Reelin’ & Rockin’ – A Posthumous Desecration, ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ is a Rip-Off

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Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? – Johnny Rotten, January 14, 1978

If you were to compile a list of the most influential bands to release only one record, The Sex Pistols would have to be near the top. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, or be indifferent to ‘em, The Sex Pistols brief moment in the sun sparked countless imitators and knock-offs. The inescapable fact about the band is that they were as manufactured as The Monkees. But where The Monkees used their one shot at the movies as an attempt to salvage some semblance of artistic integrity, The Sex Pistols movie, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was an attempt to posthumously tear down what was already destroyed. Released 2 years after the band broke up and nearly a year after the death of Sid Vicious, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle is unlike any other rock ‘n’ roll film before or since, which is not to say it’s good. It isn’t. As a matter of fact, it’s awful.

What makes The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle noteworthy is that it is entirely presented through the perspective of the band’s manager, Malcom McLaren. A clothing shop owner on the Kings Road in London, McLaren and his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood owned a shop that specialized in nostalgia wear called Let it Rock. Within a few years the shop would transform into Sex, specializing in fetish wear. Eventually McLaren got the idea to form a band and recruited Steven Jones and Paul Cook, who frequently hung around the shop, and were eventually joined by Glen Matlock and John Lydon, who’d take on the moniker of Rotten. Matlock would be booted from the band, the band claiming that he was booted for liking The Beatles, and replaced with John Simon Ritchie, known as Sid Vicious. The film presents McLaren taking credit for every aspect of the Pistols’ success. Hagiography in music biography is nothing new, except when it’s in service of a manager who, for this band, never wrote a song, never picked up an instrument, but kept all the money.

Throughout the film McLaren keeps taking credit for everything – it’s attempted to be tongue-in-cheek, but not convincingly – including the tally of money that the band was paid for cancelled record contracts and the money for the unproduced Who Killed Bambi?, which was supposed to be written and directed by the team behind Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert. An unrepentantly sleazy individual, McLaren would’ve likely taken credit for the murder of Nancy Spungen and the overdose of Sid Vicious had it netted him an extra 1,000 pounds.

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As odd as it is that the film is so focused on the triumphs of the band’s manager, more bewildering is the fact that principal photography on the film started after the band had broken up. Following a disastrous US tour, Johnny Rotten had left the band and dropped the adopted surname. Having formed Public Image Limited and performing under the name John Lydon, Rotten only appears in the film through archival footage – the only good stuff in the movie, as it happens. The band is briefly reunited in animated form, and though they look good enough, it’s inescapable that they’re part of a larger, soulless con. Cook, Jones, and Vicious filmed their own segments and recorded new songs, all of which are borderline unlistenable. The segments featuring Vicious attempt to find humor in Sid wandering the streets of France wearing a shirt emblazoned with a swastika, though his version of Sinatra’s My Way is tolerable – maybe it’s just my associating that song with the end of Goodfellas. Cook appears here and there, collaborating with Jones to play a few songs with Ronnie Biggs, the famed great train robber exiled in Brazil. With the exception of McLaren, Jones appears the most out of anyone. In sequences that are meant to homage film noir, Jones and his thick cockney accent provide an unintelligible voiceover that becomes especially grating as it keeps going on. The same could be said of the film’s infatuation with fetish wear, though it could just be written off as an attempt by McLaren to sell more clothes.

Despite the unmitigated failure that is The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, writer-director Julien Temple was able to rehabilitate his credibility in the following years. If anyone is ever interested in a good film that tells the tale of the rise and fall of The Sex Pistols, Temple’s The Filth and the Fury corrects the follies of the prior film. Temple would also make feature films like Earth Girls are Easy and other music documentaries, like two on The Clash, Westway to the World and Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten.

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The Sex Pistols have reunited a few times since then – Lydon successfully sued McLaren for the rights to the band’s name and material in the ‘80s. Cook, Jones, and Matlock formed The Professionals which lasted a few years – their song Join the Professionals was used in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, which Cook and Jones appear. Jones had a brief stint as a Los Angeles disc jockey, but like his noir-inspired voiceover, his thick accent made it very difficult for Americans to understand. McLaren managed Adam Ant for a while and had a modestly successful recording career of his own, his songs having appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street and Kill Bill Vol. 2. He died in 2010. Vicious died in 1979 before he could be tried for the death of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, their doomed romance covered in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy. Whether you refer to him as John Lydon or Johnny Rotten, he has maintained his status as the sneering little brat of music. Public Image Limited has released a few good records – Second Edition or Metal Box, depending on what pressing you have, is an excellent record a million miles from the sound of the Pistols. Lydon was set to play King Herod in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, however, the touring production was cancelled before it ever started.

Growing up in the pre-internet age, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was a sort of rite of passage. It always had a lousy reputation, but you still had to seek it out and see for yourself. I remember renting it from Tower Records and the disappointment that followed. Though they only released that one great record, they were unable to make the movie to match it. The potential was there with Who Killed Bambi?, but egos clashed and we’ll never know what could’ve been. As it stands, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle is an awful movie, easily the worst of the entries in this column. But it is notable for its bizarre perspective and interesting backstory. I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone, not even the biggest fan of The Sex Pistols. It’s awful. It’s a rip off. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

UPDATE – 09/26/2014, 1:36pm: My dear editor, Carl, reminded of Johnny Rotten’s appearance on Judge Judy in 1997 which is infinitely more entertaining than The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.

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