I’ve often said that the Sex Pistols could never have made another album with the power and brilliance of Never Mind The Bollocks. The new double Album bears this out, but that critique is almost irrelevant because in The Great Rock and Roll Swindle we have the Pistols themselves providing a valuable context for their whole phenomenon.
The title is key; they tell us it’s a swindle and accordingly a lot of the album celebrating that, often hilariously, and while the humor of Bollocks was subtle and submerged, here it is open clowning. A lot of it is not even the Sex Pistols; just about everyone around them gets in a lick somewhere on the record. But still, the crucial question is: Who is swindling who?
My first reaction was ‘What! They better not be swindling me’ and they were, but luckily it goes deeper than that. Just about everyone was a swindler or a swindle it seems – Malcom Mclaren swindling the band, pushing image over content, getting a bass player who’d never played before, the Pistols swindling the media and the world into taking them so Goddam seriously, swindling EMI out of thousands of pounds, quitting right at the peak of success , and so on. This album makes clear what a carefull orchestrated con job the whole thing was.
So whats wrong with that? Nothing, really. By telling us it was a con they let us in on it too. It doesn’t diminish the importance of their work any for me, it just seems the logical conclusion. After all, all their work was concerned with telling you that you were the victim of many cons; how could they have been naïve about themselves? Anyway, success is the measure of a good con and the pistols were a success; they got across what they were trying to.
It was a classic case of subversion, taking revolutionary content and installing it in a conventional form. Did it work? Well, yes and no. At any rate the band had pretty much rejected that approach at the end, either using only as a formalism, as in the many versions of Anarchy on this album (Disco, Muzak, in French with accordion accompaniment), or abandoning it and playing old time rock in a new and celebratory way, as in the many covers on the album.
The choice between subversion or just rocking out was mirrored by a split in the band between Cook and Jones on the one side and Rotten on the other with Vicious somewhere in between. Cook and Jones produced a lot of this album and they took pains to include some of Rottens worst moments, as when the band in thunking through Johnny B. Goode while Rotten keeps saying “Stop it! I can’t stand this sort of music.” In fact, Rotten is only lead vocalist on about a third of the cuts. He is in the chorus on a few others and absent from the rest. Only a few cuts follow the grab ‘em by the balls approach of Bollocks.
Not to imply that the rest are wimpy, but merely that the level of intensity has decreased somewhat. For one thing, the production is nowhere near intense. There are not the layers of guitar overdubs that so characterized The Bollocks sound, making the album sound moer live, and revealing the pistols as being more like mere mortals. This is sometimes compensated for by the use of strings, which are for the most part appropriate to the tongue in cheek approach of the album but which at times are excessive.
There is a lot of silly stuff on the album, songs like “Frigging in the Rigging” sung by Ronnie Biggs and “You gotta have hands” with Malcolm Mclaren that are pretty much comedy music. There are a lot of covers of old rockers, with vocals by Cook, Jones and Vicious, all of whom are competent singers. Also included is the now highly ironic version of Vicious doing “My Way”. The only two originals that really stand out in my mind are “Belsen was a gas” and the anthemic “Rock and Roll Swindle”, both rockers in the Bollocks tradition.
One thing this album demonstrates with some finality is that they could play. Once again you can hear Vicious playing at least competently and Cook and Jones are wailing away as always. Also it re-emphasized what a totally slick packaging job the Pistols were. This can be seen in their more packaged productions and compared to some of the relatively un-slick productions on this album. Ultimately I have come to see the Pistols sort of as the Monkees for revolutionaries. Both groups were created for specific, though opposite reasons. From what I hear Malcom Mclaren are revolutionaries, the sort who would come home from a concert and put some jazz or classical music on the stereo. Rock was the medium they chose to work in and they enriched it, though the end of the Pistols is some indication that the time for that approach has passed, at least for now. The Pistols had probably crossed the border into cooption when they broke up, whereas in their early interviews they seemed genuinely surprised to consider that this thing would turn out to have them working on the side of the system. Rotten, anyway, seems to have abandoned subversion in favour of more idealogically ‘pure’ music, and it doesn’t seem to have done him any better. This album offers no new strategies; whereas on Bollocks the cry of No Future was a call to action, here it is just an acceptance of reality. The ultimate effect is to poke us in our naivetes. If we are naïve about the Sex Pistols, and a lot of us were in places, then imagine all the other, more complex cons we are victims to! The Message is consistent: Wise up your marks.
Which is what I now wish Elvis Costello would do. Someone already told him to shut up, and punched him to reinforce the message, in that well publicized incident where he called all Americans Niggers. By coincidence Lewis Shaffer dragged me off to see him as the Palladium around the time of that incident. Lewis still must’ve been a little irked at me for mentioning his name in the other article, but seeing Costello live did not change my opinion. It reinforced it. He didn’t Suck or anything, it wasn’t torture, the band was competent and well rehearsed and it was fun to be at a rock show, but even liveness could not add excitement to the music. Costello is very good at slapping bits of music together in a sometimes interesting way, but they are still slapped together bits and they are still only interesting. Sort of like what Steely Dan does, only worse. They never achieve a rocking coherence.
It was interesting to see what the ‘Elvis Costello crowd’ would look like. There were a lot of people both inside and outside the Palladium, hoping to suck on a piece of the action, and except for a few people going for the Costello clone look (nerdy glasses, haircut, suit) and a few who were punked out, the crowd was remarkably unexceptional looking. It looked like a nice, clean well dressed middle class crowd. Not quite the geek and terminally maladjusted crowd I have anticipated, but their way much worse. There were very few of the stunningly beautiful women on often sees at rock shows, very few of anything except for nice kids whose idea of getting rowdy is seeing Elvis Costello and getting up and stomping and clapping and screaming some. The music suited them perfectly.
Maybe we are entering the clone era, where everyone aspires to be a clone of everyone else, and therein define themselves as individuals. It stands to reason as the logical conclusion of the American ethos of individualism mad dogma where we all agree on what individualism is so we become exactly alike. Rock and Roll has literally descended into the clone era, with acts calling themselves ‘Elvis clones’ and such. At any rate, we need a new synthesis to get the music out of that rut it often falls into. But I’m not worried. There is a lot of fertile soil out there, and that’s where its got to go. It’s time to go over the wall.