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That's Mr. Rotten to You, Punk

Pop music review: The Sex Pistols, with their once-notorious lead singer marking the way, retain their intensity if not their anger.

August 02, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

DENVER — The couple in their 20s yelped excitedly when they entered the Red Rocks Amphitheatre shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday and learned that the Sex Pistols hadn't gone on stage yet.

"That's great," the man said after handing their tickets to an attendant. "We thought we were going to be late."

Not so fast.

In a very real way, the couple--and the rest of the 9,000 fans at Red Rocks for the opening show on the Pistols' U.S. reunion tour--were late. By about 18 years.

They didn't end up seeing the Sex Pistols at all. Let's call this band the Cap Pistols.

If you go into the show skeptical about the Pistols' chances of ever reviving the revolutionary fervor and tension of their '70s days, your feelings will probably be confirmed about 15 minutes into the concert.

Johnny Rotten, the band's once-notorious lead singer, comes out in a god-awful red, black and chartreuse outfit that makes him look either like an usher at a midnight screening of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" or the next loony villain in a Batman movie. His hair stands up, "Eraserhead"-style, parted down the middle with red on one side and yellow on the other.

As he prances around the stage, twisting his body in odd little dance steps and rolling his bug-eyes at the audience, it is as much a burlesque as the return of boxer George Foreman, who climbed back into the ring years after his prime, overweight and over-age.

Rotten, 40, is decidedly overweight and apparently out of shape--he had to turn at several points to an oxygen machine to catch his breath in this mile-high city.

For the teenagers in the audience who are only vaguely aware of the Pistols' history, the whole thing must have been dumbfounding. Was this the notorious British band that electrified rock 'n' roll in the '70s by injecting a defiant punk energy and attitude into what had become a toothless and decaying art form?

Is this the band whose independent do-it-yourself spirit influenced virtually every band of worth that has followed--from U2 and R.E.M. to Nirvana and Pearl Jam?

In retrospect, Rotten no doubt realized that a change of character was the band's only choice. It would have been a disaster to try to duplicate the anarchy and disorder of the old days, because the staid pop sensibilities the band attacked in the '70s have given way to the punk-inspired individuality that the Pistols championed.

When the Pistols did a handful of shows in the U.S. before self-destructing in 1978, Rotten faced largely hostile audiences in most cities. He and the band (which then included the volatile Sid Vicious on bass) were considered downright blasphemous by much of the crowd during two Texas stops. To them, the Pistols were attacking everything sacred about the music, and the fans in San Antonio responded with everything from insults to beer cans.

A master showman, Rotten responded with marvelously focused and intense performances that made his every vocal line seem like a bullwhip lashing the taunting crowd.

On Wednesday, he faced a cheering crowd that waved its arms in salute and sang along on some of the more popular numbers, including "God Save the Queen," "Holidays in the Sun" and "Pretty Vacant."

Without the old tension, Rotten needed to find a new attitude. He came up with that of a somewhat eccentric vaudevillian.

In a way, it is an inspired spin on the old Pistols irreverence--a reminder that even punk-related music doesn't have to be limited to the dark, angry tones of the '90s. (The latter approach was amply displayed Wednesday in the opening sets of Stabbing Westward and Gravity Kills. Reacharound, which also performed, is less monochromatic.)

The tour name--"Filthy Lucre"--should have been a tip-off that the Pistols were going to be a bit lighthearted. Still, the transformation was disorienting for a while, making the Pistols seem all the more distant from the creative heart of today's rock world.

There were no new songs--just spirited versions of the old ones, pretty much played in the same order as found on the invigorating live album, "Filthy Lucre Live," which was recorded during the European leg of the tour and released this week by Virgin Records.

Remarkably, however, Rotten's transition from rock revolutionary to music-hall entertainer began taking hold about halfway through the 55-minute set, and smiles began to appear on the faces of the young fans. It was as if they had been charmed by a crazy old uncle's over-the-top enthusiasm.

At one point, things seemed so close to turning into a love-in that Rotten appeared a little unsettled.

"I'm Johnny Rotten," he said, "not Johnny Denver."

Throughout, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock (the predecessor of Vicious, who died of a heroin overdose in 1978) played with an uplifting intensity and command.

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