On Christmas Day 1977 and at the height of their notoriety, the Sex Pistols played their last UK gig at a club in Huddersfield. Duncan Seaman speaks to the photographer who captured it all.
It was a gig that now sounds unlikely. Britain’s most notorious punk band, the Sex Pistols, performing at Ivanhoe’s nightclub in Huddersfield on Christmas Day, 1977.
In an even more unusual turn of events, Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones and Paul Cook actually played two shows that day – a matinee for children of striking firefighters, at which cake and presents were handed out, and an evening gig, for which admission cost £1.75.
Significantly, it would be the last gig that the band would play on British soil. Within a month they would split up on tour in the US, amid acrimony between Rotten and their manager Malcolm McLaren.
There to photograph the Pistols that evening for weekly music magazine the NME was Kevin Cummins, who would go on to become one of Britain’s most highly regarded rock music photographers who has contributed to the likes of The Times, The Guardian, The Face and Vogue.
A new book, Sex Pistols: The End is Near 25.12.77, captures the spirit of the occasion in more than 100 photographs that Cummins took that night.
“I think all Sex Pistols gigs from most of 1977 were events,” he says. “After the Bill Grundy episode at the end of 1976 [where the band provoked tabloid outrage by swearing on live television], it spiralled a bit out of control, and I think McLaren encouraged that a bit too much perhaps.
“They didn’t do regular tours that year, it was very much announce a few dates, get them banned, then in August they did some dates under assumed names so it was very difficult to find out. I was lucky in that McLaren liked me and let me know when things were happening, so we were able to organise to go.”
Cummins met opprobrium from his own family for choosing to spend Christmas Day with the Sex Pistols, rather than at home in Manchester. “Britain was a very different place in 1977, and the Sex Pistols were the antichrist,” he recalls. “Your parents hated them, and the press played up to that. The press always like a pantomime villain, so of course when I told them I was going out on Christmas Day they were outraged, especially when I told them what I was doing. My girlfriend at the time was locked in her house. Her parents wouldn’t let her go, even though she had a ticket for it.”
Cummins exchanged no more a brief backstage hello with the band before he had to get into his preferred position for photographing the show. He says: “Trying to shoot from the audience was a bit chaotic and McLaren was always very helpful, he let me shoot from the side of the stage.”
He recalls a “great” atmosphere that night. “With the Pistols, it was almost like a secret club when people got to see them, and I think loads of people just felt grateful that they were given that opportunity. I guess because it was Christmas Day and because a room of 400 or so people managed to escape the Queen’s Speech and their own families everyone was in really high spirits. It wasn’t aggressive at all. I’d been to Sex Pistols gigs earlier in the year and the previous year that were very aggressive, this just had a really nice vibe. It was exciting and everyone was there for the same purpose, to enjoy themselves.”
Cummins said no one had any inkling that it would be the Pistols’ farewell to the UK. “The band were in really good spirits because they’d had such a good time in the afternoon, so they actually played a great gig,” he says. “A lot of the time with the Pistols there was a lot of acrimony around, the band resented Malcolm and certain members weren’t getting on with each other but they seemed to put it all aside and it was the best show I’d seen them play for maybe 18 months.”
He feels the Pistols’ tour itinerary in the US might ultimately have contributed to their downfall. “Anybody that was au fait with what was going on in the US knew that there might be a bit of trouble out there,” he says. “Malcolm didn’t pick New York, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, the obvious gigs, they were playing some fairly dodgy places in the Deep South and as far as they were concerned all English bands were homosexuals. They were very bigoted, and they had an attitude of ‘we’ll show these fey English boys how we can do it here’ and it just kicked off at every gig apparently, it was awful.
“The band didn’t enjoy it. You go on your first trip to America and you want to drive over the bridge into Manhattan, you don’t want to spend seven hours on a plane and then go to somewhere that looks like the outskirts of London.”
Cummins’ interest in photography stemmed from his father and maternal grandfather who were, he says, “very keen amateurs”; he would go on to study the subject at Salford Art School.
“We always had access to a darkroom,” he remembers. “I got my first camera when I was five and my parents actively encouraged that. I loved the magic of the darkroom, I loved playing around in there. I’d take a film on holiday and print it myself when I was five or six, so I was always very keen on it.
“Then when I was in my teens at my school we were hothoused to go to university and I was about to go to Warwick to study English and a friend said to me, ‘Why don’t you got to art school? That’s what you’ve always been interested in, that’s what you want to do’, and so I changed my course and college three weeks before I was due to go.”
Punk, he feels, arrived in Manchester at just the right time. Many of the bands he photographed, such as Buzzcocks, were a similar age to him. “Like a lots of lads, my main interests were music and football and my father told me the only job he thought I’d ever be qualified to do was to be a disc jockey at Maine Road,” he says. “It’s sort of ironic that I’ve earned my living photographing music and football. I graduated as punk was breaking and so I was on hand to document it. Obviously coming straight out of college and not having a job I was able to do that because I knew quite a few of the bands anyway. I just attached myself to them and took photographs whenever I could afford film.”
Cummins photographs of Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Oasis would go on to be defining images of those bands. He believes Noel Gallagher was one of the last British musicians to emerge steeped in rock ’n’ roll’s iconography. “It was pre-digital days and they were kind of the last big band before digital kicked in and so to see them and to hear them you had to actually go out to see them [play]. It wasn’t just like it is now where if someone says ‘have you heard X?’ and at the click of a button you can listen to 30 seconds while you’re on the phone to somebody and make a snap decision. With Oasis, they were the last big band, really, and Noel’s aware of that, I think.
“Because they borrowed shamelessly from other musicians as well, every song the first time you heard it you were familiar with it. Because it was written in a certain pattern, you felt that familiarity with them on first hearing, which is rare with a band, I think. So I think that’s partly what it was.
“And they played the Knebworth show, if they were to do it now… I went to the football [at the Etihad Stadium] with Noel the other day and we were talking about that and how if Oasis reformed they would only have to do one gig because it would be telecast round the world, it could be streamed live everywhere and they could do another Knebworth but they could play to billions of people on the same evening. They probably never need to work again anyway but they would never need to do it again [after that], it could just be one show. Noel was saying, ‘Well, it wouldn’t be the same, because there would be 200,000 people watching it through their phones’. He said, ‘We were the last band really where you could go to a gig and nobody was taking pictures, and that’s what made it exciting’. It’s not exciting when you go to see a band and you can barely see them, you’re having to watch them on three people in front of you’s iPhone, so there’s no connection. You go to a live event to be excited. What do these people do when they film it on their phones? Do they go home that night and say, ‘I went to a great gig. I didn’t see it but I’ve got some really shaky footage’. There’s no point to it.
“It’s interesting that Jack White’s band and Madonna is doing it this week where you have to put your phone in a locked bag and you keep the bag with you but you can’t take your phone out and you can’t take pictures, you just enjoy the show, and that’s the way forward. People can’t be trusted not to take pictures, you got to actively discourage them by forcing this.”
Sex Pistols: The End Is Near 25.12.77 is out now, published by ACC Arts Books, priced £30.