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Ear Candy #2

-by Tom Grozan

‘The Filth And The Fury’

“When you feel powerless you’ll grab any source of power you can to maintain your self respect” -Johnny Rotten

They were together only two years and put out a single album but nobody since the Beatles, roughly a decade earlier, were more influential to British music and culture than the Sex Pistols.  It’s hard to imagine nowadays with the punk aesthetic completely assimilated into pop culture (they’re using the Buzzcocks in Mitsubishi commercials for Christ’s sake!) how revolutionary the Sex Pistols were in 1976. Julian Temple’s brilliant documentary “Sex Pistols: The Filth and the Fury”  restores the weight of that impact to a jaded turn of the century post-punk audience. Temple is a long time Pistols associate who directed the ill-fated Sex Pistols movie “The Great Rock & Roll Swindle”, who’s original title “Who Killed Bambi” was changed by the time the film was finally released in 1980 due the Nancy Spungeon murder and Sid Vicious’ subsequent overdose.

The first thing that hits you in “The Filth and the Fury” is Temple’s masterful use of montage to set the scene and accentuate key story beats. Temple, a music video veteran from the dawn of MTV,  rapidly intercuts vintage news footage, commercials, home movies,  music clips, the wackiest version of Henry the VIII I’ve ever seen, and more without losing any of the emotion or drama of the story. Images of  English tenements, garbage piled ten feet high, and street riots go a long way in establishing the frustration and hopelessness that spawned the Sex Pistols and fueled the Punk movement  in England.

The Sex Pistols were formed by childhood friends Steve Jones (guitar), Paul Cook (drums) and Glen Mattlock (bass) while hanging out in future manager Malcom McClaren’s London boutique SEX, which sold rubber & leather S&M clothing. Johnny Rotten, who also hung out at SEX, was soon recruited as the singer because he had the right look and attitude. One of the most humorous anecdotes of the film details how the newly formed band got its equipment. Steve Jones, by everyone’s account as well as his own admittance,  was a raving kleptomaniac. When David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust farewell tour hit London’s Hammersmith Odeon, Jones propped open a stage door and nicked the gear while the roadies were sleeping.

It’s  these candid and personal reminiscences that give the film it’s emotional center and go a long way towards humanizing individuals (especially Rotten and Vicious) who long ago became punk rock caricatures. Present day interviews with the surviving members are filmed totally in silhouette. It’s an effect which allows a detached perspective while not distracting from the time at hand or diminishing the legend. The accounts given are wonderfully disparaging and contradictory. Bassist Mattlock was fired (and replaced by Rotten’s friend Sid Vicious) for “being a total cunt”.  In describing their first meeting with Vicious’ notorious girlfriend Nancy Spungeon, Steve Jones says “I thought she was a horrible person, I wanted nothing to do with her” while Paul Cook states “When I first saw Nancy, Steve was shagging her in the toilet”.

The most poignant  moment  is when Johnny Rotten breaks down in tears of grief and guilt recounting the fate of Vicious, who he brought into the band and for whom he still feels responsible. It’s a heartbreakingly honest and vulnerable moment for someone who’ public persona is so snidely venomous and uncompromising. You forget just how young Sid Vicious was until you see the footage of him and realize he was just a pimply faced 18 year who got in over his head instead of the icon of punk excess he’s been marketed into.

Like most revolutions the Sex Pistols soon collapsed as their popularity transformed punk into a fashion statement and a fearful status quo lashed back. Rich kids with mohawks and expensive leather jackets began mixing with the working class in ripped t-shirts.  A relentless and unscrupulous British press, hungry to sell papers, hounds the groups every move and fuels controversy. The group is signed and dropped within days from two record companies and banned from virtually every concert venue in England. Eventually internal strife and manipulations from P.T. Barnum-like manager McClaren causes the band to fall apart on their first U.S. tour.

“The Filth and the Fury” is the best rock & roll documentary I’ve ever seen.  It’s artful, entertaining and just a great all around film. For music fans it’s an essential historical document of a band and a movement who’s influence is still being felt today.

Copyright©2000 GrayHaven Magazine and contributors