The Sex Pistols were a mythical band. Steve Jones couldn’t play guitar. Johnny Rotten couldn’t sing. Sid Vicious couldn’t always stand upright, much less keep his spiky hair on end. Malcom McLaren couldn’t manage. With Glen Matlock and Paul Cook rounding out the band, the personnel are just the stencils for McLaren’s silk screen. Danny Boyle’s Pistol, coming to FX on Hulu, perpetuates the mythology. This is probably part of the reason John Lydon didn’t sign off on the project. He likes to keep his public image limited. It also might be a little melodramatic for the former Sex Pistols frontman. That works for TV more than it does for punks.
Based on Jones’ memoir Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, the six-episode miniseries tells the story of the forgotten generation of London’s punk culture through the eyes of their most fabricated spokespeople: The Sex Pistols, which consisted of guitarist Steve Jones (Toby Wallace), drummer Paul Cook (Jacob Slater), singer John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon (Anson Boon), and bassist Glen Matlock (Christian Lees), who was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by John Beverley, who rechristened himself Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge).
Pistol inadvertently proves the Sex Pistols were more of a manufactured band than The Monkees, something which is not lost on its most well-developed secondary character. Sydney Chandler ultimately owns the series as Chrissie Hynde, but the Pretenders’ founding singer-songwriter has one of the most compelling stories in rock.
Emma Appleton is mesmerizing as Nancy Spungen, capturing the schizophrenic mania without turning her into a caricature of a human trainwreck. The urban eastern seaboard accent she uses runs the risk of derailing any scene she is in, but is ultimately endearing, in an almost paradoxical way. This adds to the hand-sewn sheen of the series which ultimately stitches Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) together as the most authentic punk of all. Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams plays the iconic punk model Jordan as a fashion statement.
“We’re not into music,” Jones tells the rock press after the band’s first gig. “We’re into chaos.” Pistol fudges some of its facts for drama, but gets the sound right. Besides the best-known Sex Pistols tunes like “Anarchy in the UK,” “Holiday in the Sun,” “Pretty Vacant” and “God Save the Queen,” Pistol also features the stories behind lesser-known cuts like “Bodies,” and their very first song as a group, “Lazy Sod.”
The period songs are fun and very diverse. Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop represent early clues to the new direction. Rod Stewart and Rick Wakeman stand-in for record industry indulgences. The Beatles are mocked for their augmented chords, Reggae is presented as a street level political movement, and Abba is reviled outright. Spoiler warning: seeing Jones dancing to “I Got the Music in Me” just might send viewers on a trek for some Mandys, the early 1970s rock star drug of choice. In the series, Jones, who went on to become “the 94th greatest guitarist of all time” by his own reckoning, cites Otis Redding as the reason he found liberation in music. The first episode is called “Track 1: The Cloak of Invisibility,” which references Jones’ alternate means of escape. He’s a street punk before he’s a stage one.
The series opens with footage of David Bowie’s 1973 farewell concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, the legendary show concluded the revolution begun with the rise of the Spiders from Mars. Pistol includes a little-known footnote, Jones really did steal some equipment from the venue during the run, including drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey’s cymbals. The series makes it more cinematic, dubbing Jones as the “Phantom of the Odeon,” imagining himself in Bowie’s spotlight, and stealing a microphone with the Starman’s lipstick still on it.
Jones will later be gifted with the 1974 Les Paul Custom electric guitar which had belonged to Syl Sylvain of the New York Dolls. This is a true fact, and should have been as much foreboding warning to the Sex Pistols’ guitarist as it is unintentionally subliminal foreshadowing of things to come in the series’ events. Before the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) took the most promising underground New York City rebel ensemble and dashed them on the rock-hard concrete. For those who don’t know the Sex Pistols story, they live up to the motto imposed on them in the series: “get pissed, destroy.”
Pistol hits all the high and low points of the Sex Pistols various rises and falls. Bill Grundy’s famously provocative Dec. 1, 1976, Thames Television interview is painstakingly recreated right down to the original opening credits. The disaffected youth movement which rose from the three-chord anthems is populated with short stories of rejection, transformation and societal regurgitation. The Sex Pistols’ promise to “kick this country awake if it kills us” is shown to be fulfilled in its least affirmative consequence. The British monarchy still stands. The collateral damage of doing business with McLaren is ground underfoot. Only Hynde and Westwood sidestep indignity, but only by degrees.
Pistol is created and written by Craig Pearce, who co-wrote the screenplay for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, and he sprinkles Presley on the soup like a condiment. Jones may not remember whether he peed on Presley’s grave when the Sex Pistols visited Graceland, but the tour of the American south is memorably rendered. The standout scenes come at the expense of Sid Vicious’ nose.
The Sex Pistols story wasn’t told in 1986’s Sid & Nancy, which focused on Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious to Chloe Webb’s Nancy Spungen. The story was fleshed out in the 2000 documentary The Filth and the Fury. But the story of the band makes for an entertaining watch, with natural dramatic beats and more than one tragic hero. Every character has a tragic flaw, and they are all done in by it before the series runs its course.
When the series was first announced, Lydon reportedly balked at giving FX permission to use the band’s music and called Pistol “the most disrespectful shit I’ve ever had to endure.” This should come as high praise from the blank generation’s impertinence expert, but there is an air of respectability about the televised condensation which cuts both ways. It is refreshing to see a network allow uncensored TV language in context of the shock of its time. It is more encouraging to let the double meaning of Sid Vicious’ desperate plea “I need a fix,” carved in his chest during concerts, bleed out as the kind of psychic wound it is.
Boyle brought beauty to the most inelegant realities with his unapologetically unflinching voyeuristic junkie masterpiece Trainspotting. The London of Pistol has the settings framed in period perfection, but the bombed-out grit of British street culture seems to have been bussed in from the suburbs, like the school girl wannabes who get to be punks for a night of marketable anarchy, only to be sent unceremoniously packing after they drop off their outfits.
Ultimately, Pistol is nostalgic and purposefully painful. It is evident Boyle would have had the punk journey go on for more than the three-year life of one band, but he chose the representational band wisely. This is an immorality play, and he wants it to feel like a swindle, which makes him sprinkle in so many band-in-their-infancy teases. Boyle probably should have hit all the notes like the Ramones on speed, but applies the Sex Pistols original bassist Matlock’s restraint, and delivers a solid tune without extended solos.
FX’s Pistol premieres Tuesday, May 31, on Hulu.