Photographer: Paul Welsh.
In December 1976, after the Sex Pistols dropped a few F bombs during an interview with Bill Grundy on Thames TV's Today show, they immediately became national pariahs and/or heroes, and were the band that saved or destroyed rock & roll, depending on one's perspective. However you saw them, the Sex Pistols were never simply a rock group from that point on -- they were the leaders of a new movement, something they may not have planned on. Live 1976 is an archival box set that gives fans a chance to hear the band before the media had their way with them. The box includes crude recordings of four shows the Sex Pistols played in 1976, before they had a record deal or fired original bassist Glen Matlock in favor of Sid Vicious. All four shows have previously circulated as bootlegs, but this set marks their first authorized release, and the press materials point out the tapes were remastered for release at Abbey Road Studios. However, consumers should be aware this material sounds only marginally better than the earlier pirate editions, and whoever tried to clean up these recordings conspicuously declined to put their name in the liner notes. The audio rarely rises above the level of a decent boombox tape, and while historical importance plays a massive role here, serious audiophiles should probably not bother. The first two shows -- the June 4 Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall show, where they were seen by an impressive number of future punk and alternative icons, and their August 29 appearance at Islington's Screen on the Green Cinema -- document a rough and ready band with energy, ideas, and attitude to spare, but Steve Jones was still finding his feet as a guitarist, and Johnny Rotten had yet to make the most of his instrument, though he was already a startling and sharply witty frontman. The September 17 gig at Chelmsford Prison finally appears in unaltered form, and while some earlier releases altered the material to suggest Rotten tried to start a riot, here the band delivers a middling performance while the frontman bemusedly berates the audience for their apathy and laziness between songs. (Which begs the question, what were they supposed to do?) But the jewel here is the final show, recorded at the 76 Club in Burton on Trent on September 24. The audio is a bit better than the other shows, but more important, here the Pistols are on fire, sounding tight, powerful, and as dangerous as they want to be, and the crowd is with them the whole way. The 76 Club recording presents music as incendiary as the Sex Pistols' reputation, and at its best, Live 1976 suggests the band could have turned the music world upside down even if they hadn't become a national scandal -- though it certainly helped. ~ Mark Deming