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20 Years Ago: Sex Pistols Kick Off Reunion Tour

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The overwhelming majority of bands who reunite bristle at the notion they are doing it for the almighty dollar. The very idea of a “cash grab” as the reason why years of public feuding and bitterness toward one another would come to an abrupt stop is unfathomable. Iif anything, it’s on account of the fans or because they missed playing with one another. No, it’s never, ever about the money — at all.

Unless it’s the Sex Pistols, who reconvened for the Filthy Lucre Tour, which kicked off on June 21, 1996 at Finland’s Messilä Festival.

As punk rock was turning 20, the outfit most identified with the genre held a press conference at the London’s famed 100 Club that March to announce, in an expected bratty and ignominious fashion, they would be claiming their just dues via a reunion. When asked if they still hated each other, bassist Glen Matlock replied, “Yes, with a vengeance,” before frontman and de facto mouthpiece John Lydon (nee Johnny Rotten) replied, “But we share a common cause, and that’s your money.”

A typically animated Lydon, with finger-in-an-electric-socket swept bleached blond hair, swigging from a bottle of beer and looking as if he had just come from being cast as a jester in King Arthur’s court, was joined by original Pistols Matlock, guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook. When the topic of Matlock’s replacement, Sid Vicious, was broached, Lydon quipped curtly, “Sid was nothing more than a coat hanger to fill in an empty space onstage. These are the people that wrote the songs and now we’d like to be paid for it.”

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Unrepentant and full of piss and vinegar, it looked as if things hadn’t changed in the 18 years since the group last graced – or disgraced – the stage. It was a vastly different era in 1996, and the Sex Pistols shock and jaw was  suddenly tame compared to the mid-’70s, when they upended the British system, insulted the monarchy and fell apart in a spectacular manner. The reigning bawdy braggart in their homeland was Liam Gallagher of Oasis, while Green Day and the Offspring were considered punk rock in the States.

Even the location of tour launch was a stark contrast to the past. Prior to their complete implosion and breakup while touring the States in early 1978, the Pistols had booked a Scandinavian tour to follow. A panicked public in Finland besieged the government with demands to keep the band out of the country. Invoking a bizarrely and extreme preemptive declaration that the Pistols were “unwanted visitors,” usually restricted to violent criminals and terrorists, the punks were barred from entering the Finnish region. Less than two decades later they were welcomed to begin a jaunt there.

“Welcomed” wouldn’t be quite the proper word to use in how the crowd at the Messilä Festival on June 21 received the Sex Pistols, though. They were roundly booed and pelted with rocks and bottles of urine. It was a ratcheted-up, modern-day version of the old spit-on-one-another ideal from the punk days of yore, but the band wasn’t having it. Lydon offered a terse, “F— off” midway through the set, though he and the rest of the lads were coaxed back onstage to finish the performance proper.

Two nights later, a homecoming show at London’s Finsbury Park was recorded for a rush release; packaged, pressed and on shelves within six weeks to even further promote the pending dates in North America, Australia, Japan and South America. The setlist didn’t vary much, each night’s opener was “Bodies” and closed on “Problems” with nearly every song from the sole studio album in their catalog, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, churned out.

There were a few hiccups – the Pistols walked off after five songs at the Roskilde Festival after becoming moving targets again – the six-month tour went surprisingly smoothly. Then again, it had to, or the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have gotten paid that filthy lucre.

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