The Night That Changed It All: How punk was brought to Manchester and the world

A first hand account from Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley on the legendary Sex Pistols 1976 Manchester show.

The Night That Changed It All: How punk was brought to Manchester and the world

By Will Whitby

Jun 4, 2017 13:45

“It was visceral, it was highly charged, it was alive, ” punk rock veteran and Buzzcocks’, Pete Shelley recounted on one night that truly changed music: The Sex Pistols’ show at Manchester’s Lesser Trade Hall on 4th June 1976. The show has been heralded as the day that punk music truly started in Britain and is considered a cornerstone in Manchester music folklore. The show was attended by only a handful of people but those cherished few included Morrissey, Ian Curtis, Mark E Smith, Peter Hook and Tony Wilson. Some consider this one gig to have shaped Manchester as we know it today.

“The band who eventually became Joy Division came up to me at the end of the show and asked me, ‘how do you do it? How do you make that music? Tell us the secret’,” says Shelley revealing his first encounter with a young Ian Curtis. “Because it was so simple we told them how to do it and told everybody the secrets. You wanted other people to be having the same fun that you were having,” he added.

The night in question has many accounts of what actually happened and Punktastic sat down with the man who put the gig on that night, Pete Shelley, to get a complete uncut story.

In 1976, Shelley was studying at the Bolton Institute where he met future Buzzcocks frontman, Howard Devoto. In his own words, Manchester in the 70s was “black and white and pretty grim.” The pair were “complete outsiders” to the popular Manchester music scene and were struggling to form and establish a band.

“Punk was completely unknown,” Shelley said.  “It was hard enough to get the records. They were like hen’s teeth, you couldn’t go into a shop and find them all racked up. Thankfully Howard had some records by The Stooges.”

At the time, The Sex Pistols were far from the modern day icons they are today having only played a handful of gigs before the Manchester show. Shelley and Devoto found the Sex  Pistols in the reviews section of a copy of NME in February 1976. It caught their eye because they covered a Stooges’ song. Devoto particularly like the quote: “We’re not after music, we’re after chaos!”

As it resonated with the aims he had musically. That night the duo borrowed a car and drove to Reading to stay at a friend’s house- future Buzzcocks manager, Richard Boon.

“We stayed the night and we went to London the next morning to find this mythical band,” Shelley gleefully reminisced.  “There was no listing for them in Time Out so we phoned up NME and asked. They said their manager had a clothes shop at the end of the Kings Road, The World’s End.”

“So we headed off and it was nearly closing time when we got there. We walked in and said ‘we believe you’re the manager of the Sex Pistols’ to which Malcolm McLaren was like ‘what’s going on here?’ We asked if they were playing this weekend, they did and we went to the gigs and chatted to Malcolm and the band. He said they said were trying to get gigs outside of London so it was ideal,” he continued.


Shelley, at the time, was Vice President of the Students’ Union in Bolton but unfortunately, they weren’t interested to host a Sex Pistols show. Devoto attempted to use his connections in the live Manchester music scene as he wrote for listings magazine “New Manchester Review” at the time but still to no avail.

The pair eventually found out for £32 you could hire out a little hall on top of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. After all parties were happy the gig was agreed.

“We booked the hall, we printed tickets, we tried to advertise it as best we could and then on the 4th of June Sex Pistols came up to play to an unsuspecting audience,” Shelley said.

The original plan was for Buzzcocks to support the Sex Pistols for the show but they couldn’t get a bassist in time. However, Shelley, reveals a humorous tale of coincidence in how they met future bassist, Steve Diggle at the first show.

“We were stood outside the venue and on this big blackboard read “Live from London: The Sex Pistols.” Malcolm McLaren was trying to drum up people to come in like the showman he was “roll up roll up” and that. There was this bloke outside waiting to meet somebody and he spoke to Malcolm on the door and said he was looking for a band because he answered an advert. Malcolm put two and two together and got five and brought him to us” Shelley revealed.

“It later transpired in the interval that this guy wasn’t looking for us and had no idea who the Sex Pistols or Buzzcocks were at all. We offered him to stay for the show and he seemingly enjoyed it. The day after we practised together through two channels on a practice amp. And that is how we met our bass player Steve,” he continued.

16 days passed until the Sex Pistols returned to Manchester and on 20th June Buzzcocks played their first show.


“ It was different; the Sex Pistols were a great band to watch” Shelley explained. “There was a melody, it wasn’t one of those freeform raucous affairs. It was visceral, it was highly charged, it was alive.

“The Sex Pistols were the antithesis of music at the time. That’s why no one really saw it coming. It didn’t take being a musician seriously. There was a cavalier attitude of you just learn a few chords and you’re done. The show made punk accessible” the punk veteran discussed, in great admiration for the time.

“It was completely different to the stuff they’d have on at the Student Unions. Most of the time people would go to the local hall to just sit on the floor” Shelley comically remarked.

The impact of punk music was arguably the biggest impact a genre has ever had in music. The punk revolution brought a totally new breed of musician. Ones that were doing it because it was a direct expression of how they were feeling, no matter what ability or background they were. Any hint of anarchy in a band’s sound today can be traced back to punk and all can be traced back to the Sex Pistols’ show that night.

The punk icon attempted to explain an infamous question of “what punk meant to him.” A question that has been asked many times to many people and all come out with different and personal answers.

“The important thing about punk was that it was an idea. You don’t need to go to a special school and learn how to do it. You just need the determination to know that was what you were going to do. It made it able to spread like a virus” Shelley pondered and then explained his point.

“When the Sex Pistols played it changed everybody in the room. Nearly everybody went off to do something creative afterwards either in music or in art or journalism etc. It inspired people to have a go doing it to make the leap of faith from wanting to do something.

“People’s attitudes were geed up into thinking that they could do anything and that’s what everybody did,” Shelley added.

Throughout the interview, one thing was clear. Clichés aside, Pete Shelley, is one of the godfathers of punk rock and without him and his decision to bring the Sex Pistols to Manchester the music scene as we know it today might be a lot different.