Just So You Know: The Sex Pistols Concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall

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Anyone who’s seen the film Back to the Future, and that encompasses most of my generation, is familiar with the term “nexus year”. For the uninitiated, It basically means any year that has many important events that occur in its course. This applies as much to music as it does anything else. For example, 1959 is a very important year for jazz. John Coltrane released Giant Steps, Miles Davis released Kinda Blue, Ornette Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come. That year also saw the deaths of worthies Billie Holiday and Lester Young. 1967 is a similarly important for rock, especially alternative rock.

But what if we could collapse the concept of a nexus year into a single event? For example, the 1976 concert given by the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.  

Background

Built in 1846 to commemorate the repeal of the Corn Laws, the Free Trade Hall was a minor landmark of Manchester throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the time the 1970s had rolled around, it was a popular concert venue in the city. So it was a natural choice to host the Sex Pistols when they came to Manchester.

There are two things to remember at this point. First, the Sex Pistols were still a word of mouth phenomenon who had yet to release an album. Likewise, most outside their fandom viewed them as a cheap shock act that counted for little artistically speaking. Second, Manchester was an economically-depressed network of decaying factories and dirty canals. In fact, the bleakness of Manchester was a common subject of everything from songs to jokes at the time. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much money in Manchester either, and the town’s youth were aimless and angry due to lack of opportunity.  

In other words, the very people that the Sex Pistol’s music spoke to the most. Even so, very few people actually turned up to see the Sex Pistols play. However, the people that did turn up at the series of shows the Sex Pistols play were a veritable future who’s who of Manchester music.

Dramatis Personae

Tony Wilson, for example. Wilson was an executive at Granada Television, a local network that serviced Manchester and some fo the surrounding cities. However, Wilson was becoming bored with the content he produced on television and wanted to do something new. Wilson would go on to found Factory Records, which produced, recorded, and sold some of the most influential bands in history.

Also in attendance was Steven Morrissey, future frontman of the Smiths. While he had yet to ditch his first name, Morrisey already had a fascination with music, especially the underground music that the Sex Pistol’s represented. Morrissey has since gone on to enjoy a long career while the Smiths are one of the most influential bands to come our of Northern England.

While they didn’t see the same shows, most of the future members of Joy Divison came to see the Sex Pistols. At this point, future frontman Ian Curtis was writing poetry in his notebooks but had yet to develop an interest in performing. The other members, on the other hand, were already part of a band called Stiff Kittens but were having trouble gaining traction. A year later, Joy Division was born and helped put Manchester on the musical map of the world.

Finally, music journalist Paul Morley saw the show as well. Morley would go on to chronical the events of the Manchester, or Madchester as it later became known, scene for posterity.

The Grand Result

This is just a sampling of who was there. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the entire Madchester Hall of Fame took in the show, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration by much. Without the show at the Free Trade Hall, it is likely that music scene of Manchester would have been very different, or perhaps not even have been at all. Since it was one of the most innovative and dynamic scenes of the late 70s/early 80s, that would have been a real shame.

So, it’s fair to call the Sex Pistols show at the Free Trade Hall a nexus event.     

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