Johnny Rotten grabs the microphone and lurches forward, his pimply face grinning into the camera. Next to him, Steve Jones is miming (or mocking) guitar-hero moves, while Sid Vicious hunches over his bass, surly as ever. The grainy footage carbon-dates to the tail end of 1977, right before the band was about to embark on their notorious U.S. tour and then implode. It’s Christmas Day in the Northern city of Huddersfield, and will turn out to be the penultimate U.K. performance for the seminal punk band. They launch into a full-frontal-assault version of “God Save the Queen,” sounding as dangerous as ever. And then the camera swings to the side, and captures the crowd — which is made up completely of children, ages six to 12, laughing and dancing along to the noisebomb music.
Ask Julien Temple about that scene, which appears near the end of his documentary Never Mind the Baubles: Christmas With the Sex Pistols, and he’ll tell you that the band’s matinee performance for the children of firefighters on strike was the single most rebellious thing they had ever done. Inquire as to why no one had seen the footage of this incredible performance, which Temple had shot, until the BBC aired it in 2013, and the 61-year-old filmmaker will admit it’s because it had simply been sitting his backyard shed for decades. The same goes for the jawdropping concert snippets in that movie’s companion piece — The Clash: New Year’s Day ’77, in which the other totemic quartet of the era play the Roxy right on the cusp of becoming the Only Band That Matters.
The key chronicler of the early England’s-Dreaming punk scene, Temple would have secured a place in rock history if he’d done nothing else besides the two legendary Pistols documents, 1980’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and 2000’s definitive The Filth and the Fury. (That’s not even taking into account his groundbreaking music-video work during MTV’s infancy-to-adolescence period for David Bowie, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones and countless others) But he’s spent the last four decades chasing after musical miscreants and mavericks of all sorts, and as “I Was There: The Music Docs of Julien Temple” demonstrates, his use of collage, ironic newsreel footage and point-counterpoint contextualizing has created indelible profiles of everybody from Joe Strummer to guitarist Wilko Johnson.
Popular on Rolling Stone
This 11-film mini-retro, playing as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sound + Vision fest starting July 30th, collects major projects and odds-and-sods rarities from his back catalog, including portraits of both Ray and Dave Davies, several deep-dive examinations of the Glastonbury festival, a look at proto-punk pub rockers Dr. Feelgood, and those holiday-themed concert movies as one double feature. Calling from an airport lounge, Temple spoke about meeting the Pistols, those “lost” punk films, how his unique style complements the music he covers and why his spirit-of-’77 movies are not about the past.
You discovered filmmaking and punk rock around the same time — how did one affect your idea about the other?
Oh, hugely, I’d say. I was already in the National Film School when I came across the Sex Pistols completely by chance. Do you know those huge docks in London?
They’re the reason the city exists…the British Empire and all that. A lot of them had shut down, so the east side of the city had become this huge, beautiful wasteland. I loved to wander around there, and one sunny Sunday afternoon, I heard this song on the wind — a Small Faces tune called “Whatcha Gonna Do About It.” I loved that band as a kid, so I started following the sound of the music, and eventually came across this ancient, 18th-century warehouse with the door open.
I walked in, and could immediately tell that the band was just massacring this song; they’d changed the lyrics to “I want you to know that…I hate yoooouuu.” These guys were silhouetted against this huge window as they were playing, and it was like seeing some weird mutant, insect men from outer space. They had tiny skinny legs, with these huge crepe-soled shoes and black-and-red-striped mohair sweaters on, and this weird cropped, spiky hair. I knew at that moment that I was looking at something truly extraordinary.
And that was the Sex Pistols?
That was thing, though, I had no idea who they were. I just knew they sounded amazing, so I went up and asked them to do a few songs for my student film. And they all look at me and said, “Fuck off.” [Laughs] But they did say they were going to be doing their first gig soon. So I went back to West London, where I lived in the squats — very near to where Joe Strummer was living actually — and was incredibly excited. I felt like I’d seen the future. Then a friend of mine asked me, well, what are they called? And I realized shit, I never asked what their name was or where the fuck they were playing.
Right. I spent the next six weeks trying to find out where this gig of this unknown band might be, and ended up missing the first gig. Then I’d gone somewhere and saw a poster for a group called “Sex Pistols,” and thought, hmm. That was their second gig. Sid [Vicious] was rolling around on the floor. Billy Idol was there, just sort of staring at him. The whole place was filled with these odd, mutant, cartoonish creatures, and I thought, well, fuck — I have to film this.
So before their next show, I snuck into the National’s camera room and grabbed a camera, disassembled it so I could get it past Malcolm McLaren — he didn’t want anyone filming the band — reassembled it back in the toilet, and snuck it around under my arm, trying to steal the occasional shot. That’s really how it started. It explains my technique in a nutshell, really: smuggled and illicit. [Laughs]
I walked in and there was an incredible stench emanating from under this table. I lifted up the tablecloth and there was Joe Strummer, asleep, with these foul-smelling socks on.
And once you introduced things like collage and visual mash-ups into the mix, you end up making movies that are the visual equivalents of punk rock.
It was a kinship. Like punk, it was born out of necessity: I had no money and no permission to film. The mash-up thing…it’s an explosive way of making films. It’s a vastly different way of doing it then just sitting in a chair and thinking, okay, I know everything there is to know about this, I know exactly what I want to say. We were shooting on a lot of different formats, from video to Super 8 to 35mm, so it created a collision of sorts anyway. But I love making movies this way. I love sitting down when I’m editing and having no fucking clue what’s going to happen next.
Did you feel there was a point were it went from “I’m documenting this moment” to the camera is my version of guitar and microphone?
I did feel that, with a small crew, you could be very rock and roll about how you made films, yeah! Jean-Luc Godard, who’s one of my heroes, did a very nice piece at one point about how the style of those films we were doing felt like a new language, which was what a lot of rock critics were saying about the music. I actually saw him once, sitting outside a café at five in the morning at this film festival at Italy. I thought, wow, it’s Godard! I have to go say hello.
What did he say?
“Fuck off.” Just like Johnny Rotten did.
Let’s talk about the Sex Pistols Christmas movie that you filmed…that gig is a part of their legacy that usually gets short shrift, wouldn’t you say?
Well, no one ever mentions it because the footage has been sitting in my shed for 40 years! It seemed to me that if you put things out in dribs and drabs on YouTube, it’s not as effective as trying to find some sort of organizing idea that will give it a proper sense of presence. The Christmas gig with the Pistols…I knew I had the New Year’s footage of the Clash, so I thought, well, I’ll assemble stuff around those two gigs. Then I can do April Fool’s Day with Malcolm McLaren, maybe something around Easter — I could do a whole punk calendar. [Laughs] But yeah, they played those two shows on Christmas Day of ’77. It was sort of perfect.
Here’s this band with the worst reputation in Britain, and they’re playing a kid’s matinee show on Christmas. Rotten even takes all the “fucks” out of Bodies when he sings it so as not to offend their ears.
I don’t think them doing that makes them any less of a rebel band. They came in like Robin Hoods, helping out these kids in Huddersfield who were having a fucked up Christmas because the recession was hitting Northern England so hard. That was a rebel act. That was the single most punk thing they could have done.
Do you remember the first time you met the Clash?
I remember the smell of Joe Strummer’s socks in that freezing rehearsal space. I walked in to this place on this cold, cold day and there was this incredible stench emanating from under this table. I lifted up the tablecloth to see what the hell it was and there was Joe, asleep, with these foul-smelling socks on. So I definitely remember that.
Why, exactly, did you sit on the footage of the Pistols gig and the Clash’s New Year’s Eve show for so long? Did you forget that you had it?
No, I mean, I knew I had it, but I never knew if I had good sound for it. We recorded the gigs on Nagra four-inch tapes but I’d thought I’d lost them. Then one day I was looking for something else entirely and came across this box with “Clash Audio” scrawled on it and realized, oh wait, I know what that is! That made it possible to actually to get this out to the public in some shape or form.
By the time I met Joe and Mick and everybody, I was already filming the Pistols by that point, and the idea of putting the two of them together was my first real attempt to make a film, instead of just documenting things here and there. But I was fired. Well, “fired” is the wrong word…[Clash manager] Bernie Rhodes basically said “It’s either us or them.” I could not work with both groups, according to him. So even though I’d been filming them for several months, I had to stop. It was a drag. The Pistols had already made a name for themselves, and the Clash were just getting started, so I stuck with the Pistols.
It’s incredible to see the Clash at that embryonic state. You always picture them as the strident, righteous band of the “Radio Clash” period; here, they just look like a bunch of giggly kids, excited by each others’ company and the whole notion of getting to play loud rock music.
[Laughs] Which is exactly what it was like, those early days. I mean, it was always kind of a mixture of the two, in a weird way. Maybe they did get a little too righteous for a bit there, but yeah. They had fun doing what they were doing. People forget that.
When the music video phenomenon started up in the Eighties, did you feel like people had finally caught up to what you’d been doing for years?
I felt like, yeah, the style and the things that I had been doing was leading up to something, and it just happened to be MTV. Particularly in London, which is really where the idea for MTV started, I think. There were three or four of us who were pushing things along those lines at the time, and I would certainly give them as much credit for that first rush. You have to understand, there was this great freedom in making music videos in the beginning. It was a new medium that could reach a huge audience almost instantly, and that’s an inspirational thing. You have an idea while your head is still resting on your pillow, and three weeks later, you’re in Mexico City or L.A. or Stockholm with a band, making it happen. Record companies didn’t have a clue as to what we were doing, and you could be incredibly subversive with it. It was great.
Do you feel that you’ve been slowly chronicling an alternative history of postwar England in your documentaries?
It’s occurred to me, yeah. I’d love to string it all together and have it run as one long thing. Even the project I’m working on now, about Anthony Newley — who’s another missing link, when you look at his influence on Bowie and all that — it sort of runs counter to the official narrative. But I’ve been interested in the tectonic plates that have moved beneath things. I like reminding people of how the culture has sprung from the street up as opposed to the penthouse on down.
You’ve said before that you don’t make films about the past; you make them about the future. Can you clarify that?
When I look at the ’77 footage, I don’t think of it as nostalgia. I think of it as a weapon to give kids today in order to do something about what’s going on. Nothing has really come along that’s been able to shake the tree the way punk did at that particular moment — which is incredible when you realize it’s 40 years later, and so little has changed. But it’s like a gauntlet. It’s something that gets run over by a million trucks and is just waiting for someone to pick it up off the tarmac and dust it off. I’d rather not mediate that sensation with a bunch of wrinkly old rock stars telling you what thing were like. I’d rather people feel like it’s something that hits you right in the here and now.