Hope you die before we get old
It is Midsummer Eve in Finland. The chill air is ringing with the music of Bad Religion, and I am standing on a lovely hillside some 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, surrounded by thousands of Finnish kids in alcoholic stupors.
Today--eighteen years, six months, and seven days after they busted up on a rainy night in San Francisco--the Sex Pistols are about to take the stage on the first stop of their "Filthy Lucre Tour." The Funpark, a densely wooded lakeside snowboarding park, is the site of the three-day Messila Festival, featuring Moby, the Shamen, the Prodigy, Sepultura, and--back from the dead!--the Sex Pistols, playing for about 20,000 young people who have traveled from Finland, Norway, and nearby Russia.
"It is a terrible day," a nice woman named Raija says on the train heading north from Helsinki. "It is as if they compete to see who can be the most sickening."
She could easily be talking about the fact that the Pistols--along with such '70s acts as Kiss, Kansas, Deep Purple, and the Who--are about to reunite and hit the road again, looking for the wallets and coke vials they lost in your couch on their last go 'round. Actually, she is referring to the traditional drinking binge that marks Midsummer Eve here.
Johannussaattu, as it is called, is Finland's national drinking holiday, and its effects are already apparent in the glazed eyes and fucked-up faces throughout the train. At the Lahti station, special coaches have been arranged to take people from the train to the festival; travelers board the bus carrying extra-large green trash bags full of their belongings: socks, a bedroll, and an huge stock of beer bottles. Every time the bus halts, there is an enormous clatter of glass on glass.
Approaching the park, however, the place feels deserted, the result of the European tradition that finds kids camping and gathering peacefully all over the continent at a series of summer rock festivals like these. For some reason, Finland is a mecca for such expositions. A heavy-metal festival is being held this same weekend somewhere up near Lapland, featuring Iron Maiden and a re-formed version of Deep Purple. (Sepultura is heading up there to play as soon as the band finishes opening for the Pistols at Messila--oh, the irony.)
Messila is particularly notorious because it takes place on Johannusaattu. Drawing some of its audience from northern Russia and Estonia--countries that rival Finland in the scope of their insobriety--the festival is downright bizarre. Here there is no traffic, no pushing, no filing through gates like cattle, only a long hike up dirt paths lined with used condoms, pools of vomit, comatose kids resting by the side of the road, and hundreds of plastic tents. Temporary beer halls abound, each one bearing the name of a U.S. town: Memphis, El Paso, Nashville. The whole place is reeling, hilarious, and night will never, ever fall: When 10 p.m. rolls around, it looks like 4 in the afternoon, and it is not going to get much darker.
At that moment, I thank the Lord for Sepultura, the kindly Brazilian death-metal group that left a backstage pass at my hotel in Helsinki. The Sex Pistols had refused me access; Sepultura was delighted to oblige. Some might think that death-metal bands like Sepultura and a punk act like the Pistols are a bizarre coupling, but the Seps' Max Cavalera is, in fact, a big Pistols fan. Roots even contains a song called "Cut Throat" that is modeled after the Pistols' "E.M.I.," containing a chorus of, "Enslavement/Pathetic/Ignor-ant/Corporations."
"I got the Sex Pistols' record [Never Mind the Bollocks] when I was 13 or 14, and it was one of the only punk albums you could get in Brazil because it was released on a major label," Cavalera says from backstage. "The funny thing about us was we were little metal kids. We listened to Motsrhead, GBH, Discharge. My friends were all, 'Oh, that's stupid punk stuff with stupid hair,' but I hadn't seen pictures of them--there isn't one on the album--and I thought it was fucking great. I didn't understand English then, but I loved the music, the attitude. So while people in Europe and America thought of the Pistols as this punk thing, to me they were like the logical next step after Iron Maiden, who were all played out."
Cavalera says he saw Johnny Rotten at the Helsinki Airport. They nodded pleasantly to one another, but Cavalera is not going to get a chance to talk to Rotten here since Sepultura has to take off for the Lapland meltalfest before Bad Religion's set even finishes.
As it turns out, Cavalera would not have had a chance to talk to Rotten anyway:The Pistols' arrival precipitates a sudden security lockdown. When the band's bus rolls up--a mere half hour before the Pistols' scheduled performance--a raft of security guards starts pushing everyone away from the driveway. No one is allowed to see the Pistols up close and personal:The band is whisked from bus to trailer to stage in total seclusion. Clearing the path, one guard manhandles Bad Religion's Greg Graffin, shoving him out of the way as if he was some grubby autograph-seeker.
By the time the Pistols take the stage at 10 p.m., the field in front of them is littered with audience members passed out in their own vomit. Thousands of young and bleary-eyed Finns--all mythically drunk--rock and sway to the recorded music, bellowing insults in Unpronounceablese between swigs from huge plastic jugs of booze.
This is the Sex Pistols' first time in Finland. They were supposed to play here in 1977, but the show was canceled when the promoter heard their material. Tonight, the problem is indifference: Although hundreds of the kids here sport "Anarchy" T-shirts and multicolored hair, the crowd as a whole seems oblivious to the Pistols' music. The Sex Pistols open with "Bodies," but then immediately play five relatively obscure numbers including such rare B-sides as "Done You No Wrong" and "I'm a Lazy Sod."
This induces sudden boredom in kids who, just moments before, had gone apeshit over Sepultura and Bad Religion. History books are indeed written in invisible ink: The Pistols' music sounds clean and shiny and even Johnny Rotten seems bored, uttering the equivalent of things like, "Hello, Finland! Do you want to rock and roll?"
No wonder the kids start pelting them with things. Twenty minutes into the set, Rotten stamps off the stage in a rage. "I am not your target," he yelps. "There are worse things than me in this world. You should be fucking grateful I'm here." Rotten makes good on his threat to quit after the next song, telling the crowd, "That's it! Fuck you! Fuck off!" The rest of the band leaves with him. "Get some Finnish cunt up here to take your abuse."
The poor sod left with that unenviable position is one Billy Carson, an African-American actor, popular in Finland except on this night. "Idiots! Morons!" he shouts in broken Finnish. "This band has come here after 20 years. You should treat them with respect."
The Pistols return to the stage to play five more songs, including such better-known numbers as "Holidays in the Sun," "Pretty Vacant," and "E.M.I.," but there is little applause until they return to encore with "Anarchy in the U.K." Only then does the crowd, most of the members of which weren't yet born when the song came out, explode--dancing, cheering, and singing along in English. The Pistols wind up the set with the old Stooges song "No Fun." "This is what you've been, and what we're having," says the ever-pleasant Rotten when introducing the song.
Many young fans insist after the show that they were pleased with the performance. "I liked it very much--them and Sepultura," says one 19-year-old girl. "Maybe they are only doing it for the money," adds her 15-year-old friend, "but it's still good music. They still have something to say." Even if it is "fuck you" one more time.
As the Pistols' bus speeds off, Messila returns to normal. The headliner, the Leningrad Cowboys, a Finnish band that parodies metal and country, performs the Pistols' "God Save The Queen," then slips imperceptibly into Elvis Presley's "Burning Love" before winding up with the all-too-appropriate lyric, "Noooooo future, less vodka for you."
A tale of two cities
Two days later, flying into London, the airplane dips over Hyde Park, and you can see the stage going up for next week's Who concert. A mile to the north, in Finsbury Park, the stage has already been built for the Sex Pistols' second London debut in two decades. By midday, the tube is full of bright-haired punks heading up the Victoria line. It is Sunday, June 23--the day of the Sex Pistols' triumphant return to their birthplace.
This is the show the Pistols want the press to attend, to help fuel the hype that is going to take them across the Atlantic this summer; it is also being recorded for a live album. When it comes to hype, the English press is happy to oblige, just as they did the first time. But unlike Finland--where skepticism about the Sex Pistols' reunion barely edged out healthy indifference--England is brimming with stories about punk's 20th anniversary.
Given the number of young mohawked punks on King's Road now fueled by Green Day and NOFX songs--the 1996 equivalent of hippies on Haight Street still grooving to a Dead beat--it seems like the time for this ridiculous reunion is ripe here in the U.K. Yet [according to Time Out! and Capitol Radio] sales have been slow; it is unclear if the intended audience for these shows is 16-year-old nouveau-punk Rancid fans paying homage to their elders or older fans who never got to see them in the first place.
More than likely, the latter: Today Finsbury Park is not an advertisement for British beauty. It is a melange of old punks basking in the sun, their shirts off, fleshy bellies protruding and messy hair receding, their skin the unfortunate hue of dead fish. They resemble the cast members of the touring company for Mad Max: The Musical.
The Finsbury Park show comes off without a hitch: The warm, clear weather and an unexpected soccer victory against Spain have cast a euphoric spell on all of Britain. People are friendly and smiling, blissed out, beaming. Nothing could blow their high today, and the Sex Pistols--preceded by Iggy Pop, the Wildhearts, the Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, and others--don't even try.
When Rotten and company take the stage--"Are you r-r-r-ready?"--and rip into "Bodies," a giant roar of appreciation goes up. An audience of 20,000--arm in arm, laughing, dancing--sings along as if to a Christmas carol: "She was a girl from Birmingham! She just had an abortion!"
Wheee! There is no denying that the rest of the Pistols' set is one long white riot, with the audience full of good cheer and chanting, "No future! no future!" like so many idiot savants. It is all very unsettling. This evening the Pistols are introduced by two English football stars, Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce, the latter of whom swears that Never Mind the Bollocks is his "favorite band ever." Is this someone's idea of irony: "Look, the same people who loathed us before now love us, 20 years later?"
"No way," sneers Lindsay Hutton, editor of the fanzine Next Big Thing. "It's meant exactly as it is--as the worst kind of night out with the lads drinking, part of this whole ridiculous English nationalistic football fervor."
Ugh. If popular music reflects popular culture, then the world--particularly Britain--is in a sorry state right now. This week's Melody Maker, for example, is full of praise for the 60 Foot Dolls, revolting Welsh musicians who brag in interviews that they literally like to take shits on their groupies after having sex with them, presumably to show them who is boss. Not a very promising indication of things to come: Melody Maker notwithstanding, the Dolls surely will not help Brit-pop--or rock 'n' roll itself--get over this year of dread reunions.
In fact, all that is left to right-thinking common people is nostalgia, and perhaps a sense of humor about events like these. Our stars are dying, our heroes are humiliating themselves, the latest bands are loathsome creeps--kind of like 1976.
The backstage area at the Pistols' show is a madhouse, like something out of Robert Frank's Stones movie, Cocksucker Blues. It is full of minor pop stars, old punks, and American record-label employees who yack through every band. Every time a band comes on, guests stream onto the field to watch the show "for real," but it is all very perfunctory. During the Pistols' ecstatic rendition of "Anarchy in the U.K."--which may be one of the highlights of the summer--I hear a label dude yell into somebody's ear, "So, how's Sleeper doing in the U.S.?"
The punks meet teh godfathers
Six days later, a sudden steady rain has returned England to its normal gloom. It is Saturday, June 29, the day of the concert for the Prince's Trust, officially known as the tongue-twisting "MasterCard Presents the Masters of Rock Concert." The concert, which is being taped for HBO, features Jools Holland, Alanis Morissette, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and "Pete Townsend and friends"--Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and the numerous actors, singers, and musicians needed for the performance of Quadrophenia in its entirety.
It is a huge media event coinciding with the rerelease of Quadrophenia on CD, but one can't help but suspect it is also a pre-rehearsal for the Broadway-ization of Quadrophenia a la the 1992 smash Tommy. Either that, or Quadrophenia on Ice: Inside the too-small enclosure that houses the concert grounds, it is freezing cold, and--even more unbearably--we are being inundated by MasterCard cant from 12 Jumbotron screens and a giant blimp.
Quadrophenia, alas, is a mess. When the Who performed Quadrophenia at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1974, Keith Moon passed out halfway through the show and was replaced on drums by a random member of the audience. Today, Moon is being replaced by Zack Starkey, whose greatest claim to fame is that he was Ringo Starr's strongest sperm one fateful night.
The staging, such as it is, is impossible to watch, and worst of all the size of the venue leaves sight and sound out of sync: Every character looks like a badly redubbed Japanese cartoon. Somehow, I had pictured this concert as being more like the films I had seen of the Rolling Stones' famous free Hyde Park concert in 1969, all verdant picnics and "butterflies are free." But this concert is the antithesis of that, speaking instead of money, advertising, and cross-promotion.
Ever feel like you have been cheated? I have, again and again--but never more than in the last 10 days in Europe. Looking out at the enclosure at Hyde Park, two football fields long, I am reminded of all the things the Pistols were fighting against in 1976: bloated concerts featuring bands like Queen, which headlined the last such event in Hyde Park in 1976; Led Zeppelin, whose lead members Page and Plant are seated a few rows down; and the Who. In those days, the Pistols and the Buzzcocks stood firmly against the glitz and pretension of what now seem like minor infractions: Page's double-necked guitar; eight-minute-long songs, silken trousers, fringed scarfs, and the occasional use of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to flesh out rock operas.
At the time, those things seemed worth destroying, but many of those things are still here today, and some of them are named Johnny Rotten. Compared to a Who concert held in a quarter-mile-long cattle pen, however, the Pistols reunion was downright honest; at least it was fun. In comparison to the Who's Hyde Park gig, the show in Finsbury Park with its moderate crowd of 25,000 was like freakin' CBGB's.
But despite its amusement value--and it was amusing--the whole experience has made it clear that rock 'n' roll is wheezing along on life support; the bell is tolling loud enough to drown out "Anarchy in the U.K." London is stiff with boredom, now; soon, everyone in this entire city will be turned into pillars of salt.
You can already see the statuary: There's Johnny Rotten, his hair in spikes; there's Roger Daltrey, chin jutting; there's Clapton and Dylan, like Methuselah and his father; and there's Peter T. with his arm stopped straight out midwindup. One of these people once said, "Don't look back," but it is way too late. Everybody did.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.