More than 20 years ago, the Sex Pistols made one album, were let go by two record companies, one after only one day, and had the number one song in the UK, though it was so controversial it could not be played on the radio or even named on the published top 40 list. They were prouder of the blank space on the top of the charts than they would have been to see their names there.
Twenty years ago, director Julien Temple made “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle,” a documentary about the Sex Pistols from the point of view of their manager, Malcolm McLaren, who was presented as a Svengali who conceived and marketed the group. He said that they were the clay and he was the sculptor. Now, Temple returns with another take on the same story, as the surviving Sex Pistols tell their side.
According to the band members, McLaren was incompetent and corrupt. He played no part in creating the band; all he did was market them badly and take all their money. Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) talks about their origins as furious and iconoclastic working-class boys who wanted to make people think about what was going on all around them – and about what was not going on. When the Sex Pistols got together, the economy in England was stagnant. Garbage strikes led to streets piled with trash for months, job losses led to thousands being on welfare, and cuts in services left people feeling helpless. The Sex Pistols wanted them to feel angry. For a brief time, they served the role of the fictional character in “Network” who urged people to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” They said their music was “almost a battle cry.” They wanted the working class to question the system, and to fight back.
They pierced their skin with safety pins and wore shredded clothes. “Wear the garbage! At least you’re dealing with it!” They did everything they could to offend and enjoyed the horrified reactions. But there were a few things that they were not at all prepared to deal with.
The first was McLaren. The Sex Pistols were not the kind of rock and roll band who trash the establishment on stage but act like the establishment off-stage. They never gave any thought to money or made any plans. They trusted McLaren, who is portrayed in this movie wearing a bondage mask of the kind he used to sell when he first met the members of the Sex Pistols in his store. Or perhaps it is more likely to say that they did not pay much attention to him. He gave them a few pounds a week spending money, and the rest is gone. The Sex Pistols faced all of the problems of any young, uneducated, unsophisticated kids who become famous very quickly, but to make it worse they got the fame without the fortune.
They were also not prepared for the problems that face all people who rise to fame on shock value. There is inevitably a Catch-22 dilemma. First, audiences get over shock very quickly, and as soon as the act is popular it immediately becomes no longer shocking, but normal. One day, punks are appalling everyone by sticking safety pins in their ears and wearing shredded clothes and the next day some enterprising soul is selling special piercing safety pins and pre-shredded clothes. The fans pay tribute to role-shattering rock stars by imitating them, and suddenly they are the new role model instead of the one rebelling against role models. The alternative is for the fans to compete by trying to be even more outrageous. So the fans spit on the band members and slash them with razors.
Even in the world of rock and roll, which has always relied on challenging the accepted and rebelling against authority, the Sex Pistols were so shocking that no one would record them or book them. One of their tours was called SPOT (“Sex Pistols on Tour”) so that the authorities would not know who was booked. When they put a sign on their tour bus that said “Nowhere,” they did not know it would literally be true.
One of the things they rebelled against was the notion of competence. When one member was told he had to learn to sing, he said, “Why?” You can rebel against the whole oppressive notion of success being tied to talent, but it is difficult to get anyone to buy your records. Another problem was that they were a lot better at knowing what they didn’t like than what they did like. The shelf life of anyone who criticizes without presenting an alternative is even briefer than the shelf life of someone who markets offensiveness. The most poignant moment in the movie is when they perform at a benefit for the children of striking fire fighters. The band has come together musically and at last they are about something that is meaningful to them. But it is too late.
By then, they were on an irreversible downward spiral. Lydon says, “Yes, I could take on England, but I couldn’t take on one heroin addict.” When Sid Vicious becomes involved with Nancy Spungen and with heroin, that is the beginning of the end. Today, speaking in shadows, Lydon breaks down in tears when he talks about how he could not save his friend.
Temple, who was around when the band was together, clearly has the trust of the surviving members. He shoots them in shadows, so our visual image of them is not diluted by signs of aging. We see their present-day recollections over footage of themselves more than two decades ago. Temple skillfully intercuts scenes from music hall performers, Laurence Olivier’s “Richard III” and “Hamlet,” contemporary commentators, and “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle” to provide a sense of context and contrast. There are some fascinating details about the band members. Lydon had meningitis as a child, and lost his memory. It may have been his having to learn everything again that led to his insistence that everyone question their assumptions. And Sid Vicious was not from a lower-class family. He was the son of a prestigious Grenadier guard, which must have made for some interesting conversation at home when their controversial salute to the Queen was banned from the charts.
The Sex Pistols were enormously influential, and many rock bands found some inspiration in their willingness to take on any authority. For a brief time, they played the role of the child who tells the emperor he has no clothes. As one band member says, “I question everything. I always have done.” Not a bad slogan for rock and roll, for adolescence, or even for everyone.
Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, drug use (though a powerful anti-drug message), and explicit sexual references.
Families who see this movie should talk about the role of rebellion, the influence of the Sex Pistols, and who is closest today to the role they played. People who like this movie will also like Julien Temple’s “Absolute Beginners.”