The Great Rock‘n'Roll Swindle

Cash from chaos

The Great Rock‘n'Roll Swindle (1980)

Director – Julien Temple
Genre – Biography/Documentary
Themes – Punk/Anarchy

Malcolm McLaren – The Embezzler
John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon – The Collaborator
Sid Vicious – The Gimmick
Paul Cook – The Tea-Maker
Steve Jones - The Crook

It’s twenty-five years since the ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ was first released and now it has finally got a release on DVD.

With a quarter of a century hindsight it could now be considered that the film was, essentially, a vehicle for McLaren to build an even greater myth around The Sex Pistols’ whilst simultaneously elevating himself to the role of architect of their short, but eventful, career. Resurrected from an aborted Russ Meyer directed project, titled “Who Killed Bambi?”, and written by Roger Ebert, Temple, with the assistance of McLaren, pieced together the well-documented wreckage of the Pistols’ history into a haphazard narrative structure. With various vignettes filmed to link key events together the film fictionally charts the bands rise and fall. By the time of its release Vicious was already dead and Rotten had left the band and so was excluded from the project. In truth, it has been documented far better elsewhere, and by Temple himself, possibly attempting to put the record straight. Nevertheless, as an artifact of a particular era how does it stand up today, can it still be classed in any way relevant and what true lessons can be garnered from it? Or is it just a mere curiosity?

Lesson 1 – Don’t become what you set out to destroy!
McLaren assumes the role of arch-criminal, philosopher and even ‘God’ by presenting his ‘ten-commandments’ of media manipulation to Jones’ Moses. At the same time Jones plays a classic film noir detective searching for McLaren only to be repeatedly distracted by offers of sex, before eventually becoming transfixed by his own image presented on a movie screen. It may have been done with the utmost sense of humour and parody but to overshadow the music for such hedonistic tendencies is surely the antithesis of their raison d'être, it was no wonder Rotten bolted.

Lesson 2 – Don’t let your manager reduce you to caricatures!
By reducing the members of the band to sheer comic strip characters McLaren impressively raises his importance in their notoriety whilst simultaneously diminishing the bands involvement in the process. Admittedly they look fairly striking but surely the sight of Rotten being pursued by a shark with the Virgin logo on its fin was clearly a barbed attack at the most infamous face of punk!

Lesson 3 – Never let your manager sing!
Surely the most blatant act of self-importance was McLaren’s vaudevillian rendition of Max Bygraves ‘You Need Hands’. I’ll say no more!

Lesson 4 - Try not to waste an opportunity to be political!
Big question this! Is The Swindle’s message political enough? Given that Rotten was such an outspoken figure and his comments so scathing why does the film not pick up on the more controversial themes. Sure enough they are there if you pay enough attention, but all the big questions appear to be ignored, and Rotten’s commentary overlooked, in favour of McLaren’s inflated views. To a large extent Rotten’s absence trivializes the real message that should be at the heart of the film, he seemed to be the only one intelligent enough to really know what was going on due to his privileged vantage point and everyone else’s diminishing control of events.

Lesson 5 – Not all publicity is good publicity!
Sure the Pistols’ furthered their career by undertaking some good attention seeking moments; the Bill Grundy incident (only visually missing here), the Jubilee Day boat trip and the contract signing outside Buckingham palace. These moments are present, just as they should be, but the footage with exiled train robber Ronnie Biggs smacks of desperation and sensationalism all at once. Did McLaren really need another gimmick to promote an already controversial project?

Lesson 6 – Americans will never really understand the British music scene!
The live footage of the Pistols in the throes of disintegration on the ill-fated US tour reveals more about the American mentality than the relationships of the band members. Interviews with ‘the fans’ show just what the band were up against, they weren’t appealing to a disillusioned youth anymore, who were aware of their social positioning, they were playing to attention seeking punters and the mix was inflammatory. But maybe that was a lesson that Rotten had to learn!

Lesson 7 – It’s never easy to make an original rock movie!
Julien Temple disguises his filmic inspirations quite well here and attempts to be as original as possible, in an effort to break with convention no doubt. Nevertheless, intertextual references to Roeg (the bath scene = Performance), Bunuel (ants =Un Chien Andalou) and Godard (airport interview = A Bout de Souffle) reveal several cinematic styles and influences that can be identified. This does add a multiplicity to the film that can conceal its attempted artistic depth to the casual observer, although it could still be conceived as somewhat puerile and a little muddled. This mixture of rock movie, surrealism and new wave cinema does, however, display Temple’s true cinematic sensibilities and expose a profundity that is not easy to establish through all of the trivialities that form the greater part of the film.

Lesson 8 – Thongs never look good on men!
The sight of Vicious straddling a motorbike whilst wearing only a thong is not a good look! Do not try this yourself!

Lesson 9 – ‘The Filth and The Fury’ is far better!

Lesson 10 – Only God should be allowed to reduce aspects of life to 10 lessons!

Tyler Durden – tMx 20 – 07/05
Contact: - Punk Rock …and Roll