“I am creating a revolution here! I don’t want musicians, I want saboteurs, I want assassins, I want shock troops!” — Malcolm McLaren in FX’s Pistol
“People are trying to make it out as a bit of a joke, but it’s not a joke. It’s not political anarchy either; it’s musical anarchy, which is a different thing.” — John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Interview with Mary Harron, 1976
“What do you think of Steve [Jones]?” says Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) to his partner Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) before telling her his plans to manage the future Sex Pistols in Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle’s FX mini-series Pistol. “Very damaged,” says Westwood, “but that’s quite good.” This sits well with budding impresario McLaren, who sees then-lead singer Jones as exactly the bomb he needs to throw at the establishment. “He’s got nothing else to live for,” says McLaren coldly.
The kids in the UK punk scene McLaren and Westwood stage-managed may have been outcasts, but many also came from staid suburban backgrounds, as did many of the punks in the downtown New York scene. When McLaren calls Jones (Toby Wallace) “the real deal,” he means the angry, drunken teenage face of a working class with little left to lose. Boyle’s series sets Jones up as representative of what made British punk so angry and “edgy” (to use one of Jones’ favorite words). The very first scene recreates his famous theft of David Bowie’s instruments to start the band. Genius stealing from genius.
Jones not only steals famous musicians’ gear, but he joyrides in stolen cars, and tries to steal leather pants from SEX, McLaren and Westwood’s S&M-themed boutique. There, future Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler) works the counter, and threatens to beat him with a cricket bat. The focus on Jones almost exclusively in the first episode suggests that he is the singular “Pistol” of the title.
Other characters show up eventually — frontman Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon) makes his appearance in the second episode (or “Track”) to bump Jones from vocals to guitar. The penultimate episode is titled “Nancy and Sid” in homage to Alex Cox’s cult biopic Sid and Nancy. But in the beginning, when the band was called “The Swankers,” it was all Steve Jones’ show, Boyle’s series suggests, from procuring the gear, to writing the first songs, to landing McLaren as manager.
Why release a biographical series on the Sex Pistols in 2022? The story has been told, in interviews, memoirs, and films, by the band, their entourage, hangers-on, and fans, and their manager, stylists, roadies, journalists, and photographers. It has been told so many times, so many ways, it makes the multiple perspectives of Kurosawa’s Rashomon seem easy to reconcile. (See comparisons between Boyle’s show and other documents above.) What could one more telling, streaming on a network once owned by Rupert Murdoch and now owned by the Disney Corporation, add to the living memory of 1970’s British Punk™?
We can hear some answers from series co-creator Boyle in the interview clip just above with the BBC. He describes what the band meant to him when he was a university student reading the news of the underground London in NME. “It’s only when you create true chaos,” he says, “that something new can emerge.” Does Pistol bring something new? The series is entertaining, recreating events familiar to us from any of the multiple histories of the Sex Pistols and doing so in a streamlined, hardly chaotic, narrative style.
Keeping the focus squarely on the handsome, charismatic Jones in the first episode (and to a lesser extent dapper original bassist Glen Matlock and boyish drummer Paul Cook) softens the band’s usual portrait. Maybe they seem more palatable at first to the very establishment McLaren tried to detonate in his revolution. But as Lydon, who happily took over as their spokesman, told Mary Harron in a 1976 interview, the idea that the Sex Pistols should be thought of as “socially significant” never appealed to him. “We want to be AMATEURS,” he sneered.
They wrote scathing nihilist protest songs like “EMI” and “God Save the Queen” (which they played on the Thames on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, above). But the Pistols were not actually anti-corporate anarchists. They were antisocial shock-rock theater. It is bewildering, nonetheless — because of the weight of their influence on politically-charged punk rock — to see them turned into fictionalized heroes in corporate media. And it is jarring to hear Lydon praise Trump, Nigel Farage, and the far right, without a trace of irony, as the real inheritors of punk. Never one to withhold an opinion, he’s made his views on the show clear (below): “It’s dead against everything we stood for.”
Ironically, Matlock, who is credited with writing ten of the twelve tracks on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, once said exactly the same thing about Johnny Rotten. So, what did the Sex Pistols stand for? Pissing people off, becoming absolutely hated, and getting rich? Only the last part of McLaren’s plot failed when he lost control of his monster. For all his revolutionary fervor, even McLaren was initially shocked (then delighted, then horrified and disgusted) by the band’s bad manners. Maybe writer and underground punk cartoonist John Holmstrom said it best: “It’s unbelievable that a rock group that played no more than one hundred live performances… and existed for only twenty-seven months, could become as internationally disliked as the Sex Pistols.” It’s even more unbelievable that they’ve become so internationally beloved.