THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE
The Sex Pistols
review by Andrew Darlington
Driving through a desolate Rusholme urban wasteland, summer 1977, I see splash-painted across the end of a terrace-house row there's this huge mural of union jack, beefeater, and Liz II, a home-made graffiti jubilee tribute. And you wonder why? - here of all places, where social conditions should be predicting a riot at least, or predicating that revolutionary 'festival of the oppressed'. Personally I'm with the bolsheviks on this, up against the wall and gatling-gun the entire inbred elitist monarchist charade. Punk, in that jubilee summer, is the preferred healthier option by far to that royal 'mad parade'. Difficult to crowbar into your cranium - in retrospect, how it all first detonated.
Talking to Siouxsie Sioux about it now, she describes doing that tabloid-shambolic Filth And The Fury Bill Grundy Thames-TV confrontation as "like... we'd just opened Pandora's Box. Y'know - ? Pandemonium. A lot of people were taken by surprise by it. He (Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren) had tried various tactics, and none of them really worked. But as usual - when you're not really trying, something just... happens!" You think - Oasis, Eminem? Naw, the spiky-topped Sex Pistols in their full phlegm-flecked glory was bigger than either, or both. Or Tracy Emin, 'cos this was a deliberate art-provocation too. With a God Save The Queen: Myra Hindley tie-in poster more potent than most Brit-art to come. It was a delicious mutual conspiracy in which youth agreed to be outrageous, and the press agreed to be outraged. The demonisation of 'hoodies' is a sad whimper by comparison. Fact is, the 1970s had been so stultifyingly dull up till then. That's the point. All that cheesy glitter, pan-stick makeup, satin and tat. All those flea-bitten old hippies with their inordinate never-ending guitar solos. Relieved by just the occasional ripples of outrage from USA, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, The Ramones. Then - the Sex Pistols.
This DVD captures a guttersnipe flavour of some of it. John Lydon refused any involvement in the movie. Anger may be an energy, but surely it can't last forever? Well, for Lydon - it does, that derisive spite-sneer and barbed smart-arse put-down is a natural state. He's the real deal. But instead - around the space in this tongue- (and safety-pin) in-cheek mockumentary where he should have been, we get a visual vagrancy of cut-up TV-bites, fleshed out with cartoon-linkage silliness, strung together with a contrived fetish-chic storyline magnifying McLaren's preening devious 'cash from chaos' machinations. Plus a subplot with Steve Jones in a trenchcoat hunting the Fagin-esque arch-Embezzler all the way to the cinema where the whole thing full-circles, and the movie they're splicing together premieres (Blazing Saddles' style).
But, from Siouxsie, "no matter how much McLaren would like to take the credit for orchestrating all that... no-one knew what had happened." In mitigation, politically-attuned in a Situationist sense, and intimidatingly pop-literate, McLaren's warped honesty in this 'Swindle' lies in his purposeful exposure that all pop is a cynical corruption of teenage innocence. That he's only up-fronting through caricature what Larry Parnes, Brian Epstein - or Colonel Tom Parker had done before him. And what Simon Fuller would do after him. Yet that conceit has distorted punk history out of the frame ever since. Glenn Matlock, for example, is virtually written out. Nevertheless, there's a perfectly iconic Pretty Vacant. And valuable jerky nose-picking Johnny B Goode footage (making Chuck Berry the only writer to be covered by Elvis, Beatles, Stones - and Pistols). Plus Sid's two Eddie Cochran covers. Pristine stuff, even though, in the early schoolgirl-to-punkette transformation bath-sequence, the coy digitally-superimposed pre-pubescent knickers stay in place to deter censorial paedophile accusations (they're not there on my VHS edition!).
Censorship? "After the (Grundy) interview they put us in the Green Room," continues Siouxsie, "which is where the switchboard was with all these phone-calls coming in from irate members of the public saying 'I just watched this disgusting...', and we were picking up the 'phones and saying 'fuck off you silly old cunt' or 'piss off you old git'." This is real. She was there. But there's also those no longer around. Poor sad Sid... obviously. His My Way sequence remains the only version of that overblown bombastic tosh I can endure with any real pleasure. But there's Irene Handl too, as the tut-tutting movie usherette. And sweet tragic pornstrel Mary Millington doing sweet tragic porn things to Steve Jones. Not to mention that other McLaren fun-stunt - Ronnie Biggs, which briefly succeeds in making the fugitive 'Great Train Robber' a Top 20 star, even though the video got censored from Top Of The Pops. It's here too. "Ha-ha, ever get the feeling you've been cheated..?" leers Lydon in that final electrifying Sex Pistols gig in No-Place, San Francisco. Sure. But if this is a swindle, it's one well-worth being swindled by.