The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle at 40
Regardless of how one felt (or feels) about them, the Sex Pistols affected a cultural revolution in music. They were neither the first nor the best punk rock group, but—for a time—they were the biggest. And though hearing their music today it has lost some of its ability to shock, when the band exploded onto the pop culture and music landscape, the Sex Pistols were every bit as outrageous as intended.
Of course the group imploded rather quickly, and the band’s time in the spotlight was comparatively brief. The body of work left behind is somewhat slim as well. Not counting bootlegged and semi-booted items like the Spunk demos and the infamous Chelmsford Top Security Prison gig (no, really), there are really only three albums’ worth of music from the band: the official album Never Mind the Bollocks, the collection of singles released (everywhere but the U.S.) as Flogging a Dead Horse and a soundtrack album, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. And there’s a fair amount of overlap of content among those three.
The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was a film intended to be a kind of documentary of the Sex Pistols’ story, but it was one that very much reflected the perspective of the band’s self-styled Svengali Malcolm McLaren. So one-sided was it that many years later the band made a revisionist documentary of its own, The Filth and the Fury, in hope of setting the record straight. Complicating matters where Swindle was concerned, singer Johnny Rotten (neé Lydon) had left the group while the film was in production, so he’s largely (but not completely) absent. The manner in which his absence is dealt with is problematic, to say the least: the other band members were drafted on vocals, as was an on-the-lam train robber (again, and not for the last time: no, really).
There would be two different versions of the film soundtrack released on vinyl in 1979; the track listing is different for the U.S. and U.K. versions. For the purposes of this retrospective review of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, the original British 2LP version is at hand, so that’s what we’ll discuss.
The album opens with “The God Save the Queen Symphony.” It’s a deliberately over-the-top orchestral reading of the song, with a shamelessly over-emoting McLaren stage-whispering an introduction to the film. He lets listeners know that he invented punk rock, and spins a few other myths. In all, it may have worked on film, but as an album opener, it’s an inauspicious beginning.
With that four-minute track out of the way, the Sex Pistols make their first appearance.
The fact that the Sex Pistols played rock ‘n’ roll classics isn’t unusual, but it was (in a way) at odds with the band’s public persona as cultivated by McLaren. Recall, if you will, the official (and false) story behind the sacking of original bassist Glen Matlock was that he had confessed to a liking of the Beatles. Of course the Pistols had always been steeped in rock and pop; Boyce and Hart’s “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”—originally cut by Paul Revere and the Raiders, and a smash hit for the Monkees—was in the band’s set from early on. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
“Johnny B. Goode” is a studio outtake from 1976, with instrumental overdubs done much later after Rotten was gone. Rotten starts out singing the words, but the end of the first verse, he ad-libs, “I don’t know the words.” From there it’s largely off the rails, though the band pummels on relentlessly, holding it together reasonably well. After admitting, “Oh, fuck, it’s awful. The pits!” Rotten eventually gives up. After Steve Jones peels off a guitar solo, Rotten suggests to the rest of the band that they switch over to the Modern Lovers’ “Road Runner.” In fact he insists. They eventually relent, and then he laughs disarmingly and admits again, “I don’t know the words.” He asks for some help with the lyrics, and gets some. The song limps along competently enough, but in the end it sounds like what it is: a band jamming. Drummer Paul Cook does show that he’s a very solid timekeeper, though. The track ends with Rotten asking his band mates, “Do we know any other fucking songs that we could do?”
If one looks at the inside of the gatefold sleeve, the answer to that question would seem to be a reading of the Small Faces’ “Whatcha Gonna Do About It.” But that’s not what’s on this pressing of the album; a paper sheet slipped inside the jacket provides the actual track listing.
VIDEO: “Black Arabs” – The Sex Pistols
A bizarre and completely left-field track entitled “Black Arabs” is actually a reasonably well-done disco medley of Pistols classics, sort of a punk “Stars on 45.” It has no place on a Sex Pistols album, but for fans of Meco and Giorgio Moroder, it’s pretty vacant inventive. The arrangement does reinforce the argument that a great song stands up to reinterpretation in many styles.
A remixed recording of an outtake version of “Anarchy in the U.K.” closes Side One of the original UK 2LP release. The fidelity is a few notches down from the Never Mind the Bollocks version, and—if you can imagine it—it’s rawer and angrier. Without Chris Spedding’s guitar overdubs, it’s far punkier than the other recording as well.
Side Two opens with a blistering cover of The Who’s “Substitute.” Thanks to overdubs done after the musicians had improved their skills through touring, the instrumental component of the performance is pretty tight. Characteristically, Rotten knows some but not all of the words; he shouts along as best he can. His band mates do what they can to throw in harmony (sic) vocals.
VIDEO: “Substitute” – The Sex Pistols
“No Lip” (also known as “Don’t Give Me No Lip Child”) is a cover of a somewhat obscure 1964 b-side by Dave Berry, one the that era’s British teen idols. The original Stonesy rocker swi7ngs in that peculiarly English r&b style; the Pistols, of course, steamroll right over any nuance. Yet their cover is faithful to the original’s intent.
The same is true—even more so—when the Sex Pistols attack “Stepping Stone.” Jones changes the chords around, and Lydon flails as is his wont, but here he seems to know all of the words. The cavernous production aesthetic isn’t really needed, but the tracks works on all levels. The other band members help out on the “Aye-yi-yi-iy-iy” vocal refrain. Jones overdubs a “solo” of sorts that’s really just a squall of feedback, but it fits nicely in this context.
VIDEO: “Stepping Stone” – The Sex Pistols
Another gratuitous track follows: French street musicians performing a gypsy-flavored “Anarchiè pour le U.K.” As a joke, it works, but three and half minutes of “Anarchiè” is at least three too many.
Continuing on the foreign-language theme, the next track is titled “Einmal war Belsen Vortrefflich.” In English, that’s “Belsen Was a Gas,” one of the Sex Pistols’ most off-color numbers. Featuring Sid Vicious on bass, the live recording dates from the group’s final performance at San Francisco’s Winterland on January 14, 1978. Lyrics aside—which isn’t easy—it’s an exemplar of punk.
In one of the odd soundtrack’s oddest moments, yet another version of “Belsen” follows. This time it’s titled “Einmal war Belsen wirklich Vortrefflich” (“Belsen Vos a Gassa”) and features Ronnie Biggs, notorious as one of the gang who carried out the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Biggs escaped prison in 1965 and was in exile at the time of this recording (and, indeed, until 2001). Jones and Cook traveled to Rio de Janeiro to record the Swindle version of this and one other tune with Biggs. He’s no singer of note, but then one could argue that neither was Rotten in those days. There’s nothing remotely punk about Biggs’ gurgling vocal delivery, though.
Side Three of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle focuses largely on material cut without any involvement by Johnny Rotten. The opening cut is “Silly Thing,” featuring drummer Paul Cook on lead vocal. It doesn’t really sound much at all like the Pistols (well, perhaps a de-fanged version of the band), but it’s a solid enough pop tune, and Cook acquits himself surprisingly well.
One of the few moments of any redeeming value in the Swindle film is a Sid Vicious showcase, a reading of Paul Anka’s “My Way.” The first part of the recording is built upon a lugubrious orchestral arrangement of the schmaltz classic, with Vicious camping his way through the lyrics in a mock-husky voice. After a moment or two of that nonsense, a sort of “orchestral punk” arrangement takes over, and Vicious—who, as a singer, still doesn’t hold a candle to Rotten, Cook or Biggs—is much more in his element. He seems to be parodying himself, and perhaps he is.
VIDEO: “My Way” – Sid Vicious
“I Wanna Be Me” likely comes from the 1976 sessions. It’s surprising that the song wasn’t cut for Never Mind the Bollocks. The band is tight, handling a mid-song full stop with accuracy, and—since it’s a band original—Rotten seems equipped with a full set of lyrics.
Next, Sid Vicious shows that “My Way” notwithstanding, he can sing after a fashion. A cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else” is quite solid. Still, it’s perhaps more than a little unnerving to hear piano trilling along on a Pistols tune. For their trouble the band scored a #3 hit on the U.K. charts; the British have always had a greater appreciation for American classic rock ‘n’ roll than do Americans.
Another guest vocal—this time by Edward Tudor Pole / Ten Pole Tudor—is another cover. This time it’s Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” Tudor can’t sing worth a damn, and try as they might, the Pistols sound a bit tired here.
Steve Jones sings his “Lonely Boy.” Though he’d eventually do better on his solo album Mercy, here his vocals are hopelessly weak. His lyrics aren’t much better, and the rote chord changes are wholly unremarkable.
Ronnie Biggs sings “No One is Innocent,” a tune credited to him, Cook and Jones. Musically it sounds like nothing so much as a rewrite of any number of other Pistols tunes. Biggs’ lyrics (“God save…”) are meant to be funny or clever; they’re neither. The chorus’s unison refrain about Biggs having sold his soul for punk is almost clever.
The fourth side of Swindle opens with another Sid Vicious vocal. Again he’s covering Eddie Cochran; this time it’s “C’mon Everybody.” His lack of vocal ability doesn’t work against him here; in fact it’s an asset, helping to give the already-rocking tune just the right punk edge.
VIDEO: “C’mon Everybody” – Sid Vicious
Another hopelessly strange track is “EMI (Orch),” which is just what it sounds like: a strings-and-tympani reading of the track from Never Mind the Bollocks, with Steve Jones providing a spoken-word recitation of the lyrics. As a recorded performance, it’s totally without value.
The title track from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle is a standard yet catchy enough pop-punk number; it features vocal contributions variously from Vicious, Cook, Jones, Tudor, McLaren and others. It probably worked better in the film than it does on record.
A spirited reading of the drinking song “Good Ship Venus” (retitled here as “Friggin’ in the Riggin’”) is an album highlight. The arrangement attempts to hybridize punk and orchestra music, and on that level it’s reasonably successful. Americans will recognize parts of the melody as “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” With a vocal from Steve Jones, the track was—inexplicably—one of the Sex Pistols’ highest-ever charting singles.
Even against the backdrop of the bizarre selections on Swindle, “You Need Hands” is deeply strange. Malcolm McLaren sings Max Bygraves’ 1958 music hall ditty while an orchestra provides support. Its inclusion seems designed to test the patience of viewers and listeners. If that’s the case, mission accomplished.
The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle concludes with “Who Killed Bambi,” sung by Tudor. It sounds like a tune from a stage musical, albeit one with the worst singer possible. Depending on one’s viewpoint, it’s a perverse or perfect way to end this mess of an album.
Upon release, Swindle charted in the UK, eventually reaching #7 on the album charts and earning a Gold record. Six singles were released from the album, and all made it to the Top 40 in England. Intentionally uneven, confusing and confounding, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle nonetheless remains an essential part of the Sex Pistols’ (uneven, confusing and confounding) legacy.
VIDEO: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle – The Sex Pistols