Danny Boyle’s new Sex Pistols series tells the story of UK punk rock
“I am creating a revolution here! I don’t want musicians, I want saboteurs, I want assassins, I want shock troops! — Malcolm McLaren in Pistol by FX
“People try to pass it off as a joke, but it’s not a joke. It’s not political anarchy either; it’s musical anarchy, which is different. – John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Interview with Mary Harron, 1976
“What do you think of Steve [Jones]?” Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) tells his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) before telling her of his plans to lead the future Sex Pistols in Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle’s FX miniseries Gun. “Very damaged,” Westwood says, “but it’s pretty good.” It fits well with the aspiring McLaren impresario, who sees then-singer Jones as the bomb to drop on the establishment. “He has nothing else to live for,” McLaren said coldly.
The children of the British McLaren and Westwood punk scene may have been pariahs, but many also came from stuffy suburban backgrounds, as did many punks from the inner city New York scene. When McLaren calls Jones (Toby Wallace) “the real deal”, he’s talking about the angry, drunken, adolescent face of a working class with little to lose. Boyle’s series makes Jones a representative of what made British punk so angry and “edgy” (to use one of Jones’ favorite words). The very first scene recreates his famous flight of David Bowie’s instruments to start the band. The genius who steals the genius.
Jones not only steals gear from famous musicians, but he drives around in stolen cars and tries to steal leather pants from the S&M-themed boutique of SEX, McLaren, and Westwood. There, future Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler) works at 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 “gun” of the title.
Other characters eventually appear – frontman Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon) makes an appearance in the second episode (or “Track”) to switch Jones from vocals to guitar. The penultimate episode is titled “Nancy and Sid” in tribute to the cult biopic by Alex Cox Sid and Nancy. But in the beginning, when the group was called “The Swankers,” it was all Steve Jones show, Boyle’s series suggests, from buying the equipment to writing the first songs, including the arrival of McLaren as manager.
Why release a Sex Pistols biographical series in 2022? The story has been told, in interviews, memoirs and films, by the band, their entourage, parasites and fans, as well as their manager, stylists, roadies, reporters and photographers. It’s been retold so many times, in so many ways, it makes Kurosawa’s multiple perspectives Rashomon seem easy to reconcile. (See comparisons between Boyle’s show and other material above.) What could another account, airing on a network once owned by Rupert Murdoch and now owned by Disney Corporation, add to the living memory of 1970s British Punk™?
You can hear some responses from series co-creator Boyle in the interview clip just above with the BBC. He describes what the band meant to him as a university student while reading the news from the London underground in NME. “It’s only when you create real chaos,” he says, “that something new can emerge.” Do Gun bring something new? The series is entertaining, recreating events familiar to us from one of the Sex Pistols’ multiple stories and doing so in a streamlined, barely chaotic narrative style.
Keeping the focus on the handsome and charismatic Jones in the first episode (and to a lesser extent original bassist Glen Matlock and boyish drummer Paul Cook) softens the band’s usual portrayal. Perhaps they seem more palatable at first to the very establishment that McLaren has tried to blast in its revolution. But as Lydon, who happily took over as spokesperson, told Mary Harron in a 1976 interview, the idea that the Sex Pistols should be seen as “socially significant” never did. seduced. “We want to be AMATEUR”, he chuckled.
They wrote scathing nihilistic protest songs like ‘EMI’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ (which they played on the River Thames during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, above). But the Pistols weren’t really anti-corporate anarchists. It was anti-social shock-rock theatre. It is nevertheless disconcerting – due to the weight of their influence on politically charged punk rock – to see them transformed into fictional heroes in the corporate media. And it’s shocking to hear Lydon praise Trump, Nigel Farage and the far right, without the slightest irony, as the true heirs of punk. Never one to withhold an opinion, he 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 bullshit, here come the Sex Pistols, once said the exact same thing about Johnny Rotten. So what did the Sex Pistols stand for? Pissing people off, getting absolutely hated, and getting rich? Only the last part of McLaren’s plot failed when he lost control of his monster. For all its revolutionary fervor, even McLaren was at first shocked (then thrilled, then horrified and disgusted) by the band’s bad manners. Perhaps underground punk writer and cartoonist John Holmstrom said it best: “It’s amazing that a rock band that hasn’t played more than a hundred live performances…and never only existed for twenty-seven months, could become as internationally hated as the Sex Pistols.” It’s even more amazing that they have become so beloved internationally.
The Sex Pistols make an outrageous appearance on the Bill Grundy Show and introduce punk rock to the surprised masses (1976)
The Sex Pistols Riotous 1978 Tour Across the Southern United States: Watch/Listen to Concerts in Dallas, Memphis, Tulsa, and More.
Watch the very last Sex Pistols concert (San Francisco, 1978)
Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious Sings Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”: Nothing Is Sacred?
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness