Holiday in San Antonio
The night the Sex pistols went off at Randy's rodeo
Jan. 8, 1978, began like most Central Texas winter mornings: gray, but not terribly cold. It was the same in San Antonio -- except for the rumbling. The Sex Pistols were coming.
Playing their third show in four days, the third of only seven dates in the U.S. -- six of which were played in the South and Southwest -- the Sex Pistols weren't going anywhere near New York City, and San Francisco was chosen over Los Angeles as the eighth and final date.
The Sex Pistols. Even their name provoked reaction. Three months prior, in October 1977, the English quartet had detonated in the media with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. The music was crunching, the songs boisterous, and the lyrics delightfully offensive to the average Seventies rock fan who was fed a diet of bloated arena rock, mind-numbing FM radio, and cocaine-glutted rock stars.
Witnessing the spectacle in person was possibly the most sterling example of peer pressure passing as independent consciousness in local history. And yet, while it's an overstatement to suggest that everyone who was anyone was in San Antonio that night, an extraordinary number of people in attendance went on to notable accomplishments. Friendships and alliances formed that night have lasted decades.
Eight of us Austinites who saw the Sex Pistols 25 years ago this week remember the event in varying but equally powerful ways. "In my life, I've never been involved with anything as cathartic as that night," recalls Chronicle editor Louis Black. The sentiment is echoed by many.
The Sex Pistols left no unfinished business. Those of us in attendance were handed marching orders, effective Jan. 9, 1978, to rage against mediocrity. It was a lesson not always followed, but never forgotten.
Bill Bentley: There are certain shows you just know not to miss. The Sex Pistols in San Antonio, on Elvis Presley's birthday, playing at Randy's Rodeo on their first American tour. Gas up the car, grab the crank, and let's get it.
The music world was so polarized on whether the Pistols were either utter dog poop or the absolute saviors of rock & roll that fistfights almost broke out just talking about it. Lord knows what would happen when the boys showed up in person for a concert. But on January 8, 1978, there was no other place to be but on I-35 heading south toward the Alamo City.
Ken Hoge: I did not get the whole punk attitude/scene in England. It seemed violent and scary, but I loved those catchy tunes and was very eager to photograph the band.
Margaret Moser: Ken was my boyfriend then, so we drove down together. He'd bought the tickets for $3 in advance at Joske's at Highland Mall. The irony of buying tickets for the most fuck-you band ever at a suburban mall was too rich. And we were howling over them playing at Randy's Rodeo, of all places!
Frank Pugliese: When I heard they were booked at Randy's, I thought, "What the heck?" But then I heard their reasoning and thought, "OK, they're gonna get what they want." They thought it would be cowboys in the audience.
Bentley: It was a paying gig for me. Through a few previous Austin Sun co-workers, who were now toiling at Larry Flynt's L.A. Free Press, I'd been hired to cover the show. With visions of Hunter S. Thompson dancing in my addled head, I enlisted amateur investigator Glenn Jones to be our driver and borrowed a friend's front-wheel drive Tornado for some extra traction. It felt like we were going to need it.
Jesse Sublett: Like other pockets of spiky-haired people around Austin, we thought the local scene sucked big-time, with its cosmic cowboys and progressive rock geeks. We were rock & roll terrorists, primed to strike. My band, the Violators, tried to snag the opening slot for the Pistols. We gave the promoter a demo tape and photo. He said the gig was ours if he could fuck one of the band members (it wasn't me). We told him to fuck himself. We got free tickets anyway.
Pugliese: My brother Joe worked for [San Antonio promoters] Stone City Attractions. The boss would not have put us on the bill, but he was out of town, and the guy in charge was a friend of my brother's, so....
Louis Black: I'd read about the Sex Pistols, and they sounded kind of bogus, but every time I stopped at Inner Sanctum, the guys were saying, "This is great stuff." The night of the Sex Pistols show, James Cooper from the store was getting married, and there was a party at Soap Creek; Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys played, a buffet spread, tons of folks. At a certain point, people started to leave. An hour and 10 minutes later, a bunch of us ran into each other in the parking lot at Randy's Rodeo in San Antonio.
Sublett: Our troupe, consisting of Eddie Muñoz, Carla Olson, Kathy Valentine, and Marilyn Dean, drove down to San Antonio in Eddie's VW bus and then hooked up with [current Chronicle senior account executive] Lois Richwine. I was very excited, because the concert was my first date with Lois. Kathy had played matchmaker. We loved proto-punk bands Blondie, the Ramones, Dr. Feelgood, Lou Reed, Roxy Music; we had every single by the Pistols, the Damned, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe. Lois and Kathy brought some of their singles direct from London, while Lois had seen Blondie and the Ramones at CBGB when she lived in New York.
Pugliese: As soon as the Sex Pistols came into Randy's that afternoon, everybody got cleared out. Big mess there, bouncers playing bodyguard ... not much of a chance to hang out. Sid Vicious approached my guitarist and me. I don't know what he was mumbling about -- I couldn't understand him. Sid wanted my guitarist's sunglasses, so he pulled them off his head and said, "I'll give 'em back to you after the show." And we were like, "Sure thing, Sid." He went stumbling off with the sunglasses, and that was the end of that.
Bentley: The night smelled like trouble from the start. During the Seventies, San Antonio was the No. 1 hard rock market in the country. A quick look at the crowd in the club made one fact clear: Punk rock and heavy metal were one and the same to 99% of the audience. These were devil-worshipping, head-banging heathens, and they couldn't have cared less about safety pins, or really, the Sex Pistols. They were in it for the curiosity factor, like they were visiting the zoo to see the newest animal attraction. That and the fact they were ready to kick Johnny Rotten's ass all the way back to London.
Pugliese: The Vamps had been around playing the Stones, Velvet Underground, basic hard rock. We played our regular set. We did the Dolls, a Stooges song, a couple of Stones songs, a couple of originals. We didn't have but a half-hour's worth of music at the most. After we got off the stage, people were like, "Hey, where y'all from?" and I was like, "From around the corner." I could almost walk to Randy's, it was about a mile and half from my house.
Sublett: Frank was doing essentially the same thing he is now with Sons of Hercules -- channeling Iggy and the New York Dolls. Carla, Kathy, Marilyn, and I had a punk band called the Violators. Eddie and I, with drummer Billy Blackmon, had just formed the Skunks. We were primed for the Pistols.
Bentley: We walked in just as opening act the Vamps were walking offstage. Randy's had the distinct feel of a made-over bowling alley, all Formica counters and fluorescent lights. The low ceiling made everything feel even more claustrophobic than the packed house normally would. In a hip marketing move, the band's label, Warner Bros., nixed any press freebies but were happy to sell journalists a $2.50 ticket at the door.
Black: In the back are all these folks in leisure suits -- friends of the owner who came to see the freak show. Someone says, "Oh, there's [music critic and Chronicle founding editor] Jeff Whittington." I stood on my tiptoes trying to see who he was; I read him in the Texan regularly.
Moser: I didn't know Louis then, but I knew Jeff. Kathy and Marilyn I knew from when we tried to start a rock trio very briefly in 1977. Eddie was the big stud musician always seen squiring these beautiful little confections at the big concerts. He and Jesse said they were starting the Skunks. And Bentley and I worked together at the Austin Sun.
Sublett: The band hit the stage blasting like a pack of howling coyotes loose in a chicken pen: blowtorch guitar, machine gun drums, snarling vocals, sneering faces, bass rumble. They were half rock & roll messiahs, half sideshow freaks. Johnny Rotten fomented chaos and rebellion; Steve Jones and Paul Cook anchored it with napalm-drenched Eddie Cochran riffs and a backbeat crackling like a nail gun. Sid Vicious spewed venom. The storm of beer, spit, and other debris raining down was the punk baptism of Texas.
Pugliese: I liked the record, so when they got onstage, I was hoping they'd sound like that. And they did. When people bombarded them with stuff, Johnny would talk crap back to them, but the others were like, "No big deal." They just kept playing.
Black: Musically, I remember it sucked. I don't remember one positive, quality musical moment that evening. It was more Johnny talking. Remember the first time Talking Heads played or when John Cale did "Sabotage," and it ripped the top of your skull off? There was none of that. It wasn't music, but it was important. When the attitude transcends the music, the attitude can redeem the music.
Bentley: The foursome stumbled their way into the opening song, which sounded like dogs being slaughtered inside a big tin drum. It was that good. Guitarist Steve Jones could actually play three chords, and unlike bassist Sid Vicious, seemed to know where he was. Drummer Paul Cook kept a rock-solid, if singular, beat and seemed to enjoy his safe vantage point behind the drums. Singer Johnny Rotten was obviously running the show and took great pains to be the biggest prick onstage.
Moser: It sucked musically. Jones could play, but Vicious couldn't, so the overall sound was inept. Except for Rotten, who couldn't sing, but visually, he exploded onstage. I don't even remember the songs they played, but I remember Johnny Rotten, raging, running amuck, cueing the crowd like he was a director and them the actors in a riot scene. The show was all about theatre and volume.
Sublett: It was instant mayhem. Cups, beer cans, food, trash, spit flew toward the stage. The sound was loud, extremely lo-fi, but the band was tight -- for about 10 seconds. Steve Jones broke a string and "Holiday in the Sun" almost fell apart, but they got it back together and performed like gangbusters. Except for Sid, who was a pretty awful bass player; his mistakes kind of got swallowed up in the roar, and he was fascinating/revolting to look at, so it balanced out. Jones was an excellent guitarist, grounded in roots-rockabilly and heavy metal, and paired with Cook's rock-steady, Charlie Watts-style drumming, the band's sound was as instantly classic and retro as it was revolutionary and just plain scary. Especially with Johnny Rotten's primal howling and cackling on top -- not to mention those fabulous lyrics.
Hoge: It was a face-off between the band and the audience, something I had never experienced or expected. Everyone was play-acting the violence, with the audience throwing Schlitz and Pearl cans while the band cursed the audience, egging them on, but there was a definite edge where you knew that it could turn really ugly at any moment. In fact, it did, and it almost ended the show prematurely.
Bentley: Wearing a red plaid suit and sporting the most demented grin since Arnold Stang, Rotten howled like Bevo was stepping on his balls and kept baiting the crowd for all he was worth. The metal boys in front of the stage, fueled by Pabst and paint, gave it back in aces, throwing beer, Cokes, popcorn, and pizza at the band in an endless barrage of garbage.
Hoge: Someone hit Sid in the face with a beer can, and Sid saw the celebrating put on by this guy, who had been goading and taunting him all along. Sid took a swing at the guy with his bass. This happened real close to me, and it was real crowded. I was afraid of losing my camera but snapped what I could.
Moser: Ken was up in the front shooting. I was standing by Bill Bentley about six feet from the front of the stage when Sid was hit. Sid went ballistic, mowing his bass recklessly through the audience like a scythe. Bentley stuck his arm in front of my shoulders and pushed me backward. "Step back, Margaret," he said. "This could get ugly."
Black: Sid hit the person in the audience with his bass, and Johnny stood there and said, "Oh, Sid dropped his bass."
Bentley: It was at this point that rock & roll murder barely got missed, and I'll never forget how close it all came. Johnny Rotten started screaming at the band's attackers: "All you cowboys are faggots." Of course, there really weren't any cowboys at Randy's that night. If Rotten had said, "All you Mexicans are faggots," I have no doubt he would have been killed. There was zero security, the audience could reach out and touch the band, and to insult the audience's manhood like that was stone cold.
Moser: People imagine the show with a crowd of mohawked and dyed-hair punks, but it wasn't. It was mostly longhaired San Antonio heavy metal fans. The punk "look" hardly existed. Those in the crowd that did dress punk, like future Huns singer Phil Tolstead in his "Void" T-shirt, were in the minority. There were some straight people walking around. The audience was half the show.
Sublett: People say there were more rednecks there than fans, and that's how Malcolm McLaren wanted it, but I recognized a lot of people from the tiny but intense crowd of 150-300 for Iggy Pop at the Armadillo about a year earlier. When the Pistols launched into Iggy and the Stooges' "No Fun," we all felt like payback time was right around the corner.
Bentley: On the way out, I noticed a 16-year-old carving a swastika on the forehead of Ray Price's photo hanging by the front door. It was then I realized how much luck has to do with listening to punk rock and was able to safely steer our little crew to Club Ooh La La on Culebra Road for the swinging sounds of Sonny Ace and the Twisters as a much-needed musical antidote. My only worry was wondering how to describe a whole, new world for those who weren't there.
Moser: After the show, there was this feeling of survival, as if we'd been through a significant joint experience. I guess we had. There were so many people there I'd never seen before but would come to be friends with or work with. It was that big of a catalyst. The thing I remember most vividly about the aftermath was a few Randy's regulars strolling in afterward, real shit-kickers in their hats and boots. They looked horrified at the carnage inside.
Pugliese: Getting the opening gig didn't do a thing for the Vamps.
Sublett: A lot of people say the Pistols concert was where Austin's punk/New Wave scene all began; I say it was between the concert and the Raul's debut of punk. Not necessarily because of our particular bands, but because so many people missed the Pistols and realized they'd committed a colossal screwup, so they flocked to all our early shows with evangelical fervor. Things accelerated with hurricane force in 1978. Everybody got spiky hair, ditched their bell-bottoms, and started a band.
Black: It started with Sex Pistols.
Hoge: The show changed my life, literally. My musical tastes and attitude about performance art were never the same. I do not think they would have mattered at all, though, if the music had not been so real or if Johnny Rotten had not been such an amazingly gross performer or if Sid Vicious had not been such a suicidal maniac. It was an impossible combination that somehow clicked, like winning the cultural lottery.
Moser: A few years later, I realized the Sex Pistols were as manufactured as the Monkees. In a way, that was perfect, but it was also like, so what? It turned music upside down and put the music back in the hands of musicians, and that's just what the music business needed.
Black: This was a manufactured musical event that had nothing to do with music. In my life, I've never been involved with anything as cathartic as that night. I didn't go home and change anything I did, but nothing was the same after that show. In a way, the Chronicle happened at that show.
A few years later I met Russ Meyer, who was supposed to film Who Killed Bambi?, the Sex Pistols film. Russ goes, "Steve Jones and Paul Cook, they were reasonable guys. Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, they were assholes."
Sublett: There's a bold, throbbing line that runs more or less directly from that noisy, glorious night in January 1978 to the Live Music Capital of the World era we're living today. Austin was rocked to the marrow by the Pistols' anarchy, and the aftershocks are still being transmitted through every successive generation of rock & rollers. Twenty-five years since that first date with my wife Lois, and when I listen to some of our 9-year-old son Dashiell's favorite bands -- the Hives, the Vines, Smash Mouth -- sometimes it sounds like just yesterday.
Pugliese: I'm glad I got to see them like I'm glad I got to see Iggy, glad I got to see the Dolls with everybody intact. The Sex Pistols sounded good so, no problem. Thank you very much, boys.