Growing up the North East in the early 80s, the punk wave was over. Occasionally I would see these funny looking people with their weird clothes and spiky hair that had my parents tutting at them, clouding my idea of the kind of people who were punks. It was only after meeting old punks and bands like Nirvana causing me to go back and listen to punk music that my view changed. Like many, my exploration of (popular) punk started with the Sex Pistols. Their influence on music and culture is so large. It is the obvious place to start.
Pistol, the Danny Boyle directed TV series has already proved controversial. John Lydon tried to stop the programme from using the Sex Pistols’ music after he refused to be part of the series. With a court ruling the remaining Pistols had a majority rules agreement about the licensing of the music. I think John was also concerned he would be portrayed poorly. But the series isn’t the John Lydon story, but Steve Jones own story of the Sex Pistols.
The first episode sets the scene for the series. It is pure fantasy. While Steve claims he stole some equipment from Bowie during his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ tour. The episode has him climbing through a window of the Hammersmith Apollo and wheel out a trailer full of gear. The introduction of Malcolm McLaren, has him as Steve’s fairy goth mother. Saving him from a prison sentence, helping him form a band and this set the context for everything that follows. This is the story of Steve’s manipulation by Malcolm. Yes, it is the story of the Pistols. But it is told from Steve’s perspective and his reflection on why he made the decisions that eventually led to betrayals, the splitting of the Pistols and the death of Sid and Nancy.
In some ways John shouldn’t have been concerned about the series. There are arguably two good guys in the series, John and Chrissie Hyde. John sees through Malcolm and because of this, he ultimately has to go. Chrissie is the person with the big heart willing to help Steve achieve his dreams, at the expense of her own dreams.
For those of us who haven’t really looked into what happened to the Pistols, while playing fast and loose with some facts, Danny Boyle manages to tell the story of the Pistols and to a lesser extent the punk movement with humour and pace. It never feels laboured. The main reason for this is the excellent cast.
Anson Boon who plays John is a revelation. While it isn’t a spot on representation of John. It works. He manages to capture John’s weird style of speaking and singing along with his skittish body mannerisms. This John is intelligent and principled. His addition to the band is what transforms the band into the band we know.
Equally impressive is Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Malcolm. I only know Malcolm from the 80s and 90s where he always appeared to be a bit of a snake oil salesman. Thomas decides to play him as a modern day Barnam. He is a showman manipulating his circus to create the biggest headlines. Taking credit from everyone (especially Vivienne Westwood). But never taking responsibility for any of his own actions or showing any concern about who he hurts.
If like me, you didn’t know the story. I won’t spoil it for you. It is worth approaching this not as the definitive history of the Pistols, the punk movement, or even a true story. Approach the programme as the memory of a man who now knows he was manipulated at the time and made decisions that ultimately leading to tragic two deaths. This is him recognising Malcolm played him.