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Sex Pistols
Bringing Out the Big Guns: Like so much about the Sex Pistols' career, "Filthy Lucre Live" is craftily designed to help boost the profile of a band that has never garnered much radio airplay.

The new Sex Pistols concert album--a punk postcard from the masters of superhype--takes aim at '90s grungers and '70s old-wavers

By Gina Arnold

ON JUNE 23, 1996, the Sex Pistols played a show in Finsbury Park, right round the corner from Johnny Rotten's childhood home in London. Less than a month later, a recording of that show, which was simultaneously broadcast on British radio, has been released in the United States as a CD titled Filthy Lucre Live (Virgin Records).

The Finsbury Park show was in fact the infamous band's third performance since breaking up in San Francisco in 1978. Prior to the London show, they did two warm-up gigs in Finland and Germany. The Finnish show, which I also attended, was an unmitigated disaster, but, happily for the recording process, the Finsbury Park concert was the opposite, an emotional and musical triumph.

Everything went right, from the weather--brilliant sunshine--to the band's riveting performance. The audience of 20,000 sang along to every word, and the Pistols, who clearly felt vindicated by the love the emanated from the crowd, reveled in it.

The Sex Pistols current set--i.e., the track listing of Filthy Lucre--contains every song on the Pistols' sole album, Never Mind the Bollocks plus "Satellite" and "Done You No Wrong" (the b-sides of "Holidays in the Sun" and "God Save the Queen" singles), as well as two covers, the Monkees' "Stepping Stone" and the Stooges' "No Fun."

The album reflects the Pistols' newfound jollity, and it also shows the Pistols at a musical peak. The band, which broke up in 1978, has reunited with the help of original bassist and tunesmith Glen Matlock, and is much the better for it--it's no secret that the late Sid Vicious (who died of an OD in 1979) was a terrible bass player. (Matlock went on to form the Rich Kids and play with Iggy Pop after leaving the Pistols in 1977.)

Original drummer Paul Cook, always a solid player, has since earned his living as a session drummer. And guitarist Steve Jones, though appalling to look at with his pot belly crammed into his tight, tiger-striped trousers, is also much improved since 1977.

As for Rotten, his singing is both better and worse than it was of old. Technically, he has improved vocally, thanks to years spent in Public Image. But emotionally, it is somewhat worse. Rotten has never seemed less sincere than "rrrrright ... now," and although that is part of

the Pistols' pose, it is still a bit disturbing to hear him say unctuous things like "Finsbury Park has never looked so good!" and "Fat, 40 and back!" with such aplomb.

AFTER ALL, like so much about the Pistols' career, Filthy Lucre Live--and the Filthy Lucre tour that it supports--is another case of tricky superhype designed to help boost the profile of a band that has never garnered much radio airplay. The record is being speed-released in conjunction with the Pistols U.S. tour, which opened last week in Denver and will get to Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View on Aug. 27.

But one can't help but wonder who is its intended market--young, Green Day­inspired punks or sentimental old-wavers like me. In Finland, a park full of the former booed the band off the stage. In London, however, the Pistols were lovingly embraced with as much enthusiasm and nostalgia as the Eagles.

In fact, the Pistols show is fun to see--curiosity killed the cat, and all that. But people are more sophisticated than they were in 1977; it'd take a lot more than saying "bastard" on daytime TV to get you noticed. By reuniting, the Sex Pistols risk the comment "But what was all the fuss about?" They--and the hooey their movement caused--have actually been wildly influential. But it's not really the kind of influence that transcends time and place.

Another irony about Filthy Lucre Live is the way that it harks back to the '70s penchant for live albums. Frampton Comes Alive! was one of the bestselling LPs of all time, while U2's then-minuscule career was given a huge boost from one live EP, Under a Blood Red Sky (live from Red Rocks).

Back then, there was even a cliché, Live at Budokan!, which referred to the number of bands that released live albums recorded at that venue in Japan. (The movie This Is Spinal Tap ends up with a Spinal Tap: Live at Budokan! LP.)

But by the mid-'80s, the popularity of live LPs had waned considerably. Bruce Springsteen's double-live LP, Live 1975­1985, bombed, despite the fact the he is an artist best known for his live sets. Guns n' Roses' Live Like a Suicide album was not an unqualified success, despite the group's massive fame.

One reason for this diminution in sales and interest may have been that by the mid-'80s, bands toured so extensively that everyone was able to see them, making live LPs less necessary to fans in the hinterlands.

Another may have had to do with improvements in sound technology. The mid-'80s was a boom time for such advances; good stereos became cheaper, and the advent of synthesizers, click tracks and rap music in general all educated listeners to be much pickier about sonics.

By the time CDs came about, the live LP was already a thing of the past, replaced by the live video concert (Annie Lennox, Live from Central Park!) and the ubiquitous benefit tribute album, on which a clutch of different artists pay homage to another artist's songs.

But as Filthy Lucre indicates, the live LP may be making a comeback. The Ramones, the Eagles, X, Dave Alvin and the Doobie Brothers have all recently released live albums. And of course, the MTV Unplugged series--Kiss Unplugged, Alice in Chains Unplugged and the wonderful Nirvana LP MTV Unplugged in New York--are also indicative of a more thriving climate for the live set.

Is this a good thing? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, bands often use live albums to finish up contracts without actually writing new songs--live LPs are no-brainer/time-wasters, cashing in on an audience's good will.

THE LIVE ALBUM, on the other hand, can be a good medium if the concert it documents is truly special. But it has to really be special, not just one good night on a worldwide tour: not just Lollapalooza--Live!

A better example would be the double LP International Pop Underground. In 1991, the K Record label held the International Pop Underground Festival in Olympia, five nights of concerts featuring all their best acts. The tracks on the live LP do capture some of the diversity and excitement of that extravaganza; it's the kind of live album that lets those who couldn't attend feel like they were there.

More recently, I have attended shows that really did deserve a wider audience than a live recording would give them. Ray Davies' amazing solo show at the Fillmore in 1995 was one. Tom Waits' one-time-only gig at the Paramount Theater in Oakland early this year was another.

The Pistols' Filthy Lucre Live falls somewhat short of that ideal, but it does have its historic aspect: the sound of the Sex Pistols is finally being embraced by the mainstream. And as a person who has already attended the two dates of the Pistols reunion dates (and who saw them once before they broke up), I found myself rather enjoying the record. It was an undeniably nice night. And they're a great band.

On the downside, however, the record merely presents the same Greatest Hits set that will be seen over the next few months in Mexico City and New York, Memphis, Japan and New Zealand.

For neophytes, there's no question: Don't buy Filthy Lucre Live but get the band's only other official release, 1977's Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. That LP captures a passionately committed band at the peak of its cultural importance. Filthy Lucre Live is a mere souvenir of that era, a postcard from punkdom, a piece of merch to hang some hype on. You'd get more wear out of a T-shirt.

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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