When I got out of college I got a job as a projectionist for a film distribution company. Back in those bad old days there were no DVDs and the only real tape machines were giant Umatic Sony devices that cost a fortune. So most films were sent to the office in the 35mm format. I had a projection booth behind the conference room and showed all sorts of great art films of the late 70s to the four old industry vets who owned the company.
Because it was helpful to have me around, they at first had me do office chores when I wasn’t projecting, increasing my hours and my tedium. Filing sucks. But before long the sales manager, not that much older than me, a baseball and rock ‘n’ roll fan, taught me how to handle the advertising buys as the company’s films played across the country. This mostly involved schmoozing with theater owners and deciding how big a campaign would be run in their town, and how much each of us would pay for it. There was more to it than that, but the point is that my role in the company grew.
So even though there were fewer movies to project on film, because there were more movies coming in on the Umatic Betacam tape, I had plenty of work. I also had keys to the office, and I now look back in horror at the Sundays when I would throw football-watching parties in the company conference room. I can’t recall why that seemed like a good idea.
What was a good idea, however, was checking out what movies had come in on tape. These were films I generally didn’t get a chance to see as part of the work day, because the old guys didn’t need me, but I saw lots of these great (and many not so great) films long before their release after everybody went home or on the weekends. One of these films was The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Julian Temple’s ode to Malcolm McLaren and his creation of the Sex Pistols. This was a movie that I’d been tracking in Variety and NME for seeming years, a movie that for various reasons involving rights and financial expectations wasn’t expected to see a live movie screen, and I got to watch.
It felt dangerous to slip the cassette into the hydraulic apparatus that smoothly sucked it into the machine, threaded the tape and then let it rock. It was crap, but not without interest, and I think it included video of and early rehearsal by the Sex Pistols playing the song. Or maybe memory is a gas. Maybe Roadrunner isn’t in the movie at all (I can’t find any reference to it or clip from it), but it is on the soundtrack album. In any case, I got to see the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle before almost anyone else did.
And this ragtag cover of Jonathan Richman’s great song is both monumentally sloppy and also demonstrates how good this band of louts was. The rhythm never wavers, the chords chime, and when Johnny can remember the words he’s a rock artist.