I Swear I Was There
That Changed The World
"A garage band, playing a few cover versions and a smattering of their own tunes, in front of a few long-hairs in a seated auditorium in Manchester is the third most important gig of all time. Why?"
This is the central question that this highly informative and very entertaining book seeks to answer.
The gig in question is the Sex Pistols infamous performance at the Lesser Free trade Hall in Manchester on June 4th 1976, a gig that thousands of people would go on to swear that they'd been there, whereas in fact the total number present was well under 100. Nolan goes on to show why so many people claim to have been there by putting the gig in context, and showing the direct line from the Pistol's ramshackle set to the burgeoning of punk as a national movement, the establishment of independent labels, the arrival of alternative music television and many of the best bands which followed in the next 25 plus years. This is done entirely through original interviews with the main protagonists - not just Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley who promoted the gig having read about the Pistols in NME and went on to form Buzzcocks, but also Glen Matlock, Peter Hook, Mark E Smith, Tony Wilson, Paul Morley, Malcolm McLaren and a host of smaller part players, including members of the unfortunate dire-sounding hippy/prog rock band Solstice who were booked as the support act and have since been totally and happily forgotten about. Until now.
These interviews are lively, humorous and often contradictory, with different members of the same bands often disagreeing with each other, especially about who was and wasn't there! Nolan's own contributions are unobtrusive but illuminating and well written, and his use of rare pictures from the actual gig are revealing.
He traces the genuine audience members and shows them to be a who's who of music in Manchester and the world for the next two decades. Members of Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Fall and (ahem) Simply Red were all motivated by that gig to do their own thing, while key players in the Madchester scene also claim inspiration from what they went on to hear of that night. Didn't Oasis claim to be equally influenced by The Pistols and The Beatles?
He goes on to show the gig's historical ripples which lap up even onto the shores of the present day. Without the night Devoto and Shelley organised, there'd have been no Buzzcocks - without them no Blink 182, no Nirvana, no Green Day, and, to bring things right up to date, no Fallout Boy or My Chemical Romance. If Peter Hook hadn't felt that he just had to buy a bass guitar, there'd have been no Joy Divison and how much that would have changed twentieth century music - and no New Order and none of the bands that followed them, mixing electronica, dance beats with rock.
Perhaps most important was the attitude that the gig engendered; seeing the Pistols made many (most?) of the audience members present realise that they too could this rock'n'roll thing, that they didn't need to have their culture served up by others, that they too could be creative and original, legends in their own lunchtimes. "It's about fucking time somebody fucking wound up those fucking bunch of fucking tossers" as Glen Matlock's 65 year old Manchester taxi driver told him.
And it is this empowerment of ordinary people to make themselves heard which to me is the most important thing about punk. "By exercising your will you can make things happen", as Pete Shelley puts it.
In that case why is the Pistols' gig ranked by NME as the third most important gig of all time, below Live Aid and Woodstock?
Nolan makes a very good case for it being number one, and fuck the marking system.
Now when can something like that happen again?
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