The most famous photo from one of the most infamous concerts to ever take place in Dallas doesn’t have any musicians in it. It’s a photo of the sign outside the Longhorn Ballroom, the country and western dance hall that was once owned by Bob Wills and later by Jack Ruby. “Tonite: Sex Pistols,” the sign reads. “Jan 19: Merle Haggard.”
Thirty nine years ago this month, the Sex Pistols’ ill-fated tour of the United States visited Dallas, and passed into local lore as one of the wildest and most surreal shows in Dallas music history. But when Roberta Bayley, a New York photographer on assignment to shoot the show for Punk magazine took the photo, it was a moment of calm before the chaos.
“I have a lot of pictures of [Sex Pistols members] Steve [Cook] and Paul [Jones]. I think they were riding on the cow,” says Bayley, referring to the giant cow statue that stood beneath the Longhorn’s sign. “They’d never been to Texas. Steve bought this big cowboy hat. Texas was really exotic for British people. They think it’s cowboys and stuff, so they’re going to see John Wayne.”
Novelty played a big role in the Sex Pistols’ one and only U.S. tour, which took place in January 1978. Manager Malcolm McLaren bypassed the East coast in favor of a tour of the South, where a clashing of cultures was all but inevitable. “Texas attracted a lot of gawkers,” says Bayley, who was a regular at CBGB’s in New York and shot the cover of the Ramones’ debut album. “There was that element of, ‘Let’s see the freaks, let’s throw stuff at the band and be outrageous.’”
Barry Kooda, guitarist for Dallas punk band the Nervebreakers, who opened for the Pistols that night, agrees. “There were maybe 200 people in the DFW metroplex who knew what was actually going on,” he says. “I’ve met 5,000 people who said they were at that show and there were like 300 that I remember, so some of them are lying.”
Bayley—who, along with her editor John Holmstrom (as well as famed photographer Annie Leibowitz), joined the seven-date tour on its third stop in San Antonio on January 8, two days before the Longhorn—says Dallas wasn’t the most chaotic show. “It wasn’t as scary as Randy’s Rodeo [in San Antonio] because Randy’s Rodeo was just a real collection of crazies,” she says.
But Dallas would prove particularly memorable, thanks to the sight of bassist (or, rather, “bassist”) Sid Vicious getting covered in his own blood. How the blood got there remains a point of debate: Jeff Liles, then a 16-year-old audience member, says Vicious got punched in the face by a fan; Bayley remembers Vicious getting headbutted; and Kooda says Vicious got hit by his mic stand.
Most importantly, Vicious knew how to play up the spectacle. “He spent the next 23 minutes trying to conjure as much blood as he could,” Kooda says. “It was disgusting, but that’s what was selling back then. It was way easier to freak people out back then.”
The other most enduring memory of that night’s show was that the Pistols, well, sucked. “It wasn’t impressive. They just kind of fell onstage and could barely keep their shit together. They were clearly not rehearsed,” says Liles, who’s now the artistic director at the Kessler Theater but was then a high school junior in Richardson. The year before, he’d seen shows by Led Zeppelin and the Ramones. “It was kind of a letdown. I’m glad I was there but it was one of the first times there was a band I was totally stoked to see and they sucked.”
Kooda, who says the Pistols only got paid $500 for the gig (and that the Nervebreakers didn’t get paid at all), doesn’t mince his words on just how much of a letdown it was. “Cook and Jones were…awesome. They were the band. [Singer] Johnny [Rotten] and Sid were surfers, they were just there for looks,” he says. “If Sid’s bass was plugged in at all, he never hit a correct note.”
In fact, Kooda reserves particular disdain for Vicious, whom he almost got into an altercation with during sound check. “He was just a douchebag,” Kooda insists. He says Vicious demanded Kooda give him the studded bracelet he was wearing, and when Kooda refused, Vicious started throwing punches. The Nervebreakers’ manager had to stop a fight from breaking out. “I was like, dude, you’re in Texas now. You could die from [messing] with people down here,” Kooda remembers, laughing.
“It was disgusting, but that’s what was selling back then. It was way easier to freak people out…”
“Sid was basically coming off heroin. He was a mess and drinking horribly weird mixed combinations of alcohol,” remembers Bayley. Rotten, too, wasn’t in the best of spirits: Bayley remembers him being sick, and says she barely interacted with him during the tour. “They weren’t happy campers,” she says. “I wasn’t completely surprised when they broke up. It seemed almost like the logical conclusion.”
That break-up would come exactly one week after the Dallas concert, on January 17. Three nights before, at a show in San Francisco, a disgruntled Rotten asked the audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” after the first song, then walked offstage and never returned. Barely one year later, Vicious would be dead of a heroin overdose, and the Longhorn show would take on even greater significance as one of only a handful of the band’s U.S. appearances.
Ironically, Kooda would enjoy his own moment of fame from the Longhorn show, thanks to a photo of him biting the head off a fish that appeared in the March 1978 issue of Rolling Stone. When the Nervebreakers later opened for the Police, Sting introduced himself, recognizing Kooda from the photo. “I went, ‘Who the hell are you? Sting? Oh, cool, another name like Cher. Yeah, nice dude,’” Kooda says. “The closest I’ve been to him since is sweeping the stage. So that rock star shit goes out the window pretty quick.”
The Sex Pistols, however, remain an exception to that line of thinking, in spite of—and in some cases, because of—the fact that their live show could never live up to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. “It was an event to be at more than it was about music,” says Kooda of the Longhorn concert. “But I will be a diehard fan till day I die. They changed music forever.”