Filth, Fury, and Fiction: Creating a Mythology in The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle

Curator's Note

Julien Temple’s 1980 film The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle about the rise and fall of The Sex Pistols, is a perfect combination of all the criteria one looks for in a rock ‘n’ roll documentary. “Rock docs” should contain a few key elements. Clearly the rock group’s music should be first and foremost - a representation and sampling of the music the band is attempting to propagate. The Sex Pistols, along with other punk groups of the time, created the film’s high-energy soundtrack. The rock doc should contain live performances from the band to solidify and idealize the experience one will have if they venture out to a gig. If the band is no longer touring, like was the case in this film, the live aspect also serves as either a nostalgic reminder of “how it once was” to those that experienced it or a glimpse into the world that was missed by an unfortunate and miserable few. Lastly, the rock doc should contain some kind of slanted narrative that places the band in a position of influence, popularity, importance, relevance, and/or artistic intention (the film lists ten lessons on manufacturing a group). These ideas can manifest in overt and stylized ways, or can be explored through subtlety (the film straying from the latter). I would describe Swindle, in this regard, as being part Hard Day’s Night (Lester, 1964), part Jubilee (Jarman, 1978). Often the individual band members of rock docs are each given “roles” to play in these narratives – in this case the film specifically liststheir roles as the Collaborator, the Tea-Maker, the Gimmick, the Crook, and the manager, Malcolm McLaren, as the Embezzler. If the audience believes these characters, an emotional response is achieved solidifying an impassioned and personalized fan base. The film unapologetically lets its audience into the fabricated(?) fold. Despite the band’s best efforts of maintaining “punk cred” using chaotic/anarchic and stylized cinematography and editing, even animations and moments of pure art house cinema, the band, along with McLaren as the villain, are elevated to infamous pop icons and remain there to this day.


It is indeed interesting to contemplate THE SEX PISTOLS punk counter-myth ("Yes, the kids ARE f*cked up!") that gets retroactively narrativized in the 80s that would become a WALL STREET generation of greed. These outlaw "train robbers" are subversive antiheroes for a generational subculture of nonconformists, but the mythic formula is telling. "Lastly, the rock doc should contain some kind of slanted narrative that places the band in a position of influence, popularity, importance, relevance, and/or artistic intention"... True, but your concluding contradiction of their canonization into "Punk icons" may betray a not-so-subtle coopting of the prior generation's "Rebel without a cause" mythos of James Dean or Brando. The tragic antiheroes can at once be celebrated for their individualism and criminal cool, all while offering a dire hegemonic warning of the inevitable doom for such rebellious youth-gone-wild. 1969's 'Bonnie & Clyde' is another example of emulating the prior generation's outlaw Western antiheroes even as it never lets us forget that The Man will kill the rebellious misfits by closing credits. Hebdige's book on Punk Style comes to mind as I marvel at how thoroughly punk has become assimilated into mainstream contemporary consumerism. "A film that incriminates its audience"... Hegemony at work, and play.

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