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!”
Wilson sneered the words and loomed for a moment, before sliding back into his chair and welcoming listeners with his velvety broadcasting voice like nothing had happened.
The studio guest that day was David Nolan – a local journalist who had investigated the illustrious Lesser Free Trade Hall gig on 4 June 1976 and 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, 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.
Regardless of whether Wilson was in the room that night or not, his influence at the dawn of Madchester remains undeniable. As Nolan points out, the presenter hosted another event a few weeks after the Pistols gig that might have played an even bigger role in launching the music scene that would reverberate around the world.
“Three things actually happened in Manchester that summer,” Nolan explains.
“There was the first Sex Pistols gig in June, a second Sex Pistols gig in July, and then later in September [the band] appeared on So It Goes on television. That performance was organised by Tony Wilson. Hundreds of thousands of people will have watched it. It 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. 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!”
Originally published in 2001, Nolan’s book was the first real piece of research-led work into the Sex Pistols gig – with much of the previous literature being 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. I was 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 everyone from gig organisers and performers to 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.
Working as a young journalist in Altrincham in the 1980s, Nolan had got chatting to fellow writer called Pete Oldham – who claimed to have been at both Sex Pistols gigs. The hyperbolic status of these shows was already set in stone even then – 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 at Granada Studios Nolan began working on that very concept – and was pulled away mid-production to produce a book to go alongside the TV programme.
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 – including a description by GQ as ”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 that first Sex Pistols 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.
The Scottish-Indian restaurant selling haggis pakoras and deep-fried Mars bars
Over in Sale’s newly redeveloped Stanley Square, you’ll find an Indian fusion restaurant serving up Scottish ingredients in some decidedly un-Scottish ways.
We’re talking haggis pakoras, Irn Bru negronis, wee puris and seven spice Scotch eggs – all served street food style in traditional metal tiffin boxes.
Opened by Ryan Singh, who hails from Edinburgh, Roti combines the best bits of his Scottish and Indian heritage by putting a spicy twist on some of Scotland’s most sacred foodstuffs.
Think deep-fried Mars bars, ‘chip butties’ in authentic rotis stuffed with curried aloo and chickpeas in aromatic pickle, and an aromatic take on mince and tatties made by combining Roti spiced pork and chole potatoes.
Elsewhere, you’ll find a decidedly fresh spin on fish and chips combining fresh Panga fish in roti gram flour batter with fluffy masala potatoes on a bed of curried ‘mushy peas’ chickpeas, and a massive Highlander burger topped with a crunchy puri ball.
Haggis – a Scottish delicacy traditionally served on Burns night – features heavily on the menu here too.
A savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (a mix of minced heart, liver and lungs) with oatmeal, onion, spices, suet, salt and stock, it’s typically served alongside neeps (better known as parsnips) on special occassions.
Down at Roti, though, it takes some decidedly different forms: shaped into burger patties and topped with coleslaw and apple chutney, or lightly coated in a spiced gram flour and fried into pakoras.
Roti first opened on Chorlton’s Barlow Moor Road in 2019, but within a few months found itself forced to close its doors and switch to takeaway only as the country went into lockdown.
After building up a loyal following of takeaway customers, the restaurant – described as ‘not your average Indian joint’ – was inspired to expand and owners moved into the newly refurbished Sale shopping precinct in 2021.
Sadly, they closed the original restaurant earlier this month but you can still find all their brilliant dishes over in Sale alongside hospitality heavy hitters like Rudy’s, Greens and Sugo Pasta Kitchen.
The 1975 ‘At Their Very Best’ in Manchester — they certainly were
On Friday, The 1975 rocked their way back up to Manchester for the homecoming gig of their ‘At Their Very Best’ tour at the AO Arena and ‘my, my, my’ did they live up to the title of the show.
Returning for the first time since 2020, the band from Wilmslow were clearly committed to putting on a memorable show for the city they grew up in and which essentially put them on the map, with Matty Healy openly admitting: “I don’t need to tell you how big this gig for us”.
It certainly felt pretty momentous for the 20,000 or so of us watching.
The calm before the storm
While a mix of ambient and classic music played before they took the stage and opener Bonnie Kemplay delighted both her die-hards and won over plenty of new ears with her soft and soothing tones, it all felt like a calm before the storm as we knew the level of performance and pageantry that was in store.
We couldn’t have been more right, as despite having fallen ill overnight and being hopped up on Lemsip — he literally spent the first few songs sipping on a cold and flu drink — you couldn’t tell, as Healy’s energy levels looked just as electric as in the now-famed London show, if not even more so.
Not only did he grow into the gig as it went on, as typified by various costume changes (mostly just taking off his shirt), the trademark shaky knees dancing, swapping Lemsip for wine and cigs, as well as his general David Bryne-like eccentricities, but the whole show felt more like an ensemble performance.
From the way his various bandmates were introduced with opening credits as they walked through the various doors on the stage and fans screamed as each of their favourites switched on a light around the beautifully set design, to how they all gathered around the mics to nail the harmonies — it felt like everyone had their moment. And there were quite a few, to say the least…
Chucking on special guests, chewing raw meat and climbing through a TV
With fans having already seen footage of them bringing out Taylor Swift on the first night in the capital, those watching The 1975 ‘At Their Very Best’ in Manchester were understandably excited to see who might appear through the door towards the back of the stage. Oh, just Charli XCX, as you do.
Honestly, the noise that echoed around the AO Arena when she appeared was deafening and though perhaps not everyone in there would usually find themselves listening to her music, even with The 1975‘s own obvious and expertly attuned pop sensibilities, her energy was unparalleled and the crowd lapped it up.
It was a similar story when Carly Holt was brought on for ‘About You’ and they played old cult-favourite ‘Menswear’ from their self-titled debut album.
That being said, it was nothing compared to the slightly maniacal crescendo that closed out of the opening half of the show before she stepped out, as Matty punctuated the songs from Being Funny in a Foreign Language and the more easy-going tracks with a typically meta albeit bizarre interlude.
The frenetic frontman has always been self-referential but he was at self-indulgent best on Friday, as in one fell swoop he went from unbuttoning his shirt and sensually caressing his body whilst smoking on stage, to getting on his knees, eating a raw piece of steak and doing a bunch of press-ups. At one point you could literally see him mouth, “what the f*** am I doing!?”
We have absolutely no idea, Matty. We thought it was surreal enough when he started eating a sausage roll after a fan chucked it on stage, but that was nothing compared to him staring down a camera as he climbed through a TV and disappeared out the back of the set.
We assumed it had some kind of consumerist, fourth-wall-breaking message about being sucked in by media and whatnot, but who knows? It could just be the ever-artsy musician having a bit of mind-bending fun; it gave us trippy Trainspotting vibes and was unlike any other live gig we’d ever seen.
Doing what they do best: putting on a proper show
With the new album and the majority of surprises behind them, the band then kicked things into fifth gear and started playing countless bangers throughout their now more than decade-long studio discography as they steamed towards the final act of their 25-track epic.
Part of the reason this latest record has gone down so well with fans new and old is that it’s much more succinct and simpler than the previous two; back to basics sounds reductive but it was about stripping away a lot of the frills and just writing good songs — the second half of the show very much embodied that ethos.
Matty’s often unhinged, ‘dancing with abandon’ and intoxicated persona on stage is never going to go anywhere, but it didn’t look like he needed anything other than the audience to fuel the performance. They fed off him and he fed off them, as was perfectly epitomised when they dropped ‘The Sound’.
Closing the door and looking towards a new chapter
More poignantly, after the now infamous antics earlier in the show that have now become part of the narrative for this tour, there wasn’t any more self-indulgence. There were no speeches about politics or art, kissing people on stage or sucking thumbs. There was simply no need for it.
There was only pure crowd-pleasing, Matty showing his appreciation for his bandmates and celebrating everything that the band is about at this moment in time, even if that is partly playing the hits and things like doing the ‘don’t like methols’ meme.
I mean, he couldn’t not do it for us, could he?
Last but not least, the set dressing was typically creative from The 1975’s production team as a whole and played a key role throughout, but it was until the end of the show that it hit home how important it was to the whole performance.
The doors dotted all over the stage weren’t just a nice nod to the iconic box logo that the band is known for. After it was illuminated and Matty passed through it for the final time, shutting it behind him and the credits once again rolling for the band, the metaphor hit you like a train: it signified the end of an era.
By walking through it on his way off the stage, it symbolised the band closing the door on the Music For Cars era that has encapsulated their last five albums and more than 21 years of their life as a band, with the last action of Matty going to turn the stage lights as if to ram home that final moment of closure.
Who knows what the next chapter will hold for The 1975? All we know is that we have loved the journey so far and you can sign us up for as many of those gigs as they’re willing to give us.