This is easily one of the most entertaining music books I’ve picked up. It’s also disgusting, but, 12 Days On The Road just might be one of the best books I’ve read as well. This is the story of the Sex Pistols in America, a vastly different creature than the band that blasted Great Britain out of its comfort zone, and the music business out of its slumber. As the book states early on, in 1977 “music serves to keep the listener and performer far apart; no common ground is broken, nothing is exchanged, nothing is demanded, nothing is delivered.” The America that the Sex Pistols were coming to is one in which the message of many of the rock stars is ‘If you have money, come in and spend it on us; if not, stay far away.” The Sex Pistols were the exact opposite.
Malcolm McLaren — svengali, manager, and irritant — put the band together in his hipster clothing shop called “SEX.” As the authors write: “the irony of course is that, like the shop SEX, the Sex Pistols had nothing to do with sex. They are four ugly, scary people. But their name has gotten them some attention (and) McLaren’s calculated infiltration can begin.” They gigged, got signed to labels, collected money, and then got dropped by labels. Their behavior turned most of England off and many of their gigs were banned, due in equal parts to their name and behavior. So what to do? Go to America, the land of opportunity (at the time in a major recession), and offend even more people. And make even more money. Well…maybe not that last bit.
Ever the provocateur, McLaren drew up perhaps the weirdest, most doomed-to-fail US tour imaginable, starting in Atlanta and ending in San Francisco, with gigs in Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dallas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma in between. Barbara Skydel, VP of the booking agency Premier Talent, recalls “Malcolm had the misguided notion that the South was all poor. He thought that’s who the Sex Pistols fans would be.” Wow. She goes on to say that he apparently had “no idea that there would be rednecks who would want to kill the band.” Umm…
Author Noel Monk (along with veteran music writer Jimmy Guterman) retraced the tour to write this book and interviewed everyone who had anything to do with it, and it’s a doozy. Monk was stage manager at Fillmore East and Woodstock, and worked on the road with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones and later Van Halen, and was brought aboard to run the Pistols tour. He surrounded himself with road veterans to get the band to shows via bus, while Malcom flew first class and stayed in luxury hotels. Monk also has to deal with Steve Jones and Paul Cook’s never-ending childishness, Sid’s extreme heroin addiction (as well as his crabs due to his unwillingness to bathe), and Johnny Rotten’s general petulance and, well, asshole-ness. Three days in, on the first date in Atlanta, McClaren refuses to deal with the band, Monk assaults Malcolm, and Sid Vicious is lost, thousands of miles from home, somewhere in Atlanta’s underground, looking for a fix. The tour has begun.
It gets better, for the reader anyway, but substantially worse for anyone who was on the tour. There are so many stories here; the band taunts the audience with Southern accents, picks fights with truckers in diners, and disparages DJs, writers, photographers, and various other label associates, who do want to be there; just not with the band. Sid seemingly loses his handlers in every other city to look for dope and the occasional groupie, and the entourage even has to leave Memphis without him, hoping the roadie left behind can find him and get him to the next show. He does.
The band starts out the tour on fire, while dodging beer bottles and cans, rotten tomatoes, pig snouts, dirty Kleenex, and spit that serve as applause. But they soon become disengaged from and disinterested in each other, likely exhausted, and oddly become the bored and boring band they first set out against, playing the same exact set every night. It’s truly a fascinating transformation.
Most of us know how this ends; onstage at Bill Graham’s legendary Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, with Johnny Rotten dropping the mic, after asking the audience “Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Good night.” The book includes a photo of the settlement stub from the Winterland show, where the Sex Pistols played for 5000 people. They were payed $66. Total. And I’ve always wanted to ask Rotten that same question…
Read 12 Days On The Road. Love the Sex Pistols or hate ‘em, I guarantee you will not feel cheated.
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