Johnny B. Goode, Back to the Future, and the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle
Today I was in the gym, where have all my best ideas (I blame it on the increased oxygen to the brain). What I talk about in this post is definitely not on the list of Robin’s best ideas, but it is interesting and worth some further thought.[i]
CNN was on one of the TVs, and even without my glasses I could tell they were covering the British Jubilee celebrations. So, I thought, let’s start out with the Sex Pistols for running music; when I first started running back in the 90s, I alternated among cassettes of Never Mind the Bollocks, The Clash (UK version), and Give Em Enough Rope, so running to the Pistols makes me all nostalgic for Oxford, OH.
Anyway, I finished up Never Mind, and b/c I have an 80G iPod instead of a cassette Walkman, I shuffled over to The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, a Pistols comp album released after Lydon left the band. Well, really, it’s a soundtrack to the Pistols/McLaren film of the same title, but nowadays it functions more like a comp album. There are a few interesting tracks on this album, like “Black Arabs,” which is a medley of Pistols singles re-arranged as 70s pop hits, the cover of “Substitute,” and the Sid Vicious version of “My Way.” But my favorite tracks on the album are the failed covers of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roadrunner.” EMI seems to be rather vigilant about taking down videos of the track, so I’ll link instead to an mp3:
Sex Pistols – Johnny B. Goode
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These covers are arguably the one musically interesting and innovative thing the Pistols ever really do. Most of their songs are pretty standard pop-rock songs, minus the guitar solo.[ii]Musically, they were doing more or less what the Ramones were already doing, but filtered a bit more through British pub rock (e.g., Jones and Cook were established musicians, not beginners who knew only three chords). (I should probably admit that I find PiL waaaay more musically interesting than the Pistols…and these covers gesture towards the sorts of stuff Lydon will do with his second band.) The Berry/Modern Lovers covers, however, are really great because they musically depict the sort of failure and self-destruction that the Pistols perfected in extramusical contexts—like in their final show (“Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” or in the infamous Sid & Nancy tragedy).
Basically, these two tracks are recordings of failed attempts. In both instances, Lydon/Rotten mumbles, stumbles, gurgles and burbles his way through the songs, claiming to “not know the words”. Here is a written account of the lyrics, or, lack of lyrics. As you can read, initially they were going to do a “mash up” of Goode and another song, but Lydon immediately rejects this and starts half-singing along to Goode. Making all sorts of abject noises—burbles, bubbles, farting noises and other onomatopoeia for taboo body functions—Lydon metaphorically and performativley takes the piss. He bumbles his way through twosongs he claims to not know. So the question is: if these are flawed takes full of errors, why not just leave them on the cutting room floor, or record over them? Why put them on the album?
Why? Well, this album is titled The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, so putting ostensibly “failed” tracks on the album just contributes to the sense that someone, i.e., the listener/consumer, is being cheated. It taunts the listener: “Look, you paid good money for this crap!” It also suggests that the Pistols are pulling one over on their fans, and on adoring music critics: “Look, you think there’s something serious going on here, that this is real art…but the joke’s on you, we’re bullshitting you!” (This resonates with that MIMS line “I can sell a mill sayin nothing on the track”)
But the track—and the “swindle”—is even more interesting if we compare the Pistols’ cover of Goode to the one that appears in Back To the Future.
Marty McFly travels 30 years into the past to scoop Chuck Berry on his own song. (And also to scoop Hendrix on some guitar technique and stage theatrics.) In his cover, McFly teaches black people how to rock, and thus steals black innovations from their inventors. He appropriates not just a particular song, but the invention of a whole genre, for white people. Though this performance saves McFly from erasure (from life, from the picture of him and his siblings), it erases the African-American origins of rock. (Interestingly, this erasure of black people is what enables white heterosexual coupling…) Well, to be more accurate: black people aren’t fully erased—they do still appear in traditional, supporting roles (the backup band). What gets erased are black innovators. Stealing credit for rock from black people—That, McFly, is one great rock ‘n’ roll swindle.
In fact, it’s just one example of the centuries-long relationship of “love & theft” (to use Eric Lott’s terms) that whites have with black music and black culture.
However, if we read the Pistols cover of Goode with the McFly cover of Goode, this opens up a new way of interpreting the Pistols’ use of the term “Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle”. (Yeah, that reading is totally anachronistic, but timey-wimey non-linearity is sorta key to the McFly cover in the first place.) What if the Goode cover is an indication of the Pistols—or at least Lydon’s—own incipient awareness that there’s some sort of racialized swindle happening in rock?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about late 70s white musicians who explicitly problematize their appropriations of black music. As far as I can tell, punks and no wavers are the first pop musicians to explicitly discuss—both in lyrics and in ‘musical’ semantics—the fact that there may be a problem with them, as white people, appropriating black musical styles and practices. They know there’s something racist going on, but their awareness doesn’t generally stop them from appropriating black music…but that’s usually how white guilt and white shame play out.
Anyway, the late 70s bring us a number of songs about or related to white guilt. The Clash have several: White Man in Hammersmith Palais, Safe European Home, Overpowered By Funk, and even, in a certain light, White Riot. James Chance (aka James White) also has a slew of songs explicitly about white appropriation of black music: Almost Black (pts 1 & 2), White Savages…he even called one of his bands James White & the Blacks. Chance/White problematizes white pleasure in cultural appropriation by performing awkward, ugly, clunky songs. His cover of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” is a good example of the way Chance/White intentionally fails in his appropriation of black music. The musical and performative failure draws attention to the failure in racial justice.
By juxtaposing the Pistols’ Goode cover with the McFly cover of the same song, I want to suggest that Lydon’s performance, like Chance’s, uses musical failure to highlight failures in racial justice.[iii] By failing to perform the song well, by failing to make it a pleasurable performance, Lydon refuses to play along with the “love & theft” narrative. In a sense, Lydon is refusing—at least in this instance…b/c he certainly does it elsewhere in his work—to appropriate black music for the benefit of whites. He’s showing us that the real rock ‘n’ roll swindle is its theft, from blacks, by whites.
[i] And, actually, if anyone has published on this, I’d love to read it!
[ii] In the same way that Jack Halberstam accuses Lee Edelman’s reading of the Pistols to “not fuck the law,” the Pistols music also succumbs to the “law” of pop-rock formulaic composition.
[iii] So, failure is also an element of McFly’s performance. Once he departs from a straight cover of Berry’s original and begins improvising, he looses he audience; people stop dancing, and people cover their ears. The film suggests the failure is a temporal one: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for this yet, but your kids will love it.” So it’s not McFly’s performance that fails, but the temporal context that is screwed up.