The revenge of the Sex Pistols

Blood, chaos, hatred and fear: The lads who changed rock history tell the story their way.

Published April 28, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

He deserv'd no such return
From me, whom he created ...
All his good prov'd ill in me,
And wrought but malice

-- "Paradise Lost"

In the end, history -- absurdist, implacable, amused -- overwhelmed the Sex Pistols, the British punk band whose cacophonous two-year career, from late 1975 to the first weeks of 1978, captivated England and made them synonymous with the very idea of punk rock. The making of "The Filth and the Fury," a new documentary on the band, was controlled by its surviving members and unapologetically tells its story from their point of view. But even so there are a couple of moments when we see in the band members' eyes or hear in their voices that there were forces at work that dwarfed them.

In retrospect, it's easy to see how England's depressed social psyche at the time had the power to generate rebels like the four grimy members of the band and their provocateur of a manager, Malcolm McLaren -- but it also catalyzed much stronger forces dedicated to keeping the peace, forces that harried the band incessantly.

You can see that the fierce intelligence and astonishing onstage charisma possessed by the band's lead singer, Johnny Rotten, which would have dominated almost any other conceivable group of band mates, could not overcome the fact that he was from the start a pawn in a twisted, nihilistic version of the Monkees, and no match in sophistication or perspective for the manipulations of the history-minded McLaren. And even the band's uncompromising, oddly selfless defiance, in the end, turned out to be the making merely of martyrs, not of heroes.

To this day Rotten and McLaren spar to take credit for the ensuing disaster. For much of the past 20-plus years, with Rotten's dyspeptic personality an obstacle, the story has been essentially McLaren's to tell. The two most important works to address the band, Greil Marcus' "Lipstick Traces" and Jon Savage's "England's Dreaming," are both enthralled with Rotten, but both also revel in the group's connection to a history of mischievous social provocateuring over the previous decades by groups like the Lettrists and the Situationist International, of whom McLaren was first a student and then a willing and articulate agent. (What unites the groups and the Pistols is a commitment to denial -- saying "no" to the established order.) At the time the books were written, this aspect of the story had not been appreciated; fairly or not it has changed forever our perspective on what it was exactly the Sex Pistols established.

Rotten, writing under his real name, John Lydon, offered a revision in an autobiography: "Rotten: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish," six years ago. Now "The Filth and the Fury" is his attempt to wrench back a bit of the honor of definition, with help from the existing filmic evidence that remains. This is the "truth," he tells us repeatedly. (The same insistence marked his book.) It's a personal battle, to be sure, but he imagines that he's placing the band in history as well. Talk of the Situationists obscures the very real state of Britain in the mid-1970s, he feels: the desperation, the unemployment, the kids living in squats. To this end, he and director Julien Temple play the determinist, spawn-of-social-breakdown card heavily; we're reminded of the band's working-class origins and the unrest that marked Britain at the time. Rotten, in one of his typically incisive apergus, tells us that to live in England at the time was to experience "a shabby, third-rate version of reality."

But that was many years ago. Rotten and his former band mates, in the film, don't allow us to see what they look like now; it's unfortunate that Temple went along with the conceit. The faceless voice-overs put a cast of shame over the proceedings. Do they not like how they look? Does a Sex Pistol have shame? They were self-styled monsters -- now they're monsters with feelings. In "Paradise Lost," a few lines past the ones quoted above, Satan, still seething, asks, "Which way shall I fly/Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?" In "The Filth and the Fury" Rotten lets wrath at his former manager cloud his judgment, and seems the weaker for it. But any creation will seem weak when it tries to diminish the god that animated it.

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McLaren spent the mid-1970s in the United States, managing the New York Dolls at the end of their career; one of his absurd innovations was putting the band in front of a huge Soviet flag. He also inhaled the beginnings of punk in the New York underground. He came back to England and with partner Vivienne Westwood began purveying strange fashion out of a now-celebrated Kings Road shop in London. (The store eventually was called Sex and specialized in leather bondage styles. Westwood went on to become a noted fashion designer.) You can overstate McLaren's importance, of course; but if he wasn't in uncharted waters he was certainly some way off from shore, watching carefully for the wave.

He was politically motivated, but also a fan of disruption for its own sake, and had the deeply held belief that pop music could do the deed. This notion seems quaint today -- but watch what happened. He put together a potential band of social and musical nogoodnicks possessed neither of brains nor scruples; the band's drummer, Paul Cook, and guitarist, Steve Jones, were essentially making their living as burglars. The bass player was a Sex store clerk, Glen Matlock. After some Pete Bestian shenanigans with a fellow named Wally Nightingale, a new lead singer was almost literally pulled in off the street: a sometime store habitui with a properly waspish personality and questionable hygiene to boot. (He earned the nickname under which he'd become famous because of his teeth.)

Again, Johnny Rotten's searing intelligence and electric personality would have easily led any other band. But he had not formed this group and there is, truth be told, little in his personal history to suggest that he ever would have on his own. He was a late-comer, and the boys McLaren had assembled had the virtue (from McLaren's point of view) of being dumb enough to be immune to the appeal of a smart aleck. In fact, they disliked him even before the first rehearsal, for which they simply declined to show up, and intraband relationships declined from there. Among other things, the three other band members were vociferously opposed to most of the sentiments articulated in Rotten's lyrics.

McLaren's p.r. smarts made the band a phenomenon in the underground scene almost from the day its lineup coalesced. He was helped by a new and aimless generation looking for a thrill and a spreading culture of violence and extremity. The most exciting part of Lydon's autobiography, which includes a great deal of oral history from other denizens of the scene, is the testimony from those who watched a phenomenon create itself literally from appearance to appearance; audience members with long hair at one show would turn up at the next with punk hairstyles and safety pins.

McLaren was also assisted by Britain's overheated and insular music press and the willingness of one of the country's biggest labels, EMI, to stock up on some of the destructive snake oil he was purveying. The band's first single, "Anarchy in the U.K.," was released in November 1976, but most of England really didn't know who or what the Sex Pistols were. But that was before Bill Grundy.

On Dec. 3, 1976, the four were offered a last-minute replacement appearance on a live, early-evening British TV show called "Today." They were accompanied by four friends, one of them Siouxsie Sioux, later of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Goaded by a vacuous, possibly drunk host, Grundy (who among other things seemed to be hitting on Sioux), Rotten muttered the word "shit" under his breath. Catching it, Grundy bored in, and the show disintegrated in a hail of obscenity. The incident put the Sex Pistols on the cover of the nation's tabloids for days. The new movie takes its name from the headline that filled the front page of the next day's Daily Mirror. EMI pulled the "Anarchy" single. "From [then] on, they were a total spectacle," writes Savage in "England's Dreaming."

Shortly after this came Rotten's one management triumph, an amusingly Pyrrhic one. He hated Matlock, the bass player who'd composed the band's key early songs but who Rotten contended wanted to turn the band into the Bay City Rollers. "If he looks like an asshole and talks like an asshole then he's an asshole" is Rotten's unrepentant epitaph for him in "The Filth and the Fury." (Still, Matlock returned to play guitars on the band's only studio album and eventually played in the Pistols' 1996 reunion tour.) Rotten's candidate to replace Matlock was his best friend, a lost child who lacked musical skills, any significant experience playing in a band and, in a touching footnote, apparently even a real name. (He told friends he didn't know if it was Simon Ritchie or John Beverly.)

Sid Vicious was an aimless, violent figure on the scene. Cook and Jones didn't like him, but Rotten's insistence won out. In his autobiography, Rotten admits that he didn't appreciate the Pandora's box he was opening. His mother may have: "What kind of wicked reasons have you got behind that?" she sighed.

Their second single was "God Save the Queen," released, after a short, scandal-filled and profitable weeklong contretemps with A&M Records, by Virgin. The band rented a boat to cruise up the Thames during Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee in July 1977. The single was banned from the radio but still became a bestseller. On the charts of the time, there is a blank where the song should be -- an Orwellian image that a generation of British music fans would find indelible. In November, the only album to be released during the band's career together, "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols," came out. Police literally tore down record-store displays across the country. One store owner was taken to court merely for displaying the album cover. (He was found not guilty -- "reluctantly," the judge said from the bench.) A concert tour was a debacle as dates were canceled as fast as McLaren could book them.

In retrospect these events may seem merely like planned outrages by McLaren, but the evidence suggests that these were extremes he hadn't contemplated; he was by all accounts paralyzed after the Grundy affair. The chaos is part of rock legend now, but it created genuine pressures on a band of young men almost all of whom had grown up under unfortunate circumstances and none of whom, really, had the ambitions or strength of character most people who try to become rock stars have at their disposal. The press was insatiable; it was becoming dangerous for band members to venture out in public; and Rotten, at least, endured both a razor attack and a destructive police raid on his apartment.

Part of McLaren's maniacal plan was to establish the lead singer as a poet of sorts, and isolated from the prole backing musicians. Rotten's stories from the time are almost tearfully funny. He would be invited to swell parties, only to have McLaren turn him away from the door. At the same time, he was watching his best friend whirl into a vortex of trouble. Vicious' girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, her mother later wrote, was developmentally disabled and in some sort of pain almost from the day she was born. By the time she met up with the Sex Pistols she was a nightmare of an American suburban expatriate turned prostitute and drug dealer. She was screechy and demanding; to those who would listen, and those who wouldn't, she would take the unique aesthetic position that Vicious was the real talent in the band. At one point McLaren kidnapped her and tried to send her back to America with a one-way ticket. He got her as far as the airport; Vicious never forgave him.

The band capped its British performing career with a benefit for striking firemen on Christmas Day, 1977. In January they went to America and played shows in Atlanta; Baton Rouge, La.; Memphis, Tenn.; Dallas; San Antonio, Texas; Tulsa, Okla.; and San Francisco. Rotten and Vicious were eventually relegated to a bus, even as McLaren, Cook and Jones flew. The band's final show, at San Francisco's cavernous Winterland, ended with Rotten's most famous line: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" The band broke up the next day without anyone really saying so. Rotten says he was left in San Francisco with $20 in his pocket. Cook and Jones went back into obscurity; Rotten to modern-rock hemidemistardom with his band, Public Image Ltd.; McLaren to another few decades of intermittently successful attention-getting.

Sid Vicious went to hell: He apparently stabbed Spungen during a druggy fight in their apartment at the Chelsea Hotel in New York on Oct. 11, 1978; she dragged herself to the bathroom and bled to death. Vicious spent the next few months in and out of jails and (after a suicide attempt) hospitals; his last stint was in Riker's Island, a notoriously dangerous New York jail. It could not have presented hospitable surroundings for a scrawny and insolent British punk rocker going through heroin withdrawal. He died of an overdose the night he was let out on bail, Feb. 1, 1979.

Given this material, "The Filth and the Fury" is, not surprisingly, a kinetic and unstoppable ride. Temple met the band in London during one of its first rehearsals. On the way to becoming an established filmmaker ("Absolute Beginners" and "Earth Girls Are Easy," among others"), he and McLaren put together "The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle," a by-turns compelling and unwatchable fake documentary on the Pistols. (One unappetizing scene has Cook and Jones, in Rio de Janiero, doing naked jumping jacks on a beach with a wanted British bank robber, Ronnie Biggs.) Rotten and the band now view that film as a piece of McLaren-esque propaganda, but have brought Temple back into the fold as a documentarian for hire. (Oddly, a major chunk of the new movie -- perhaps as much as 20 percent -- is recycled "Swindle" footage.)

"The Filth and the Fury" has essentially but one trick, but it's a good one: Temple simply lets the England of the time -- or at least what Temple wants us to believe was the England of the time -- hang itself. The film begins with a few seconds of footage of an impossibly square, clumsy weatherman, and then launches directly into a swirling collage of street riots, chaos and various species of social collapse. Rotten and Vicious are introduced with shots of them spitting into the camera lens. The film is dotted with what's apparently meant as hugely sardonic clips of lame comedians from British TV; most Americans will find them puzzling. There's also this or that news footage of ranting British racists and various town councilors fighting to keep the band from playing in their community.

The news footage is most effective during an earsplitting "Anarchy in the U.K." sequence, when, in the song's climactic verse, in which Rotten reels off a list of terrorist group acronyms, Temple shockingly cuts in explosions that hit on the last letter of each groups' name. ("Is this the MPLA [blast!]?/Is this the UDA [blast!]?") There is a lot of home movie footage and film from smaller, early shows. (Most of this, irritatingly, has studio versions of Pistols' songs played over them. "Swindle" used the live tracks.)

Otherwise, the film rips through a Pistols-centric version of history, Rotten at the core: Grundy, "God Save the Queen," the last British show, the American tour, the death of Vicious. There are intermittent glimpses into the things that fueled Rotten's seemingly unstoppable rage, like his description of the lumpen members of the band putting down his epochal opening lines to "Anarchy in the U.K." -- "I am an antichrist/I am an anarchist" -- on the grounds that they didn't rhyme. At moments like this you feel for him. In his autobiography, he captures his perspective on such indignities with perhaps the most deromanticized portrait of rock 'n' roll ever committed to paper: "I don't care how big-headed the lead singer is, it all comes down to the fact that he must eat shit in the rehearsal room. The histrionics of the lead guitar, the excesses of the drummer and the stupidity of the bass player have to meet on equal footing."

Though his face is hidden, it's apparent at one point that Rotten is reduced to tears while remembering the grotesque end of his best friend. It's undoubtedly sincere, but the uncharitable may well reflect that, had the young Rotten viewed Mick Jagger, say, similarly eulogizing Brian Jones, he would have spit at the screen. It's a Barbara Walters moment. I'd always taken the title of one of Lydon's Public Image albums, "The Flowers of Romance," to be his unspoken tribute to Vicious -- that had been the name of a band Vicious had been associated with before the Sex Pistols. In his autobiography, Lydon admits he hadn't been the friend he should have been but treats Vicious' life with lancing sarcasm as well: "He took it all too far, and boy, he couldn't play guitar. David Bowie reference." In the film he remains unforgiving -- "He became the worst sort of rock 'n' roll idiot you could have had a nightmare about" -- and delivers a shattering epitaph: "All I'm telling you is that I could take on England, but I could not take on one heroin addict."

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While there is much to enjoy here for any music fan and particularly those for whom the Pistols represented a shocking cultural revelation in the late 1970s, the film fails on so many levels it's difficult to take it seriously. A documentary controlled by the people it's about is never entirely satisfying. (Temple has made it plain in interviews that he was a hired gun.) While to some extent its intent -- presenting a coherent history of the band from the point of view of its members -- is defensible, there is enough missing to make you wish a legitimate, independent documentarian had had access to the same material.

There is far too much wild-in-the-streets footage and a bit too much trumpeting about the band members' working-class origins. (I was waiting for someone to claim to be depraved on account of being deprived.) Their sometimes violent antics are not glossed over -- there's priceless footage of Nick Kent, the then-reigning British rock journalist, telling of Vicious' chain attack on him -- but these are not quite portrayed on the sociopathic levels on which I suspect they existed. (Kent wasn't the only person Vicious attacked with a chain.)

And to watch "The Filth and the Fury" you'd think that the band members had sprung full-blown in a burst of spontaneous social realism. I caught a split-second mention of the New York Dolls; if there was mention of the Stooges or the Ramones I missed it. McLaren is dismissed with derisive footage from "Swindle" of him in a leather bondage mask, generally saying stupid things. Why be a punk if you can't settle some scores? Rotten might argue; he doesn't see how the puerility of the device lessens his stature, not increases it.

You come away wishing McLaren had had a chance to speak for himself. One of the funnier moments in the film comes when Rotten talks about being relegated to a bus with Vicious during the American tour. The rest of the band stayed in nice hotels; "We had to stay" -- here Rotten conjures up his most indignant drawl -- "in MO-tels!" The moment is set up to make you feel sorry for poor neglected Johnny and Sid, but I'm on McLaren, Cook and Jones' side on this one. By this point, traveling on a bus with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious had crossed over the line of unpleasantness and into the realm of the physically dangerous.

The lack of an independent perspective will make certain parts of the story mystifying to the uninitiated. The single most salient point about that excruciating American tour, for example, is that McLaren deliberately booked it across the hinterland, refusing to kowtow to the media centers he and the band held in contempt. After some cancellations in the North, the tour devolved down to a series of literally blood-streaked shows across the Deep South. The suicidal result was surely one of the most astonishing marketing debacles in the history of popular entertainment, and it's a curious artifact of the oddly romantic, slightly deranged philosophy that drove McLaren and the band.

And finally, the film misses two points that any tale of the Sex Pistols has to make. The first, ironically, is probably missing because of modesty. The nine vertiginous guitar down-strokes that open "Anarchy" speak for themselves. But Rotten was more than just a front person. He was also, strange to say, a poet, one of stark and ugly but undeniable gifts. He took the obvious, almost clichid language of denial or protest and repeatedly created moments that really did seem to threaten the "third-rate reality" he sensed around him. And he did it with such force that the songs still, as an onlooker at the time put it, raise "hundreds of questions."

To this day, the standard vocabulary of pop culture can't account for Rotten's onstage presence. He was misshapen and up to no good, a sadistic, starved Rumpelstiltskin or Quasimodo; as he sang, his r's, when he wanted them to, trilled like chainsaws. His manic eyes and rigid body suggested brittle, dangerous extremes. The recordings he made (and here the band was helped mightily by producer Chris Thomas) are so hard that they are grating and difficult to listen to casually to this day. Ramones and Clash songs are now practically classic-rock staples; Sex Pistols tracks are virtually never played on commercial radio.

Rotten was also a master of the multiplicity of meanings that has made the early days of the British punk moment catnip for social theoreticians in the years since. To cite just one obvious example: The fact that "antichrist" and "anarchist" didn't rhyme is one of the points of "Anarchy in the U.K." It isn't a song about wanting to shoot passersby; it's a song about offending people who'd be offended by a song about such a thing. The fractured rhyme is merely a lagniappe, a sign to the listeners that, among other things, the weapons in the debate have changed, that certain rules were no longer being observed. (Among other things, it says, "Fuck you, Paul McCartney.")

"Anarchy" doesn't rhyme; it's incoherent; its lyrics violate many accepted rules of grammar. But its message is unmistakable. After a contemptuous belch buried in the "guitar solo" that precedes the last verse, Rotten launches into the nonsensical litany of armed groups and closes the song with his finest vocal moment, a heroic, raspy, strained pair of lines ("I thought it was the U.K./Or just another country") that on the page seem anticlimactic but on record, addressed to a land that dearly wishes to think of itself as not just another country, are derisive, desperate, forlorn and defiant. Not one of rock's love balladeers, not one of its jut-jawed protesters, has ever sounded so lost.

The songs speak for themselves, but they also deserve, in a film of this sort, some level of explication. "Holidays in the Sun," illustrated here with footage of the band in Berlin, is really about something strange and terrifying. The singer, apparently a vacuous middle-class British tourist, begins, "I don't want a holiday in the sun/I wanna see the new Belsen."

It's a brilliantly confrontational opening. Rotten manages to implicate an entire class in the diminution of the Holocaust even as he uses the name of a concentration camp as a punch line. He rolls on: "I want to see some history," he howls delightedly, his character spouting wan Marxisms even as the singer somehow delivers a wicked trill on every syllable of the key word. He finds his history, and himself, at song's end, staring over the Berlin Wall. (The wall was still a potent symbol of tyranny then, less than 15 years after it was built.) What he finds is unexpected: "I'm looking over the wall and they're looking at me!" From there the singer, his voice, sound uncertain: He's come, recklessly, for a merry glimpse of the ghosts of Nazism and fascism and, disconcertingly, finds them looking for the same thing in him. The resulting cognitive dissonance ends the song in a hail of incoherence.

Which brings us, finally, to the second thing the movie can't bring itself to recognize -- the great cosmic joke that was the Sex Pistols. What are the chances of a low-rent provocateur like McLaren finding in his store a grimy musician whose contribution to history would be those nine momentous chords? And given that, what are the odds that that same person could walk out on the street and almost randomly pick arguably the only person alive on Earth at that moment who could possibly have made his dream of a rock band that might destroy pop music a reality? And that together the group and the manager would indeed create not only, as he called it in "Swindle," "the most notorious filthy disgusting dirtiest rock 'n' roll band in the whole bloody world," but also, in "Never Mind the Bollocks," a signal work of transgressive pop art whose force has not lessened over the passage of more than two decades?

This was history's last laugh: Art erupts in the damnedest places. Lydon's unapologetic activities in the years since -- cloying dance music for suburban teens with the latter-day PiL, a gleefully remunerative reunion tour -- were encoded in his original hauteur and contempt for propriety; he wasn't doing anything we didn't expect him to. What does catch us off guard is to see him display -- nakedly, for once -- a need for the future's approbation. He ends up haranguing us about what "the truth" is, when the one thing we know for sure about the truth is that it rarely comes from the guy trying to sell it to us. For the first time in 25 years, we wonder: That cackle we hear; is it Rotten's -- or history's?

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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