To mark the occasion of our noble monarch's Diamond Jubilee, time-travel along the River Thames with the Pistols and Sounds' Jon Savage, whose account of the notorious punk boat party was first published on June 18, 1977——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Before the police came, it was a great party. Make that a capital G.
Let's take all this sequentially: after an hour of waiting, the Queen Elizabeth left Charing Cross Pier at 6.30, and, after a moment's hesitation, decided to head downstream. If you aren't on the List, you aren't on. Nobody jumps... not even Palmolive. Bye bye.
Begins very restrained — too too vous êtes, but come Rotherhithe, some booze and more food, and everyone gets mellow, if such a thing is possible. I mean it's a nice evening (albeit a bit chilly) and there's space all around instead of tower-blocks, so why be surprised?
The disparate crowd mixes surprisingly well — the only jarring note in fact is the refusal of the bar to serve doubles... never know what these notorious punk-rockers might get up to. Downstream aways, we turn as a banner is unfurled along the length of the boat — Red on yellow, it proclaims proudly 'Queen Elizabeth: the new single by the Sex Pistols 'God Save The Queen', or something similar really low profile.
Inside, the conversation's covering some pretty recherché territory, but, hey, upstairs, in the covered area the tapes start rolling. Dance. Great selection — moving from arcane dub to the Ramones thru Paul Revere and the Raiders. More boozing/dancing/yammering — general party patter — but expectation is heightened. They have to start playing outside the Houses of Parliament.
We repass under Tower Bridge, picking up a police boat on the way — sniff sniff sussy sussy — but it falls behind: meanwhile Jordan's telling me about this group she's managing called the Ants. Upstream it gets chillier — most take refuge in the downstairs bar (big boat this), ostensibly for a film that never happens. There's no pretence now: we're waiting.
More turns (Battersea funfair — for the detail-obsessed) and it's home run time.
The Pistols take the 'stage' — at the back of the raised covered area: the conditions are appalling, and it's amazing that any sort of sound comes out. The main one is feedback — this delays their start and is never fully resolved. Any blase traces are swept away — pulses race/everyone rushed to be the front. Pure mania.
Rotten gives up on losing the feedback and the band slams into 'Anarchy', right on cue with the Houses Of Parliament. A great moment. It's like they've been uncaged — the frustration in not being able to play bursts into total energy and attack. Rotten's so close all you can see is a snarling mouth and wild eyes, framed by red spikes. Can't shake that feedback: he complains, won't sing for the first verse of 'No Feelings', but the others carry on. More frustration to explode.
By now the atmosphere is electric/heart thumps too hard/people pressing, swaying — it's like they have to play to blast them away. They're also playing for their/our lives — during 'Pretty Vacant' and the next song, two police boats start moving around in earnest.
Now all adrenalin is flat out do it do it do it now now now NOW — suddenly in 'I Wanna Be Me' they get inspired and take off / 'No Fun' SCREAMED out as the police boats move in for the kill is one of the best rock 'n' roll moments EVER. I mean EVER. (Think about that).
What/shit suddenly we're in the dock 'n' the power's off and Paul Cook's beating the hell out of the drums 'n' there are all those police and WHAT'S HAPPENING and what the fuck IS this . . .
Fax. We dock. The power is off. The bar is closed. Suddenly no more party. Suddenly a lot of police on the quay. Altercations begin. Nobody wants to leave. The police want us to leave. So does the owner. The owner can terminate the contract of hire at any time. Small print, baby.
Richard Branson loses his £500. Richard Branson doesn't want to leave. Tension. Indecision. People trickle off, slowly, after a half-an-hour. Most stay on. More police. The police move on the boat. People move off. Nothing happens, bar a bit of pushing and shoving on either side.
Someone gets nicked. Now things start getting crazy. People are aided up the long gangway. Explosion of movement. Fear. Confusion. Flash/people running/Ted restrains/"Get 'Im" /crying faces/spin around/black mariahs/no objectivity/each for himself/quick spurts of movement/hate/"You're shit". And there's 11 people in the mariahs and we're on the pavement wondering what's been happening. Very quick.
We leave. We go to Bow Street police station, via the Zanzibar (whose cutesy-poo decadence is sickening). No message. No bail. No press. No, not an IPC card. "There are people we'd like to arrest but we don't know who they are." A direct hint. Buzz off. And don't wait on the pavement. No help.
And then the seven of us REALLY slip into 1984: we move to this pub where everybody is enacting this weird ritual which involves the wearing of red/white/blue hats and 'singing' arcane folklore. They want us to join in/we can only make silly jokes out of pain. Zoom zoom /"I don't wanna grow up: there's too much contradiction."
Chickens come home to roost baby, you'd best believe. Some jubilee. But look: I mean McLaren's brilliant at the Theatre of Provocation, didn't he set all this up? To an extent. Provocation, yes; incitement, no. OK, I mean all of us were expecting SOME interference, let's be frank — but not such emotional overreaction.
WHATEVER the rights and wrongs of the individual cases, objectively, yeah, Responsibly, that's what it was. You know — nothing doing in the centre of town and these allegedly "notorious foul-mouthed punk-rock-Sex-Pistols" ... Image vs. reality.
The charges run like this (approximately): Malcolm McLaren/"Using Insulting words likely to provoke a breach of the peace"; Vivien Westwood/"Obstructing a policeman"; Sophie Richmond and Alex McDowell/"Assault": Debbie and Tracy/"Obstruction"; Ben Kelly and Chris Walsh/"Obstruction"; Jose Esquibel/"Threatening behaviour"; Jamie Reid/"Assault". All have denied the alleged charges, and have been released on bail/surety until their case will be heard.
No future, eh? Feelings are bound to run high. But wait. Neither "side" is blameless but there are a few things left to say: To a certain extent the barriers are down a bit more. That means if you look anything like a Sex Pistol, or a "punk-rocker", you're likely to get pulled in. Right: that means — No martyrs, No victims, No heroes, No stereotypes. No games on this score, No provocation. Things have gotten more serious. No escalation...?
Uuuh. Um. Is it too late for me to say that it was a Great party and that the Pistols were amazing? Oh, it is, but it's a shame, because that's a part of the evening too.....
© Jon Savage, 1977
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