The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (1980)
By: Julian on February 6, 2009  | 
DVD
Sony BMG Home Entertainment (Australia), All Regions, PAL. 4:3. English DD 5.1. 100 minutes.
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Julien Temple
Starring: Malcolm McLaren, Steve Jones, Sid Vicious, Paul Cook, Edward Tudor-Pole
Screenplay:
Country: UK
External Links
IMDB IMDB YouTube
My view on punk rock is that it's nauseating, disgusting, degrading, ghastly, puristic voyeuristic and generally nauseating. I think that just about covers it, as far as I'm concerned. I think most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death. The worst of the current punk rock groups are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating, they are the antithesis of humankind. I think someone should dig a very large, exceedingly deep hole and drop the whole bloody lot down it. I think the whole world would be benefited by their complete and utter non-existence.

Oh, yes. Antithesis of humankind, indeed.

That was a news segment anchored by a very upset gentlemen reporting on a phenomenon rising in Britain – the punk rock outfit, of which one of the leading voices was the Sex Pistols. The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle is the Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren's attempt to put his own spin on the band's conception and success. It's a vastly biased one, and suffers from basic ineptitudes regarding sheer coherence – but it remains one of the best sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll portrayals around, and is essential for fans of the band.

To put this film into context, it's necessary to talk a little bit about the Pistols' defining work. Their debut album was Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, released to a cacophony of protests in October 1977, owing to the themes of some of the lead singles – Anarchy in the UK and God Save the Queen primarily – as well as the general aura of destruction, both social and physical, that the Pistols possessed, and were passing on to young people.

Bollocks hit the UK number 1 within a fortnight and has since sold over a million copies worldwide; Rolling Stone named it the second most important album between 1967 and 1987 (it was pipped at the post by the Beatles' Sgt Pepper), and Kerrang! called it "best-ever" punk album. It was, however, the work of a band that largely didn't seem to want to be there – and if they did, they were only in it for the "filthy lucre". It was their only studio effort, yet catapulted them to fame.

In The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, we're introduced to a motley crew of savages: Malcolm McLaren (the group's manager), "The Embezzler"; Sid Vicious (bassist), "The Gimmick"; Steve Jones (guitarist), "The Crook", and Paul Cook (drummer), "The Tea Maker". Johnny Rotten, the band's lead singer, is credited as "The Collaborator", though he had nothing – and refused to have anything – to do with the film, as it came some months after he split from the band.

These five blokes (with only archival and animated footage of Johnny) have a neat little scheme going. McLaren intends on getting the group together, signing them on to as many labels as possible (the hapless mobs were EMI, A&M, Virgin and Warner), and earn a great deal of coin in the process. The goal is to crack a million quid. McLaren's motives are purely for cash, and he drives the band not necessarily towards a musical goal, but one that serves to cause "chaos", to stir up the powers-that-be and earn their bread through carefully manufactured infamy.

Swindle's shining light, the focus of all the anti-social attention, is definitely Sid Vicious. He turns in some tremendous performances; his rendition of Eddie Cochran's Somethin' Else, dressed only in underwear as he constantly rearranges the crown jewels, is superb and it became his first single in a one record stint as a posthumously-released solo artist. Watch in awe, then hilarity, then sheer horror as Sid concludes Swindle with his interpretation of Sinatra's My Way. It's sublime – in a warbled introduction, Sid abuses the audience in a warble, "And now, the end is near, and so I face, the final curtain. You cunt, I'm not a queer"… then, "there were times, I'm sure you knew, when there was fuck, fuck, fuck all else to do. But through it all, when there was doubt, I shot it up! Or kicked it down!" Paul Anka, who wrote the English translation that Frank Sinatra popularised in 1969, said subduedly, "It was curious, but I felt [Sid] was sincere about it". Sid improvised most of the lyrics, simply because he couldn't remember the originals.

To think, I killed a cat… And may I say, not in a gay way!

Director Julien Temple comments what a great noiresque narrator Steve Jones makes in his trench coated, black-hatted travels down London's streets in search of Malcolm McLaren. It's true: his narration, imbued with the Cockney accent that has become so synonymous with punk, is at times hysterical in its mock seriousness, punctuated by the occasional, "what you lookin' at, cunt!?" to a passer-by.

Cook's contribution is limited, and screen time is mostly shared among Sid, Steve and McLaren. Swindle was often seen as a slice of McLaren-fashioned propaganda, with the producer positioning audiences to see the behemoth that was the Pistols as something solely of his creation. It's hard to know from this whether McLaren thought very much of the band he was rearing as the new punk prodigies – as the film pans out, it's pretty clear that Malcolm's agendas were by-and-large financially motivated. McLaren does stress the point that he was the major creative force behind the band, which was criticised heavily. It's far from the full picture we're getting here, so Swindle is one work that's not considered a good point for Pistols beginners.

People often ask me the difference between the Sex Pistols and the Beatles. Soap and water. I was only little when they was going. But I was fuckin' glad when they broke up.

The downer – and it's a big one – is that Temple has trouble keeping it together a lot of the time. He does his best, mostly through McLaren's quasi-interview appearances, to keep things grounded in the narrative: the manager's pure orchestration of this incredible band's rise and fall. The Pistols, Temple's film tries to tell us, were mere puppets of McLaren. But it loses focus frequently, the concert footage (which is terrific) and performing bursts being almost irreversible distracters. There's no real way to alienate this element of the film, so it's a crucial flaw. Though it mightn't wash as a work of cinema, the grimy performances, smack-addled interviews and wanton sex and anti-social violence makes it a classic sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll document.

The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle was released in May 1980, almost two years after it was filmed. By mid-1978, the band had splintered, with Johnny Rotten departing in mid-January, with lots of bad blood against McLaren. McLaren made every attempt to keep the rest of the band together and this film was one such effort, though a definitive split happened soon after sessions for Swindle ended.

The record shows I fucked a bloke… I did it my way!

The soundtrack to Swindle is quite interesting, and definitely the most significant thing the Pistols did aside from Bollocks. Of the 24-track album, most are covers of their own or others' work. It did feature six originals: the title track, the debut of Belsen Was A Gas (many thought this would be their first single should the Pistols reform), Silly Thing, Lonely Boy, No One Is Innocent and Who Killed Bambi?. Of note: L'anarchie Pour Le UK was Anarchy revised by a trio of French street musicians, an orchestral God Save the Queen and a disco medley of four key Pistols tracks by the Black Arabs. Sid Vicious reprised many of these songs, including My Way and Somethin' Else, for his live solo record Sid Sings, released in December 1979.

Edward Tudor-Pole, the frontman of the British punk band Tenpole Tudor, featured in Swindle quite predominantly, with lead vocals on the title track, Who Killed Bambi? and a cover of Rock Around the Clock. He's pretty good too, and by all accounts, Tudor-Pole was being groomed by McLaren as a potential successor to Johnny Rotten. When the band fell apart after filming concluded, Tudor-Pole went his own way and he never entered the Pistols line-up.

Another notable lead vocalist on some Swindle cuts is Ronnie Biggs, at that point a fugitive from justice owing to his participation in the 1963 Great Train Robbery near Buckinghamshire, where 2.6 million quid was stolen in one of the UK's most significant robberies. His lyrics, on No One Is Innocent and Belsen Was A Gas, were recorded in Brazil with Jones and Cook.

The second mate was Andy, by Christ he had a dandy, they crushed his cock on a jagged rock for coming in the brandy!

The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle is an interesting document of one of the pioneering bands of the punk wave that engulfed Britain in the late seventies. Its amalgam of what was actually filmed for the movie, archival footage, performances and cartoon is uneasy, and slots into coherence a touch too late in the film. That said, there's a lot to like here, or at least absorb as a Pistols fan: McLaren's implicit megalomania and the band's hilarious influence on a conservative public baying for the blood of these irresponsible societal antiheroes. Sadly, it's also a work that prophesises Sid Vicious' inextricable downfall in the subsequent months– a drug-addled, Nazi-adoring (he was, at least, fascinated by Nazism, spending most of his time on-screen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a swastika), anti-social, barely-talented musician (but gifted vocalist) with a prominent mean streak was bound for a long, hard fall. And fall he did.

Some trivia: Russ Meyer was originally slated to direct this one, with Roger Ebert writing. They backed down due to creative differences (presumably with the powers-that-be, not each other), and Temple was brought aboard.
Video
Video is presented in 4:3 – it's not very good. Muddy as hell, with lotsa grain and doesn't look much better than a VHS print. It does add something to the aesthetic, though.
Audio
Two tracks – both English, one Dolby 5.1, the other stereo. The 5.1 is very good, and definitely the way to listen to this. No complaints here.
Extra Features
A good pair of features have been included here – an audio commentary by Julien Temple and rock journalist Chris Salewicz, and a 19 minute interview to support it. Both features are revealing insights into the band and the social atmosphere that allowed the Sex Pistols to become successful.

And mark the Swindle cartoon and logo as one of the coolest cover slicks around, un-brutalised by a printed rating sticker.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
For a Sex Pistols fan – and I'm one – this is indispensable. Some of the performances are killer – Johnny Rotten belting out the opening lines to Anarchy in the UK, or God Save the Queen on the Thames during the Jubilee celebrations; Sid Vicious pouring beer over himself during Somethin' Else, and riding a motorbike while determinedly lip-synching C'mon Everybody; or Edward Tudor-Pole dancing with a mop while doing a frenzied and histrionic rendition of Who Killed Bambi… it's gold. How willing you are to ignore Swindle's inadequacies as a film depends entirely on how worthy you think these performances are. It's not worth much as a true account of how the band was operating under McLaren – its veracity comes in how a knowing audience can see through the veneer and observe the manager's overt narcissism and controlling tendencies. Nor is it worth a great deal as a work of cinema - but there are enough gleeful distractions to ignore that.

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