Sunday, December 26, 2010

Rock on Film Part 6 : Pistols on Parade

I'll out myself again as being an early x-er which places me as a teenager when punk rock happened. This is important for this post as it might tell you that I don't buy the American origins revisionism about punk nor do I care much about disputes as to what the first punk rock actually was. All you need to know about the value I assign to punk rock is in the following brace o' paragraphs.

Christmas holidays 1976. I was in the rumpus room with my brothers Stephen (two years older) and Greg (I think nine years older). Countdown had just finished and we were just zoning out in front of Weekend Magazine before the ABC news. Weekend Magazine was a soft news show that could have anything from models of the Sydney Harbour Bridge made of matchsticks and guano or the Birdsville Races. This day it had a story on punk in London and featured the Sex Pistols. In those few minutes (about four of them) I watched the screen in rapture as behind my chair a divide was forming between my older brothers and me. As Greg ridiculed the name of the band and its singer I was aglow with freedom. For my tens and two teen years I had been eagerly taking his lead on music and culture in general, loving some of it and wincing at a lot of it but having nothing of my own to replace it with beyond the garbage on the radio. That door opened in those few minutes and still hasn't closed.

It took a long time for the Pistols album to be released but when it was everything I'd kept as a fading memory came explosively true when the needle hit the vinyl that fateful day late in 1977. Between the two times I devoured as much as I could about what was happening over there. There were inklings in some quarters that there were things worth the listen happening in America, too. When I heard them they didn't really stick. There's merit there, of course but none of it had the violent excitement of the British stuff. So, now when I hear that it all came from New York I ask people to go back and listen to what was actually coming from there and compare it to the Brit stuff. Old hippy ravings of Patti Smith (sorry, never heard much in her), cartoony thrash of the Ramones (never seemed serious enough), and garbage like the New York Dolls didn't convince me. Put all of them against Anarchy in the UK and I know who I'll declare the winner. Subjective? It has to be. Anyway...

Here are some representations of my favourites from the time, The Sex Pistols on screen.

This is the one we all waited for. We knew it would be manager Malcolm McClaren's encomium to himself, a grand ninety minutes of after dinner lies about how much influence he had over the residents of the Milky Way in the late seventies. We knew that. We grumbled about it in the cinema queue. We sat in front of it in sheer overwhelming awe and went to the pub afterwards and whinged about what a wanker McClaren was. He wasn't going to win and didn't deserve to.

He did, however, bring the Pistols to the big screen and we in the Anitpodes who would probably never get to see them for real (that changed in the nineties) had this experience. It's still hip to damn the piece for its message of narcissism and tits 'n' bums 'n' raincoats attempts at offence, hip among people who weren't born until years after the band broke up. Odd how trad youth can get in the struggle to distinguish themselves from the previous guard (did it myself and still find it funny).

So what's the film really like? It is indeed McClaren's show. He is the first to fill the screen in a rubber fetish suit, hissing the introduction to what will be ten lessons in how to get cash from chaos. Guitarist Steve Jones plays a private detective on McClaren's trail and the two threads make enough of a weave to hang a babel of imagery from the band's brief public career augmented by animated sequences. McClaren's claims are grand and often completely out of sorts with the facts as they emerged.

McClaren tells the tale to a dwarf in punk regalia, variously on London Bridge, bathing in a mansion, bamboozling press drones at a private airstrip and other locations suggesting he is in control of all the cultural elements he boasts of altering. Steve Jones' detective goes from one sleazey situation to the next, having sex in a cinema, having sex in a bondage club, crapping on the floor of McClaren's abandoned office. The animations are similarly what was referred to in the seventies as blue (though there are some genuinely atmospheric serious sequences too). Sid Vicious plays up his rep as a walking chaos generator on the streets of Paris, riding a Harley down a country lane and most infamously emptying a pistol into the audience after singing his version of My Way (still my favourite, btw). Jones and Cook apparently reveal themselves as McClaren's loyal abettors in Brazil (Jones in another sex scene) writing songs with Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs and someone playing exiled Nazi Martin Bormann. Everything ends with an animated credit sequence on a pirate ship set to Steve Jones' version of the highly blue Good Ship Venus as something more like the real story of the band is told through members being forced off the plank or just falling off and drowning.

A feature length fabrication by someone who never quite admitted he was lying but also never seemed ashamed at being exposed as a liar. It's all Benny Hill and vaudeville, a kind of romp made of elements that all seemed embarrassingly obsolete in the "ideologically sound" early eighties when it was released. 

All I'll say about this one is that it joins films like The Doors as depictions of rock music history that lose themselves in their own adolescent wish fulfillment. I hate this try hard bullshit waste of time.

In the late nineties, Julien Temple shot new interviews with the surviving members, dredged any archives he had access to and recut the footage he had shot and recut them to produce this film in a kind of atonement for having made the McClaren atrocity and put his name to it.

What emerges is a documentary (which Swindle doesn't pretend to be) in which the members reminisce with what sounds like more authority than they were previously allowed. From this a clarity develops to the picture of the origins of the people in the band, the culture they moved through, reacted against and then contributed to. Context setting footage from news, shockingly out of touch youth-orientated tv shows, etc trades screen time with some great unearthed material from the time. Temple had been recording the band on video and film from their earliest days. This way he establishes a direct connection with the band that tends to squeeze McClaren out. Indeed, of all the talking heads on screen the self styled Fagin is absent in the contemporary plane.

On that, the Pistols themselves are interviewed backlit and any suggestion of their aged facial features incidental as they are almost entirely in shadow. Temple's justification for this was that he didn't want to put a lot of middle aged men on screen whose appearance might distract from the message.

This is where the problems I have with Filth and the Fury begin. I just don't buy the distraction excuse. Temple is doing something insidious here while appearing to be benign. Not only has he edged out McClaren who, tosser notwithstanding, was always articulate and worth the listen, he has put his own contribution higher than it deserves. But worse than that, his keeping of the flame has a jealous feel to it. No, you can't see what they look like now. Only I can. No, you can't project your own emotional responses on to this story, it's MY story.

Worst of all, The Filth and the Fury constitutes a kind of betrayal of the legacy. The Pistols, between being art directed and actually delivering substance (go and listen to the recordings if you don't believe that) constituted a generation's worth of confrontational culture based on a do it yourself ethos, promoting an unforgiving view on the rubbish doled out by the mainstream. This film undercuts that ethos by sentimentalising its subject. I don't, for the record, mean the moment where John Lydon breaks down while talking about Sid. That looks nothing but sincere and profoundly felt. I mean the us against them nonsense that the members contribute to themselves. Oddly, for a band whose interview with a drunk and smug tv host gave them massive press coverage, the air of the film, especially its concluding moments, feels smug.

This is a relative criticism, though. If you want an engaging and exciting account of one of the most important bands in rock music history this is a superb place to start. It will take you through the cultural need for punk rock and might give you pause to wonder if the self pleased assurance of "indy" rock might not itself be due for a similar onslaught. It's a great experience. Just don't let it be your only one.

This should be watched soon after Filth and the Fury as it cuts all the sentimentality away and has the surviving members simply talk about themselves, the band and the times candidly and pithily. As the task here is relating how the album was made any historical anecdotes outside of that immediate context carry a veracity that feels unforced. The members appear on camera in full middle aged glory, apparently unashamed of their looks and time's effects. They are interviewed separately and seem at ease. McClaren, too, is allowed his accounts and opinions which, juxtaposed with the others' seem small and self aggrandising.

The album's producer and engineer as well as the artist behind the epochal sleeve art are also interviewed which reinforces the task at hand and all supply depth through professional insights as well as their own anecdotes. A fairly detailed account is given of the recording process and some fascinating deconstructions at the mixing desk provide some brass tacks clarity to the overall image.

To my mind, this is the most satisfyingly coherent acccount of the Sex Pistols as a band as well as a cultural phenomenon. It is purposed, unassuming and fact packed. If you only watch one account of the band make it this one.

Of all the fare on offer here, my favourite watch is Swindle. For all its clunking attempts at prefabricated offence, laddism and the woeful faux sophistication of its host, it is yet in the idiom of the times it describes. The late seventies were years of tits'n'bums comedy and appeals to humour that didn't ask questions as to why it guffawed at difference. There's an authentic charm to this which is completely devoid of the fireside sentimentality of Temple's revision. Swindle is a time capsule, unreconstructed and bare in its plain mendacity. Also, of all the accounts, it's simply the most fun. You already know the real story. Now see the silly version. You know you want to....

No comments:

Post a Comment