The Sex Pistols Gig That Inspired England's Greatest Bands

There are some concerts that redirect the flow of musical history, changing the lives of those in attendance forever.

And far from being huge seismic events taking place in front of thousands of rapt fans, such moments have often occurred in front of just a handful of people, who just so happen to be the exact audience the music was meant to reach.

This was certainly the case with the concert that took place in Manchester, England's Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976. According to Setlist, the modest venue has a capacity of 400, but it is believed that only around 40 punters were in the audience for what would be the first visit to the city of the U.K.'s first breakthrough band of the punk movement: the Sex Pistols, a show which History tells us has been called "the gig that changed the world."

The music landscape was very different back in the 1970s. With no internet and limited coverage of alternative music on television, music fans got the majority of their updates on new bands from magazines such as the New Musical Express. Per the BBC, this was how two teenagers, Howard Trafford and Pete McNeish, first heard about the Sex Pistols, who were gigging regularly in London but yet to release a single. On the strength of what they had read, the two Mancunians drove to London, and after being enthralled by numerous Pistols gigs, approached the band's manager, Malcolm McLaren, to book the band for their first Manchester gig.

Which famous musicians saw the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall?

But the fact is that Howard Trafford and Pete McNeish weren't simply looking to spread the word about the Sex Pistols in their native Manchester when they booked the group for the Lesser Free Trade Hall. In fact, they wanted to get on stage and do the punk thing, too. In fact, per the BBC, the two had already vowed to form their own group while on the London trip and had given themselves new stage names: Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley. They also decided on the name of their band — Buzzcocks, which would, in the months and years to come, become almost as synonymous with the punk explosion as the Sex Pistols themselves.

If the twin destinies of Devoto and Shelley were decided in London, many more emerged during the actual Manchester show. Among the crowd were three friends: Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, and Peter Hook. Per History, the trio would be so inspired by the Pistols' raw performance that they would start a band the very next day, and eventually settle upon the name Joy Division. Also in attendance from nearby Prestwich was Mark E. Smith, whose group, The Fall, would become a mainstay of British post-punk until his death in 2018, releasing over 30 influential studio albums. The more romantically inclined Steven Patrick Morrissey was also there. His band, The Smiths (pictured), would become '80s icons before Morrissey embarked on a hugely popular solo career.

The lasting influence of the Sex Pistols' first Manchester gig

The Sex Pistols' famous gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall thus became the catalyst for the city's own punk and post-punk explosion, influencing the sound of the music of the city for decades to come. But it was not just the Pistols' abrasive sound that made waves. The whole ethos that propelled the London group to prominence suggested new ways to both talk about music and to relate to it — that punk belonged to everyone.

Music critic Paul Morley was also in attendance that night and had described how the anything-goes aesthetic of the Sex Pistols seemed to perfectly awaken something in Manchester's creative subconscious. "I became the writer I wanted to be writing from a city that reacted the quickest and smartest to the lurid poetics of the Sex Pistols," he recently wrote in The New Statesman. Per the BBC, the writer David Nolan echoes Morley in identifying the audience's typically "Mancunian" response. "Many people in the audience that night didn't look at the Pistols and so much think: 'I want to do that...' but instead, they looked at the young Londoners and thought 'Come on, I could do way better than that!'" he wrote.

And from later Manchester bands such as The Stone Roses and Oasis to American groups influenced by U.K. punk such as Pavement and Nirvana (pictured), the impact of that sparsely attended gig way back in 1976 continues to resonate to this day.