When the oppressed express themselves

Wednesday, August 2, 2000 - 10:00

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When the oppressed express themselves

The Filth and the Fury
Sex Pistols documentary
Directed by Julien Temple
At major cinemas

REVIEW BY STUART MUNCKTON

Julien Temple's documentary on legendary British punk band the Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury, begins with a voice-over from lead singer Johnny Rotten, providing the context for the rise of the Pistols and punk rock.

In the mid-1970s there was a Labour government, but "the Labour Party", Rotten explains, "had promised so much and given so little". As a consequence working-class youth were angry but confused, and demoralised. "People were fed up with the old way, the old way was clearly not working."

The documentary opens with scenes of mass worker protests and angry black people fighting police on the streets. The upheaval and chaos of a society in revolt, though, was not reflected in the media or in popular culture. The music played by the super groups at the top of the charts had little relevance to working-class youth: something had to break.

That something was the Sex Pistols, and punk in general. As the band members point out in their interviews, they were all working class. Guitarist Steve Jones talks about the major attraction in his life being petty theft. A band offered them the chance to express themselves and live a different life. They were useless musicians but, as Jones says, "I stuck in there because it was all I had".

Lead by "anti-star" Johnny Rotten, the band's music was raw and powerful and quickly struck a chord with a section of working-class youth. The band looked and smelt real.

The documentary features footage of early Pistols gigs and focuses on the intense creativity of the early punk scene, where people began to dress and behave freely.

The band's growing popularity brought about an inevitable reaction from England's self appointed "moral guardians" and the band was banned from radio and an increasing number of venues. The capitalist media had a field day.

The band's infamy reached new heights when they released their searing anti-royal anthem God Save the Queen on the same day as the queen's jubilee anniversary. The song went to number one, but the music industry refused to recognise it. The Pistols were sacked by two major labels.

By this time, however, the Sex Pistols and the punk scene was rapidly degenerating into little more than a circus. The band's fame had separated them from the environment that spawned them; the original creative dress turned into a uniform. When the band toured the US they were treated by media and audiences alike as some sort of freak show.

Epitomising this degeneration was Sid Vicious. A close friend of Johnny Rotten's, he started out as the band's number one fan, famous for inventing pogo dancing and for spontaneous violence. When the band sacked bassist Glen Matlock, the most talented but also the most conservative of the group, they replaced him with Vicious, even though he couldn't play a note.

Vicious played totally to the media, fulfilling all their expectations for outrageousness. He spiralled further and further out of control and the film features footage of a smacked-out Vicious trying to stay conscious for an interview. His death was horrifyingly inevitable.

Subcultures, and art as the sole means of social change, have their limitations. As Rotten points out, punk "became acceptable, absorbed back into the system".

Even Rotten himself seems content with his allotted role of annoying the system: "We managed to offend all the people we were fucking fed up with", he says, with too much self-satisfaction.

This is a brilliant documentary which, via interviews with the main protagonists, charts the rise and fall of one of the most important phenomena of recent popular culture. Despite the contradictions, the fundamental message is one of defiance.

Rotten, of course, gets the last words. They are good ones though: "All I want is for future generations to say fuck this, we've had enough. It's time for the truth."

From GLW issue 414