Danny Boyle’s New Sex Pistols Series Tells the Story of Punk Rock in the UK

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sex Pis­tols Make a Scan­dalous Appear­ance on the Bill Grundy Show & Intro­duce Punk Rock to the Star­tled Mass­es (1976)

The Sex Pis­tols Riotous 1978 Tour Through the U.S. South: Watch/Hear Con­certs in Dal­las, Mem­phis, Tul­sa & More

Watch the Sex Pis­tols’ Very Last Con­cert (San Fran­cis­co, 1978)

The Sex Pis­tols’ Sid Vicious Sings Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”: Is Noth­ing Sacred?

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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