The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle

(Julien Temple, UK, 1980): As dubious as it is as history, there are reasons to be grateful for this particular load of bollocks. First, it contains some truly essential stuff, including some of the Sex Pistols’ most electrifying performances and that splatterific Wild Bunch Go Vegas Sid Vicious rendition of ‘My Way.’ Second, it nudged the career of Julien Temple into being, whose subsequent work in music video and documentary (Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, The Ecstasy of Wilco Johnson) would prove as good as it often got. And third, the sheer amount of bullshit perpetrated by The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, in which former Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren laid claim not only to inventing the band but punk rock itself all all in the name of profiting from a gullible and deserving industry and public, would eventually prompt in 2000 the existence of The Filth and the Fury, the comprehensive and crucial Pistols-authorized documentary corrective to Swindle, and arguably the best thing Temple, provided the opportunity to straighten the record, has ever done.

Swindle began as Who Killed Bambi?, a notion McLaren had to make a Pistols movie while the smoking gun was still hot, and which he likely knew was cooling as fast as a flying gob of spit. Hiring the soft-core porn king Russ Meyer as director and future national treasure movie critic Roger Ebert as writer, McLaren concocted as scenario in which he’d reveal to the world his snide, ten-point manifesto of world domination through the creation of a band and a phenomenon that would lay waste to industry greed and bovine public herding habits.

Nothing remotely revolutionary so far. As anyone who’s seen The Girl Can’t Help It, Lonely Boy, TommyPrivilege or Head knows, the movies could spot a kindred con from a mile away, and had long pegged rock ‘n’ roll as a takes-one-to-know-one snake oil pit. But the untiringly self-promoting McLaren was determined to reveal to the world his own masterful agency in the big bait and switch, even if it hinged on no small amount of pure bullshit. For one thing, McLaren’s claim that the key to his success was creating a sensation around a band that had no talent, ambition or brains is so utterly disproved by the movie’s live performances you’re left wondering if he ever really understood just what he’d helped detonate. Or ears to hear. And then there’s the fact that punk itself, described by McLaren as an act of pure cynicism motivated by naught but profit, somehow managed to spark a viral epidemic of D.I.Y. of back-to-basics musical energy that’s been surging somewhere ever since.

So who fooled whom here? And just who was Johnny Rotten addressing when he spoke those final, almost biblically-ordained words to the band’s last audience in San Francisco: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” The joke, it would seem, is on the guy who thought it was all his doing, and who very likely helped facilitate — and not in any way create — one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll reboots in the music’s history. More than anything, what punk, perhaps more potently and valuably in spirit than actual practice, accomplished was a resurrection of possibility in music, a resurgence of the idea that it was yours to make in any way you wanted. If there was seduction involved, it was to the idea that rock ‘n’ roll not only still mattered, but could make a noise loud enough to make the world notice and make some more.

By the time Temple, barely 23, was hired on to make something of the mess left behind by the unsurprisingly departed Meyer and aggressively non-compliant Rotten, his job was to stitch together a movie out of shards and threads, a kind of movie version of the punk scissors-and-glue Never Mind the Bollocks aesthetic, and in this sense the movie he made is as emblematic an artefact of its times as Lydon’s green hair or Steve Jones’ Union Jack head doily. Yes, it’s something of a mess and terminally at odds with its own mission to insist that punk was an act of purely commercial exploitation perpetrated by a King’s Row rag shop dandy, but it’s this very sloppiness and self-immolating internal friction that also lends it something that McLaren himself would insist entirely tosh, but which nevertheless may count as rock music’s most productive and revitalizing core self-delusion: authenticity. The ‘real’ thing isn’t the thing itself, but the belief in it, and in this punk was selling something as precious as music. (Shout! Factory)