Text by Robert Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet
The Sex Pistols on TV: The TV Interviews (Un)Censored
Directed by Mark Sloper
A2B Media / ITN Source
120 minutes, 2010
Images from the Internet
Directed by Mark Sloper
A2B Media / ITN Source
120 minutes, 2010
Before I start the review, first some wavy lines of a flashback: when VHS first started to be mass marketed, there were a series of tapes of popular groups like the Beatles and Elvis that just showed press conferences and news pieces, without any music by the artists they covered. The reason was simple in that music meant royalty fees. Fast forward to this release.
I need to cover this review in two pieces, first the content and then a bit deeper. Perhaps not on a Greil Marcus level, but here we go. Wheeeee.
There is no real flow here, just a semi-chronological order as we follow the boys through their careers. Smartly, it starts with just a brief clip from the infamous Bill Grundy interview that everyone who is interested in this has probably seen soooooo many times EV-rywhere. Thank you for that, director Sloper.
Separated by title cards displaying year(s) and focus of a particular set of clips, we are shown television shows and interviews with the group, some band members, or those associated with them. Clips run from pretty short at a couple of minutes to extended pieces, resulting in 2 hours of all-Pistols-and-Pistols-related-all-the-time. Which has its good and bad points.
The good is that there are many clips here I’ve never seen from British shows, including those culled from music news programs, something the US did not really have during the Pistols’ tenure (unless you want to count the ridiculous segments on the likes of Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, or Phil Donohue). There’s a couple of Janet Street Porter, a tall woman with big teeth and a thick north U.K. accent, for example, trying to get a decent answer out of Lydon (I admired when Johnny then-Rotten gives an bemused, off-hand side comment on how her obviously dyed red hair is the same color as rhubarb; see video below). Mostly they’re met with derision while being accused of being devious. It’s a joy watching Lydon take the piss out of them, never storming off the set, but just sauntering off after acknowledging the bias against the band. Then again, he walks around with a joyful metaphorical target on his vest.
The bad part is that all of the news stories are somewhat taken out of context. Captions stating the names of the programs or interviewers would certainly have been most helpful. I’m sure the audience in England will know the program(me)s, but we Yanks may not. I found that really annoying. Also, all music is taken off, even if set in the background, and replaced with a generic piece that has sort of a Pistols feel to it, albeit with all the life sucked out of it. It is also repeated throughout the whole collection. By the end of the two hours, it made me question whether I will ever watch this again.
Of course, there are some news clips that were used in some previous documentaries about the Pistols, especially on the US tour (let’s see the redneck jocks makin’ fun of the punkers, before they would realize that they could inflict some serious body damage in a mosh pit if they joined in). And there are the New York City news reports of Sid’s death, especially my favorite one of Roger Grimsby (ABC News) pronouncing that it all happened at the “Chel-sah” Hotel. See, I knew that one because it was local for me. Anyone outside of NYC would not have a clue; even then I wanted some caption so everyone can know.
The quality of the pieces ranges from sharp to obviously taken from old home-recorded off the television VHS grainy. Yes, there is a lot of information in this, and it is especially interesting to watch Rotten stay the same and yet evolve at the same time as far as using the media as much as it used him. With the exception of Sid and Johnny, nearly all the others (Jones, Cook, and Matlock) get very brief vocal time. There are also no clips talking about Rotten getting slashed with a knife on the street (perhaps it was before Grundy? No, I’m not going to look it up).
As far as face time goes, more is given to Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood than to the rest of the band. Sure, Rotten gives some snide comments about them here and there, but he and Sid are the focus of this. Gotta say, though, I did see Matlock’s Rich Kids - which is never mentioned here, though Lydon’s post-Pistol’s PiL is - a couple of times, once opening for Sylvan Sylvan’s 14th Street Band at Hurrah’s, and they weren’t all that interesting. I remember Jones being on a “stay away from drugs kids” commercial and a couple of mentions in a book by the lovely Miss Pamela DesBarres, but the rest of the band didn’t really have much other than the Pistols.
Some of the news segments include the aforementioned PiL, a couple of the Pistols reunions, brief pieces on the US tour (mostly the southern end rather than California), and a pretty interesting section from the early 1990s on how they affected Manchester by playing there, leading to the formation of bands like the Buzzocks. There are interviews with Howard Devoto, Steve Diggle, Pete Shelley, and members of other bands as well. There is even a news story on the making of Sid and Nancy.
What I found most interesting, however, is a 20-plus minute interview in a bar near the end with a jetlagged Lydon-Rotten where he is actually answers questions (the next interviewer – or previous one, it’s not clear – was not so lucky). He happily and intelligently talks – and often talks over – without giving in to the usual “ask an intelligent question” mode he tends to fall into. He seems to be having fun, and is quite informative. This piece alone is worth the watch, though as a whole it’s an important piece of collected history; this one, however, is the keeper.
One last thing before I become more of an academic: why does Sloper call himself the director? He should, more likely, be called the curator or producer, as he does not really have anything to do with the content, other than grouping them into sections with titles, and digitally replacing decent music with a terrible one. I’m sure it’s a lot of work, but calling it “directing” is a misnomer. He does more actual directorial work on his next film, Sid!, of which a really nice 20-minute preview is given on this DVD.
Switching gears a bit (okay, a lot), I was paying attention to what Lydon was saying through the years, and came to realize that he was a Media Ecologist. Whether he’s read it or not, he aligns well with the likes of Neil Postman, Harold Innis and Daniel Boorstein, discussing how mass media such as news organizations are interested in a pre-set bias and agenda, and focus on made up, or non-events (Boorstein calls them “pseudo-events). He constantly posits about how the media is rubbish, the focus of their stories are more on sensationalism than reality, and that the questions they ask are meaningless other than to be “shocking” (or what he calls boring). Of course, I’ve always seen him being grumpy at reporters, especially when he’s heard the same question over and over (e.g., “how are you guys getting along?”), but I really listened to what he was saying. Much like Bobcat Goldthwait, there is more beneath the demeanour that just acting out. He’s actually saying something important; something that is becoming more so all the time as the Tea Party tries to steal the United States and set up a theocracy through lies and distraction.
Now, Lydon keeps saying that the rest of the band is into the reunions for the money, but not him. Honestly, I don’t know how true that is, but it really is irrelevant, isn’t it? I mean, the whole group kind of took the wind out of that sail by calling their rejoining “The Filthy Lucre Tour.” But that doesn’t stop the questions. This only feeds Lydon’s fervor and avering about the true focus and bias of mass media.
A quick couple of comments and then we’re outta here. First, it drives me crazy when news reports state that the Pistols “started punk rock.” Well, they don’t call it the British scene “second wave punk” for nothing. By the time the Pistols formed, the New York scene had been going on for two years, with hundreds of bands. Yes, however, they did transform it into something else, as did the “third wave,” hardcore, shortly after the Pistols broke up. Second, the bias against the Pistols is shown clearly by the often reference of “Sid killed his girlfriend Nancy,” especially in the British press. This has never been proven, and there are enough contradictory stories to this line of thought to put forward serious doubt. Personally, I believe she was stabbed by a drug dealer that she refused sex while Sid was passed out from “sampling.” My theory is no less credible than theirs, and is actually based more on people who knew them than the press or police reports.
On a positive note, one of the most touching moments is Lydon discussing the death of Joe Strummer. Through the years there has been the hint of animosity between them, but Lydon clearly sets that straight.
As a collective historical document, this is an interesting-to-say-the-least release, and possibly an important one to have all of this info at hand in one place. That being said, there are substantial problems with it, and I have avered above. If you’re a Pistols fan, it’s good to have all these clips in one spot.