Anarchy in the OK

by Lee Roy Chapman


No one took credit for the bomb threat that January night. Though no device was found in the women’s restroom of the Cain’s Ballroom, a bomb of a different sort was about to drop in Tulsa.

The Sex Pistols’ American tour, arguably the most notorious musical roadshow in history, was scheduled to launch December 17, 1977, in New York City with a live television performance on Saturday Night Live. The U.S. Embassy in London initially declined permission for the British punk band’s visas to enter the U.S. but then approved the visa, delaying the trip until December 31, which cut the total number of tour stops by half. The Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, booked the majority of the dates in the deep South with the intention of hitting America’s most conservative and reactionary nerve. On January 5, 1978, the Pistols kicked off the beginning of the end at the great South East Music Hall in Atlanta, Georgia.

Next stop was Memphis, then San Antonio, on to Baton Rouge and back to Dallas. By the time the Pistols arrived in ice-covered Tulsa on January 11, the frayed nerves of anarchy’s traveling freakshow weren’t so much worn thin as they were festering unstitched wounds, dripping with puss and blood. By the time the Pistols arrived in Tulsa, some of the bandmates weren’t on speaking terms; they had endured fistfights, hospital visits, and even a SWAT invasion of their show in Memphis.

Tulsans knew anarchy was coming to OK. Local press alerted the public to the chaos about to ensue north of the tracks. A group of 30 or so calling themselves the “Jesus People” showed up at Cain’s to warn the few fans and numerous spectators that they would go to hell if they entered the building. One protester carried a sign that read, “There is a Johnny Rotten inside each of us, and he doesn’t need to be liberated, he needs to be crucified.”

Larry Shaeffer, owner of the Cain’s and promoter of the show, saw opportunity in the mayhem. Admission was changed just prior to the show from $2.50 to $3.50 on every ticket with a rubber stamp or a felt tip pen. A local band, Bliss, opened the show. The Wednesday night regulars at the Cain’s, who were used to scooting their boots to country music, showed up anyway (perhaps to kick some shit). Crowd estimates ranged from 600 to 800, which is a little over half the total capacity of the legendary ballroom.

“All you rednecks came to see a circus?” Rotten yelled to the crowd, launching the evening. Debris began to fly.

The Pistols played their full set and then vanished into the icy night, taking a couple of groupies and at least one Cain’s stage hand with them. The only traces of the historic spectacle left behind was a fist-sized hole in the wall and a scrawled signature on a glossy 8×10, both compliments of Sid Vicious. Three days later—at Winterland in San Francisco—the band played their last gig.

The Pistols’ mayhem devoured whatever had bound them together. They remain a singular icon in the annals of 20th century music, inspiring untold numbers of punks and others to rebel against whatever the status quo accepts—a position unimaginable to at least one Tulsa establishment. A review of the show in the Tulsa World said, “But, in the end, the Sex Pistols were simply a novelty, not a trend-setting act. Several Tulsans, after an initial curiosity-seeking glance, left the ballroom. Those who stayed cheered, but it is doubtful punk rock is here to stay.”

Editor’s Note: As a matter of public record let it be noted that our publisher, Vincent LoVoi, was in attendance at the Sex Pistols concert in Tulsa.