It seems millions of people claim to have been at Woodstock when only 500,000 or so were really there, but the biggest pop-culture event of the 1960s has nothing on one of the most pivotal of the 1970s: the Sex Pistols’ appearance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England, on June 4, 1976. Proportional to the actual crowd in attendance, perhaps no event in the history of pop music has enjoyed greater retroactive audience growth than the one that’s been called “The gig that changed the world.”
By June 1976, the Sex Pistols had been playing together under that name for only seven months, and though their look, their sound and their nihilistic attitude were already in place, they and the entire British punk scene were still a few months away from truly breaking out. They had drawn just enough attention in the British music press, though, to inspire two young men from Manchester named Howard DeVoto and Pete Shelley to go down and see them play in London in February. From this experience, two things happened: DeVoto and Shelley arranged for the Sex Pistols to come up north and play the Lesser Free Trade Hall; and then they formed their own new band, called the Buzzcocks. News of the June 4 gig in Manchester spread mostly by word of mouth, such that on the night of the show, perhaps as few as 40 people showed up in a room that could hold hundreds. In that small crowd, however, were some names that would help shape the course of pop music over the next decade:
Howard DeVoto and Pete Shelley: Their band, the Buzzcocks, would go on to enjoy enormous popularity and influence in the UK both during and after the punk era.
Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook: The very next day, Hook would buy his first guitar, and the three young Mancunians would become a band. That band—originally called the Stiff Kittens and later Warsaw—was Joy Division, one of the best-known and most influential of all the early New Wave bands.
Mark E. Smith: Following the Sex Pistols gig, he started The Fall, a post-punk band that never had a true hit record but influenced generations of followers from Nirvana to Franz Ferdinand.
Steven Patrick Morrissey: The last of these notables to make a name for himself, but one of the most successful, both as leader of The Smiths in the mid-1980s and as a solo artist thereafter.
Tony Wilson: Manchester TV news presenter who would be inspired to start the record label Factory Records, which would help create the thriving Manchester scene of the 1980s and early-90s.
Just a few days after the Sex Pistols stormed Manchester on this day in 1976, they returned to London for gigs on July 4 and 6 that featured two brand-new bands as opening acts: The Clash and The Damned. Three weeks after that, their return gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall (featuring opening act the Buzzcocks) drew hundreds, as the punk era unofficially opened.