It's one of great last lines in any band's history. As they played to a mostly angry and confused crowd at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, the Sex Pistols were disorder on the verge of imploding. The group's insane overseer, the Machiavellian Malcolm McLaren had booked them on a less than successful tour of the US, avoiding major cities and arenas to concentrate on Deep South dives and country and western bars. The reception had been poor, and the rewards few. Bassist Sid Vicious was falling apart, lost in the horrible hands of heroin addiction, while his mates fumed over too much controversy and too little recognition. So when lead singer Johnny Rotten crouched before drummer Paul Cook's kit, and added his impromptu chiding over Steve Jones's chunky guitar chords for the song "No Fun" (how fitting), it felt like the exclamation point on the end of a threat, or the lighting of a very short fuse on a rather powerful bomb.
Rotten's sentiment, however prescient, has often been misinterpreted over the years. Many hear the snotty aside as a declaration of devious intent. And since it came from a group seemingly formed out of ill will and hucksterism, who couldn't help but believe in its ridiculing objective. In reality, what Rotten was saying was the truth, personally and rhetorically speaking. He wasn't addressing the audience – he was talking to himself, and to his band. For over three years, they had played pawns in McLaren's 'cash from chaos' road show, and each wore the wounded battle scars to prove it. But with an entire island nation poised against them, and a superpower now learning to despise them as well, the Winterland looked like the end of the line for the legend. And it was.
Hoping to fuel further outrage, the mastermind behind the now-defunct group set about documenting their so-called "deception" in cinematic form. Picking up the pieces from one failed film project, and turning a young film student with massive artistic pretensions loose on their myriad of media appearances, McLaren set about debunking the entire Pistol's popstar mythos. Along with director, collaborator and agent provocateur Julian Temple, The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle was devised. Meant to drain the last bit of ballyhoo out of the band, it combined fact with fiction to meld reality into a kind of satiric sham. Finally seeing a DVD release after years as a Pistol's pariah/holy grail, this is not just a compelling portrait of the music business as fraud. It's an eye-opening examination on the rise and rapid fall of the late 70s punk rock movement
There are so many ways one can approach The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle that to settle on just one would completely undermine the film's effectiveness in its other facets. As history, it's half-assed and half-baked, but as social commentary, it's witty and incisive. As a musical memento it is incomplete and incoherent, but as a reminder of why punk became such a powerful – and vilified – force on the UK scene, it's stellar. As an egotistical romp for a meddling band (mis)manager who can't believe his 15 minutes have run out with him owing the fame clock a few seconds here and there, it's a laugh. But as a statement of how a group of dirt-poor poverty row sods became the biggest scandal and cause celeb since the Beatles, it's a stirring, startling experience.
Now famous filmmaker Julian Temple, who traded on his three year association with the Sex Pistols to end up helming this homage, has created a kind of benchmark to the new post-modern documentary moviemaking mannerism. Instead of providing a linear narrative proposing just the facts, or working within the band to concoct a kind of autobiographical conceit, this is fact fractured and refitted to drive the fans mad and make the critics drool. That it succeeds wildly at both proves that there is a lot more going on here than just some random cinematic chumming. There is a real story behind the Swindle, one made even more potent when viewed in context of the entire Pistol's legacy.
What we end up with though is NOT the Sex Pistols movie as it was originally conceived. By 1978, the band was huge, and facing pressure from the British music labels about entering into film. For some reason – see everyone from the Beatles to Slade - the English aesthetic viewed the cinema as the next step in creating crossover appeal for their popstars. Naturally, Malcolm and the boys had a different vision for their big screen cock-up. More or less a fictional account of the Pistol's lives and careers, Who Killed Bambi? was to be directed by exploitation pioneer Russ Meyer and written by his longtime collaborator, film critic Roger Ebert (the band had been enamored of the duo's trash epic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). But financing and personality problems killed the project after just two days of production. Temple was brought in to clean up the carnage, and along with McLaren, devised the "it was all a joke" dynamic.
What we end up with then is a post-punk homage to the Monkees' Head, a cheeky dissertation on the outrageous hype surrounding the Pistol's, underscored by the eventual downfall of the entire punk scene at the hands of the British Establishment. There has perhaps been no better document of how a musical movement goes from revolution to reviled as The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle. Malcolm's Svengali syndrome aside, to watch the combination of criticism, controversy and the purposeful courting of clash bring the stiff upper lip to its knees, and then to its defenses, is one of the most memorable social shifts ever captured on film. While those most directly effected – the youth – are kept at a distance, the better to preserve their caricaturish, cartoony presence, the suits and stuffed shirts who made up the UK's moralist center are shown in all their self-righteous stupidity.
Better than many fictional movies made about the DIY dynamic, McLaren and Temple's trick is one of the few films to offer up real, rational reasons for why punk didn't "take-off" into the mainstream - as many had hoped and predicted. Watching the older generation balk at yet another uprising among the youth (hadn't the 60s been enough?) and use the lessons of the past to put down the rebels of the present is one of the Swindle's great delights. You can literally watch the genre being maligned and mothballed - only to be resurrected and reinvented in the 90s.
In many ways, The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle has always been the missing link between the band's seminal singles and album Never Mind the Bollocks: Here's the Sex Pistols, and the 1999 tell-all testament (interestingly enough, also directed by Temple) entitled The Filth and the Fury. It's also a supplement, of sorts, to Alex Cox's stunning (if highly fictionalized) account of the doomed love affair between little John Simon Ritchie and his fatal femme, Nancy. It uses lots of archival footage to fill in the blanks and allows McLaren ample room to both explain himself and stick his big fat foot in his always open mouth.
Director Temple also applies a little creative commentary with his use of certain arthouse aesthetics. There is supposed to be a lot of truth in what is being said here, and even though he comes across as a freak show Fagan, McLaren nails the problem with the music industry in pitch perfect rants. Realizing that, for all the hype, the Sex Pistols could actually play, and tear up the stage with their primal scream sonics, will also adds to the Swindle's value. When taken together, everything ever said or written about the Pistols, from their publicity stunts to their personality issues, gets a knowing nod and wink here, channeled through the clowntime tone.
It's interesting to note how, among all the active participants, it is two fallen friends who actually steal Swindle's show. For anyone who's followed his career post-Pistols, John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, is a notoriously fascinating man. Highly intelligent, opinionated to a fault, and filled with a kind of untapped reserve of vitriol that only growing up Irish in UK poverty can create, he is the reason the band was/is – as lyrically relevant as they were/are. He is the ultimate punk voice, the perfect amalgamation of balls and bravado, menace and meaning that so many wannabe poseurs can't even begin to possess.
If you want proof, look no further than the opening and closing sequences of the film. When the band has tryouts for a new lead singer, the menagerie of stunted stand-ins (including the gloriously goofy Edward Tudor-Pole) just can't hold a candle to Rotten's authentic rage. Neither can another controversial British "hero", the Great Train robber himself, Ronnie Biggs. Exiled in Brazil to avoid criminal charges in his native land, Swindle shows the remaining band members – Cook and Jones – heading down to Rio to hook up with the infamous thief. But his bit as a Pistol's frontman also proves how potent Rotten was.
The rest of the film has only improved with age. What appeared outrageous 25 years ago now seems salient, and almost precognitive. Time has been kind to both the narrative and the band. It's hard not to see the real deal in the Sex Pistol's dynamic, something greatly amiss in the Green Day/Good Charlotte realm of post-millennial punk. The fashion is still a fabulous disaster and the curse-laden come-ons will sound quaint to those who get their F-bomb fill with rap and hip-hop. There are some moments that make no sense (what, pray tell, is the reason behind the rubber suit, Malcolm?) while others will make you wish you were blind (there is never a reason to see McLaren's genital shortcomings).
What The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle does do well, however, is sell the idea of the Pistol's as the reinvention of music. By combining a little Ramones, some New York Dolls, a little Slade sonic boom and a healthy dose of anarchic politics, the band eventually functioned as a kind of lost generation wakeup call. Punk was not just a sound for the youth – it was a frenzy for the poor, a voice for the disenfranchised and fed up. Swindle shows this magnificently. Indeed, for every self-indulgent claptrap moment (a disco sequence where funked up versions of Pistol hits accompany some ridiculous roller boogie?) Temple uses the truth to illustrate the group's social importance.
Tossed in amongst all the montages, the animated mayhem, the stiffly acted "linking" material and the non-stop sermonizing by McLaren, is one absolute masterpiece of a cinematic moment, an ageless bit of sensational surrealism that, nearly three decades later, is still as audacious and as addictive as it was when it was first conceived. Anyone whose seen Sid and Nancy knows it (albeit in a far more stylized form); anyone lucky – or unlucky, as the case may be – enough to see it when it was part of that dadaist diorama Mr. Mike's Mondo Video (only when it played in theaters, sadly) understand its majesty.
When the scrawny Mr. Vicious descends the Busby Berkeley like staircase in a Paris theater to warble away on the Frank Sinatra hit "My Way", the sequence becomes a perfect example of, and elegy for, the genre. Vicious, often cast off as a slacker juvenile with NO musical talent and a far too healthy interest in the sex and drugs dimensions of rock and roll, creates a compelling portrait of youth coup confusion while simultaneously spitting on the old school sense of song styling. With its personalized lyrics ("I shot it up and kicked it out") and raging chainsaw guitar power, it's a fitting end to an ever-evolving film.
Indeed, for those who see it for a first time, The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle plays like a bad practical joke that only McLaren and Temple are laughing at. The group seems cast aside for daffy Tin Pan Alley musical setpieces, contradictory confessionals and a real disregard for what made the Pistol's great – and threatening – in the first place. Had the band all agreed to take a serious part in the film – Hell, if the movie Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert had wanted to do got made instead – maybe Swindle would have been less frustrating.
But viewed with the value of hindsight, when seen in context of the hauntingly real The Filth and the Fury, when taken alongside Lydon's own biting autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs and placed against the amazing music they made, The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle only ends up kidding itself. Instead, it becomes a document of a particular time and place, a rarified work of scrap art that creates as many myths as it debunks. When Johnny Rotten snarled "no future" as part of the band's Royal Jubilee jibe "God Save the Queen", he meant it, man. Little did he know how the prospects of punk would play out. Back then it was truth. Today is the real swindle.
What we do get is a great commentary between director Temple and rock journalist Chris Salewicz, as well as an interview featurette between the two. Both do a marvelous job of contextualizing and compartmentalizing the film, explaining what was a joke, and what was all too real. Remember, Temple was there almost from the band's beginnings and he has a lot of great stories to tell. He found Johnny enigmatic and Sid strangely captivating. Jones and Cook are also commented upon, adding dimension to their sidemen, out of the spotlight circumstances. To this day, the director feels guilty for playing along with Malcolm's mad plan, thinking that it may have helped spark the band's demise, as well as Vicious's eventual troubles. He has nothing kind to say about Nancy Spungen and both men marvel at the mob rule mindset of late 70s Britain. Doing what bonus material should do – that is, supplement and compliment the feature presentation - this is required listening for any punk, Pistol or music aficionado. It almost makes up for the lack of additional specific group-based features.
But the Sex Pistols weren't about the timelessness: they were all about their own time. Their place is not in history books, but in the actual salvation of music from itself. Without their remarkable noise and desire to incite, we wouldn't have the multi-platinum world of rap and hip-hop (just think about it for a second before you scoff). The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle may have wanted to wipe out their stardom with one foolish swoop – and at the time it practically did. But seen today, it's a telling work of experimental extremes. You'll only be robbing yourself if you don't queue up for the riotous, riveting ride. Miss it, and you really will feel cheated.