Monday, February 22, 2021

Sex Pistols “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle”


(VIRGIN, 1979)



Never before in the long and illustrious annals of popular music history has a man been handed so much raw talent atop a potentially platinumous platter, at such an opportune time and location, as when Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, fresh from hiring a new frontperson named Johnny Rotten, strolled into London’s cleverly named Sex shoppe circa 8/75 and asked its proprietor, suede-o bohemian entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, if he’d be interested in helping them invent punk rock, revolutionize – or, failing that, destroy – the music business, and earn a million pounds (of dollars) in the process. And never before has a man so swiftly and slyly enacted his master plan and seen it bear fruit in greater abundances than even he, in his wildest Col. Ahmet Loog Epstein fantasies, would have believed possible (within a mere twenty-three months, the Pistols swept from crashing obscure British art college balls to bumping Linda Ronstadt off the hallowed cover of the Rolling Stone)… and Never Before, and hopefully Never Again, has such a superfluity of potential and promise – not to mention profit – been so thoroughly and effectively botched, blundered, and bludgeoned. For, thanks to Malcolm McLaren’s brilliant mismanagement, the Sex Pistols, an act of unlimited wit, fire and socio-musical import, are recalled today as little more than the great rock’n’roll swindle Sid Vicious played in before he set his hotel room on fire, sliced open his girlfriend, and joined Elvis and Kurt in that big cabaret revue in the sky.



Unceremoniously hoofed from the band on the virtual eve of their anti-success for professing admiration toward the wrong people (Paul McCartney) in the wrong place (the pages of Melody Maker) at the wrong time (1976), the Pistols, in one fool swipe, lost not only their most accomplished musician (well, not that that mattered much: after all, his replacement was Mr. Vicious, fresh from the Dee Dee Ramone hunt-and-plonk school of bass playing) but their one true resident songsmith (yes, it was GLEN who cooked up some of the Seventies' catchiest guitar hooks;  ie: "Pretty Vacant" and "God Save Whats'ername"). Relatively unperturbed, Glen took his talents elsewhere (Iggy Pop, plus big Pig faves The Rich Kids) while the new and "improved" Pistols resorted to dismembering old Eddie Cochran tunes and warbling cute li’l ditties about the Holocaust with some Great Train Robber.



In refusing to press enough copies of "Anarchy In The U.K." to allow the Pistols' debut disc to creep any higher than #38 in the British charts, EMI Records actually (though probably unwittingly) helped establish the band at this most crucial stage of their tragically brief career as not only Euro-youth’s latest cause célèbre, but Fleet Street's most potent front-page fodder since Beatlemania itself. Then, with characteristic ineptness, Malcolm trotted his cultural icons elsewhere:  inanely into the open arms of Virgin Records, at the time widely known – and ridiculed – as the graveyard of such synthesized Seventies casualties as Mike "Tubular Balls" Oldfield. Under Virgin's laughably feather-brained wings, the emphasis was quickly placed more on Amusement than Anarchy, and the band was now forced to attack the airwaves with such duds as "Friggin' in the Riggin',” "Rock Around The Clock" and, in a rare display of Virgin forthrighteousness, Some Product. (NB: said discs now populate your local pop shop's delete zone... right alongside Mike Oldfield's).



No doubt experiencing sudden pangs of guilt in the midst of their post-Rumours coke 'n' caviar indulgences, and in nostalgic remembrance of their label's maverick infancy when record contracts were bravely being handed out to the likes of Wild Man Fischer and The Fugs, Warner Bros. decided to test out the new waves of 1977 by arranging a distribution deal with Seymour Stein's legendary Sire label (who in turn had such bright hopes as the Ramones and Talking Heads under contract). However, soon growing discontent with simply marketing Seymour's signings, Warners set out to land a punk act of their very own Stateside, and spent untold amounts of Fleetwood Mac royalties to graft Malcolm's boys to the dotted line in October of '77. No sooner had WB issued Never Mind The Bollocks, here’s John, Paul, Steve and Sid on their very doorstep as it were, about to embark on that ill-fated first, and last, American tour. Now, to say Warner Bros. had absolutely NO IDEA how to handle, let alone capitalize upon, the Pistols' arrival on the U.S. scene is akin to accusing John Lydon of having certain flaws in his personality... to say nothing of his choice of diners (for example, it's been alleged Warners hired former CIA goons to roadie the band's tour). Nevertheless, despite a decade of non-promotion, Bollocks was finally awarded Gold Record status in 1987...  and Warners went on to reap additional billions from Seymour Stein's signings (ie: Madonna).



It's a hitherto closely-guarded secret that 'way back in the Summer of Hate one esteemed Chicago Sun-Times film critic was, by some inSidious twist of faith, hired by Russ “Beyond The Valley Of” Meyer to script the Sex Pistols' eagerly-awaited silver screen debut, Who Killed Bambi?  ("Remember, without me, there wouldn't be any mention of Bambi in this movie," boasted Ebert to Rolling Stain). Yet despite both a healthy budget (courtesy of Warners' film division) and truly inspired casting (Marianne Faithfull as Sid's mother), the movie never made it past the screenplay stage, denying not only the Blank Generation of a Hard Day's Night they could call their own, but theatre-goers the world over a larger-than-life Technipallor dose of charisma Rotten & Vicious-style. Who Killed Bambi appeared years later in wholly bastardized form as The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, Meyer quickly high-tailed it onto the pages of Film Threat magazine …and Marianne Faithfull was, bless her great big heart, recently spotted sipping wine in a Paris hotel lobby with none other than her far-from-broken Englishman Keith Richards. See? Even this screenplay has a happy ending!


6.  THE I.N.S.

At 11:30 PM on the night of December 17, 1977 every North American who still believed rock’n’roll had some spit left in it was tuned to their local NBC-TV affiliate, anxiously awaiting the Sex Pistols' long-rumored appearance on Saturday Night Live: a television event which promised to equal, if not surpass, Elvis and them Fabs' Ed Sullivision barnstorms of decades previous. Alas, it was not to be. For several days before The Great Event That Couldn't, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, lamely citing several Cook and Jones criminal offenses (nothing serious, mind you... just the usual r'n'r roster of B and E's, concealed weapon and assault-with-a-Fender-bass charges) ruthlessly denied both Malcolm and his anti-Beatles permission to enter the Big Apple. That is, until after the comparatively meek and mild Elvis Costello had replaced the Pistols on the SNL in question. Perchance it's simply virtual paranoia running away with me again (excuse me, I think my mouse is tapped...) but this seems to me to be but the first of several high-level attempts to squash the horror known as p-u-n-k-r-o-c-k by the post-Watergate White House. Read on.



Unlike British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who shrewdly rode to Downing Street beneath the coat-tails of four fellow Liverpudlians in 1964, Jimmy Carter was not so willing to embrace the latest pop/rock peculiarities in order to secure a power base amongst his nation's young. Quite to the contrary, at a closed-door pow-wow with the recording industry elite in 1977, the peanut-pruning President reportedly suggested to a gaggle of America's leading radio programmers and promo honchos, in a most sinisterly Agnewesque fashion, that, quote, "Boys, we really don't want this new wave music now, DO WE." As a sorrowful result, the Pistols' stylus-shaking debut LP soon vanished from the airwaves and sales racks of the land, only to be replaced by the safe, sterile, sickly-slick sounds of, amongst far too many others...



This late but wisely little-lamented combo epitomized America's squeaky-clean response to the Pistols’ furor: They looked, and sounded about as menacing as Pat Boone had twenty years before, when he too helped rid the USA of "dangerous new sounds" by musically castrating the likes of "Tutti Frutti." Ironically, it was Pat's dippy daughter Debby whose deceptively darkened "You Light Up My Life" held a 439-week stranglehold atop the Billboard Hot 100 at the very moment such classics as "Bodies" and "I'm A Lazy Sod" languished unheard in some obscure Greenwich Village import bin.



And while America was being force-fed such pablum as "My Best Friend's Girl" and "Heart of Glass” under the guise of New Wave, those Brothers Gibb, designer chest-wigs intact, were busy dominating both the AM and FM dials with their eunuch blend of down-under falsettos and bubbleyum R'n'B. Their glory daze already far behind them, these once-imaginative Aussie chart-toppers pioneered the utterly detestable genre known and loved/loathed to this day as Soundtrack Rock, thanks to such full-length promotional vehicles as Saturday Night Fever and (pause for blanching) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The veritable upchuck of billion-sellers which resulted left precious little room in your home entertainment center for Messrs. Vicious, Rotten, Cook and Jones.


10.  JOHN SIMON RITCHIE, 1957 - 1979

R.I.P(unk):  No Future indeed.

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