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[whitespace] Sex Pistols Holiday in the Sun: In the late '70s, the Sex Pistols caught the fancy and endured the wrath of a fractured society.

God Save the Pistols

Julien Temple evokes the anarchistic joy that was the Sex Pistols in 'The Filth and the Fury'

By Richard von Busack

THE SPECULATIVE-FICTION writer Philip K. Dick used to tell an anecdote about a parrot that was trained to say, "Here, kitty, kitty." The soon-to-be-dead parrot in that tale sums up how the Sex Pistols are usually described. Most observers say they were innocents hoisted like a lightning rod by their manager, Malcolm McLaren, and that they never knew what hit them.

The brilliant documentary The Filth and the Fury, by England's Julien Temple, clears up the history of one of the few truly distinctive rock bands of the 20th century. This story of the three-year-long rise and crash of the Sex Pistols, from 1975 to 1978, exposes how much the raw, profane band members thought and fought for themselves. Their ideas were adopted by bands worldwide, from the haircuts and ripped clothing to the brazen sound and distaste for he-loves-she-loves pop music. This documentary provides the most unsentimental reconstruction of a social explosion I've ever seen.

Temple cleverly frames the band members today as if they were speaking from a witness-protection program. He backlights them, keeping their faces shadowed. Even while we hear John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon, we don't see him, a tactic that keeps the old Sex Pistols footage pungent and immediate. Of course, Lydon's probably changed little--God knows no one can claim the man's become embittered with time.

In a few images, Temple evokes the England of 1977. Unemployment was high, and racial strife was breaking out. On-again, off-again garbage strikes kept the London streets piled high with rotting trash. A panoramic view of Leicester Square buried under bursting plastic bags makes sense of the garbage imagery in the Sex Pistols' lyrics.

Lydon was signed as a singer by the larval Sex Pistols, a group that consisted of fellow scruffs from Shepherds Bush, London. The members included glam-band-loving Glen Matlock, ex-thief Steve Jones and amateur boxer Peter Cook. Lydon's hiring is as fine an example of stunt casting as the history of rock music offers.

Lydon was undersized after a year in a meningitis coma as a child. He was hunched with scoliosis and bulging-eyed from a thyroid condition. And his teeth ... well, he was a Cockney. He wore ripped-up, safety-pinned clothes because he had no money. A sinus condition made him hawk and spit on stage. (Soon even that gesture was picked up by imitators.)

THE SEX PISTOLS were given some introductory hype and a rehearsal space by McLaren, a London boutique owner and Muzak maker with delusions of being Andy Warhol. (Until a court decision in 1987, McLaren owned the Sex Pistols' music.)

Bassist Sid Vicious, born John Ritchie, came on board as the last addition to the group, a fan who tried to out-Rotten Rotten. Sid, who got his nom de punque from a hamster, practiced self-mutilation on stage, a gimmick borrowed from rocker Iggy Pop. Too late for Sid's ears, Pop wrote a song called "Take Care of Me," with the line "A heavy price for a heavy pose."

As the world knows, Sid got involved with heroin, which Lydon calls "the only drug that cancels out all forms of creativity ... the drug of self-pity." A bad American tour climaxed in a disastrous San Francisco show. Lydon, unable to hear the band because he was denied a sound check, walks off stage shouting, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Good night."

The Pistols disbanded. After a heroin jag, Sid murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen--an infamous event that formed the basis for Alex Cox's somewhat sweetened film Sid and Nancy. In the popular imagination, Vicious is the ghost that haunts the Sex Pistols, putting the seal on their negativity, proving their lethalness.

It's surprising then that The Filth and the Fury is a weirdly joyous film. Temple's documentary travels past Vicious' self-inflicted tragedy back to the rock & roll animalism that made the Sex Pistols exciting. Take a listen: "Pretty Vacant," "No Feelings" and "Holidays in the Sun" are grossly enthusiastic songs. They cheer social decay, as if decay were a football game.

Temple shows the playful side of the Sex Pistols while Lydon provides some context. The band loved Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls (not to mention the Ramones, since, in fact, Temple doesn't mention them). At this point, Lydon thinks of the Sex Pistols as part of a much larger tradition than just rock. "We were a music-hall act," Lydon says, and immediately Temple cuts from the Pistols' extravagant onstage craziness to clips of such broad, grotesque comedians as Benny Hill and Ken Dodd.

Temple also appropriates scenes from Laurence Olivier's film of Richard III into this historical collage of interviews and old footage. It's an inspired choice--and not just because of the obvious line (and Temple couldn't resist it) "Why dost thou spit at me?" The Filth and the Fury makes a perfect visual match between the bad-postured Lydon and Shakespeare's well-spoken hunchback: "But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking glass ... since I cannot prove a lover ... I am determined to prove a villain, and hate the idle pleasures of these days."

Lydon proved it, all right, becoming the most demonized man in England. Temple includes a clip of a local politician named Bryan Trueman calling the Sex Pistols "a bigger threat to life than Russian communism." Shops were fined for displaying Sex Pistols T-shirts.

The British gutter press went after them like rabid pit bulls--the title of the documentary comes from one typical tabloid headline. Lydon and his bandmates were attacked on the streets. It didn't help matters that Sid Vicious used to wear a swastika T-shirt for shock purposes--or something. (The shirt was a creative bit of haberdashery designed by McLaren, a pretty good indication of his level of humor.)

Lydon tells a story of being slashed in an alley with a machete and then being arrested "for suspicion of causing a fray" when he staggered into the hospital for stitches. The release of "God Save the Queen" proved to be the band's greatest insult. The single was a modest protest against the queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, a tourist photo op--"For tourists are money," goes the verse.

The Filth and the Fury shows a startling image that encapsulates the era: a photo of the British Top of the Pops list with a blank space at the No. 1 spot, where "God Save the Queen" would have been if it hadn't been banned. I've always loved that photo; one rarely sees such a clear, compact view of a repressive society caught with its pants down.

MOST OF THE CONCERT footage in The Filth and the Fury proves that the Sex Pistols were more than just the temporary madness of the crowd. The minimalist guitar licks that intro "Pretty Vacant" and "Liar" still raise the old goose bumps. Some of the performances, however, are roundly awful. The Pistols were terrible improvisers, and they massacre Jonathan Richman's "Road Runner" and the Who's "Substitute."

The Sex Pistols' expressiveness overcame their lack of musical talent--just as their apolitical, nihilist streak didn't negate their protest. Not every band that loved the Sex Pistols was as musically limited, and not everybody stirred to action by the Sex Pistols was as politically ignorant.

Lydon remembers the best show the Sex Pistols ever mounted: a benefit for laid-off firemen in the city of Huddersfield on Christmas 1977. The most infamous band in England, forbidden to play in almost every city in the U.K., was entertaining at an all-ages show. The concert was a melee of flying cake, soda fights and delighted children. "It was like our Christmas party," Lydon says.

Nearly 20 years ago, Temple made a documentary about the Sex Pistols titled The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. This new film reuses some animation from that previous work, which was never officially released here. The Great Rock 'n' and Roll Swindle focused on the Sex Pistols' attitude; The Filth and the Fury is about their pasts, their personalities, their ambitions and their sorrows.

The Filth and the Fury doesn't make you regret ever having been a Sex Pistols fan, and that's the highest praise I can give a documentary about them. Now that their shock value has been surpassed a hundred fold in rock, rap and hip-hop, what can the Sex Pistols give to an audience in 2000? Optimism, which is the last legacy anyone would have expected from the Sex Pistols. The Filth and the Fury brings good news. It tells of the sweet artistic revenge that a small group of downtrodden rejects can wreak, whenever the time and the tide are right.


The Filth and the Fury (R; 108 min.), a documentary by Julian Temple, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the May 4-10, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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