When Johnny Rotten crouched on the edge of the stage in San Francisco in 1978, at the demise of the Sex Pistols’ US tour, and asked, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” it would inspire a key moment in a film four years later.
In Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains, Billy (Ray Winstone) fronts the Looters – a London punk band, all “poxy” this and “bollocks” that – rounded out by real-life Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, as well as Paul Simonon from the Clash. Billy addresses the fanatical teenage girl audience awaiting the set of headline act the Fabulous Stains, and snarls: “You’ve been ripped off.”
Rotten’s comment had been in reference to manager Malcolm McLaren booking the disastrous tour in cities unlikely to embrace the Pistols, whereas Billy’s broadside is motivated by resentment that his booking agent has turned what had been the Looters’ support band, the Fabulous Stains, into a cynical marketing concept.
“You’re adverts. You’re a commercial,” he spits at the audience of “skunks”, named after the two-tone hair of the Fabulous Stains. This sea of teenage girls is dressed in the official Stains merch of transparent red blouses, completed by red winged eye makeup, and underwear and fishnets with no skirts.
It’s not the only parallel to the Pistols in this long-lost cult film, now available to rent or buy on YouTube. Jones and Cook, who wrote many songs on the soundtrack, formed the Professionals after the Pistols broke up. One of that band’s singles, Join the Professionals, winds up being the Fabulous Stains’ break-out MTV hit.
The Fabulous Stains themselves, made up of nihilistic firecracker Corinne Burns (a 15-year-old Diane Lane); Jessica McNeil (13-year-old Laura Dern) and Tracy Burns (Marianne Kanter) are pitched somewhere between the Go-Gos and the Runaways, and frontwoman Corinne is frequently invited on to TV shows, thanks to her bleak one-liners that are guaranteed to shock suburbia. One moralistic TV news anchor is clearly modelled on Bill Grundy, whose 1976 interview with the Pistols descended into mayhem when he contemptuously goaded them into swearing.
The plot follows a tour of the US, initially headlined by rock dinosaurs the Metal Corpses (a washed-up version of KISS), followed on the bill by the Looters and the Fabulous Stains.
Each band is out of step with the next. Metal Corpses singer Lou (played by Fee Waybill of the Tubes) lectures the Looters that their leather rockabilly look is nothing new, resulting in a scuffle. Winstone threw a real punch, according to Waybill, which is perhaps not surprising, as Winstone – who was already famous for his back catalogue of playing the troubled thug, in Scum and Quadrophenia – has admitted to the Guardian that he has head-butted the odd director.
The Fabulous Stains are just as disparaging of Metal Corpses (“He was an old man in a young girl’s world,” they tell reporters when the guitarist overdoses backstage), but also of the Looters, who are themselves has-beens by 1982. They’re repulsed by the way their tourmates assume all women are groupies, giving rise to the slogan, “We’re the Stains and we don’t put out”. Their star soon eclipses that of the other bands, and Corinne becomes some kind of monster herself.
The screenplay was written by Nancy Dowd (who used a male pseudonym, Rob Morton, as was often her way), in consultation with Melody Maker journalist and former manager of the Clash, Caroline Coon. A 1977 New York Times article about Dowd for her earlier film, Slap Shot, which is set in the world of professional hockey, describes her as a “sweet‐faced Smith College graduate from a proper Massachusetts family”. “She is 31 years old, has a trim figure and perfect teeth”, it goes on, but Dowd regularly snips her interviewer down to size, Stains-style.
In fact, one wonders what the famously prickly Dowd made of the end result of Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains. She and director/record executive Lou Adler apparently couldn’t agree on the ending, and she walked off set after being groped by a crew member. Her feminist script rubbed up awkwardly against the lingering shots of pubescent breasts bouncing behind transparent blouses.
Paramount buried the film, perhaps because of a poorly received test screening, and it languished in the vaults for decades, only being screened at the odd film festival. Those fleeting outings were enough to fire the imaginations of Courtney Love and riot grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill, but the film didn’t reach a wider audience until it was released on DVD in 2008 with a cast commentary.
There are some great visual moments, such as the audience of teenage Stains clones flipping off the Looters en masse, and the dilapidated tour bus rumbling through shit towns (driven by real-life reggae artist Barry Ford as the tour manager) painted red, gold and green, with “The Looters” spray-painted over “The Metal Corpses”. And the smart-mouthed script isn’t as contrived as you might anticipate, despite having to jump a number of sharks in order to catapult the Stains to MTV stardom.
The ultimate burn comes from Corinne Burns, of course.
“You are so jealous of me,” she tells Billy, who’s kicked down her dressing room door to tell her she knows nothing about the industry. “I’m everything you ever wanted to be.”
“A cunt,” he spits.
• Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is available to stream on YouTube