Initially, it appeared the clue was in the title. Pieced together from outtakes and hastily recorded tracks conceived by two (or occasionally three) members of the already defunct Sex Pistols, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle seemed potentially dubious. Plus, it was the brainchild of the group’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, whose primary motivation in compiling the album was to soundtrack the film of the same name he’d first conceived during the summer of 1977.
The double-disc The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle was first released as a standalone album on February 26, 1979, a year after the iconic punks’ acrimonious post-US tour split, but 15 months shy of the movie’s premiere. The album could never realistically have had the seismic impact of Never Mind The Bollocks, though the Pistols were still grabbing headlines in early ’79. Having reverted to his real name of John Lydon, frontman Johnny Rotten had already released First Issue – his UK Top 40 debut album with his new outfit, Public Image Ltd (PiL) – while the news of former bassist Sid Vicious’ death sent the tabloids into a feeding frenzy just days before the Rock’n’Roll Swindle album came out.
Simply for bearing Sex Pistols’ name, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle has always been contentious. Lydon washed his hands of the band (and McLaren in particular) following the January ’78 US tour, and the only Swindle tracks he appears on are raw, ’76-era studio outtakes (notably a rough but impassioned cover of The Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”); a live cut of the controversial “Belsen Was A Gas”; and a previously unreleased, Dave Goodman-produced version of the Pistols’ debut single, “Anarchy In The UK.”
Lydon’s absence threw Swindle’s legitimacy into question for some. Additionally, tracks such as “You Need Hands” (with McLaren himself taking over the mic) and the absurd “Who Killed Bambi?,” featuring future Tenpole Tudor mainstay Edward Tudor-Pole, added further fuel to the fire for punk detractors.
Yet the superior stuff on The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle ensures the album deserves some hearty reappraisal. First and foremost, the record allowed Sid Vicious to shine brightly, if briefly, with his charismatic vocals leading the way on souped-up covers of Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else” and “C’mon Everybody.” Sid’s heavily orchestrated revamp of the Frank Sinatra/Paul Anka classic “My Way” still irks the purists, but the song’s electrifying video, in which Vicious assassinates members of his audience in a Parisian theatre, arguably remains the most iconic scene in the Swindle film.
Much of the album’s most resonant music, however, derived from the underrated Sex Pistols’ duo of guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook. Their muscular “Silly Thing” was worthy of Never Mind The Bollocks, while Jones’ uncharacteristically melancholic “Lonely Boy” later supplied the title of his autobiography. Cook and Jones also hooked up with Ronnie Biggs, one of the crew responsible for The Great Train Robbery, during a brief trip to Brazil in 1978. This infamous liaison yielded not only footage for the Swindle movie, but also two of the album’s songs, the boorish “No One Is Innocent’ and a robust studio version of “Belsen Was A Gas.”
Going Gold in the UK, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle succeeded in keeping Sex Pistols in the public eye long after they split. The album peaked at No.7 in the British Top 40 and spawned four Top 10 hits spanning 1978-79, courtesy of the double-A-side “No One Is Innocent”/“My Way,” plus “Silly Thing,” “C’mon Everybody” and “Something Else” – the latter peaking at No.3 and becoming the biggest-selling Sex Pistols single of them all.
Four decades later, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle is still arguably punk’s greatest guilty pleasure. Its unlikely triumphs – the stirring orchestral “God Save The Queen (Symphony)” and the “Black Arabs” disco medley of their hits – show how great Sex Pistols’ songs of nihilism and dissent remain, even when relocated to radically different sonic settings. With hindsight, outspoken Village Voice critic Robert Christgau perhaps nailed it best when he proclaimed the Swindle to be “a lovely memento… every one of its four sides will bring a smile to your face.”