‘Pistol’: Fun and Nasty

A TV miniseries from Danny Boyle that gives The Sex Pistols their due

The Sex Pistols will not go away quietly. Or, quite possibly, ever. Their story has been told many times, many ways, by a variety of insiders and outsiders, including three of the four primary band members in their memoirs. There’s been a movie or two, too.

Now, 47 years after the band’s inception, director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) is taking a crack at it. And a good crack it is.

Pistol, a six-part mini-series, loads all at once on FX via Hulu on May 31. Yes, it’s stuffed with the requisite trio of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Also, a good deal of fisticuffs, almost constant strife and a bit of death. I don’t need to shout “spoiler alert!” to tell you bassist Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge) doesn’t make it out alive, nor his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton).

It is based, primarily, upon guitarist Steve Jones’s 2017 memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, and written by Craig Pearce. Jones (Toby Wallace) is an illiterate low-level thief and wanna-be guitarist who tries to nick items from SEX, the London bondage clothing shop run by Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and his anarchy-prone co-conspirator/romantic- business partner Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley).

Jones–whose family makes him feel like he’s “a waste of space”–is key to the story. He and his mate, drummer Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) set the band in motion. Still, there are numerous scenes in Pistol that range outside of Jones’s experience, things that he could not have witnessed. So, let’s accept there’s some reconstruction here that fits the story arc and not quibble too much over exactitude.

The battle for control of the band, as well as the band’s image and message, is central to the story and it comes down to a clash between McLaren and singer Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon). While incoming bassist Glen Matlock (Christian Lees) is the main songwriter – it was Jones’s job to rough up Matlock’s melodies – Rotten wrote the scorching (and clever) lyrics. It became his band in the sense of him becoming, for better or for worse, the public face of British punk. At least until Vicious joined, when the job was shared, not always willingly.

No future is far in the past

Boyle sets the Pistols loose in an England where dreams for many young people have gone up in smoke and anger is smoldering. He takes us up close and personal inside the world of these musical miscreants. He has you feeling–well, if you’re my age (65) and saw them live first time around–that it’s all so vivid, so close in spirit … and, yet, so far away in reality. Face it, if you do the math: 2022 is to 1977 as 1977 was to 1932. That year, Fred Astaire & Leo Reisman’s “Night & Day” was the No. 1 song. It was the dawn of the swing era.

Boyle ticks off boxes endemic to the band’s story: The infamous cursing appearance on Bill Grundy’s TV chat show, the subsequent Daily Mirror tabloid headline “The Filth and the Fury!” and the national furor. Boyle recreates the scene where they’re playing their own “God Save the Queen”–kinda opposite the other one–on a barge chugging down the Thames during the Silver Jubilee celebration in 1977. Brilliant publicity then and it brought a smile to see it re-enacted.

He’s got Vicious cutting his chest with broken glass, etching out the words GIMME A FIX on their catastrophic 1978 American tour. In a climactic scene following the breakup  he’s got Vicious sporting a swastika t-shirt singing “My Way” in the post-Pistols film McLaren made with Julien Temple, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. That ends, in Boyle’s film as in Temple’s, with a curdled-lip Vicious strafing the audience with gunfire.

Look, Sid might have been an idiot and a junkie but he was not a neo-Nazi; McLaren, who was Jewish, used the symbol because of the red-flag it raised and the near-universal revulsion it caused. (Interestingly, when Alex Cox made the Sid and Nancy biopic, he dressed his Vicious, Gary Oldman, in a hammer-and-sickle t-shirt, just not wanting to go as far off the charts as the real deal Sid.)

Pistol is both fun and nasty, a jarring trip through the fledgling days of punk. I wouldn’t say it’s a story of non-stop conflict – there are a few tender, sweet moments and of course the galvanizing songs – but there is always conflict waiting around every corner.

The series unfolds chronologically which is a blessing, given the propensity these days for mini-series to thrive on multiple flashbacks and wallow in them. With this six-hour sprawl, there’s plenty of space and time to explore the various Pistolian off-ramps, such as how the actual songs took shape. Generally, it was Rotten spitting out words after Jones, Cook and Matlock banged out riffs. And Rotten was a clever bastard. I’ve always loved the line in “Anarchy in the U.K,” where amidst the advocation of anarchy Rotten advises, “Give a wrong time/Stop a traffic line.” Just these minor subversive suggestions tickle me.

There are several sub-plots and lesser-known incidents. One I didn’t know: The rehearsal space rented by McLaren for the band was where Badfinger singer Pete Ham had hanged himself not long before the Pistols took over. McLaren was pretty chuffed about getting the space for cheap because of that and he certainly didn’t object to the notoriety.

McLaren, who called his troupe “my sexy assassins,” wanted to create volatile scenarios, thrusting his boys into situations where altercations were inevitable. Vicious loved a good punch-up and was probably more  masochist than sadist. Rotten preferred verbal wrangling and the battles here between him and McLaren, well, everyone, really, are some of the best scenes.

Brodie-Sangster nails McLaren–the twinkly eyes, the manipulative poetry of his pitches, the impish, yet exploitative, nature of his very being. Everyone is a tool to be used for McLaren’s benefit and if it benefits those tools, all the better, but not necessary. And Boon is a very good Rotten – he’s got the body type, the high cheekbones, the scowl, the glaring and Rami Malek-like popping eyes, the sneer and the accent, even if he’s not by any means a dead ringer.

The danger (and folly) of many a rock biopic the viewer can’t help but feel the fakery and groan along. I give you modern example No. 1: Bohemian Rhapsody. Biopic dialogue can seem canned or stilted, scenes set up that look staged, club concert segments that look like anything but live. Boyle dodges those bullets. There’s verisimilitude here. Most of the time, you can suspend disbelief and feel like you’re in on scheme, observing the band as they stumble, scrap and score.

Sid and Nancy in Danny Boyle’s ‘Pistol.’

There was a cartoonish element to the Pistols–they loved taking the piss out of people–and McLaren and Temple even had them as animated characters sometimes in Swindle. But there’s a richness and complexity to them as well and Boyle mines that. Your loyalties to this band member or that band member (or McLaren himself, evil genius though he might have been) shifts around. It’s certainly not a redemption story. No one is innocent. But Rotten and Vicious once had a genuine friendship before the Pistols began; when Matlock was sacked, possibly for liking The Beatles too much, Rotten brought Vicious aboard, knowing full well he didn’t know how to play bass and could only provide a menacing punk image.

The most alluring subplot is about future Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler). She is very much a part of the McLaren/Westwood whirlwind at SEX and strikes up a relationship with Jones. It’s a bit of quick sex, but mostly a friendship based on making music and trying to find their place in the maelstrom of London punk. Again, it’s no spoiler to say Hynde does find her way and at the end of the series we see her and her nascent band working out the song “Kid.”

The most depressing, although very entertaining, subplot is when punk groupie Spungen enters Vicious’s life and latches onto him; hence she’s part of the Pistols orbit, their “Yoko” as one of them says. Hynde, like most everyone, hates her and says they’ve got to send the American-born Spungen back to New York. “If you don’t kidnap her, I will murder her!” she declares. And the Pistols (without Sid’s knowledge) drug her and send her away. Like a bad penny, Spungen comes back to England. And poor Sid is still in love with her.

Appleton’s portrayal of Spungen is not as flat-out reprehensible was Cloe Webb’s in Sid and Nancy. That Nancy whined and screeched constantly (not without darkly comic effect.) Here, she’s more of a lonely soul, who, like many others, immersed herself in punk culture and turned to heroin to soothe the pain. And she brings her smack to Sid, not for the first time; his mum shot him up when he was 14. Heroin, naturally enough, true to its mission, ruins his life.

Jones later gets hooked, too. Late in the game, Rotten and Jones are having a heart-to-heart and he asks Jones, “You gonna go out the way Sid went? … Sid was quite special but the drugs turned him into a third-rate B-movie, to a place of dark violent hilarity.” If he didn’t say it, he should have. It sure sounds like Rotten.

It might be noted Rotten–or Lydon as he calls himself outside of Pistols’ contexts – wanted nothing to do with Pistol and tried to squelch it in the courts. Lydon told the London Sunday Times the show “is the most disrespectful shit I’ve ever had to endure.” (There’s no indication where, when or how he saw.) Lydon failed to stop the production, as the band made a majority-rules pact long ago that the judge ruled still held.

Boyle does a masterful job of intercutting real-life footage, concert and otherwise, with his fictional recreations. He’s got McLaren delivering devilish spiels and theories on revolution–which some reviewers have found preposterous–but that was him. (I spent an afternoon with him in 1985, drinks and interview.) Why be prosaic when you can be simultaneously ornate and verbose?

Boyle puts the Pistols at the forefront of the punk movement and I’ve got no quarrel with that, but he fails, by and large, to place them into the larger context of the punk explosion happening all around England: The Clash, The Jam, Buzzcocks, The Damned, many more. Yes, you get the sense that there’s a wave of punk rock going on, but the Pistols seem insular and far more isolated from it than they were in reality.

Boyle’s series stops, as it should, with the demise of the Sex Pistols Mach 1.  Well, there’s a bit of a postscript, and the only flashback in the series. It’s kind of sweet, showing these guys, as punk as they were, had a heart. I won’t tip you off further.

When I met the Pistols

And now…a few moments with the real-life Sex Pistols. The band, with Matlock back in the mix, did reunion tours in 1996 and 2007. I was in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. for the stop on the first tour.

Rotten prowled the stage cussing like a pirate, crowing about the Pistols being “fat, 40 and back.” The Pistols were better musicians than they’d been. It sounded great even if the look was, well, not quite the same and the tenor of the times much different.

Backstage, in a way, Vicious was the dead elephant in the room. “He was a coat hanger from start to finish,” Rotten told me, “Amazing. He’s the most popular coat hanger in this history of bad music…, Old Sid. That man never played.”

“It was kind of a mistake getting him in the band,” added Jones. “It was mainly ’cause he looked the part and he’d come to all our shows and John knew him. But he couldn’t play, and when he joined the whole chemistry just went out the window.”

I asked Matlock if playing with the Sex Pistols again felt weird.

“What? You mean being so old and all?” he asked. “No. It feels right. It feels natural.”

“Dunno,” answered Cook to the same question. “It’s weird playing places like this. I think we’re more of an urban band.” (The gig was an hour outside the city, in a verdant, collegiate setting.) “We’re not really a gymnasium band.”

Same question to Jones. “At first, the first few shows, it was very, very weird,” he says, punctuating his observations with expletives. “I can’t even describe it to you. Almost like being in the Twilight Zone or something. But now it seems as natural as air. There’s no reason on God’s green earth why we shouldn’t be back together playing music. You know if we don’t, we start believing our own myth.”

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan wrote about pop music and culture for the Boston Globe from 1979-2005 and currently is doing the same for WBUR’s ARTery and Rock and Roll Globe among other websites and outlets.

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