Anne Marie Byrne has recently retired from working as a student advisor in Dublin City University. She has attended Tanya Farrelly’s creative writing workshops at Purple House in Bray, Co Wicklow where this piece of flash fiction was developed.
Her research interests include criminology, incarceration, education and the role of drama in prisons. Her M.Phil thesis (Trinity College, Dublin) focused on the Theatre Project in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin and her Ph.D (Dublin City University) explored education for juvenile offenders in Ireland.
Her leisure interests include theatre, photography, reading, travel, cookery, swimming and enjoying nature, especially in her native county Wicklow.
‘So, what’s on the agenda for this evening?’ asked Pete, the record producer. We were in my friend Liz’s Earls Court flat, it was back in the late Seventies and I had called to visit my friend on my day off thinking we might do something for the afternoon or evening. ‘I don’t know’, Liz replied to her boyfriend with an air of indifference, ‘I’m not sure I want to do anything in particular, I have work early in the morning and I feel quite tired.’ ‘There’s a film on in the Screen on the Green in Islington that I’d like to go to’ I said, ‘it’s called The Missouri Breaks.’ Oh, I’ve heard of that ‘, said Liz, ‘the reviews were good. It’s a western isn’t it?’ ‘Yes that’s right’, I said, ‘I missed it when it came out a few months ago, it sounds like a really good western with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. They’re just showing it for one night in the Green so I definitely want to go tonight.’ Liz uttered a sound that was a mixture of a moan and a sigh, saying that she heard there was a lot of violence and cruelty in the film and didn’t think it would appeal to her. ‘ Well it is a western’ I said, ‘and it is about the conflict between a rancher and a farmer with a bounty hunter thrown in for good measure so I’d say the possibility of violence and cruelty is fairly high!’ ‘Not for me, not tonight’ said Liz in a tone that made it clear she was not for turning.
‘How about you Pete?’ I asked, ‘do you fancy a night at the cinema?’ ‘I’m afraid it’s not for me either’, he answered. ‘I’m working this evening so I’ll leave you ladies to decide what you want to do’ Pete said, and then added conspiratorially: ‘But here’s an exclusive I’ll let you in on. The Sex Pistols are playing a late night gig after the film is over in the Screen on the Green tonight, it’s a secret gig.’
‘Are you serious? Are you sure? Are you going? Can you get me a ticket?’ Pete’s announcement had fired me up and I couldn’t contain my excitement at the prospect of getting to see the most controversial band of the time. The Sex Pistols had been banned from public appearances as a result of what were perceived to be their anarchic tendencies. Notwithstanding their political leanings they were also rude, unpredictable and edgy. There was a strong possibility that violence would erupt at their gigs, especially since Sid Vicious had replaced Glen Matlock as bass player in the line-up. Pete said no, he wouldn’t be going himself and he didn’t have any free tickets. ‘It’s a secret gig’, he said, ‘it’s just for people who are invited, people in the know.’ ‘Well I’m in the know now,’ I said, ‘so how do I get in? ‘Well, you can take your chances in the queue, they’ll probably let some token members of the public in so they won’t be accused of elitism or exclusivity. Or if you really want to be there and you are going to the cinema anyway you could hide in the auditorium after the film and just infiltrate the gig if you have the guts to do it.’
Seeing as Pete had arrived at Liz’s flat about ten minutes after me I felt that maybe it would best to leave the two of them alone, especially as he was working that night and she was on duty early in the morning. So I made my exit and set out to walk to my own little bedsit in Shepherd’s Bush. I was a fit and healthy twenty year-old and quite the flaneur (should that be flaneuse?) at that time so I thought nothing of walking miles around the London boroughs despite the variety of public transport that was available. Walking kept me grounded and also allowed me to get a really good overview of the layout of London. In this instance it gave me a chance to formulate my thoughts on the night ahead. As is so often the case when your best friend is in a relationship and you are not, I was used to being left to my own resources when it came to going out for entertainment. In my enforced state of independence the prospect of going to the cinema on my own didn’t faze me in the least. However, the thoughts of trying to wangle my way into the most notorious gig of the year so far were a preoccupation that kept me engrossed for the duration of the two mile journey home.
The Missouri Breaks was a good film; it did contain violence and cruelty as Liz had predicted but it was a level of violence and cruelty that I could easily tolerate then. On that night in the Screen on the Green, the cinema was half full and there was no indication that anyone in the audience had any idea what was about to unfold in its midst by the time they made it back to their homes or to the pub. When the final credits rolled I headed for the ladies loo. I got myself into a cubicle and settled in for the long wait. Luckily I’d brought a paperback to pass the time in those pre-mobile days. With my complete belief in Pete’s insider knowledge it never occurred to me that at some stage I might be plunged into complete darkness and locked in an empty cinema overnight! After about an hour voices began to become audible outside the door of my cubicle and I eventually plucked up the courage to emerge. The auditorium was filling up by the time I drifted out to take my place. The scene was utterly different to when I had left it an hour previously.
I was quite overwhelmed by the assault on my senses. It was like I had entered a parallel universe. Punks of every shape and size filled the stalls. Piercings, pins and spikes were in abundance, black was the dominant colour, lightened by the occasional patch of tartan. Men and women wore make-up, mainly of a very pale hue with eyes and lips emphasised by ghoulish black or purple. The air was heavy with the smoke of cigarettes and joints and electric with the air of expectation.
The gig itself was as exciting as I had anticipated. Initially we were treated to what seemed like home movies of the Sex Pistols posing and performing around London; this was an early project of Julien Temple, who subsequently became a film and music video director and renowned chronicler of the punk era.
Next on the programme was a set from The Slits. They were a group who went on to garner some notoriety as the only all-female punk group who managed to get their act together, who could play their instruments and write witty lyrics. However, on this occasion they were raw teenagers, undisciplined and prone to unruly interactions on stage. Nevertheless, it was exciting to see them at this embryonic stage when they exuded unfettered possibility. Looking back now it’s somewhat disappointing to realise that they never really achieved their true potential as the forebears of girl power.
It must have been two o’clock before the main act hit the stage. Despite the build-up of anticipation the opening number turned out to be a damp squib as it came to a halt shortly after it began due to lack of cohesion among the group members. Finally after some fumbling and bickering the show got going again and this time continued right through most of the songs from the Never Mind the Bollocks album. Although the exhilaration was palpable in the audience it didn’t seem to be transmitting to Johnny Rotten on the stage as he continually rebuked the audience and urged them to ‘wake up’. Sid Vicious, (who had made his debut in the Pistols a few weeks previously at a short gig in the Notre Dame Hall off Leicester Square in London’s West End), had seemingly learned the basics of bass playing in the meantime but for the most part chose to spend his time berating the audience and indeed spitting on them! He had been chosen by Malcolm McLaren not for his musical ability but for his looks and his attitude. Nonetheless, the other members of the band, Steve Jones on guitar and Paul Cook on drums, managed to keep it together sufficiently to deliver a memorable performance. The musicians certainly tested the limits of their instruments and Malcolm McLaren on the sound desk contributed to the surreal effects with distortion and overload. Johnny Rotten on vocals snarled and sneered his way through the set, continuing to harangue the audience while gyrating around the stage. It struck me that for all his punk posing and posturing Rotten actually looked like he had borrowed many of his best swaggers and struts from none other than Mick Jagger, a decidedly mainstream performer by this time.
It was certainly a night to remember for many reasons, not least of which was my own discomfort in the surroundings. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I wasn’t the one who stood out in the crowd. Yes, in my carefully constructed plan of infiltration I had forgotten one thing – to blend in! In a sea of highly quaffed, heavily made-up youth I looked like I had just wandered in from a Folk Music Festival! My long wavy hair was ‘au natural’ as was my bare, scrubbed face. Most excruciating of all was that my outfit left a lot to be desired in terms of punk credibility. In fact my flower-print pinafore dress would have looked more at home in a Laura Ashley shop window than at a punk rock gig.
So for me the night of one of the most outrageous gigs of the Seventies was in some ways like having an out-of-body experience – I was there but I wasn’t fully present; I was a witness but not a participant. On the inside I was fully tuned in to my surroundings, enjoying the music and the mayhem yet at the same time I was aware that on the outside I looked utterly out of place due to my own negligence in failing to consider the dress code.