Sonic Anarchy

By Aidan Vu
April 27, 2024

A vision of liberating chaos emerges and reaches out of a night in Manchester in 1976.

Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester in 1976.

The ticket stubs were incorrectly printed with “Friday, June 4th, 1076”— the period of construction for the Tower of London by William the Conqueror. The stubs displayed the previous opening band, Buzzcocks, but they’d had to drop, and progressive rock band Solstice had to step in to cover for them. Four dozen people were in attendance that night, filling the first four or five rows of the venue.

Manager Malcolm McLaren, who sported a leather suit for the night, went around local pubs to draw people to the event.  This included a 19-year-old Mark E. Smith, the future lead singer of legendary Manchester band The Four — with a raised eyebrow to complement his eccentric figure. McLaren’s strive to promote his anti-fashion clothing store “Sex” with his then-girlfriend Vivienne Westwood was etched in these small gigs for the group of provocateurs he threw together.

Solstice began to play— another painstakingly plain rock band. McLaren discouraged people from coming in to witness the opening support group.

An audible sighing. A concert held together by safety pins. Another wasted Friday night.

The Sex Pistols came on. Vocalist Johnny Rotten bested a ripped yellow jumper. Guitarist Steve Jones wore an all-in-one boiler suit. Drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock donned Oxfam attire.

Someone from the audience exclaimed, “You’re not very sexy, are you?”

Rotten shot back with “Why, do you want some sex?”

The fog of cigarette smoke filled the theater’s ceilings. Around the same time, a stream of fumes covered the outside of a rundown home on the outskirts of Sacramento, California. A young girl and her brothers watched piles of ripped denim, torn shirts, and leather engulfed in the flame that their father had set. My mother and uncles were molded by American society and Vietnamese cultural standards from my grandfather — one where appearance was everything and well-mannerisms were the law of their land.

As the flare in Sacramento grew, the low-lit stage in Lesser Free Trade Hall mirrored the poor acoustics muffling the bold lyrics of the Pistols. The band’s music steered completely away from the conventional culture of the time, distancing them from the pacifist hippies of the 1960s. Mid-way through their setlist, they sang “No Feelings”:

I got no feeling, no feeling, no feeling
For anybody else
Except for myself
My beautiful self-ish

Rotten’s staccato-style bursts and slurred pronunciation of the lyrics loosened  inhibitions, encapsulating total release. It was a raucous noise of thrashing intensity where you could only hear the faint clapping and cheers from the audience in between the songs. It was utter chaos, embracing imperfection with open arms. A short melody, a rhythm, or even a lyric defines a musical motif — a redoubtable beginning that carries the potential to grow into a symphony of everlasting emotion and meaning.

Among the audience that night were Morissey, three members of Joy Division, and Factory Records founder Tony Wilson — all of whom were only just emerging into their roles in the music industry; following that night, all would go on to articulate their beliefs through their respective crafts. This was the reaction to the punk rock movement in the United Kingdom — centering the punk identity around an ethos of protest, autonomy, unorthodox fashion, and combative artistry.

Motifs, though small and unassuming, contain immense expression and innovation. They add complexity to a piece by combining and extending, which requires absorbing new material and creating a hybrid of themes and textures. The Pistols entrenched their motif of cultural and musical reformation, carving their names in the gaps of the wooden panels as the few then-nameless individuals became spellbound by their influence. The composition grew with an insatiable fervor, crescendoing outside of Manchester.

The University of Houston, Houston in 1996.

In college, my mother put distance between herself and her family’s home, finally gaining some form of liberation from her father’s pressure.

She drove her exhausted GL Prism, which didn’t have its own CD player. But again, having a player symbolized more of a luxury during the time. Being sheltered throughout most of her life, she was restricted access to the internet and television.

Piles of brown and orange hues covered the ground as she entered the campus courtyard that was a host to many unfamiliarities to her — one being that it was a space of musical mergence. There were students strumming guitars to love songs and a battling sound between boomboxes and CD players, emptying the quietude of the shedding trees.

If you, if you could return
Don't let it burn…
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world…
Shakedown, 1979…
The wave coming crash into me…

The atmosphere was a mosh of the Cranberries, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and the Dave Matthews Band. An underlying chord resonated across the lawn, a familiar whisper of discontent and yearning for release.

“You’ve never heard of No Doubt?”

My mother’s boyfriend had interrupted the overwhelming moment. Taken aback, she responded hesitantly as she recounted past encounters with the title.


Her boyfriend pressed the button of his CD player, which spun with a soft whirr. He skipped past upbeat rhythms and ballad-like lyrics, stopping at a song named “Don’t Speak”.

It's all ending
We gotta stop pretending
Who we are
You and me

In that moment, my mother was transported to Lesser Free Trade Hall. She saw Joy Division and The Four thrashing against one another as Johnny Rotten’s harsh, discordant notes matched the extravagance of his fellow bandmates. The artists represent a series of jagged stitches in the cloth No Doubt was cut from, but each retained their individual voices in the musical blendings across campus. Together, they weave a shared narrative of resistance — from punk rock to new wave to riot grrrl.

The echoes of Lesser Free Trade Hall resounded through the faint speakers of a used CD player. The Sex Pistols’ abrasive motif of transformation, willed by fate, had become an enduring means to catharsis and liberation. My mother embraced the freedom offered by the music, bearing witness to and immortalizing the spirits of those manifold artists who, while converging in harmony, maintain their own pitch.

As my mother reached for the air in erratic movement, a long forbidden sensation of passion in her soul was ignited, meeting with the embers in Sacramento that seemed so distant. A relentless cycle of destruction and renewal was unfolding. Amongst the other students around her, it was then she grasped the profound truth: amidst contradiction, there exists the potential for rebirth, a self-revolution waiting to unfold as it did for the few at the Pistols’ first gig in Manchester. 

Layout: Nicholas Peasley
Photographer: Dylan Haefner
Video Cinematographer: Liv Martinez
Video Editor: Sofia Alejandro Barrios
Stylists: Keena Medina, Summer Sweeris & Adeline Hale
Set Stylist: Lauren Munoz
HMUA: Kennedy Ruhland & Abby Bagepally
Models: Colin Cantwell, Natán Murillo & Mimo Gorman

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