The Sex Pistols were one of the most notorious and influential bands of the 1970’s punk movement. Widely known for their blatant disregard for traditional society and obscene antics, they are generally considered to be an embodiment of the anti-conformist and the voice of the socially repressed. Although they only released a single album, Never Mind the Bollocks, their influence over the rock and roll music scene and the message of individuality continues to reverberate through to the present day. Julien Temple’s documentary The Filth and The Fury tells the story of the generation of the Sex Pistols from the mouths of the surviving members themselves.
Temple’s film opens by setting stage for social discontent in the late 1970’s London. We are introduced to a state of social upheaval and chaos in which the working class was fed up. The ruling Labor Party failed to provide for the working class and unemployment was on the rise, thus leading to discontent with riots and strikes on the rise. The lack of control that the working class held over its destiny was exhibited in this social strife. They felt that they were powerless and the only way to retain any semblance of self-respect was to grab on to any power they could get. As Johnny Rotten states, “The socially repressed man is sad because he is misinformed, misused, and misled”. There was no room for social mobility and therefore one had to be born into money to have money. It is in this historical context and out of this chaos that the Sex Pistols were born.
We only see the members of the Sex Pistols in clips and videos of their formative years. Interviews of the surviving members shadow their faces and only their voices narrate their story. Its purpose is to preserve the image of the band members as a generation of dispossessed youth. Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, and Paul Cook all grew up around the corner from each other in similar working class conditions. Later, due to internal conflict between Glen and Johnny, Matlock was replaced by the infamous Sid Vicious. Interestingly enough, Steve Jones was a kleptomaniac, an inherited habit from his own parents, and he stole all of the Sex Pistols’ equipment. Growing up, Rotten says that he had felt that his education was useless in that it taught him to accept his lot in life and he was basically told that he had no future. Together, the boys bonded on the mutual feeling that they were “wounded people”. Although they couldn’t play their instruments and Johnny Rotten couldn’t sing, they abandoned all the rules of music which gave the impression that anyone could do what they did. In their shows, they created new environments in which each audience member was a unique individual. They spoke to an audience in which the people who previously had no self-respect started seeing the beauty in not being beautiful and women, who were normally treated as second class citizens, no longer saw themselves that way.
Out of impoverishment came the style with which the Sex Pistols are associated with. Johnny Rotten tells an anecdote in which he wore trash because of the garbage strikes which carried on for months. He believed that by wearing the trash, he was dealing with the issue of the strike. The safety pin, iconic of the punk culture and well-documented in Dick Hebdige’s 1979 book Subculture, began with the notion of poverty and a lack of money and thus you needed safety pins to hold your clothes together. Originating from the ideas of the subculture of teddy boys, the style of the punk movement was intended to be rebellious, “the idea of standing out but also feeling a part of the dispossessed”. At one show, one of the audience members is remembered as being dressed in the full costume of a Sioux cat. She exemplified the intention of the punk style to be totally original. Not only was her individuality remembered, but she is applauded for her bravery in being able to come out in public the way she wanted to.
The standard view of the Sex Pistols as subversive comes from not only the antics they performed onstage, but were generally viewed by traditional British society as a threat to their way of life. Fearful of the influence the Sex Pistols would have on children and other moral qualms, they were banned from various towns and it was hard for them to find places to play. They were signed on EMI and A&M because of the controversy that surrounded them and subsequently dropped for the same reason. Most famous is their song, “God Save the Queen” which they played down the river Thames during the Queen’s Jubilee. While seen as a criticism of England’s archaic monarchial system and seen as a threat to the Queen, the song’s message as interpreted by Johnny Rotten is that it was written because he loved England and was fed up by the monarchy’s mistreatment of the middle class. Central to the philosophy of the Sex Pistols is the concept of the music coming from the kids themselves as opposed to the industry. They refused to submit to the press, which separated themselves from a majority of other musicians. They saw themselves as honest and raw in addition to their reputation as crude and outrageous troublemakers. What the public didn’t understand was that Rotten’s conception was of violence in the mind not of the body.
The Filth and The Fury acts as a response to Temple’s directorial debut film The Great Rock N Roll Swindle, the story of the Sex Pistols told through the perspective of the band’s manager Malcolm McClaren. As opposed to McClaren, the major voices of the film are Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones who consistently disparage McClaren’s role in the creation of the Sex Pistols and his mishandling of their career as a business deal. As Rotten says, “You can’t create me, I am me”. McClaren is reduced to an inflatable leather mask, as if he were just a prop throughout the career of the band. He is defamed by the band members as having stolen ideas from Johnny Rotten and taking credit for the controversies stirred up by the band such as the mishap on the Today show. McClaren consistently refers to them as his “artful little dodgers” as if he is Fagin, profiting off of the misdeeds of his clan of young thieves. He also mismanaged their funds, taking royalties and diverting them into failed projects such as the movie Who Killed Bambi?. Subsequently, the Sex Pistols ended up the way they started: broke.
Ultimately, the Sex Pistols had to break up because of the irony of their absorption back into the system. The punk attitude became an acceptable culture and the message became diluted. The punk style became a uniform of an adopted style and attitude when the whole idea was about being original. Punks started wearing leather jackets when in actuality the original punk rockers could not afford to purchase a leather jacket. They had become a “cartoon band” instead of an actual band, known more for the spontaneity of their performances and the controversies they produced both onstage and off instead of the music. By the end of their career as the Sex Pistols, they could no longer play in England and therefore embarked on their first and only US tour, avoiding iconic scenes such as CBGBs and instead playing in the heartlands of America. The tour was a disaster with Sid Vicious fully addicted to heroin and tensions between the band members, ending at San Francisco’s Winterland, the Sex Pistols last show. They played a cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun” which Johnny Rotten famously ended by singing, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”, aptly summarizing how he felt about McClaren.
The film fails on the level of extending beyond the scope of the Sex Pistols to the punk rock movement itself. There are passing mentions of Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol, and the New York Dolls but no real insight into other punk rock icons such as the Ramones. Steve Jones borrowed some of Johnny Thunder’s moves before realizing his own stage persona. Sid Vicious also admired the Dolls’ style and their tough, mean attitude. Unfortunately, in the film, the most prominent thing the Dolls gave the Sex Pistols was Nancy Spungen, originally Thunder’s drug dealer and subsequently Sid’s heroin dealer, girlfriend, and ultimate downfall. However, early in the film, Rotten states that they had no music heroes because the music out there was boring and its musicians were inaccessible to the average person. As a child, Steve Jones believed that musicians fell from the sky. In this way, as well as many others, they assert themselves as completely original.