Sex Pistols: Great Rock n Roll Swindle – album revisited
Great Rock n Roll Swindle
This is one of the oddest albums ever – an artful ‘V’ sign to the establishment, a cynical destruction of a myth, a situationist prank and a mess of musical ideas that didn’t always work as the grand scheme outstripped the music.
Lets get things sorted out from the start- this is not really the Sex Pistols is it?
That’s the righteous Sex Pistols of 1977 with the human maelstrom of Johnny Rotten spitting into the eye of the great British sickness. Nope this is the follow up album to the totemic Never Mind The Bollocks and is a bizarre hotch potch of ideas that feels more like an art student’s scrap book of sketches which is quite apt as that is what it is really is courtesy of an art student amok in the hallowed halls of the establishment, Malcolm Mcclaren.
Does anyone still listen to this record? at the time it was pretty central to the discourse of the post punk fallout- a darkly cynical and amusing take down of pop culture that was somehow indulged by the very people it was meant to be destroying.
The concept was that the Sex Pistols.
was not a band but an idea. Not so much a band, they could be anything- an open ended art concept. Maybe. They were there to destroy the star system but ended up creating its own wart infested stars, the Sex Pistols had apparently come to destroy rock n roll not to celebrate it- the only problem was that they were actually a very good band, a great band, one of the greatest bands ever- this is not something that had been factored into the calculations by the wily manager.
The idea was that they could be any four herberts and that the singer was so anti star that they would destroy everything- the problem was Cook and Jones were brilliant players who rewrote the rule book when it came to the power of rock n roll and that Glen Matlock was a really good song writer and that Johnny Rotten was not quite as Rotten as his name suggested and was a sensitive and also a dangerously free minded cove who was an artist in his own right.
The last attempt to cause the kind of situationist trouble that the band had thrived on in its rush to the top had them touring through the Deep South of the USA. The tour had torn them apart and the on going film project was causing tension and the idea to hook with Ronnie Biggs was all too much for the young singer who quit the band early 1978 leaving McClaren with all the space in the world to indulge in his insane and yet quite brilliantly entertaining ideas.
Part situationist, part music hall traditionalist, part agent provocateur, part dark humorist, part art guerrilla- McClaren took the idea that the Pistols were just an idea to its logical conclusion and celebrated their short history and the end of pop culture in an album that has been generally forgotten but was full of big hit singles at the time.
On some levels it’s a purely trashy work with bizarre yet oddly captivating classical versions of Pistols hits (which only served to underline the melodic power of the band, underlining just how good those songs were) naff disco versions of Pistols hits with amusing live recordings of the band and Rotten sneering at Route 66 and forgetting all the words to Roadrunner- destroying rock n roll in the grimy cellars of mid seventies London.
There is no narrative to the record, it’s very hotch potch nature it part of its assault on the senses- of course it’s a film sound track so its out of sync without watching the film itself. There are the attempts to make Sid into the ultimate rock n roll star he always knew that he was and these really work. My Way is a genius deconstruction of the classic song and the songwriters favourite version. As Sid croaks and croons through the song he sounds like he can’t decide if he wants to be serious or not but ends up with the loudest and most swaggering suicide note in history. His take downs of Something Else and CMon Everybody prove that he was one hundred per cent natural star material with a goofy celebration of the two rock n roll classic that add to their raw power.
Cook n Jones are on fire on the record- great players, they are all over the album’s best tracks- Silly Thing is a poignant and powerful song and an ode to the fucked up bass player- Sid who was seriously lost already, Great Rock N Roll Swindle is full of the muscular Pistolian power of the Jones guitars and that incessant bass drum of Paul Cook- their signature power in place, A Punk Prayer/No One Is Innocent is a great song if you swerve the dodgy lyrics and whatever you think of the great train robber concept, whist Lonely Boy is New York Dolls style R n R swagger.
The rest of the album is sketchy ditties and half thought out in jokes- it never destroyed rock n roll, it never did anything really apart from leave loads of question marks all over the place but maybe that was the plan by McClaren- the arch prankster who insanely was allowed to indulge his fevered imagination by the major labels he had come to destroy.
The concept is, of course, brilliant, the music patchy and the concept confusing but somewhere in all that mess of creative brilliance there are some brilliant moments that help to hold together whatever this album was meant to be.
Ironically it stands the test of time as more piece of patchy rock n roll than a swindle and as the home of saint Sid’s My Way than as the situationist masterpiece it nearly was.