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The Untold Story Behind The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle

by Richard Luck
12 April 2014 7 Comments

What really happened behind the scenes of the Sex Pistols' movie? McLaren and Lydon reveal all...

sexpistols

The people who were spitting mad on the set of The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle…

John Lydon (The Collaborator): Alias self-styled prince of punk Johnny Rotten. Quit the Pistols to form the equally important PiL. Had left the group by the time The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle was released and appears only in archive footage. Currently divides his time between property developing and selling butter to bovine Britain.

Malcolm McLaren (The Embezzler): Fine arts graduate and punk pioneer. Ran the infamous Sex boutique with Vivienne Westwood before going on to manage the Pistols, Bow Wow Wow and an early incarnation of Adam And The Ants. Seriously thought that Double Dutch (aka skipping) would become an Olympic sport after he recorded a song about it. Died in 2010 with his dream unrealised.

Paul Cook (The Teamaker): Worked in a brewery before joining the Pistols. A recovering alcoholic, he still drums occasionally.

Steve Jones (The Crook): The Pistols’ guitarist now lives in Los Angeles, producing bands, playing football and presenting a popular radio show.

Sid Vicious (The Gimmick): Glen Matlock’s replacement, Vicious was recruited after bicycle-chaining Nick Kent. Charged with the murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen in October 1978. Died of a heroin overdose on 2 February 1979.

Julien Temple (director): Filmmaker and massive Pistols fans. Hired to make The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle when Russ Meyer quit the picture. Used Pistols cache to establish himself as a music video director, working with Bowie and the Rolling Stones. Single-handedly failed to reinvent the British pop movie with Absolute Beginners. Latest rock doc Oil City Confidential is one of the finest films of the 21st century.

Russ Meyer (first-choice director): Vastly over-rated, bosom-addicted filmmaker.

Jeremy Thomas (producer): British financier and regular Nic Roeg collaborator (Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance). Also financed Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, The Sheltering Sky and the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor.

Glen Matlock: Pistols’ original bassist. Kicked out of the band for claiming to like The Beatles.

Nick Kent: Acclaimed music journalist.

Don Letts: British reggae artist, experimental filmmaker and founder member of Big Audio Dynamite.

Bob Gruen: New York photographer.

John Varnom: Erstwhile head of Virgin Records.

Chrissie Hynde: Lead singer of The Pretenders.

Dave Ruffy: Founder member of The Ruts.

Jonathan Ross: Gaudy TV presenter and incredibly strange film fan.

Alex Cox: Director of Pistols biopic Sid And Nancy and cult masterpiece Repo Man. Host of the much-missed Moviedrome.

***

Paul Cook: The film was Malcolm’s idea.

Malcolm McLaren: If you have four rock stars who can’t play, why not make a film with four actors who can’t act?

Jeremy Thomas: In August 1977 I was approached by 20th Century Fox Productions to meet Malcolm McLaren with a view to co-producing a film starring the Sex Pistols to be directed by Russ Meyer entitled Anarchy In The UK. The idea appealed to me because I thought the film could break new ground in the cinema. The combination of Russ Meyer, known for his bombastic sex thrillers, and the Sex Pistols was obviously a fascinating proposition.

Jonathan Ross: Meyer collaborated with film critic Roger Ebert on a script and in the summer of 1978, flew to London to begin work on Who Killed Bambi? as the project was then known.

Jeremy Thomas: The project had to be aborted because of the inability of Russ Meyer and myself to have any communication with John Lydon and John Beverly [Sid Vicious], who eventually became extremely aggressive.

Russ Meyer: I got the feeling that Lydon and Vicious were dangerous people.

John Lydon: Meyer was just going to turn it into a tits-and-arse movie. I didn’t want to be a part of his regime.

Julien Temple: John seemed to think that Meyer was an ‘American fascist’ who didn’t understand the whole punk scene.

John Lydon: After I met Russ Meyer, I felt really shabby about the whole thing. I hated him from the first moment I saw him – an overbearing, senile old git. My original choice as director was Graham Chapman from Monty Python but he behaved gloriously badly to Malcolm. That put the mockers on that.

Jonathan Ross: Meyer managed to complete just four days of filming with the Pistols.

Russ Meyer: It was a very depressing experience.

Malcolm McLaren: “If you have four rock stars who can’t play, why not make a film with four actors who can’t act?”

Alex Cox: McLaren dumped Russ Meyer, an established director of over 20 pictures, and hired Julien Temple, a 23-year-old whose only real qualification for the job was that he’d gone to a lot of Pistols concerts.

Julien Temple: When I saw them play, it was clear to me that I should stop what I was doing and find a way of working with the Pistols. I was shocked with how relevant they were.

Alex Cox: I think Malcolm McLaren hired Julien because he thought he was just some kid he could push around.

Julien Temple: I was initially attracted by their ferocity and the originality of the Pistols. Not as musicians but as a band, an attitude. When the Pistols played Leeds in 1976, all the kids in the audience felt that they had to wear safety pins, tear their clothes and spit at the band. I still remember that amazing image. When Rotten finally came out of stage, it was like Agincourt. There were these massed volleys of gob flying through the air that just hung on John like a Medusa. It was like green hair or snakes.

Alex Cox: Julien actually did a pretty good job, particularly when you consider that he was hired after the project was underway. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had a lot of say-so about what did and didn’t make it into the film. But it’s not the worst film ever made about the music industry.

Paul Cook: Initially the group was keen, but as it dragged on we became progressively less keen. John was into it at the beginning but then after a while he decided he didn’t want to have anything to do with the movie. John was a moaner.

Julien Temple: John Lydon was initially enthusiastic about the idea of the film in the broad sense and was also keen to make a film about the group. But you have to know what John is like. He has a strange way of expressing enthusiasm for a project. He was never really openly keen on anything, or if he was, an outsider would not be able to appreciate it from his behaviour. For example, he might be extremely abusive about something, yet this was his own way of being enthusiastic.

Malcolm McLaren: Everything about the film had to be big. The band, the story, me – big.

Julien Temple: Our intention was to blow Malcolm out of proportion. We wanted to make it seem obscene how much he was boasting and lying. The purpose was to annoy people, those trendy liberals who thought of Johnny Rotten as a saint amongst men. That’s not meant to be a put-down of Rotten – it’s also a put-down of McLaren. If you exaggerate something it will burst on its own in the end.

John Lydon: Malcolm had no qualms about spending on that movie. Hundreds of thousands of our pounds went into that. He thought doing a movie was the most novel thing we could have done. Malcolm was in love with the idea because it was his idea, if not quite his money.

Paul Cook: I don’t know what happened between John and Malcolm regarding the trip to Rio. But John didn’t want to go.

Malcolm McLaren: The crunch came when we decided to go to Brazil to film with Ronnie Biggs. John thought it was a cheap publicity stunt and I thought cheapness is great.

John Lydon: I thought it was a pretty shitty idea to support an ageing tosspot robber like Ronald Biggs. I couldn’t condone the idea of going down and celebrating someone who took part in a robbery that resulted in the bludgeoning of a train driver into brain-dead senility and the theft of what was basically working-class money – it was payroll from a mail train. Biggs never did any of the planning. His claim to fame was that he busted out of jail and escaped to Rio.

Malcolm McLaren: Ronnie isn’t really a great train robber. He robbed one train and got caught. Not a very impressive CV.

John Varnom: I thought the Biggs project a splendid idea and in keeping with the Sex Pistols’ exciting image: seditious, good fun and humorous.

John Lydon: It wasn’t joyful or witty or funny. It seemed dour, malicious and grim. Another stupid idea Malcolm had was to ring up Charles Manson. What a great idea! Somehow he was going to take part in the film, or worse, produce the next record from prison. That was Malcolm’s silliness.

Julie Temple: It was a major problem working around John’s non-participation in the sense that there were two primal energies, John and Malcolm. When we made the film, John had already broken with Malcolm and would have nothing to do with the film, so I tried to represent John in terms of him performing the songs and keep him as an important element.

John Lydon: “Meyer was just going to turn it into a tits-and-arse movie. I didn’t want to be a part of his regime.”

Paul Cook: Steve was much more involved in the film that I was. And John was hardly involved at all.

John Lydon: Malcolm auditioned for other Johnny Rottens. They conducted the auditions at the Astoria in Finsbury Park – a real insult because the place is directly opposite where I lived all my life. Friends of mine went down there and tried out for the part. Even my little brother Martin went over. They were trying to get the Pistols going again but with a replacement for me. Malcolm desperately wanted to continue the Pistols but he couldn’t. I know who won the audition – a wanker called Ten Pole Tudor.

Paul Cook: I am quite awful in The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle. But no more awful than Steve, Malcolm or any of the other non-actors.

Julien Temple: I don’t think pop stars make for the world’s greatest actors. I don’t think being a good musician makes you a good actor in any shape or form. I think there are exceptions. I think Mick Jagger’s great in Performance but he’s playing himself. I think David Bowie’s at his best in The Man Who Fell To Earth where he’s playing some weird version of himself. For the most part, though, I think singing and acting ought to exclusive.

Malcolm McLaren: Lydon didn’t want to be an actor. He wanted a successful rock ‘n’ roll career and he could never have that with Vicious. On stage in America, he’d look at Vicious and say to the audience ‘How I can I play with scum like this?’

Nick Kent: Sid Vicious managed to foul up everything he got involved with.

Malcolm McLaren: Sid didn’t want to sing a Sinatra song because he only wanted to sound like The Ramones. I had to threaten to send him home before he’d do it.

Julien Temple: When we did ‘My Way’ in Paris, I would go to the studio every night and come back to report to Malcolm that the guy didn’t want to do the song. Sid would spend all the time in the studio trying to learn the bass. We would have to come back and tell Malcolm we had wasted another night’s money. Malcolm grew tired of it. He picked up the phone and started screaming at Sid about what a useless junkie he was and so on. Meanwhile, Sid had given the phone over to Nancy and while that was going on, suddenly the door of Malcolm’s hotel room flew off its hinges. Sid crashed into the room wearing his swastika underpants and motorbike boots. He dragged Malcolm out of bed and started hitting him. Then Sid chased a naked Malcolm down the corridor intent on beating the shit out of him.

Don Letts: I saw both Sid and Nancy just before they went to America. I had them come to this office to sign a release. Sid had this knife with a blade six inches long. He was sticking Nancy with this knife, but not really deep. She was saying ‘Stop it, stop it!’ Not long after, all that shit happened.

John Lydon: Nancy Spungen was stabbed to death in New York with a hunting knife in October 1978. I was furious with Sid – but not so much when I found out he was up for murder inside Ryker’s Island. I still think he was incapable of such a thing.

Malcolm McLaren: Sid probably did it but you can’t tell. They were always messing around with knives and it was only a little wound. If they’d been healthy and not out to lunch, she’d have survived.

Bob Gruen: I still don’t believe he did it. He was a wimp. He wasn’t vicious – it may have been his name but it wasn’t his nature.

Chrissie Hynde: To tell you the truth at the time it wouldn’t have surprised me if he or anyone killed her, she was that obnoxious. When she started up with that incessant whining she was more than the human mind could bear.

Nick Kent: In December 1978, Vicious [while on bail] lewdly propositioned the girlfriend of Tod Smith, Patti Smith’s brother. Smith had reprimanded him only to have Vicious smash a broken bottle into his face. Smith pressed charges and Vicious was back in Ryker’s. He was released two months later on 2 February 1979. Arriving at a celebratory bash he injected some heroin his mother had brought for him. He immediately blacked out but he came to. Later the same evening, he found another packet of heroin.

Malcolm McLaren: “Everything about the film had to be big. The band, the story, me – big.”

John Lydon: Sid died on Groundhog Day.

Malcolm McLaren: He was a great voice and persona and was well liked by the kids. He could have been an enormous star.

Julien Temple: The most wonderful memory I have of Sid was as a member of the audience, before he joined the band. I remember seeing him at a Clash gig. These drunk guys were hurling beer glasses at the band. Out from behind the stage came this figure, Sid. Suddenly, he ran as fast as he could from behind the drums, jumped from the stage, flew through the air and landed in the audience on top of these guys, flailing away. You knew Sid was going to get beaten to shit. But he didn’t care. That was his strength.

John Lydon: I still think of Sid. The whole thing was awful for him. There’s no point. He died, and that’s the end. I wish he was around but only the way he was originally. All that self-destruction was just too much.

Julien Temple: The idea at the end of the film was to show that the group didn’t break up so much as they exploded all over the world.

Steve Jones: When the film was finished, Cook and I got caught up in the middle of the court battle between John and McLaren.

John Lydon: My claims were that the management had not properly accounted to us for the money it had collected on the group’s behalf. Malcolm countersued claiming that I breached the agreement by, amongst other things, not participating in Malcolm’s film. Malcolm tried to take the name Rotten from me. I was legally obliged not to use it for one or two years.

Julien Temple: Malcolm made a lot mistakes in the way he handled John. He lied to him and put him down too much. John needed someone who wouldn’t cut the ground from beneath him. John understands that if people love you they have control over you because they can say they don’t love you and destroy you. But if they hate you and you hate them in return, then you’re freer.

John Varnom: To me, it looks as if Lydon’s relationship with McLaren ended because of unrequited homosexual affection.

Malcolm McLaren: Julien did the best he could with the film and made it like A Hard Day’s Night. Instead of my story, there’s a psychedelic set of images.

Julien Temple: I eventually became disillusioned by the hypocrisy and the lying that went on. Malcolm wanted to take over the film and felt he should have all the credit. By the end stage of the film, it was imploding. Malcolm had the feeling that the band was kind of irrelevant and conventional and it was him that was responsible for all the brouhaha. He was seduced by that vision of himself in the film.

John Lydon: Malcolm wanted everyone to believe that he was the instigator behind the Pistols, but if anything is to be believed, he was the destroyer of it. It went very well on its own until he decided that he was going to run the show. That’s when it became ridiculous and mean-spirited. Santa Claus turned into Staling.

Julien Temple: I know that both Malcolm and John have firm ideas about what happened. Of both points of view, I think there was more honesty from John in the end. The bitterness John feels is based on the out-of-control manipulation of the band.

John Lydon: By 16 January 1986, after a full eight years of legal pie fighting, affidavits and depositions, the band’s settlement gave it custody of the Sex Pistols’ legacy. To this day, all Sex Pistols revenue belongs solely to the band.

Steve Jones: After all the excitement of the Pistols was over, I was left with a massive hole inside me. I had to fill it one way or another. I just happened to run into heroin and it helped me survive a few years until even that stopped working.

John Lydon: Some 12 years later, when I finally got to Rio with PiL, Ronnie Biggs wanted to come to one of the gigs. He left a message for me at the hotel saying Malcolm owed him some money and could he collect it from me. It had something to do with royalties from the record they did together. Malcolm even stiffed the great train robber.

Julien Temple: The film was interested document of contradiction. We tried to look at different sides of the story as gloriously unstable. The idea was to tell lies and play with myths and cause them to explode. The Sex Pistols were about placing a charge inside your head and question what you thought about the world. By blowing it up, you were forced to think about the fragments and what it meant.

Bob Gruen: “I still don’t believe he did it. He was a wimp. He wasn’t vicious – it may have been his name but it wasn’t his nature.”

John Lydon: The opening sequence’s a quality act – the burning of the effigy of Johnny Rotten was excellent. I thought, ‘Malcolm’s come up with a stroke of real class here.’ But luckily it didn’t last. From there on in, the movie’s just rubbish.

Julien Temple: I think The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle is a pretty vivid document of the time. It was bout Malcolm’s whole manipulation of things and about how something as pure as punk could get fucked up in many ways.

John Lydon: Punks didn’t have the mentality to suss it out. It was pure media, walking all over them.

Malcolm McLaren: We were giving the fans what they wanted – but with a lot of cheek.

Glen Matlock: The film is tripe and a complete fabrication. Steve should be ashamed that he played that Philip Marlowe type of detective as he made himself a part of Malcolm’s deception.

Don Letts: I remember seeing a screening of The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle. My heart really went out to John when I saw the images of him playing to the American crowds. I felt strong emotions seeing my mate in front of all those people – this thing coming to a halt in such a devastating way, leaving people dead and all that shit.

Dave Ruffy: I remember watching The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle at the Danceteria on my first trip to New York. It was this crap film and everybody was trying to analyse it. I thought it was just pretentious bollocks – everybody looking for the mystery of the great god Punk.

Paul Cook: The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle is an alright film. It’s better than Spiceworld.

Malcolm McLaren: You win some and you lose some.

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Juzzy Jenkins 2:54 pm, 16-Sep-2010

I love the Swindle. I'd rather listen to the soundtrack than Bollocks these days.

joe cookes tache 8:49 pm, 17-Sep-2010

"better than spice world"! Brilliant,thanks.

aka 1:37 pm, 29-Sep-2010

Great article with loads of insight of the times.

davis 5:29 pm, 12-Apr-2013

Used to love this film as a teenager, saw it again on dvd, not as funny or fascinating as I remember it at all...

Stan Dalglish 8:32 am, 13-Apr-2013

MM sums it all up in the last line.

Steve 5:16 pm, 23-Dec-2013

Very interesting

Jools 12:56 pm, 13-Apr-2014

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

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