[2 April 2009]
Julien Temple’s There’ll Always Be an England: Sex Pistols Live from Brixton Academy (2008) completes an unofficial trilogy that started nearly 30 years ago with The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980). Swindle is as much of a mess as you might expect from an after-the-fact quasi-documentary about the band that famously took as their motto “Cash for chaos!” More noteworthy today for Sid Vicious’ shoot-em-up video for “My Way” and for a cameo by Sting, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle is more of curiosity than an accomplishment, as it reflects all of punk’s amateurishness while retaining none of its energy.
Part of the problem is that Malcolm McLaren provides the movie’s point of view. Sex Pistol lore vilifies McLaren as an opportunistic charlatan, more interested in outdoing his own greatest marketing stunt than he was concerned with any kind of integrity, artistic or otherwise. McLaren was the Lou Pearlman of the budding punk scene, the rare manager who becomes as identifiable as the band he manages, a sign that inevitably bodes better for the manager than the band.
By all accounts, painting McLaren as the bad guy makes for an honest, if simplistic, picture, so it’s no wonder that Temple revisited the Sex Pistol mythology 20 years after he helped create it, perhaps, in part, to set the record straight. A real rather than a faux documentary, The Filth and the Fury gives voice to those who were omitted or animated (yes, animated) in the earlier version of the story. The four original members—John Lydon (then “Johnny Rotten”), Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock (who played the bass lines in the studio that Sid Vicious couldn’t play on tour)—sit down for emotionally open conversations that touch on everything from gobbing to the Pogo to who was responsible for Sid’s habit and subsequent death.
In this telling Temple first provides the background out of which the boys and indeed, the whole movement emerged, before going on to debunk some of the myths and to substantiate some others. The archival footage only proves that, yes, the scene really was as cool as you thought, and the young angst from the clips contrasts with the middle-aged reflection from the interviews in idol-crushing and thus humanizing ways. The end result is an overlooked gem on the short list of great rock-n-roll documentaries.
Now comes There’ll Always Be an England, which captures the band on the latest incarnation of their reunion tour. This one celebrated the 30-year anniversary of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977), an album that transcends even such go-to adjectives as “groundbreaking”, “landmark”, and “seminal”. They marked the occasion with a five-night stay at London’s aforementioned Brixton Academy.
Rock stars rarely age gracefully—that’s part of the contract—and the initial shock of seeing the band that once sang “no-o-o-o fu-ture” now showing evidence that there is/was one after all is jarring, particularly for a band that doesn’t have the decency to stay in the tabloids between gigs so we can watch them wrinkle day by day. But punk-rock stars especially have never been a particularly beautiful bunch anyway, and the reorientation is really nothing more than blinking to adjust your eyes to the light. After a few seconds, you get used to it. Plus, it helps that three-quarters of the band could be considered “hardened” rather than “old”, a point that reminds us that Steve Jones’ caricature in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was known as “the Crook”.
Lydon, predictably, is a different story. As the only member of the group who doesn’t look like he belongs to a motorcycle gang, he doesn’t wear his age so much as he embraces it. The 52-year-old hardly dresses to impress, as he mix-n-matches pants from a track suit, a bandana, and a PiL shirt from their “9” tour (he must have boxes of the things). “We’re off the streets, we are”, he says at the top of the show when the band enters, literally, from the street behind the venue. “We’re off the couch”, he could have said, and still you would have believed him.
In some ways, the Pistols take their sartorial cue from the crowd itself. To be sure, the decked-out punks are in force with their green hair, their “No Future” tattoos, and their ability to flip the camera the bird in at least two different languages—to say nothing of the Sid look-alikes—but for the most part this is a grizzled group, each smile boasting fewer teeth than the one before. The most memorable attendees may be the two blokes hoisted high on shoulders, arms around one another’s shoulders as they sing along, pub-style, to the prerecorded version of “There’ll Always Be an England” that opens the concert. All fans are welcome at a Pistols show, Lydon claims, “so long as he’s working class”, and this is one of the rare instances where even odds says that this crowd has more collective losses than wins. In fact, just one look at them and you know where the line “Look around your house you got nothing to steal” comes from.
An unexpected boon of being the lead singer in a punk band is that your vocals aren’t expected to be good anyway, so when you reach that age where you can no longer actually “hit” all the rights “notes” the consequences are far less dire than when the same phenomenon happens to someone like Paul Simon or James Taylor, which is just a breathy way of saying that, even after all these years, the songs sounds just fine. That no fewer than three songs are strong enough to be the encore is yet another reason why the band’s reputation should be staked on the quality of the songs that they did record rather than any kind of longing for the ones they didn’t. (For the record, they smartly—and rightly—close with “Anarchy in the UK”)
Their one mistake is that they obviously felt a need to flesh out the set list beyond the 12 songs and 39 minutes that comprised the original recording. “Here are the legendary Sex Pistols playing their greatest songs”, says the synopsis on the back of the DVD. “Here are the legendary Sex Pistols playing their only songs” is more like it. “Stepping Stone” is OK, though Sid did it better, and “Roadrunner” reminds me of how much I like hearing John scream in frustration during Swindle version, but “No Fun” just drags, especially coming as it does near the end of the set. Don’t they know that playing classic records live in their entirety is all the rage? If Jimmy Eat World can get away with it, then surely the Pistols can too.
Even with the inflated set list, the running time for the DVD’s extras outpace the concert itself (97 minutes to 77). The extras consist of a camera crew trailing the individual members of the band as they revisit their old London haunts. Lydon’s part of the field trip takes the form of a bus tour on which he is the guide, a tour that, despite its promise, you’ll only want to take for a stop or two. Listening to his harangues about his once-beloved Arsenal, the traffic, and the city’s architecture (“Blow it up!” he demands, repeatedly) amuses for about 15 minutes; unfortunately, he carries on for 34. Thankfully his occasional moments of self-deprecation prevent him from becoming a complete boor. “I’d like to say that’s hideously ugly”, he says about one incongruous building, “but what I’m wearing is far worse”.
The episodes that feature the other members of the band are surprisingly and genuinely affecting. Among other places, their trek takes them to St. Martin’s School of Art, where a plaque commemorates the Pistols’ first show; to the 100 Club, a legendary venue that looks like it doubles as a bingo hall; and to a flat that the band shared, where Johnny Rotten’s drawings are remarkably still on the wall (Nancy Spungen appears as “Nanny Spunger”, Sid as “Ego Slosher”).
But the real delight is following Steve Jones and Paul Cook—boyhood friends from the time that their mums knew each other—as they stroll through the old neighborhood. They played music together before even John joined the band, and they enjoy the easy camaraderie of a shared history. They practically giggle as they confess their secret method for avoiding cab fare, and listening to Jones wax poetic about pie and mash is to listen to a man who misses home. When Jones was in the reformatory for one of his petty thefts, Cook stood on the street and waved to him above.
I’ve counted the Pistols among my favorite bands for over 20 years now, and I’ve never heard that one.
The legend grows.