols were pissing in the wind.
Meanwhile in the northwest two Bolton students Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish like loads of other students were trying to form their own band. Unlike loads of other students however they were so excited on reading the Neil Spencer article that they felt they had do actually get to see the Sex Pistols play. Trafford managed to borrow a mates car whereupon they drove down to London, phoned up Neil Spencer who pointed them in the direction of McLaren’s shop SEX where they arrive just on closing time. The duo got to see the Pistols play twice that weekend and decided that the Pistols must play Bolton. McLaren was in agreement as long as they organised the gig themselves. Bolton college student’s union decline to put on a bunch of unknown Londoners but Trafford and McNeish found out that they could book the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester for something like the sum of £32.
The Free Trade Hall has a long and illustrious history being the site of both 1872 Benjamin Disraeli’s One Nation speech and Bob Dylan’s “Judas!” shout in 1966. The Lesser Free Trade Hall was not so illustrious being in the same building but a lot smaller, but it had a stage. By this point the dynamic duo had become Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto and their group was named Buzzcocks (never The Buzzcocks according to Shelley). Buzzcocks should have played as support to the gig which was scheduled for the 4thJune but they were not going to be ready so Devoto dragged in the only band he actually knew because he had had a summer job with one of them. Solstice were an old style prog/heavy rock band who apparently featured Nantucket Sleigh ride as a highlight of their set.
The rest is history and has been voted as one of the three most important gigs of all time (work out
the other two yourselves) And of course every northerner from Fred Dibnah to Ena Sharples were there and they all formed bands and made Manchester great again
In fact there were about 30-40 people there, the presence of former Factory Records boss Tony Wilson has been disputed but certainly as well as most of Buzzcocks, Mark E Smith of the Fall, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook from New Order/Joy Division , Morrissey later of The Smiths and writer Paul Morley were all witnesses.
In fact Manchester had a lot more going on than a lot of northern towns at that time, Tony Wilson fronted a TV show ‘So It Goes’ which was something of a joke to the city that produced The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops but as the music of the Northwest started to explode so Wilson’s profile and influence grew and within 5 years Factory Records would be a major player.
Manchester also had its own proto punk/Eddie and the Hot Rods/ John the Baptist band namely Slaughter and the Dogs. Like the Hot Rods they were a genuinely working class group who were never quite cool enough for punk having learned to actually play and get gigs in working men’s clubs.
Just 6 weeks later there was a repeat performance at The Lesser Free Trade Hall where the Pistols
were supported by Slaughter and the Dogs as well as Buzzcocks. The Dogs were regarded as too
showbiz by many but Buzzcocks, with Shelley playing a Woolworth electric guitar which he had
sawn the top half off went down well.
The impression the Pistols made was instantaneous but a lot of the punters were not overly
impressed and Morrissey in particular penned a letter to the NME which was quite critical of the
band. This gig was different though, previously punters were expected to leave the venue full of
admiration and awe towards the headlining act, but people leaving the Pistols gig were struck with
‘I could do that’
Peter Hook for example was to go virtually straight to a music shop and walk out with the first bass
the salesperson offered him, and so Warsaw later to be Joy Division later still New Order was born
joining Buzzcocks, The Drones, Slaughter and the Dogs and Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds on the
Manchester Punk scene.
There was a lot more people there now, soon bands were forming all over Britain and the Sex Pistols were about to get their first ever TV performance from a Manchester TV studio