“Follow me!” Johnny Rotten screams at the climax of the stunning live version of “Anarchy in the U.K.” included on The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. It’s an exalted, spine-chilling challenge that brings back all the awe and terror the Sex Pistols were capable of inspiring during their brief and violent existence. There wasn’t anything faked in the rage Rotten hurled at the world, and there wasn’t anything cathartic in it either. The apocalyptic instinct he embodied couldn’t lead to anything but total destruction, but what made him so frightening — and so mesmerizing — was that he didn’t want it any other way. In retrospect, the Pistols’ sudden, explosive finish seems like the only possible ending for a band whose whole career was a headlong rush into the abyss.
The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, the soundtrack to an as-yet-unreleased Sex Pistols movie, has been designed as an epitaph. Compiled largely by guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook after the group broke up, these four sides both lampoon and glorify the Pistols by turning their story into a venal, self-mocking showbiz epic. From its title on down, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle is resolutely, proudly trashy: it may be the biggest, gaudiest inside joke rock & roll has ever witnessed. The album opens with a symphonic arrangement of “God Save the Queen,” and closes with a kiss-off throwaway — an interminable, cheerfully obscene barroom ballad called “Friggin’ in the Riggin’.”
In between is a labyrinthine assortment of put-ons and burlesques: a bouncy disco medley of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “God Save the Queen” and “Pretty Vacant”; a wheezing, accordion-accompanied “Anarchy in the U.K.” sung entirely in French; many meant-to-be-humorous vaudeville turns by ex-Great Train Robber and sometime-Pistols-associate Ronald Biggs. The satire, though it has its moments, ultimately becomes so sprawling and self-congratulatory that it grows wearisome.
The handful of actual Sex Pistols performances cuts right through the bullshit and makes the record worthwhile. We get to hear the Pistols at the very beginning, doing a lurching version of “Johnny B. Goode” that comes to an abrupt halt with Rotten saying, “I don’t know the words….Stop it, it’s fucking awful. I hate songs like that.” When the group launches into Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner,” Rotten giggles and admits he doesn’t know the words to that one either. “What’s the first line?” he asks. “One, two, three, four, five, six,” Cook answers helpfully. This snippet of live tape gives us more of a sense of what English punk, at its birth, was really about — the ideal of an underground community, an antistar rebellion — than many pages of analysis could. Then we hear the Sex Pistols come into their own, brilliantly, with “Anarchy in the U.K.,” an explosive “Substitute” and a brutal “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone.” And we catch them at the very end, performing “Belsen Was a Gas” during their final concert in San Francisco.
“We mean it, man,” Johnny Rotten snarled in “God Save the Queen.” It’s one of the dozen or so most arresting lines in rock & roll. Listening to these tracks, you believe him all over again — far more than you believe The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle‘s smirking “We didn’t mean it, it was all a scam.” While it’s unsettling to be made to feel nostalgic about the Sex Pistols, that’s exactly what these songs do. If nothing else, they prove, once and for all, that this was a great rock & roll band.
Public Image, the first LP from Johnny Rotten/John Lydon since the Sex Pistols’ demise, is chilling because it feels almost as posthumous as Sid Vicious’ buffoonish but now gruesomely ironic version of “My Way.” If The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle merely travesties the Pistols’ legend, then Public Image means to obliterate it completely. Lydon’s old group is now part of the history he professes to hate so much, and Public Image, his new band, pushes that loathing as far as it can go this side of silence. Their debut is a bitter, relentlessly uningratiating work — not a record so much as an antirecord.
The title track, however, is everything one could hope for: a powerful, albeit self-serving, denunciation of all who opposed the Sex Pistols (which, as far as Lydon is concerned, means just about everybody). But the rest of the album slides into a dreary, leaden groove that simply repeats the message of “Public Image” over and over without taking on any of its force. The beat is intentionally slow and jerky. The guitar parts are droning and repetitious, like zonked-out parodies of the Pistols’ style. Lydon has purposefully denied himself the highly charged, corrosively vivid language of the Sex Pistols’ songs, and most of the time his sparse, nagging vocals are nearly buried in the mix.
Public Image is a grating combination of the post nasal-drip monotony of the worst avant-garde rock and churlish, whining self-pity. Surely Lydon can’t believe that diatribes against “fat pig priests” and “liars on the altar” are either novel or interesting ideas. It’s as if he’d just read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and swallowed it whole.
I revere Johnny Rotten, but I’m not so sure about John Lydon. Still, even at its worst, Public Image, like John Lennon’s earliest post-Beatles work, offers a live talent trying to dig his way out of the rubble, and not the burnt-out hustler that The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle would have you believe. Public Image isn’t a good record, but it may be a necessary one. I hope so anyway. It’d be a shame if the single most kinetic rock & roll performer to emerge in the last decade let his rage decay into nothing but petty and self-indulgent pride.