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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Not Your Father's Sex Pistols at Universal

August 24, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

"Who wants to kiss our beer bellies?" the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten asked the audience Thursday night at the Universal Amphitheatre, lifting his XL black shirt to reveal a mound of pasty flesh.

The move led to wild cheering and waves of affectionate laughter.

As in the opening tour stop last month in Denver, Thursday's audience didn't come to joust with the Pistols--as in the revolutionary days of the '70s when the band was challenging the social and musical order. It came to mosh at their feet.

How strange to think of the Pistols as beloved, but that's the legacy of this tour--at least for that part of the pop world that understands why the Pistols were one of the great rock bands of all time.

It shouldn't be that much of a surprise. For all their controversial antics in the '70s, the Pistols always had great fundamentals: stirring, anthem-ish songs with such a strong sense of melody that you couldn't help but sing along . . . spirited musicianship (aside from the days when the late Sid Vicious was on bass) . . . and a classic frontman in Rotten.

That's all still there--improved on stage, in fact, by the return of original bassist Glen Matlock to join Steve Jones on guitar and Paul Cook on drums. What they don't have is fury and purpose--except to make some money and prove to doubters that there was always more to the band than simply shrewd marketing.

Despite Rotten's good-natured vaudevillian attempts at sarcasm, the Pistols mean little in today's social or musical climate. It's significant to note that the group's new live album--quite a good collection--isn't on the nation's list of Top 200 sellers.

*

After Sunday's stop at the Hollywood Palladium, only four dates remain on the North American leg of the band's itinerary. And then the Pistols fade into history, awaiting their induction around the year 2001 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Unless, that is, they get so caught up in the audience affection that they decide to come back. But, the fans on Thursday came to the show in the spirit of a farewell party. They didn't seem to be saying "welcome back" as much as "thanks for the memories." If the Pistols do want to return, they ought to head straight to Broadway. If they could go on stage with some multimedia visuals that would assault the audience with scenes from the '70s, the Pistols could have a big rock musical hit in the tradition of "Tommy." Both productions, strangely enough, have ended up as equally nostalgic, feel-good affairs.

And can't you imagine Rotten's acceptance speech at the Tonys?

* The Sex Pistols, with Goldfinger and Gravity Kills, play on Sunday at the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., 7:30 p.m. $26.50. (213) 962-7600.

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