In the great garden of forking paths and alternative timelines there are two other versions of The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle that Julian Temple never directed. One would have been directed by Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame, but “he behaved gloriously badly to Malcolm (McLaren)” according to John Lydon many years later. The other was to be written by film critic Roger Ebert and directed by buxom beauty lover Russ Meyer (who Lydon called “shabby” and “a senile old git.”) But you do have to wonder what the hell either of those films might have been like.
Would either of them contained the above classic scene–probably the only scene worth the price of admission–where Sid Vicious both murders the classic “My Way” and several rich people in the front row.
Killing sacred cows has long been a part of the West’s sense of humor, long before punk. Spike Jones and his City Slickers regularly destroyed classic warhorses like The Blue Danube and The Nutcracker. The Bonzo Dog Band in the UK took on “The Sound of Music” and left no survivors. And the Residents lovingly destroyed pop music of the ‘60s on Third Reich ‘n’ Roll and their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” When it comes to pop culture, nothing is sacred. Not even Frank Sinatra.
By the time Temple joined the McLaren’s film project, Lydon was not speaking to his manager. And when they got close to shooting the “My Way” sequence in Paris, Sid Vicious didn’t want to take part. Julien Temple remembered:
I would go to the studio every night and come back to report to Malcolm that the guy didn’t want to do the song. Sid would spend all the time in the studio trying to learn the bass. We would have to come back and tell Malcolm we had wasted another night’s money. Malcolm grew tired of it. He picked up the phone and started screaming at Sid about what a useless junkie he was and so on. Meanwhile, Sid had given the phone over to Nancy and while that was going on, suddenly the door of Malcolm’s hotel room flew off its hinges. Sid crashed into the room wearing his swastika underpants and motorbike boots. He dragged Malcolm out of bed and started hitting him. Then Sid chased a naked Malcolm down the corridor intent on beating the shit out of him.
Now, that might have been a more interesting scene than the theater massacre, but who knows? McLaren wanted everything in the film to be bigger than life and to his credit, this pummeling of a cover–which had a second life as the ending song to Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas–is still a proper two-finger salute. But in a twist, it would be Sid Vicious and the flame of British punk that would be quickly snuffed out upon its release. Vicious died February 2, 1979.
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.