Many thanks to Den Browne for an amazing chapter of his book Padlocks recounting going to an X Ray Spex gig with Sid & Nancy. Thanks to various fan sites, Den thinks this was probably on 26.10.77. but who was counting then ?
Eton Avenue original photographs credited to Rachel Fernandez, digital drawing and tweaks by Brian Gibson .
When Sid and Nancy moved into our place I imagined that our social life would take a dramatic upturn. We’d be clubbing, gigging, ligging, drugging and generally hanging out punk rock style. It soon became clear that on Sid’s meagre allowance from the Pistols, we’d be lucky to manage a night at the pub. They’d experienced threats and harassment when out, and besides, there are few things more conducive to an indoor lifestyle than a heroin habit.
But from time to time we did venture out into the uncomprehending world. One crisp autumn afternoon – to our total surprise – they announced that they wanted to join us on the weekly trip to the launderette down the road. Despite all the arguments and casual violence, there was a “Babes in the Wood” side to Sid and Nancy where they’d go all sentimental, and play out the roles of mainstream Mummies and Daddies, briefly immersing themselves in the mundane routines of living as a couple. Generally Nancy seemed to be the dominant one in the relationship, telling us with relish that Sid had been “practically a virgin” when they met, and that she’d taught him all he knew about sex – not that he seemed to mind. Occasionally he’d object, saying that he’d had plenty of previous girlfriends and sexual encounters, but they’d all been “dogs” compared to Nancy, the first partner to really engage him emotionally and sexually. But sometimes she could sink into a childlike neediness – maybe we’d call it “being high maintenance” now – and out of nowhere there’d be a sudden asthma attack, followed by a series of dramas around finding her inhalers before calm would return.
When we got to the launderette in England’s Lane it was busy, with machines clanking and humming, while the regulars caught up on local gossip. Nancy suddenly developed a great interest in the small details of the laundry, using her Dickensian Cockney Waif voice and discussing the merits of conditioners and water-softeners with one of the customers. No-one took any notice of us, and once we’d loaded our washing – comprising Pistols’ and Heartbreakers’ t-shirts for the most part – into a couple of machines I went and bought some Cokes at the shop next door. As it was stuffy and noisy in the launderette we decided to take our drinks to the bus shelter round the corner while the washing went round. Being mid-afternoon the street was soon swarming with kids coming out of the local schools. In no time they spotted Sid, and after some nervous whispering, they started to come over.
The boldest girl stepped forward, after carefully mussing up her hair,
“My mate reckons you’re Sid Vicious, but I ain’t sure…”
Sid laughed, “Neither am I most of the time….”
His identity established, Sid fielded a deluge of breathless questions
“When you playing live again?”
“What’s the next record mate?”
Soon he was signing every scrap of paper, exercise book or school bag pushed his way. When there was nothing left to sign he ended up taking the badges off his jacket for them. Sid had often talked about how the group’s fans – especially the young ones – were what mattered most to him, more than the music, money or drugs. He was adamant that he’d never succumb to the Star Trip and distance himself from the kids. There was an idealistic side to Sid which he usually kept well hidden, or got lost in the endless piss-taking banter of his day-to-day conversation. It was great to see that he really meant it and totally moving to see how much the kids responded to his openness.
Initially Nancy was delighted by the happy throng milling around us in the shelter, as it lent support to her claim – advanced more and more often now – that Sid was more popular with the kids than Johnny Rotten, and this was because their uncontaminated minds could tell that Sid was “for real”, while the singer had now sold out in his desire for stardom. Soon though it became clear that there was no fame-by-association. Annie and I barely merited a glance, despite our leather jackets and Pistols shirts. Nancy pushed her way into the crowd, thinking they’d soon be wanting her autograph too. After all she was a star now as well, right? But the kids weren’t interested, her embarrassment only saved by a bus coming round the corner. Suddenly the kids were gone, but we weren’t alone for long.
Two local old girls arrived, wheezing and puffing on their fags, clad in hats and coats despite the warm weather, and pushing fearsome wheeled shopping trolleys before them. These were used as battering rams to shunt us down into the far end of the bus shelter. After a while it was impossible to ignore the glares directed at us, followed by a stage-whispered conversation,
“It’s ‘im innit, that Sex Pistol. Vicious or sumfing…”
“Ooh yeah, you’re right. Don’t ‘e look ‘orrible…”
A while later we were snug again down in the basement. Sid was reading the NME between nods, checking out the live section. Suddenly he spotted that X-Ray Spex were playing the Marquee that night, and he wanted to go. A couple of phone calls later, and transport and guest-list had been arranged. This was all a little surprising, as Sid usually had nothing but scorn for most UK punk groups. Clearly X-Ray Spex were among the exceptions. For our part, we’d bought a couple of their singles, and Annie loved Poly Styrene’s hi-concept appearance and don’t-give-a-toss vibe – I wasn’t so sure. There were so many groups around at the time with a good song or two, striking looks and a bit of attitude, but nothing much beyond that. Even at that early stage there was a clear hierarchy emerging on the punk scene – were X-Ray Spex going to rise to the elite or drift along in Division Two with the likes of Generation X or Eddie and the Hot Rods.
Although people like the Ramones always came first for him, Sid was passionately loyal to old mates where groups were concerned. So he loved the Slits, on account of the Flowers of Romance connection via Viv Albertine. There was a kind of grudging respect for the Clash. I was relieved that my own favourites – the Only Ones – merited a nod of approval.
As for the Hot Rods, there’d been friction between them and the Pistols when they’d been on the same live bill – and were bandwagon-jumping pop lightweights in Sid’s opinion, to be cast into oblivion along with such opportunists as the Police or the Vibrators. Generation X were particularly scorned – there seemed to be a very personal animosity towards Billy Idol – as copyists and for looking like “mail order punks” in his words. His loathing of the Damned had a similar edge to it. Elvis Costello wasn’t punk in any way, I was told firmly. The Jam were mere Sixties revivalists, while the Stranglers were so old as to be barely worthy of consideration as “punk” – or as Nancy put it once, their fans were “the kinda people who go to football matches”, much to my chagrin. There was no denying that we had both the Stranglers’ albums and I tried to mount a defence. My turning point in getting into punk – rather than just liking some of the singles because they reminded me of the Who or Small Faces – had come at the Roundhouse in summer ’76. We’d gone to see long term favourite Patti Smith. Since the arrival of “Horses” at the beginning of that year we’d sought out books of hers like “Seventh Heaven”, and then obscure import singles and US magazines. She’d been amazing, and as we’d spent the whole set pressed against the front of the stage we’d been blown away by the sheer physicality and dervish energy of the music as much as the power and intensity of the lyrics. However I’d been just as impressed by how the Stranglers handled a disinterested and increasingly hostile crowd who were only interested in seeing the Big Name they’d paid money for. It was one of the most dramatic and intense gigs I’ve ever seen – or “dialectical”, as Jean-Jacques Burnel had put it at the time – but Sid and Nancy were unmoved. The Stranglers had been marked down as provincial dinosaurs, and there could be no way back, Nancy ending all discussion with a dismissive,
“They’re just too old, you know?” she said, with a slight shudder at the thought.
For once Nancy managed to sort out her clothes, hair, make-up and sprays in time, and all that was left to do was to have a serious hit to set us up for the rest of the evening. The Post Office Tower once again signed the way like a beacon as we drifted down from Camden towards the West End. I recalled how it had lit the way home the night we’d all met, and how distant the summer seemed now.
Going to the Marquee … I drifted back to my first visit in March ’68, going seeing Ten Years After with a bunch of mates from school, carrying our cool clothes round with us all day in anticipation. I’d smoked my first joint during a frantic pre-gig session round at Steve’s house before his folks got in from work. From then on it became a regular hang-out on my weekend live music scene. All those British Blues Boom groups – John Mayall, Jethro Tull, Chicken Shack, Fleetwood Mac – seemed like something from another life time now, less than a decade later.
I pulled out of my reverie as the cab jolted to a halt in Wardour Street. For all the changes in music and fashion since then, the queue for the Marquee huddled on the pavement as ever, stretching down the road and trying to keep out the cold. We disgorged ourselves from the back of the car and stepped out unsteadily. We were spotted straightaway. It seemed like a pretty even split between friendly cries of “Hey Sid – over ‘ere mate” or “Hey, can you get us in?” and some harsher shouts of “Wanker – Bitch – Slag” and, “Oi, got yer drugs ‘ave you?” (yes, we had, since you asked).
Although there were no flashbulbs popping or eager reporters thrusting mics in our faces, one of my mundane guest-list fantasies came true as we walked straight to the head of the line, and with Sid being one of the most recognisable faces in London, we were ushered into the narrow entrance corridor without any problem. It had been a while since I’d been to the Marquee, but the décor was unchanged – those same red and white stripes on the wall – and it didn’t look like they’d had the cleaners in since last time either. The club was struggling to adapt to the punk scene and a different set of groups, fans and customs. Tonight though the audience was probably divided pretty equally between healthy looking blonde Scandinavian students, tourists, and the local punks.
We’d missed the support group, and soon X-Ray Spex came on, Poly Styrene bursting on to the stage in an explosion of synthetic material, acidic colours and trademark teeth-braces. But there was a vulnerable feeling to her alongside the brashness. Alas it wasn’t the original line-up with Lora Logic on sax, but they did have some seriously good songs. Apart from “Oh Bondage”, there was “Identity”, “The Day the World Turned Day Glo”, and “Germ Free Adolescents”, which all sounded great despite problems with the crap PA. The new sax player was probably a bit too keen to show his worth and tended to blast all over everything, not helped by a sound-mix that reduced everything else to a cement-mixer chug. All a great shame, as otherwise they had the tightness that only comes from putting in the hard yards on the road. I looked round at Annie and saw she was beaming with pleasure, eyes rapt on Poly Styrene. The rows of little plastic seats that used to be in front of the stage were long gone, the space now occupied by a heaving mass of Sid’s dreaded “mail order punks”, pogoing and gobbing because that was what you were meant to do at a punk gig, right?
I was just thinking how different it was from the days when almost everyone sat on the floor at gigs, and tried to remember when it had become so totally uncool as it was now, when Sid leant over and yelled into my ear,
“Oi, do you wanna get a beer?”
We pushed our way through the crowd at the back of the club. Eventually we got there only to be ignored by the bar staff who weren’t going to give any special service to someone just because he was a Sex Pistol. Finally we grabbed our bottles of Pils and headed towards a grimy fag-scarred sofa at the back of the room. I’d noticed a few double-takes while we were waiting at the bar, and now word was definitely out about Sid’s presence. Soon people were edging closer all around us.
It was the first time we’d sat down since arriving, and I could feel the lurking smack buzz hit me full force. I looked round at the others, struggling to fight the nod and focus my vision as I did so. Annie was first to go as always, and was soon resting her head on my shoulder in a deep gouch. Sid was sprawled back, mouth ajar, but somehow holding his beer bottle upright with deeply stoned skill. All I could make out of Nancy was the back of her head, hair in disarray, slumped down low between her knees, her breathing hoarse and erratic.
I must have nodded out myself for a few minutes, only coming round when my cigarette burnt down to my fingers. It looked like the scene in an old film where someone wakes up after being knocked out. There was a weird fish-eye lens quality to my field of vision, a bit blurred, and with everything seeming to crowd in towards me from the edges. We were framed by a light I hadn’t noticed before above the sofa, highlighting us in the general gloom of the club. There seemed something almost pre-Raphaelite about the composition of this scene, a strange innocence amid the squalor. I started to drift off again but forced myself back. I looked up and realised that the onlookers had edged closer. Now people were whispering and pointing in our direction, although no-one addressed us directly.
“What do you reckon?”
“Well, it does look like him”
“Nah, it’s just some look-alike”
“Yeah, but that looks like her too….”
“Wow, they look really out of it”
“And he’s really fucked…”
It started to feel like being an animal at the zoo. I’d always been scornful of the so-called “pressures of stardom” but being owned and discussed by all-comers wasn’t my idea of fun. As I tried to stir Annie I was aware of flashbulbs popping close by. I’ve often wondered who took those pictures and what became of them, as they’ve never surfaced to my knowledge. Probably long lost, or buried deep in some forgotten Scandinavian scrapbook.
Now Sid came round, his mood changing as soon as he saw the cameras.
“Come on Nance, we’re going”, he said, roughly shaking her awake, before pushing past a couple of French punks wanting autographs. He was in a foul mood all the way home. Once again, being a star had failed to deliver.
Den says of himself .