"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" That was Johnny Rotten's parting rhetorical question at the Sex Pistols' last-ever gig at San Francisco's Winterland in 1978; while that legendary comment may have been an acknowledgement of the band's disastrous performance, it also neatly summed up Rotten's feelings toward their manager, Malcolm McLaren. And twenty-two years later having successfully sued McLaren and settled the financial score The Filth and the Fury sees John Lydon and his former bandmates rewriting punk history and attempting to set the record straight vis-à-vis the greater swindle pulled off by McLaren: namely, his version of the Pistols' story (immortalized on celluloid in 1980's The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle) in which he cast himself as the architect and arch-puppeteer of punk, pulling the strings of his naive proteges Cook, Jones, Matlock, Rotten and Vicious.
Directed by Julien Temple, who also helmed McLaren’s original myth-making film project, The Filth frames the tragicomedy of the Pistols with a keen sense of its cultural and historical context. The premise is simple enough. Shot in mock-dramatic silhouette, the band members tell their own story, which is brought to life by jump-cutting sequences featuring the Pistols at work and play, mid-‘70s Britain in socio-political, economic and musical decline, low-brow British comedy, tacky ‘70s TV ads, and scenes from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle itself. The purpose of much of the montage is to visually underscore Lydon’s deconstruction of the McLaren myth: that the Pistols were a creation of their manager, pre-packaged anarcho-yobs, unleashed and put to work as a means to his calculated, Situationist ends.
“Never mind the Situationists, this was situation comedy” says Lydon in his 1994 autobiography Rotten, and that’s pretty much his position in The Filth as he stresses the DIY identity of punk and, as an integral part of that, his own self-invention as a traditional working-class British stand-up comic, crossed with Richard III (as played by Olivier). This connection is a little labored as the intercutting of scenes from the 1955 film of the Shakespeare play and snippets of dire TV comedians bashes the viewer over the head with the same idea ad nauseam. But then, punk had nothing to do with subtlety.
As caustic and irascible as ever, Lydon rubbishes McLaren’s role and, by extension, the academic cottage industry of the Neil Nehrings and Greil Marcuses which in Lydon and Temple’s view trades in over-intellectualizations that fail to grasp the essence of punk. Rather than being manufactured pawns in McLaren’s game, Lydon contends that the Pistols’ brand of anger and chaos was an organic anarchy, a direct response to the misery of a Britain stifled by convention, tradition and privilege, all inextricably bound up with questions of class. The film reminds us that this was also a slapstick anarchy, frequently very funny.
By Lydon’s reckoning, the Sex Pistols were less Guy Debord and more agit-prop guerrilla theater that sought “to force our own working-class opinions into the mainstream.” However, Lydon’s account of the committed political sensibility of the Pistols borders on after-the-fact self-mythologizing. Moreover, his claims to some socialist credibility for the band are promptly derailed by Steve Jones, at least, who admits that he didn’t know the Prime Minister’s name in 1977 and that he was more motivated by the decidedly un-punk “birds, booze and stardom” angle of being in a group.
Nevertheless, one of the more striking dimensions of The Filth is its rendering of the pre-Thatcherite era from which the Sex Pistols emerged. Temple’s visual collage of the period stands as a grotesquely fascinating text: a grim, grey world of dustmen’s strikes, The Bay City Rollers, Les Dawson, feather cuts, banal pop, platform shoes, dinosaur rock, a moribund Labour party and New Right demagogues. For those who grew up in mid-‘70s Britain, this is a vividly unwelcome reminder of some truly dark days. And to think that, despite the minor cultural revolution spearheaded by the Pistols, things were going to get much worse, both musically and politically as the ‘80s rolled around . . . “No Future,” indeed.
A key element in Lydon’s aesthetic of class war was to shock and to antagonize as many people as possible and The Filth brilliantly captures the spirit of that strategy as Temple’s juxtaposition of sampled footage foregrounds the utter outrage and moral indignation that the Sex Pistols provoked. The title itself the Daily Mirror headline that followed the band’s now mythical appearance on the Today show with Bill Grundy sets the tone for the film, encapsulating a kind of public reaction that, today, is in equal measure humorously quaint and depressingly repugnant. Indeed, it seems unthinkable now that an elected official would state, as a local city councilor does in one sequence, “the best thing that could happen to these people is death.”
Punk hit a nerve in a way that captured the imagination of a generation and, arguably, prompted a condemnation of popular culture on an unprecedented scale. While previous subcultures had caused undeniable consternation, punk as embodied by the Pistols was an altogether different and unmanageable beast. It was not reducible to hair-length, a leather jacket, a drape coat, a drug, sexual liberation, a specific political agenda, unemployment and so forth; punk was a more complex, over-determined phenomenon. So it provoked as popular culture tends to do a reaction in Britain symptomatic of deep-rooted anxieties about decency, tradition, class and national identity, but the intensity of that response eclipsed earlier concerns about the youth cultures of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Of course, the Pistols weren’t necessarily any more shocking than the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, Iggy or Bowie were in their own times and places. And yet, it’s doubtful that the sheer depth and scope of the reaction to the Pistols will ever be topped. While today’s allegedly outrageous acts try to up the ante by pledging allegiance to Satan, wearing horror make-up and other such nonsense, they simply don’t have the songs and reduce themselves to the level of awkward, unconvincing caricature, having mere fly-weight cultural significance alongside the Sex Pistols.
While Lydon is the most eloquent, antagonistic and commanding in his assessment of the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols, Steve Jones’ observations are no less engaging, largely for their disingenuous frankness which yields some wonderfully abject philosophical musings. Unable to comprehend the outrage prompted by “God Save the Queen,” for instance, he opines: “it’s not like we were saying we wanted to kill her . . . or fuck her.” In marked contrast with Lydon’s claims for the ideological agenda of the Pistols, Jones notes that his primary interest was in “getting my dick sucked.”
All of the major points on the Pistols’ carnivalesque road to boredom and nowhere are revisited in The Filth: the signing to A&M in front of Buckingham Palace; the Bill Grundy debacle broken down into frames with a ball-by-ball commentary; the Jubilee boat trip and police bust featuring “Richard Branson as Catweazle” objecting like an earnest public schoolboy to the action of the police; the doomed US tour, Sid’s descent into smack hell and the death of Nancy Spungen.
The footage of Sid Vicious at his junky nadir with Spungen the other evil character in the Pistols’ drama according Lydon and Jones is harrowing, especially when taken alongside interview footage of a coherent, almost fresh-faced Vicious in a deck chair in Hyde Park, looking every inch the kid he was. Despite the humor of the film, the charting of Sid’s particular path within the loss of innocence narrative of The Filth generates considerable pathos. This is underscored at the film’s conclusion where the usually hard-as-nails Lydon actually chokes up as he recalls Sid’s wasted life.
On a lighter note, the footage assembled by Temple unearths some little treasures: Billy Idol as a Bromley punk and not the burned-out Californian cartoon character he has become; Nick Kent making an ass of himself on camera after being attacked by Sid at the 100 Club; Lydon serving cake to kids at a benefit gig in Huddersfield for striking firemen and then entertaining the nippers and their mums and dads with a rendition of “Bodies.” And, of course, the music is great. Listening to it again in the immediacy of this visual context gives you the same rush as the first time you heard it.
On “Public Image,” less than a year after his final appearance with the Sex Pistols, John Lydon pointedly sang about there being two sides to every story. Just as history itself yields no objective truth, only competing narratives, The Filth and the Fury comprises another version of this defining cultural moment and what a compelling document it is.