People said they couldn’t play; they called them foul-mouthed yobs…
I won’t lie to you: I’m totally psyched about doing this review.
In a past piece for PopMatters, I spoke of how seeing Sid and Nancy at the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk, VA, was a seminal moment in my discovery of alternative music. But the part of the saga which was not revealed at that time — a portion which makes its debut in this very review, my friends! — is that seeing Sid and Nancy also set me down a path which led me to possess my very own poorly-dubbed copy of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.
Once upon a time, there was an independent record store in Virginia Beach — Electric Smiles, may it rest in peace — that had a small selection of import-only VHS releases available for rental. In retrospect, they were surely dubbed copies themselves, as I’m almost positive I recall their logo appearing on the screen before their contents began, therefore making them of highly dubious legality. But, that having been said, I’m also almost positive that I recall losing no sleep over their transgression or, at least, no more than I did when my fellow Sid and Nancy attendee, Tom Nuckols, rented Electric Smiles’ copy of Swindle and dubbed copies for he and I.
Tom and I were, as far as we could tell, the only two people in Great Bridge High School in 1987 who had ever heard of the film, let alone seen it. (Mind you, given the low profile that alternative music had at that time, it’s highly probable that we were also the only two who cared about it.) As a result of our school’s collective ignorance, it felt as though Tom and I were a member of a secret, highly exclusive club . . . particularly when Tom came into our shared government class one day and, in the largest letters he could manage, scrawled “Who Killed Bambi?” across the chalkboard.
As the bell rang and he ran to take his seat, Tom glowed with the aura of victory one would expect after having written something so audacious on the board, and, for his trouble, I feel certain I offered him whatever the 1987 equivalent of “you go, boy” may have. Meanwhile, everyone else either thought we were out of our fucking minds or couldn’t even be bothered to think that much about us, because . . . well, basically, they had no idea what “Who Killed Bambi?” meant.
18 years later, I think it’s safe to admit that I’m not entirely sure I do, either.
Despite missing that piece of information, I feel sure I must’ve watched that poorly dubbed copy of Swindle inside and out at least a dozen times, viewing certain sequences of the film far more often than that, never quite positive that I was “getting” what I was witnessing on my TV screen but nonetheless soaking it all in.
A few weeks ago, I checked in with Tom — who has, in the past two decades, moved from being a combat-boot-and-army-jacket-wearing punk to being a technology educator at James Blair Middle School, in Williamsburg, VA — to see if his recollections of the film matched my own, and, for all practical purposes, they did. He admitted that his reasons for devouring the film were much like my own: he was caught up in the discovery of this band and wanted to get his hands on anything and everything to do with them.
Did he understand it? Not entirely.
Did it matter? Of course not.
Does he still have his poorly dubbed copy of Swindle? He does, indeed. “The label’s so old that it’s turned translucent and it’s partially peeling off”, he admitted, with a grin so wide I could hear it over the phone, “but I’ve still got it”.
If you’re wondering, I’m pretty sure mine’s around here somewhere, too. At the very least, I know damned well I never taped over it. For many years, it was the Holy Grail of my personal collection; unlike Tom, however, I wouldn’t begin to know where to lay hands on my copy. I’ve been through more musical genres since then than I can readily count, and, sadly, it’s been years since I’ve had an urge to sit down and revisit the movie.
At last, however, the excitement has returned.
I’m looking forward to watching it in its entirety once more to see if it seems any less weird nowadays, but, hell, this will be the first time I’ve ever seen it without having to adjust the tracking and ignore a set of Japanese subtitles at the bottom, so how can it help but seem less weird . . . ?
But let’s have a look and find out for sure, shall we?
You know, it’s still pretty weird . . . but the most interesting thing about watching the film now is, by far, the fact that I have a completely different perspective on the events contained within than I once did.
The legend of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle is ultimately far more impressive than the resulting film. John Lydon, the former Johnny Rotten, noted in his autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs:
“[M]y original choice as director was Graham Chapman from Monty Python, but he behaved gloriously bad to Malcolm. That put the knockers on that. Then Malcolm brought in Russ Meyer, with whom I didn’t see eye to eye. He was just going to turn this film into a tits-and-ass movie.”
Given Meyer’s credits, which included Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, his fears were valid . . . particularly since the proposed screenwriter, Roger Ebert, had penned the latter film. In his obituary of Meyer, Ebert wrote that Who Killed Bambi? — the original title for the Pistols’ movie — was “shot for only one day before the Pistols’ production company went bankrupt”, but it appears that it was less a bankruptcy than a loss of financial backing. (Or is that just semantics?)
Whatever the case, the task of writing and directing the film fell to Julien Temple, who had already been following the band around and capturing some of their performances on film. Insofar as the script of the film goes, Swindle has always been portrayed by Lydon as “the gospel according to Malcolm McClaren”. This is inarguable. In his audio commentary on the DVD, Temple admits that, although he may have written the script because he had a better grasp on how to do so, the concept of the film was predominantly Malcolm’s baby, particularly the ten commandments on how to create a rock band and market them to the world, having them perform as little (and as poorly) as possible but still make a fortune in the process.
The premise of the film, such as it was, was to list Malcolm’s “commandments”, having them linked together loosely by Steve Jones playing at being a film-noir-styled private dick on a quest to hunt down Malcolm and get the money he’s owed. (This later proved ironic, given the number of legal battles in which the Pistols found themselves over the years, all attempts to get their fair share.) These scenes are regularly interspersed with documentary-style footage of the band’s career and the reaction they received from the world at large. When the time came to reproduce events from the band’s short but sordid past, they used animation to fill in the blanks. For no discernible reason, there are also scenes that were shot in Brazil with Ronnie Biggs, otherwise known in England as The Great Train Robber; the recordings the band made with Biggs singing lead (!) are widely considered the lowest point of the Pistols career.
Certainly the portion of the film that’s best known to the world at large is Sid Vicious’ performance of “My Way”, immortalized by Gary Oldman’s recreation of the scene in Sid and Nancy. It turns out that the filmmakers could only afford to rent the set for an hour, so they filmed Sid performing the song as many times as they could fit into that time — Temple reckons it was at least six — but it’s fascinating to learn that watching Vicious’ performance from the sidelines was Serge Gainsbourg, who had used the set immediately beforehand.
Anyone who needs an education in the history of punk — Avril Lavigne, are you listening? — should rent The Great Rock and Roll Swindle on DVD, as it’s a fascinating historical document, but they should also be aware — as I was not when I misguidedly attempted to commit Malcolm’s sacred texts to memory — that it’s only about a third of the story. Fortunately, another third is available simply by listening to Temple’s audio commentary on the disc, which is extremely revelatory, not only in regards to the making of the film but about the punk movement in general.
As a result of having helmed Swindle, Temple says that he felt all but obligated to direct The Filth and the Fury, the 2000 documentary about the Sex Pistols made with the involvement of the surviving members of the band that fills in the remaining blanks, and you can understand why he felt it was a must-do. After all, the Pistols never had much of a say in the making of Swindle; Lydon had left the band by the time the majority of the footage was shot, Jones and Cook never claimed to be anything but along for the ride, and by the time the film actually made it to theaters, Sid Vicious had been dead for a year. (Following the closing credits of Swindle, newspaper clippings on Vicious’ death are plastered onscreen, an addition Temple acknowledges as a great ending, if one that he concedes was required by the British film censor: “They said, ‘You can’t release this film unless you show the terrible end to all these hijacks’, so we had to put on this Victorian moral ending”, adding with a laugh, “Those were the days when censors were censors!”)
So is this the definitive version of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle? Well, given that it’s the version Temple’s happy with and it’s how it made it into theaters, it’s probably as definitive as anyone’s ever going to see. Richard Brandon, president of Virgin Records during the Pistols’ glory days, claimed in Lydon’s autobiography that there are “over 250 hours of footage”, but, unfortunately, “as far as I know, there was something like eight directors used, and none of them bothered to catalog or keep any records”.