The Sex Pistols' Rock & Roll Swindles - Rolling Stone
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The Sex Pistols’ Rock & Roll Swindles

The band released only a single album during its original existence, but its legacy has lived on

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SEX PISTOLS; Group portrait on the set of the Pretty Vacant video shoot L-R Sid Vicious, Paul Cook, Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) and Steve Jones, June 1st 1977.

Virginia Turbett/Redferns/Getty

One of the all-time great debut albums, this split the whole rock world into fans or foes. From the opening strum of “Holidays in the Sun,” Steve Jones overdubbed himself into a savage guitar army (and played surprisingly agile bass, though Sid Vicious got most of the credit). Johnny Rotten snarled as the ultimate voice of teen hostility, attacking the Queen, TV, religion, capitalists, communists, sex. New York City and the entire history of the British Empire. As funny as Monty Python but a whole lot louder.

After the Pistols broke up on their first U.S. tour, they had left only one studio album behind them — but there were enough leftovers for a slew of compilations, reissues, bootlegs and blatant rip-offs. This was the first, the soundtrack to the band’s ill-fated movie. Vicious takes lead vocals on his infamous version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” (brilliantly used over the end credits of GoodFellas) and the Eddie Cochran rockabilly oldie “Somethin’ Else.” Unfortunately, by the time the album came out, he was dead.

When the Pistols shocked everybody by doing a reunion tour, the press asked Rotten, “If the concerts go well, are you going to make this permanent?” His reply: “No, the concerts won’t go well, and no, this will not be permanent.” Spoken like a true punk, but the tour turned out to be surprisingly powerful. The show in London’s Finsbury Park drew a rowdy hometown crowd, and you can hear the results on this live document, opening with a crazed “Bodies.” More exciting than anybody could have guessed -probably including the Pistols themselves.

Every band that breaks up gets a deluxe DVD documentary these days, but this is unquestionably one of the most amazing and agonizing rock films ever made. It has scads of previously unseen footage, including the Pistols’ final performance in San Francisco, covering the Stooges’ “No Fun” and asking the crowd, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Rotten also makes fun of Jones’ hair, claims that his secret inspiration was Shakespeare’s Richard III and gives an unforgettable eulogy for Vicious.

Nobody really expected any of the Pistols would have a second act, least of all the singer, who temporarily lost the legal right to use his stage name. But John Lydon recruited some old friends to form the new band Public Image Ltd. They explored the art-punk-goth-reggae frontier, paving the way for countless young bands, with singles like “Public Image” and “Death Disco.” This 1979 opus, with bass-heavy rants like “Albatross” and “Careering,” was their best, but, absurdly, it didn’t get released in its original form — three vinyl discs in a tin can — in the U.S. until last year.


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