Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Carola Dibbell
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Sex Pistols' Winn Dixie

Out Yobs in Atlanta: Sex Pistols 4, Bollocks 2

ATLANTA--If the Sex Pistols believe that by skipping punksymp sanctuaries like New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Detroit on their first American tour they'll get to confront the true Amerika head-on, then I hope they take their debut to heart, because they opened in a shopping center. Talk about bland-out. At least Pittsburgh, where they would have premiered if the State Department hadn't intervened, has that ring of steel to it, although it's true that even there they were more likely to attract executives' children than union men's. In Atlanta, where one post-underground newspaper calls itself Creative Loafing and the queue out of the prestige music club leads to a Winn Dixie supermarket, they were at the mercy of the children of Coca-Cola (hold the Marx).

The Great Southeast Music Hall, the club is called, and a pleasant place it is: beer in buckets, better pinball than CBGB, and an official capacity of 523. The Pistols had sold out there almost a week before, when their visas were finally approved and the January 5 date became a certainty, but I spoke to two Emory students from Long Island who snapped up unconfirmed reservations for the prescribed $3.50 at four o'clock that afternoon, thus foiling scalpers who were asking $25. Some 40 or 50 tickets were purchased by print newspersons--the Pistols permitted Warners to reserve places for the press, but forbade freebies. It's not clear whether any of the five TV teams present--three local networks, the BBC, and Today, which roasted Our Yobs come morning--paid to get in. The four vice cops definitely saw the show for nothing.

Music was scheduled to begin at 8:30, but by the time my contingent arrived at 7:30 there was already a long line, and a team of sociologists led by Dr. Richard Dixon of the University of North Carolina and Dr. Richard Levinson of Emory was distributing questionnaires. I filled one out myself, thus joining a sample of 122, and later telephoned Dixon, a specialist in the sociology of leisure, for results of the preliminary print-out. The respondents were about three-quarters male, I was told, with a mean and modal age of 24. Half worked full-time, a quarter were students, and a third (presumably including lots of people who let Dan do the breadwinning) indicated a family income of over $25,000 a year. About two-thirds had heard the Pistols' music on record, and one-fifth said they attended solely out of an enthusiasm for punk rock. 72.9 per cent believed premarital intercourse was "not wrong at all"; 67.5 per cent thought the same of homosexual intercourse; only 30 per cent felt marital infidelity was "always" or "almost always wrong"; and 76.2 per cent had never been married.

Although I'd guess that the proportion of women attending was somewhat higher, these figures sound right to me. This was not only an affluent, well-educated crowd, it was also "hip"--which means that its concept of leisure included stimulation as well as relaxation and escape. There were plenty of curiosity-seekers, but their curiosity was generally sympathetic and often informed. In this they defied a hostile and imperiously ignorant media atmosphere. Bill King of the Atlanta Constitution, for instance, had written that the Pistols' album, which has been showing up on many 10-best lists, was the worst he had listened to all year and possibly ever, while the big AM station made a point of sending only news staff to cover what it regarded as a definitely unmusical event. The prevailing images were spit and vomit; the police stipulated that the Pistols could do what they liked to at each other, but that if they aimed their effusions at the audience the concert would be halted as a hazard to health.

The crowning metaphor, however, was provided by--who else?--the rock and rollers who opened the show, a good-time '60s copy band from Georgia Tech who will be referred to here as the Shitheads. Although the Shitheads had their virtues--smart steals from the Searchers and the Music Machine, dumb semi-camp Elvis medley--they got the job primarily because their music doesn't resemble the Pistols', and I thought the crowd received their 55-minute set with some kindness. Nevertheless, the band responded peevishly to cries of "Anarchy!" and "Bollocks!" that arose between numbers. "We'll make you feel at home--we'll spit," was one bit of repartee, but their most telling comment didn't even masquerade as a joke: "Some people just take things too seriously." About 40 minutes into the set the Shitheads brought out a special guest, "Atlanta's leading punk." This turned out to be an exceptionally hirsute person wearing a "Kill Me" T-shirt and carrying a large papier-mâché safety pin who sang two almost identical two-chord songs--both called, apparently, "Boot in Your Face." He also spat at the audience, but the cops, praise the Lord, restrained themselves.

Only 20 minutes after the Shitheads went off, the four musicians we were there to see strolled onto the stage and stood around; their leader murmured a few remarks and then said quietly into the mike, "My name's John and this is the Sex Pistols." The cheering and thumping, already quite enthusiastic, coalesced into an ovation, but only 15 per cent of the house was on its feet. Rotten offered a silent gesture--like a preacher bidding his congregation to rise for the hymn, but less peremptory--and almost everyone got up. The band launched into "God Save the Queen." "That was the new British national anthem," Rotten sighed, not too wittily; after a pause he added a more pointed comment: "Forget about starin' at us, just fuckin' dance. We're all ugly and we know it."

Mere sensationalism--the Pistols aren't especially ugly. Guitarist Steve Jones, a beefy bloke in a flash red-and-black stage suit, and bassist Sid Vicious, who bared his long, scrawny chest after the first song, did contort their faces into nominally hideous sneers and grimaces, but the drummer, Paul Cook, who was wearing a mint Warner Bros. Never Mind the Boolicks T-shirt, didn't even bother with that. And Rotten was beautiful. With the layered look of a busker in the Piccadilly subway--ill-fitting overcoat, suitcoat, vest, shirt, necktie--he reeled around generating charisma like there was no future. Rotten's presences defies superlatives; take away the mocking, wistful grin and the awkward-seeming poses he strikes in the middle of getting his body from one place to another and you'd still have those preternatural eyes, eyes like blue Christmas-tree lights that go on and off with some irrefutable logic of their own. Midway through the set Bob Regehr, the Warners a&r chief who signed the Pistols and whose career may well depend on theirs, strode over and shouted: "Christgau, I don't care what happens any more, they're all right. It was all worth it and Johnny Rotten is a fucking superstar." I know what he was feeling--this boy is one of a kind.

Unfortunately, the concert as a whole was less than transcendent. Very good, yes; the first four songs were stiff, but after that I was moved to do my balls-of-the-feet pogo with unusual bounce. Only on "Holidays in the Sun," however, did I become airborne, and while there was a lot of fine frenzy in the room, it never quite approached full-scale abandon. I suppose some of this could be blamed on musicianship--the Pistols don't play as effectively as the Clash or Television or the Ramones, and Rotten's Protean, scarifying vocals lacked the power and precision of the record. Or maybe the problem is a musical concept as close to Aerosmith as punk, we should be so lucky, ever ought to get. But the big factor was anticlimax. Johnny Rotten has gotten further on print than any rock star in history; the sheer volume of his myth guarantees a shortfall, albeit from a titanic standard.

This means that John and his lazy sods will have to work hard just to keep up with themselves. In Atlanta, where two Pistols dressed like ordinary rock stars and Rotten himself did nothing more offensive than pick his nose, the sly understatement was just right. Not everyone hoping to be shown the light left with eyes shining, but there is universal agreement that the Pistols expanded their core of fans; even Bill King, apparently nervous enough to essay a serious hatchet job, allowed as how they were mediocre. There still isn't one radio station in the city that will play their music, though--a problem that is hardly limited to Atlanta. The Sex Pistols are going to have to really slog it to convince a support group of young and youthful Americans that it doesn't hurt to take rock and roll seriously. Not that it hurts to laugh about it, either--strike pose, flash eyes, unzip grin. But Johnny Rotten's message is that life is more than a leisure-time activity, and that is a truth that the children of Coca-Cola find hard to swallow.

Village Voice, Jan. 16, 1978