A band performing to crowd

The Sex Pistols On Campus

Reading has always had a vibrant music scene, hosting iconic bands on campus over the years. Today, we take a look back at May 1976, when the Sex Pistols played a gig in the Fine Art Department, sharing alumni memories and an account of the gig from Professor Matthew Worley.  

David Ainsworth, who graduated in Estate Management in 1979, recalls attending the University of Reading gig in which the crowd may have outnumbered the band, but not by many.

David remembered: “I actually just happened to see an A4 sheet on a notice board somewhere in St David’s advertising the gig. St David’s was a place for students to meet up who weren’t in residential halls. I had made lots of friends from the Art department there so often got to go along to their events; it was like an art party really .”

Despite being one of the smaller venues at which this British punk band would perform, David had a sense that it would be a night to remember. He said:

“It was very powerful and it was incredibly loud, the lights were dimmed with lights only on the band, in this relatively small room – I knew at the time that this was something special.

“The way they played had this real combination of Johnny Rotten’s sneer, which he managed to do with panache, and a powerful rhythm section. It’s one of the reasons they have this immediate power. It was a lot of noise and Johnny Rotten was making a lot of comments about students that I won’t repeat but he liked to wind people up.” David laughed.

An even more memorable experience for David came after the gig when the audience and the Sex Pistols headed back to St David’s for some post-party pints.

He explained: “Because the audience was so small, we all just walked back together and sat and chatted. That was the most memorable thing about it all. We were all thinking – this is pretty cool.”

Some years later David unexpectedly had the opportunity of revisiting his Sex Pistols memories when the Danny Boyle mini-series, Pistol, was being filmed in one of the ITV studios where he was working at the time.

David said: “I visited the set one day and watched the filming. It was fascinating to be able to talk about the Sex Pistols with people who were so immersed in the history of the band and to be reminded of my time seeing them.

“They are a part of British culture and their part in history has been assured.”

An historical account

Professor of Modern History, Matthew Worley’s interests lie in the areas of youth culture, popular music and cultural history amongst other topics. Here he writes for CONNECTED about what he’s learnt about the Sex Pistols gig and interviews Richard Boon, the alumnus who arranged for them to play at Reading.

Matt WorleyAs Sex Pistols gigs go, it was not one of the more notorious. By the late spring of 1976, the band’s reputation was just beginning to grow. Having made their debut in November 1975 at St Martin’s School of Art, performances in and around London had begun to serve notice that something was happening.

‘Punk’ at this time, remained more adjective than noun, used in Neil Spencer’s NME review of February 1976 to describe the Pistols’ stripped down rock ‘n’ roll and to make tentative alignments with the New York bands that had already made claim to the term.

The Sex Pistols’ appearance, mixing Johnny Rotten’s urchin attire with the provocations designed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren for their shop – SEX – on the King’s Road, ensured they stood out from the denim-clad long-hairs or be-suited pub rockers doing the rounds. Their sound was rough and raw, rubbing against the prevailing musical grain. More importantly, their attitude – antagonistic, irreverent – gave signal of generational change. Here was a band not playing to please the audience but to incite them.

Also in February 1976, two friends excited by Spencer’s NME review resolved to travel down from Manchester to London to see what all the fuss was about. Their names were Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish, later rechristened as Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks; organisers of the Sex Pistols’ seminal gigs in Manchester (June and July 1976) and producers of one of punk’s most significant DIY moments, the Spiral Scratch EP (1977).

So where does Reading come in? On deciding to come to London, Trafford and McNeish called a friend who had previously moved down south. Richard Boon, soon-to-be Buzzcocks’ manager and custodian of the New Hormones label that released Spiral Scratch, was studying Fine Art at the University of Reading. It was he who put Trafford and McNeish up on their foray to see the Sex Pistols play in High Wycombe and Welwyn Garden City on 20 and 21 February 1976. It was in Boon’s Reading digs that excited post-Pistols conversations led to Buzzcocks becoming a reality rather than a vague idea of making music for fun. It was Boon, moreover, who booked the band to play in the Reading Fine Art Department.

Boon recalled: “Back in the day, the Art Department had a thing – Art Exchange (‘AE’) – as one of the many Students Union groups that had a bit of funding. I persuaded the then AE chair that putting on the Pistols for £50 [I think] in a painting studio as part of that year’s AE events would be memorable. It may well have been, for the 20 or so who attended.”

Not much has been revealed about the gig itself. Boon recalls cajoling the Pistols from the bar to take the stage, only for Rotten to offer a suitably acerbic greeting:

“Art students? We’ve seen your ‘paintings’ – is this what we pay our taxes for?”

The band’s set was yet to feature such soon-to-be-standards as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ or ‘No Future’ (‘God Save The Queen’). But those in attendance would have heard ‘Pretty Vacant’, ‘No Feelings’, ‘Submission’ and ‘No Fun’.

What mattered to Boon was that he had contributed – he had helped spread the virus. Less than a week later, in Manchester, the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall and the wheel turned. More bands formed, the virus moved beyond London’s surround.

Share your memories

We’d love to hear more alumni memories of music gigs at Reading from over the years – please email us to share your stories.