Friday 20th February 1976 – Sex Pistols support Lord Sutch at Wycombe College
My research for this infamous gig provided much of the inspiration for this website. An article published on chairboys.co.uk to mark the 40th anniversary included my findings from this chaotic evening. I have since continued to add more background to the story and included additional press cuttings that have been enhanced for use of wycombegigs.co.uk and the @wycombegigs Twitter feed. Any additional information and/or pictures would be most welcome.
The Sex Pistols appearance in High Wycombe on Friday 20th February 1976 was more than nine months away from the release of their first single and the infamous Bill Grundy run-in where they said f**k on tea-time telly.
Nearly four months before their legendary 4th June 1976 gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, the High Wycombe appearance proved to be was as significant as any in the Sex Pistols history. Not quite the birthplace of punk but at least a port of call on the route of conception.
The Sex Pistols had formed the previous year and played their first gig in November 1975. A week before their appearance in High Wycombe, at what locals called ‘The Tech’, the Pistols had played a support slot to Eddie & The Hot Rods at The Marquee. A review of the gig in the following Thursday’s New Musical Express came with the headline ‘Don’t look over your shoulder, but the Sex Pistols are coming’.
The myth goes that the Sex Pistols turned up unannounced for their gig in High Wycombe but enough was known about it before hand for at least of couple of significant people to travel from Manchester in a borrowed car to see what all the fuss was about. They were Pete McNeish and Howard Trafford, students from Bolton who had seen the NME review the day before and had decided to travel to London, meeting friend Richard Boon in Reading on the way, to track down their next gig. A phone call to the NME led them to Pistols’ Manager Malcolm McLaren’s shop in the Kings Road where they informed of the planned appearance in High Wycombe that very evening.
20 year old McNeish and 23 year old Trafford would also pick up a copy of Time Out that day where the headline for the review of TV programme Rock Follies gave them inspiration for a name for the band they planned to form – ‘FEELING A BUZZ, COCKS’. McNeish would become Pete Shelley and Trafford, Howard Devoto. Richard Boon would be their Manager and after seeing the Pistols in High Wycombe they would return to Manchester to form Buzzcocks and promote the famous gigs at The Lesser Free Trade Hall.
The audience on the night of Friday 20th February 1976 was typical of a Rag Week concert in High Wycombe – a mixture mainly of art, building and engineering students – many interested in the cheap beer available, including the offer of four pints of Guinness for £1.
The ‘punk scene’ had yet to happen in the UK and aside from the NME article published the previous day, Sex Pistols were virtually unknown and at the time this was the furthest they had played outside of London.
Assistant Social Secretary at the time, Patrick Graham recalls clearly the evening – partly due to his 6’4” mate Loz spotting trouble on the stage during one of the songs where, just turned 20 year old,lead singer Jonny Rotten had accidentally” smashed Screaming Lord Sutch’s gold plated microphone into the stage while swinging it on its lead. “One of Sutch’s group was about to start a fight – Loz, acting as security at the side of the stage picked up Rotten by the back of his belt and scruff of neck and threw him into the sparsely filled “auditorium” like a small sack of potatoes…people took the hint that causing trouble meant they would lose…”
Graham operated the disco as assistant to the social secretary, Tony Wilkins, who was the one who booked the Pistols for the knock down price (from full) to a half crate of Carlsberg. The Pistols had rung up the College seeking a gig supporting Screaming Lord Sutch. Graham recalls: “Johnny Rotten came up and asked if I had any “out of tune guitar music – like the New York Dolls or the Tubes?” – I put on, “White Punks on dope”, he approved but didn’t smile.”
The Bucks Free Press Midweek carried a review of the gig the following Tuesday written by young reporter Janice McKelvie – completely unknowingly it became what is believed to be the second ever ‘review’ of a Sex Pistols gig (after the NME piece) and never published online before I discovered it in February 2016 while researching the 40th anniversary of the gig. Written just a day or so after the gig, it probably gives one of the most accurate recollections of the night.
The report starts off by saying: “A four man group by the strange name of Sex Pistols stole the show at The Rag Ball on Friday. It wasn’t they musically good – they just refused to stop playing.” The report goes on to say how after one song lead singer Johnny Rotten shouted at the audience: “That’s it we’re going home.” The Pistols front man was apparently not happy with the PA system and continued in what was reported as: “in a stream of language denouncing the college, rag committee and the audience.”
The report continues: “The audience replied with a slow hand clap and jeering. The group stopped playing. Five minutes later they were back and told the audience: “We hope you enjoy this because we ain’t gonna”. After a couple of more tracks the group were asked to finish and the discotheque started. But the group were not having this and started playing again. During the next song the vocalist decided to lie down on the edge of the college stage and somebody from the audience ran forward and pulled him onto the floor. A small disturbance broke out but the vocalist escaped back to the stage. Eventually Sex Pistols ran out of songs and left the stage. Members of the Rag Committee later alleged that the group had damaged another performer’s equipment.”
The BFP report also recalls that before Sex Pistols and taken stage, a local band called Kites had played too. But the name of the band was either a mistake or a toned down version of their real name, Clits. Their guitarist was apparently a Wycombe Wanderers fan and according to the BFP report they were ‘a more sombre group’ and ‘seemed to be use to abuse from the audience as well because the vocalist invited the audience to shout at them.’
Another significant figure in the audience that night was local promoter Ron Watts. 33 year old Watts was apparently at the gig to see the college social secretary about a stripper he was booking for them. He popped his head in to the gig to witness The Sex Pistols creating chaos but was interested enough to make a note of their name. Pistols Manager Malcolm McLaren would later seek out him at The 100 Club venue in Oxford Street where Watts promoted Blues Nights. McLaren said he wanted his band to play there. Watts, recalling his memories of the High Wycombe gig a few days before, agreed. The Sex Pistols would appear for the first time at The 100 Club on Tuesday 30th March 1976.
Watts would put on The Pistols a further 10 times at the 100 Club in 1976, including the famous Punk Festival held on 20 and 21 September 1976. Before then, on Thursday 2nd September 1976 , Watts would bring them back to High Wycombe for an appearance at The Nags Head, a venue Watts was now promoting gigs at again having originally started out there in the late 1960’s. The Nags Head, a former Headquarters of Wycombe Wanderers in the late 19th century, would go on to play a significant part in the rise of ‘punk rock’ but that would have seemed light years away back in February 1976.
There are several myths surrounding this gig, including several in printed publications that have since been repeated in the online world. Let’s make a list – know any more, then get in touch:
- Sex Pistols turn up unannounced – no, they were booked late on with full knowledge of the Student Union Social team who had agreed a half crate of Carlsberg as the payment for their appearance.
- Ron Watts was the promoter of the gig – no, he had turned up to book a stripper and saw part of the Pistols set by chance.
- The gig took place in the College Student Union building – no, the larger Main Hall was used for the Rag Ball – estimated capacity 400.
- It was the College’s Valentine Ball – no, the gig took place on 20th February 1976. Valentine’s Day was the previous Saturday – the closest gig to this date at the College was a Kilburn & The High Roads appearance on Friday 13th February 1976.
- Johnny Rotten smashed a borrowed microphone from Lord Sutch – no, this story has been toned down over the years to the point where the gold coloured microphone was returned undamaged in its transport box.
- Ron Watts booked the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club after seeing this gig – not really, Watts was approached by Malcolm McLaren few weeks after the gig. Unlikely that Watts would have instigated their residency at The 100 Club without the approach from McLaren
References and further reading:
Talking Punk on Wycombe Sound – April 2018
Includes audio extract of interview with Janice Raycroft recalling the February 1976 at High Wycombe and the antics of then Pistols fan, Sid Vicious
Alternatively – here is the direct link to the audio file
My original article as published on chairboys.co.uk