Film Reviews

The Filth and the Fury

Published August 22, 2000

It must have been December 1976 when the Sex Pistols had their first Australian airplay. I was sitting at home during the school holidays, listening to 2JJ (as it was then), trying to ignore the scratchy reception in my eagerness to hear the latest releases. Announcing that this was the new sensation in Britain, Mac Cocker played the first few seconds of Anarchy in the UK. But after the implausible opening rhyme “I am an Anti-Christ! I am an Anarchist!” – delivered in a venomous, nasal snarl – the record was ripped from the turntable.  The DJ protested in the voice of a weary schoolmaster who had no patience for such pranks. Most of the listeners probably agreed with him – so different had this been from the usual 2JJ fare – the “progressive” rock, the synthesizer bands, the concept albums that represented non-commercial music in the 1970s. “Commercial” – it goes without saying – meant the kind of teeny-bopper singalong one heard on Countdown. It was anathema to the serious-minded young music fan.
Within the next year we were to hear a lot more about the Sex Pistols, who became the undisputed figureheads of the Punk movement.  The arthouse sounds that 2JJ fans had absorbed so readilly soon began to sound pompous and dull. It was embarrassing to realise how much rock music was still being made by men in beards and kaftans. Those Roger Dean album covers, favoured by bands such as Yes, had begun to lose their allure. Rightly or wrongly the aging remnants of the hippy era had become the enemy, with the Punks rejecting everything that the hippies held sacred. The new wave groups preferred to sing of hate rather than love, they dropped tabs of speed instead of puffing on joints. The search for a more natural lifestyle was replaced by a kind of outrageous street theatre, a deliberate embrace of artifice.
In many instances it was nothing more than a case of one look supplanting another. There were plenty of hippies with mohawk haircuts and safety pins through their earlobes who still enjoyed passing around their bongs. Sydney – like every other big city around the world – had its small groups of fashion victims dressed in the leather jackets and army boots, perspiring in the summer heat, suffering for their subculture. There were improbable local mutations such as surfie punks, and the inevitable host of middle-class college kids acting as part-time punks.
This was the fatuous side of the Punk movement, the point where it was only another style among styles. Yet Julien Temple, director of The Filth and the Fury, argues that the early days of  Punk in England represent a unique moment in the youth culture of the twentieth century, a moment that can best be recaptured by examining the brief transit of the Sex Pistols. For Temple, what was most important about the Sex Pistols was “their fierce protection of the right to individuality and their questioning attitude.”
“In terms of post-war British culture,” he continues, “nothing has been more defiant than The Sex Pistols’ voice; no one has gone beyond them. No one has had the guts.”
These are large claims for a band that existed for barely two years and recorded only one album. As the self-styled archivist for the group, Temple could hardly claim to be an objective recorder of the facts. He also directed The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle of 1980, a shambolic spoof that told the Sex Pistols story from the point-of-view of the group’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, intent on portraying himself as evil genius and puppet-master. The Filth and the Fury is Temple’s way of making amends for that earlier mess of a film. It is an attempt to tell the truth about a time that has been obscured by hero-worshipping fans, a sensationalist media and McLaren’s egomania.
In his second attempt at the Sex Pistols story, Temple has abandoned the lame atttempts at humour, but kept the anarchic style of montage that echoes Punk’s fractured and eclectic dress codes. Fragments of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle have been wedged into the new film, with McLaren’s version being disputed by the former band members – particularly John Lydon ( AKA Johnny Rotten) – who doesn’t disguise his loathing for the former manager. In fact, The Filth and the Fury only became a possibility after Lydon sued McLaren in 1987, winning ownership of the band’s master recordings, publishing rights, film footage, and even the name “The Sex Pistols”. Since McLaren had gone out of his way to portray himself as a supreme con-artist in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, it must have been difficult to defend Lydon’s charges that “he had not acted honourably during his tenure as the band’s manager”.
After winning the case, Lydon contacted the other band members, including Sid Vicious’s mum, who is in charge of his estate, and offered joint ownership of all the material. From this came the desire to set the record straight. The documentary has provided a path of reconciliation for the band members – notably Lydon and guitarist, Steve Jones – who never got on well, and had not spoken in years. It was also a way of involving the Pistols’ first bass player, Glen Matlock, who wrote most of the tunes, but was despised by the others because of his pop star affectations and his “niceness”. When Matlock was replaced by Lydon’s friend Sid Vicious ( real name: John Ritchie), who had never played bass before, the Pistols gained a cult hero and lost whatever musical cohesion they once possessed.
The final part of the documentary records Sid’s slide into heroin-induced stupor, and his relationship with the American groupie, Nancy Spungen. This liason, which was given a romantic twist in Alex Cox’s film, Sid and Nancy, is shown to be an utterly destructive descent into the abyss. Whatever negative feelings Paul, George and Ringo harboured about Yoko, they are as nothing compared to the hatred that Nancy generated among the Sex Pistols. She is described as Sid’s pusher rather than his girlfriend. Sid’s habit made him a liability on stage, barely able to hold his guitar as he posed and staggered about.  Recounting the frustrations of that time, John Lydon says, “I was willing to take on all of Britain, but I couldn’t take on one heroin addict”.
Sid Vicious comes out of the movie looking like a tragic figure: a charismatic chancer who degenerated into a piece of human debris. The other Pistols (all of whom now live in Los Angeles!) are interviewed in silhouette so as not to look like aging rock stars, or perhaps to make their accounts seem dangerous and illicit. In the archival footage they come across as a bunch of working-class lads carried along by the momentum of the times. Steve Jones seems an unlikely punk, with his bouffant hair-do and macho preening; Paul Cook the drummer is a mild-mannered character, while Glen Matlock  would hardly have looked out-of-place in the Bay City Rollers. The negative and moody edge is supplied by Johnny Rotten, who is described by Steve Jones as “an intellectual”. Rotten was certainly the most nihilistic of the band, and easily the most intelligent. He wrote the lyrics for songs such as Anarchy in the UK, Pretty Vacant, and God Save the Queen that became instant punk anthems. The chorus of “No Future” that soared out of the Pistols’ tribute to the Queen’s jubilee year, became the animating slogan of the entire punk movement.
It seems almost inconceivable today, when every evening’s viewing is littered with four-letter words, that the Sex Pistols rose to overnight notoreity by saying “fuck” on television. Being interviewed by a drunken Bill Grundy, after they had signed their short-lived contract with EMI, Rotten and Jones were goaded into telling their interrogator what they thought of him. A “fucking rotter” was Jones’s assessment, and the footage supports this view. The next day Grundy was removed from his job, and the tabloids were screaming about the group’s obscenities. “The Filth and the Fury” was one of the banner headlines. It became virtually impossible for band members to appear in public without being threatened by violence; a concert tour was decimated as venues cancelled their bookings and town councils tried to refuse entry to the group.  The Pistols were followed everywhere by a pack of reporters and photographers eager for new outrages.
When God Save the Queen was released, going straight to number one in the charts, many radio stations refused to play the song, while Top 40 listings left the number one slot blank. It is a measure of how far the fortunes of the monarchy have plummeted that today it is the Royal Family who receive the tabloid treatment once dished out to the Sex Pistols.
It is the singular achievement of The Filth and the Fury that it makes sense of these events, by setting them against the backdrop of a nation falling into chaos and despair. Under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan the British Labour Party had failed the working classes, and enraged the wealthy. The economy was in tatters, strikes and demonstrations occurred on a weekly basis, including a long-running garbagemen’s dispute, which left the streets of London piled high with mountains of stinking rubbish. For many young people, the dole was the only possible future. These conditions, which prepared the way for Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in May 1979, had left Britons at each others’ throats, looking for scapegoats and troublemakers.
At the same time, the record industry was serving up a diet of rock, pop and disco that offered various forms of escapism to a demoralised generation. The record companies were able to make or break bands, engineer trends, and exert tremendous influence on radio stations. After the initial energies of the 1960s had been spent, popular music had settled into a phase of decadent commodification. Punk, which drew its musical stimulus from American acts such as Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls, and even Alice Cooper, was a cry of working-class rebellion against the state of everyday life, and the big record companies that treated their audiences as zombie consumers.
Punk was a D.I.Y. phenomenon that encouraged young people to make their own music, and address the issues that seemed most urgent to them. For the most part it was a cry of impotent rage at the boredom and poverty that seemed to be their fate. This anger was cultivated in the music and the clothes, which aimed to trangress every social taboo – wearing garbage bags as T-shirts, safety pins as jewellery, and swastikas as a readymade source of offence. Like all subcultures, it was a paradoxical way of asserting one’s individuality by adopting shared codes of dress and behaviour. Independent record labels such as Rough Trade, Stiff and Factory, grew up with the new bands, and began to make inroads into the market that had been such a comfortable grazing patch for a handful of multinationals. The supergroups and crossover bands found their audiences disappearing.
For a moment, Punk rocked the foundations of the music industry, and generated fear and hatred among the British population. Punks became the scapegoats and lepers that people felt authorised to hate; the ungrateful youth who threatened a way-of-life that was already looking pale and sickly. The Punks acted as a kind of semiotic boomerang: the uglier and nastier they looked, the more they extracted the underlying ugliness and nastiness from the general public. They expressed their anger about Britain, and drew everyone else’s anger down on themselves.
Within a year or two, the shock had passed. The record companies had begun to sign up their own sanitized versions of new wave bands, mixed in with a large dose of sugar. Punk had become a fashion statement – the “postcard punks” derided by John Lydon – while the original bands had either broken up or gone on to other things. Newspapers ran stories about loveable punks and their dear old mums. Those who tried to keep the flame alive looked increasingly like caricatures: no less ‘dinosaurs’ than the heavy-metal bands they despised. It could hardly have been otherwise. Once the record companies had realised that Punk could not be resisted, they adopted a policy of toleration and incorporation. The Sex Pistols, who had been dumped and paid off by EMI and A&M, were almost unique in showing so little regard for the lucrative contracts offered by the major labels.
After Punk it is hard to imagine that any youth movement could ever again shake the record industry or the British public in such spectacular fashion. The rebellious pop stars of today, such as the boys from Oasis, seem like selfish prats playing out a parody of teen anger; borrowing a look and a sound from the Beatles, and glorying in their own celebrity. But pop music is largely a lost cause. More disturbing is Young British Art, the house style of Tony Blair’s Britain, which is being packaged and sent around the world in the same way that the British Council once sent works by Henry Moore or Graham Sutherland.
Nothing could be further from the Sex Pistols than Damien Hirst, with his dead animals in formaldehyde, or Tracey Emin with her unmade bed. The new British art, celebrated in exhibitions such as Sensation at the Royal Academy of Arts, is a matter of prepackaged outrage and institutionalised rebellion, supported wholeheartedly by the Arts Establishment. The raw energy of the Punk era has been replaced by a preening, boring calculation that measures artistic success in column inches. The genuine anger that surges forth from those songs by the Sex Pistols, has given way to a cynicism so complete that the most fervent desire of today’s rebels is to buy a mansion in the country and a BMW. This may be a respectable dream, but it seems strangely incompatible with the shock-horror aesthetic that generates the newspaper headlines. Today it seems there is no future only for those who are not smart or cynical enough to cash in.
Published for the Australian Review of Books, 22 August, 2000
A film by Julien Temple