One Saturday morning, during an ad break on his Radio Manchester chat show, Tony Wilson leaned over his microphone and whispered into his guest’s ear.
“You know what you said about me not being at that Sex Pistols gig? That was fucking snide,” he sneered, before sliding back into his chair and welcoming back listeners with his velvety broadcasting voice like nothing had happened.
The man sat opposite Wilson on that morning was David Nolan, a local journalist who – after months of investigation into the illustrious Lesser Free Trade Hall gig on 4 June 1976 – concluded Wilson had probably not been in attendance.
This was a big problem for Wilson. It didn’t fit his legend.
That Sex Pistols performance has gone down in folklore as the “gig that changed the world” – a tiny rock concert that proved to be compost for the Madchester movement. Members of the crowd were said to be so inspired by what happened on stage that night, they would go on to launch a revolutionary movement – becoming the headline artists, writers, and creatives of a sensational new scene. It’s the gig credited with creating The Smiths, Joy Division, Buzzcocks and The Fall. Why wouldn’t Wilson – the man who co-launched the city’s behemothic Factory Records and Hacienda nightclub – be there?
But, after creating a documentary and penning a best-selling book on that famous punk rock performance; Nolan deduced – against the tide of popular opinion – that ‘Mr Manchester’ Tony Wilson was likely elsewhere on the night the city’s music scene was born.
Naturally, Wilson didn’t like it. But 20 years since Nolan published I Swear I Was There (which has been lauded by fellow scene-setters Peter Hook and Paul Morley – two men who were at the gig) he’s yet to be proven wrong.
Whilst Wilson may not have been at that first show – his influence at the dawn of Madchester remains undeniable.
Nolan points out that Wilson hosted another event mere weeks after the Pistols gig(s) that proved even more inspirational.
“Three things actually happened in Manchester that summer,” the author explains.
“There was the first Sex Pistols gig in June, a second Sex Pistols gig in July, and then later in September they appeared on So It Goes on television. It was organised by Tony Wilson – and way more people will have seen that.
“Hundreds of thousands will have watched the Sex Pistols in Manchester [on that programme]. That could have even been more influential [than the Lesser Free Trade Hall shows].”
Nonetheless, it’s that first Sex Pistols gig on June 4 that still serves as the setting for the fable. And everyone still wants to be part of it; Wilson wasn’t the only one.
Indeed, over the past 45 years, hundreds insist they paid their 50p and watched history in the making that night. They swear they were there.
Ticket sales show that about 40 people were actually in attendance – which suggests the past four decades have been full of fibbing. But Nolan says it’s more complicated than that.
“Remember, there were two Sex Pistols gigs that summer,” he explains.
“When we did the original documentary programme, we devised a test and questionnaire for people to fill in.
“What we found out was that some people were at the second gig, but thought they were at the first. Some were at neither. But 99% of time people were genuinely convinced they had been there.
“Both the documentary and book are full of contradictory stories from people – that’s the notion of memory. People misremember things.
“Plus – it’s a flipping long time ago!”
I Swear I Was There has become the gig’s bible – enjoying three UK editions and a version printed in Italian. You’ll often find it cited or quoted in any piece of work about Manchester music or punk.
Originally published in 2001, Nolan’s book was the first real piece of research-led work into the gig – with much of the previous literature muddled, confused or lacking in clarity.
“Music writers from that period weren’t necessarily massive fact-checkers,” Nolan states.
“It was all done in the pub. Stories were just passed on by word of mouth.
“So, I started [the book] as a brand new story and ignored what was written before.
“I was already a journalist who just ended up writing about music – I approached it a bit like a court case or crime scene; focused on getting every single detail right.”
Nolan spoke to everyone he could in an attempt to build the first truthful picture of the gig since it went through mythologisation. He interviewed gig organisers, performers and regular folks who’d just hopped on a bus from Denton after spotting an ad for the show in the Manchester Evening News.
He even achieved what no one else had done before and successfully tracked down the supporting band who played before the Pistols that evening – a Bolton group called Solstice.
“That’s where the gold was; people who hadn’t told the story a thousand times before,” Nolan grins.
Nolan wasn’t at the Free Trade Hall in June ‘76 (he was 12 at the time) – but the famous gig still changed his life.
Whilst working as a young journalist in Altrincham in the 1980s, Nolan got chatting to a fellow writer called Pete Oldham – who had claimed to have been to both the famous Sex Pistols shows. The hyperbolic status of the Sex Pistols’ local shows was already set in stone – and Oldham had to show off his ticket stubs to convince Nolan he’d actually gone. But the whole conversation raised the idea of creating a documentary; a piece of television that would determine who was actually there – and who wasn’t.
Later in his career, during his time at Granada, Nolan began working on that very concept – and was pulled away mid-production to produce a book to go alongside the documentary.
He was given nine weeks to write it – a rollercoaster-like process involving lots of late nights in which “he almost went mad” – but got it over the line. Holding his copy aloft was a proud moment, and when he spotted a display dedicated to the book in Waterstones it almost made him “pass out”.
The first edition of I Swear I Was There received a solitary review, calling it ‘tedious beyond belief’. In 2006 it was re-released with a new cover and five-star acclaim across the board – with GQ calling it “one of the greatest rock stories ever told”.
Nolan’s been a published author ever since – with 15 books under his belt (including the riveting Manc Noir thrillers Black Moss and The Mermaid’s Pool). But what makes I Swear I Was There quite so special is the fact that it’s still causing conversation today.
“This kind of thing just won’t happen again,” Nolan explains.
“The whole thing would be recorded on people’s phones and uploaded to social media.
“It’s like the fly in Jurassic Park – perfectly preserved in amber. That’s the beauty of it.”
Every few years, some new information about the gig comes to light. A fresh anecdote. A forgotten image. A long-lost tiny relic. But still no definitive evidence that Wilson was in attendance.
“There were 40-odd people in the audience that night… and Tony was incredibly famous,” Nolan states.
“For people not to notice he was there… I’m not sure.
“Pete Shelley from Buzzcocks who took the money on the door doesn’t remember Tony being there. Howard Devoto who organised the gig doesn’t remember Tony being there.
“But who knows. In another five years I could have found a photograph of Tony Wilson stood next to the Sex Pistols at the gig and I’ll have to make an apology.
“Or we may never know. It’s all part of the fun. That’s the great thing about this story – new stuff is happening all the time. Even now.
“You just never know what will happen next.”
‘I Swear I Was There’ is available online from Amazon.
David Nolan is hosting an official author evening titled ‘Murder, music and Manc Noir’ later this month live on Zoom. Tickets are free and can be booked online here.