“The gospel according to the Ayatollah Malcolm.”
— Johnny Rotten
So agent provocateur and clandestine entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren owns a London fashion shop called Sex . . . eh, we don’t need to go that far back. . . . So co-founder/bassist/chief songwriter Glen Matlock is kicked out the Sex Pistols for “liking the Beatles. . . .” No, we don’t need to go that far back. . . .
When it came to the Sex Pistols, it was all about the
marketing manipulation and McLaren the Machiavellian squeezed out every last drop of the group’s nihilistic sociopolitical ejaculate from their fourteen-month existence (November 1976 to January 1978). Regardless of their extensive discography that, by 1990, swelled to 20-plus albums, the group recorded only one actual studio album: the high-expectation and commercially-disappointing Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977). (The “flop” in the U.K. and Euro-markets was result of the album’s composition from the band’s already released 45-rpms and a “legal” 1977 bootleg album, Spunk.) And part of McLaren’s high-profile manipulations was to create a punk version of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night—with Johnny Rotten refusing to have anything to do with the project. The “project” was initially developed by—of all peoples—Russ Meyer, with snobby film critic Roger Ebert as the screenwriter, in tow—both who had a little experience in the rock ‘n’ roll genre with their “epic” about the rise and fall of the Carrie Nations, 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls . . . but Meyer also had lots of experience with large-breasted women (1965’s Motor Psycho and 1966’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!).
Yeah, this is going to work just fine. . . .
Well, it didn’t.
So, two-plus years later of false starts and stops with an array of people and footage shot here and there—which produced the Meyer-unfinished Who Killed Bambi?, British music video-artist, filmmaker, and ‘Pistols running mate Julien Temple (1989’s Earth Girls are Easy) got the Alan Sacks job of “doin’ a duBeat-eo” with the hours upon hours of narrative footage and concert clips of the Pistols during their heyday, along with surreal Kentucky Fried Movie-esque skits (that go beyond the funny into the silly . . . and the outright stupid).
Now, for those of you wondering: “What da frack does ‘Doin’ a duBeat-eo’ mean . . . and who is Alan Sacks . . . and what does this all have to do with the friggin’ Sex Pistols?” Well, impatient one, here’s your answer:
Alan Sacks came to fame as the creator of ’70 TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter; you know, that’s the show with the “Ooo! Ooo! Mr. Kotter!” pop culture catch phrase . . . the show that gave John Travolta his start. (He was most recently in the one-two punch bombs The Fanatic and Gotti.) And Alan Sacks got the job of taking the analogously dead pet-project of America’s Malcolm McLaren-doppelganger, record producer-songwriter Svengali Kim Fowley who, ironically ripping off McLaren’s idea, wanted to put his own “female” version of the ‘Pistols, the Runaways, into a “Beatlesesque” movie. (Remember: the ‘Pistols had “Anarchy in the U.K.” while the Runaways had “Cherry Bomb” as their signature tune.) Failed-developed as We’re All Crazy Now, Sacks got the Julien Temple-job of creating coherency out of chaos—and came up with duBeat-e-o, a film that has as much to do with the Runaways as The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle has to do with the Sex Pistols.
So, what did Temple come up with?
Well, he cut Who Killed Bambi? into the film. Sid Vicious—post-Sex Pistols—cut an album, Sid Sings (1979), and cut a video for that album’s centerpiece: a cover Elvis’s and Frank Sinatra’s signature tune, “My Way”—so Temple cut that into the film. (Warning: Sid pulls a gun and shoots into the audience.) And since Johnny Rotten wanted nothing to do with the project from the get-go, Temple opens the film with the snotty lead singer burned in effigy . . . and created an animated sequence that chronicles a beating the vocalist behind “God Save the Queen” took at the hands of Queen Mum-lovin’ thugs. And guitarist Steve Jones’s Rio de Janero visit with infamous British bank robber Ronnie Biggs is cut in. (Jones, ironically, along with Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, worked with Joan Jett on her self-titled solo debut, aka Bad Reputation.) And yeah, and
Kurt Cobain Sid Vicious and Courtney Love Nancy Spungen, aka the punk rock John and Yoko, go through their own little psychodrama safety-pin voguing on screen. And, instead of Sex Pistols tunes: you get disco versions of Sex Pistols tunes by a group called the Black Arabs.
. . . and the ‘swindle’ continues . . .
So Temple decided to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the film with a “sequel”. . . that cut The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’s footage into the—admittedly—more coherent The Filth and the Fury (1990). And, if you’re keeping track . . . marks the third film chronicling punk’s most notorious band: the second was Alex Cox’s (Repo Man, Tombstone Rashomon) spunky, but not wholly historically accurate, Sid and Nancy (1986)—which Johnny Rotten also hated, natch.
With The Filth and the Fury—and without Malcolm McLaren’s marketing imperialism (. . . did you know he embarked on a “solo” career: with producer Trevor Horn, he assembled (McLaren never creates; he can’t. He thieves.) 1983’s Duck Soup)—Temple secured the full cooperation of Johnny Rotten, along with drummer Paul Cook, guitarist Steve Jones, and ex-bassist Glen Matlock, each who provide a new series of interviews, along with “new” interview footage of the late Sid Vicious not seen in Swindle. The interviews are well-executed: Temple peels Rotten-Lydon’s acidic layers and exposes his emotions over Sid’s decline and death. And there’s plenty of “new” footage, albeit, sometimes (most times) with grainy and out-of-sync sound, but kudos for Temple preserving those decrepit 16 mm and shot-on-videotape analog artifacts for the now, digital generations.
Temple was also able to circumcise McLaren’s cultural plundering of punk’s esthetics by showing us that punk rock wasn’t just about flogging the dead horse of Black Sabbath-inspired progressive rock and replenishing the wheezing lungs of rock ‘n’ roll. Punk was an artistic expression of the frustrations the British working class and unemployed (which include Rotten-Lydon’s contemporaries) against the stodgy and greedy British class system (a country where everyone’s on the dole, in poverty; meanwhile, Princess Di and Prince Charles have a huge matrimonial blowout). To that end, Temple also includes new footage of the protests, riots and unrest of the times (think of today’s Black Lives Matter movement and the upheaval in today’s Portland, Oregeon). So while Swindle was a “Swindle” to a point—which wasn’t Temple’s fault, he did a great job with whom and what he had to work with—Fury gets the facts straight and conveys the spirit of the times. So, as you watch both films as a double feature all these years later: you get Malcolm McLaren’s side . . . and the Sex Pistols side. And the twain shall never meet. Not even in the hands of Alex Cox.
The Great Rock ‘n Roll Music Trivia Swindle (you knew there was going to be a trivia sidebar): Before McLaren sunk his incisors into the Sex Pistols, he managed a down-and-out and ready-to-implode New York Dolls, which culminated with the 1975-recorded live, Euro-only album, Red Patent Leather (1984; which features new tunes not available on their two Mercury studio albums).
Also in Mal’s Svengali-stable was the burgeoning Adam and the Ants, who he subsequently “broke up” to provide musical backing for his own “Runaway” embodied in fifteen-year-old singer Annabella Lwin. Upon the eventual implosion of Bow Wow Wow (You do remember “I Want Candy,” right?)—as McLaren turned his Runaway into a singular-named solo artist, you know, like Madonna (not!)—guitarist Matthew Ashman formed Chiefs of Relief. And that band features another musician from the McLaren stables: Sex Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook (produced one eponymous debut album for Sire in 1988).
Prior to the Chiefs—and post-Sex Pistols (by the end of that band, only Steve Jones and Paul Cook were left to finish off a light smattering of tracks to close out that band’s career)—Jones and Cook formed the Professionals (with guitarist Ray McVeigh and bassist Paul Meyers). And, if you’re keeping track of your rock ‘n’ roll flicks, the “band” appeared—sans McVeigh and Meyers—with Paul Simonon of the Clash and British actor Ray Winston in their places, in Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains.
Steve Jones’s solo career culminated with his forming a band around Iggy Pop, which recorded a couple of “comeback” albums for Detroit’s Jim Osterberg in the burgeoning years of the Year of our
Lord Kurt Cobain. Johnny Rotten, as you know, reverted to his given name of Lydon and created the band Public Image, Ltd. with ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene. Ex-Pistols’ bassist Glen Matlock formed the less-punk-more-Knacky new wave the Rich Kids with future Visage and Ultravox members Midge Ure and Rusty Egan, which scored a minor hit single with the title cut song from their lone album, 1983 Ghosts of Princes in Towers. Matlock eventually ended up in Concrete Bulletproof Invisible (an outgrowth of Doll by Doll that recorded one album for MCA Records) which released one pre-grunge album, Big Tears (1988).
Both films and their related soundtracks are easily available as DVDs and CDs, with the films as VODs and PPVs on multiple, international online platforms (hopefully, since these are “official trailers,” we won’t lose them to the black box of death!).
Update, August 2022: Our gratitude for the kindness and positive vibes from Aaron Hunter and his You Tube-based video blog on film (1.7 million followers and counting!), citing this review in his materials.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.