Johnny Rotten gets it completely right when he says, “It ended at exactly the right time for all the wrong reasons.” One of the most inarguable statements in the history of music.
There are three films about punk bands that I feel stand apart in that genre:
I know some may question including the Ramones. Were they really punk? For the most part I believe so, it’s just that they did not have the same impact as the Sex Pistols on a societal level. They were the progenitors of the Clash and The Sex Pistols (the whole punk movement, for that matter), but yet, the Ramones were also really just a rock band in love with the simplicity of 60s rock.
Of the three films I mentioned, I feel that far and away the best one is The Filth and the Fury. The other films are excellent (and I’ll review them later) but there is something to be said for what the Sex Pistols accomplished in their all too brief career. As the saying goes, “a candle that burns twice as bright burns twice as fast.” That coupled with the fact that their manager, Malcolm McLaren, was a complete twat, sealed their fate prematurely – I mean, McLaren has to go down as one of the most unequaled ego centric pieces of crap in the history of music, and that is saying something. Sure, without him there would never have been a Sex Pistols, but with him there definitely wasn’t going to be one for long.
It would have been great to find out what this band could have become, as there is a lot hidden in their music – it just seems to get better as the years go on. And, having it contextually framed in this film only adds to its irresistibility…so dissonant and powerful. It is hard to believe, upon hearing the opening barrage of a song, that what follows could have come from such a cacophonous beginning - they were a sonically devastating band. Sadly, they had two things working against them. McLaren divided and conquered them. Nancy Spugeon just outright destroyed one of them. If there is ever a contest for worst rock and roll girl friend of all time, it has to be her. Just goes to show how powerful a drug heroin is. I would have needed a life ending dose of heroin just to spend five minutes with her – I could have used some during her time in the film. I cringe just thinking of her. She makes Courtney Love look dignified and cultured.
Within The Filth and the Fury, one can witness the birth of punk, rising from the dystopia that was England in the 70s. The English were deluding themselves that they were now anything other than a footnote it history. Their empire was long dead and the country was falling apart. There were no jobs and the place was beginning to look like and invisible and silent enemy was bombing the shit out of it when no one was looking.
The timing of the arrival of the Sex Pistols couldn’t have been better, or more necessary. The people of England had become mindless zombies reluctant to let go of the past. Music was bloated, hair was big and the clothing, generic. The back lash against bands like Pink Floyd, by the Sex Pistols, is unwarranted I think. It was not actually covered in this film, but Johnny Rotten was known for wearing a, “I Hate Pink Floyd,” t-shirt. It was probably cool to hate them because they were so successful. If the punks had actually bothered to listen to the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s 70s albums, they would have found that they were very much aligned with the dissatisfaction they were feeling. It was the rest of the crappy prog rock that needed to go, right ELP?
It is really driven home in this film that the people of England were completely oblivious to how bad things had become in their country during the 70s. No matter how bad things got, there was still the completely inexplicable reverence for her royal highness. The English should have been outraged at the decadence on display by the royals. Watching people decorating their houses for the Queens upcoming jubilee is the height of obtuse behaviour in this film. When the Sex Pistols decide to crash the Queens party, with amps in tow, it is truly a moment for the ages. What the Queen loving yobs didn’t understand was that God Save the Queen was written on their behalf. The Sex Pistols were championing the working glass (I mean, class). For his troubles, Johnny Rotten was almost beaten to death. I’ll let him tell the story as it is truly horrifying.
Slowly, some of the youth began to realize that something was truly wrong with their society. There was no hope for any of them. No jobs, no future, nothing – sounds like a song, doesn’t it. The lyrics of the Sex Pistols completely underlined what was going on around them. These were not mindless lyrics of hate, they were a documentation of surroundings that had gone to shit and I honestly believe, at least in the case of Johnny Rotten, that it was meant as a public service announcement – stop watching On the Buses and wake the fuck up!
One has to be made aware, to really get what the Sex Pistols were about, that in England, one’s accent can really limit, or completely negate, opportunity. If you are born in the wrong place, with the wrong accent, you may as well forget hoping to advance your life, no matter how smart you are. You were told from the moment you were born that you are shit. The fact that some of these kids stood up and decided that they had had enough is truly admirable. This was the only way to get people to listen – to make them horribly uncomfortable and question where this perceived ugliness was coming from.
The back story of the band is fascinating. There are some golden moments in the documentary, like when you find out who they stole their equipment from so that they could play their first gigs. Overall the film does an excellent job of telling their story as it is essentially left to the surviving band members who are filmed, appropriately, only in shadow.
Special mention must be given to Johnny Rotten. When Johnny is interviewed he comes off as an extremely intelligent and thoughtful man. He goes into great detail explaining what was going on in England at the time – the classism, racism, unemployment and overall dis-satisfaction with the status-quo. The sad thing, and you can hear it in his voice, is how he feels about what came to pass as a result of the Sex Pistols – it was never what he envision from his music. He did not want to be copied, he was trying to empower people to do their own thing, not to be a mirror of him. He was greatly saddened to see something as one-off as him wearing a garbage bag, if reference to the years long garbage strike that resulted in ten foot high piles of garbage in the street, becoming fashionable. There was no punk uniform to him. He was merely making a statement, others turned it into fashion. Punk got a look and from there it started to lose credibility. He fondly recalls their early gigs when he felt the truly individual characters, who actually got it, made it all seem worthwhile, like they were reaching someone with their message.
This is a very clever film that uses some unique story telling devices. Can’t recommend it highly enough. It is truly one of the greatest documentaries ever made about a band.