Monday, August 25, 2003

For a brief moment Sunday night, it was anarchy in the District. John Lydon, professionally known as Johnny Rotten, had contemptuously shooed away the 9:30 Club’s front line of bouncer brawn, the only thing standing between a very hyper sell-out crowd and the Sex Pistols, the grandfathers of punk rock.

“You don’t need protecting from me,” said Mr. Lydon in his snide working-class English brogue, “I’m on your side.”

Then the crowd surfers, male and female, giddy with adrenaline and alcohol, started tumbling perilously close to the stage, into the unwelcoming arms of the re-employed bouncers.

Turns out, it was only pretend anarchy.

Whatever it was — a hypocritical grab at reunion-tour cash, or just deserts for a truly revolutionary band that was swindled by the record industry — the Pistols were a triumph of loud, raw, jagged rage: of a collective middle finger extended at permanency and tradition, of amps turned to 11.

The band made only one studio album, “Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols,” but it was the only one they needed to change the face of a very bloated and self-satisfied music industry in 1977.

Imagine the era, dominated as it was by the Vegas glam of Elton John and the corporate lite-rock of West Coasters such as Jackson Browne and the Eagles, and appreciate anew how the simple, nasty, primal crunch of three-chord punk brought rock music back to its roots, if not its senses.

The Pistols performed “Bollocks” in its entirety, plus a B-side Stooges cover (“No Fun”), in a crisp one-hour set that began punctually at 9:30.

The state of so-called punk music today was very much on Mr. Lydon’s mind Sunday night. “You might know who we are,” he said as the band took the stage, drawing huge cheers before the Pistols — guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock — picked up their instruments.

After throwing an expletive-laden jab at “post-punk” rock, the singer, dressed in a muscle T-shirt and black workout pants with the pocket linings spilling out, Mr. Lydon said, “We’re the real deal, we ain’t fake.”

And so the Pistols would prove.

They opened with “Bodies,” a thrasher that may or may not express the pro-life sentiments of Mr. Lydon, an Irishman raised Catholic (“Throbbing squirm / gurgling bloody mess / I’m not a discharge / I’m not a loss in protein”).

“Seventeen,” the ode to callous narcissism “No Feelings” and the nihilistic “God Save the Queen” (“No future, no future”) quickly followed.

Between each song came Mr. Lydon’s salty, hilarious banter, most of which can’t be repeated in a family newspaper.

“If you clap a little less provocatively,” he said, knocking back a bottle of brandy, “we can go home early. And believe me, we will.”

The famously temperamental Mr. Lydon was not disbelieved, and the clapping remained provocative.

As the band churned tightly behind him, Mr. Lydon prowled his space of the stage, leaning into the audience with a bug-eyed stare and, often, snorting fluid from his nose.

Mr. Jones, meanwhile, had his back to the audience for most of the set, the better to hear his ear-splitting stack of amps straight on, instead of through a chintzy stage monitor.

Though he looked like a demon incarnate, Mr. Lydon has said it’s severe myopia that accounts for his glassy facial contortions. No telling, though, what causes the sinus condition.

True to his punky philosophy of creative destruction, Mr. Lydon introduced “a little ditty,” the “Bollocks”-closing “EMI,” saying: “While the music industry is on its last legs, let’s kick it to death.”

After a two-song encore that included the punk anthem “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Problems,” Mr. Lydon took another jab at punk poseurs: “Anybody can do this punk rock, right?” — and then disgustedly tossed his microphone.

The mic hit the floor, sending a discordant thump over the PA system.

That was the last note of the show — a very punk-rock thing to do.

But Johnny Rotten invented this stuff, and the Sex Pistols, the first of the British punk commandos who charged across the enemy lines of the mainstream in the late ‘70s, deserve the rights of their patent.

Are they the antichrist? Anarchists?

After this, their second reunion tour (it follows 1996’s proudly cynical Filthy Lucre outing), what future is there in being the Sex Pistols?

There is no future; there is no point. And that is their point.

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