The Sex Pistols played their first gig on 6 November 1975 and their last on 14 January 1978, not long after the release of their first and only album. No major rock band has had a shorter career. The phenomenon occurred in a particular place at a particular time — and then it stopped.
Their story was one of the first I learned when I was getting interested in the history of pop music because the simplified, mythologised version was so easy to grasp. Britain was grotty, violent and boring. Everyone was listening to prog-rock keyboard solos. And then punk happened and everything changed! Was it true? Not entirely, but what a narrative!
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
For Craig Pearce and Danny Boyle, writer and director of the new Disney+ series Pistol, the compressed timeline cuts both ways. It helps in terms of dramatic unity: no long slog to the top, no slow decline. It hurts because the crucial events are so well-known. The convergence of a mediocre rock band called the Strand, manager Malcolm McLaren and the snot-haired outcast who became Johnny Rotten. “Anarchy in the UK”. The accidental scandal of the Bill Grundy show. The calculated scandal of “God Save the Queen” and the Silver Jubilee boat trip. The arrival of Sid Vicious. The record labels who decided they were too hot to handle before a young Richard Branson took a punt on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Their final implosion in San Francisco: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” The hideous coda of Sid and Nancy. What more is there to say? What mysteries to reveal? It all happened too fast.
The release of Pistol in time for the Jubilee, alongside a somewhat tawdry reissue of “God Save the Queen”, reaffirms the peculiar connection between the Sex Pistols and the Queen: two radically different visions of England, both now united by nostalgia. Boyle, who managed to squeeze both of them into the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, brings his usual wit and velocity to the show — the concert scenes are thrilling — but the actors are far too attractive and say implausibly tidy things like “We’re outlaws and tonight we’re going to change the world” and “No one gives a shit about us so we don’t give a shit about no one else”. Pearce, who has written five screenplays for Baz Luhrmann, makes this too much of a jolly showbiz caper and even the tragedy is sentimentalised. Pistol entertains but it doesn’t disturb.
Pistol does at least recognise that the Sex Pistols were an unstable compound from day one because the key players were not great friends and they had very different missions. Guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and original bassist Glen Matlock wanted to make noisy rock’n’roll. “From that day on, it was different,” Jones later complained about the Bill Grundy furore. “Before then, it was just music; the next day, it was the media.”
But to Malcolm McLaren, who advertised that the Pistols were more incompetent players than they really were, it was never just about the music. It was a Situationist art project that would help him flog T-shirts and give him a reputation as a devilish impresario. “The only rule I had was that if it didn’t annoy anyone and create problems, it wasn’t worth doing,” he explained.
This was easy to say if you weren’t on the frontline. The combined impact of Grundy and “God Save the Queen” made life very difficult for the band — tabloid fury, cancelled gigs, physical assaults, vilification on a breathtaking scale — but to McLaren, who saw them as components in a chaos engine rather than vulnerable young men, it was all fabulous publicity. In his eyes the Sex Pistols were nothing if they weren’t a media event. The writer Fred Vermorel astutely describes the Sex Pistols as “a masterpiece made not of paint and canvas but of headlines and scandal, scams and factoids, rumour and fashion, slogans, fantasies and images and (I almost forgot) songs”.
As for Matlock’s replacement Sid Vicious, effectively a feral child, he was the true embodiment of the famous line that McLaren fed to Jones: “Actually we’re not into music. We’re into chaos.” And Johnny Rotten, with his gargoyle stare and indelible sneer, wanted to express his fathomless contempt with everyone and everything, himself included. So it was entirely appropriate that the band would self-immolate, on the stage of San Francisco’s Winterland theatre, in a hateful mess with Rotten snarling “no fun” over and over again. They were a timebomb all along.
If the participants could not agree on what the Sex Pistols were, then nor can their fans. To Noel Gallagher, who borrowed their exhilarating hostility and tsunami of guitars on Oasis’s Definitely Maybe, Never Mind the Bollocks is “a fucking laugh”. But to the Manic Street Preachers, whose misanthropic masterpiece The Holy Bible also came out in 1994, the vital ingredient was the annihilating disgust of “Bodies” and “Holidays in the Sun”.
Whereas the Clash were sociable humanists, the Pistols were so thoroughly alienated that their politics landed somewhere truly unnerving, beyond Left and Right. The Sun wasn’t wrong to compare them to the marauding Droogs in A Clockwork Orange. In his review of the album, the critic Robert Christgau was both blown away and freaked out: “The only real question is how many American kids might feel the way Rotten does, and where he and they will go next. I wonder — but I also worry.”
You can assess the Sex Pistols in historical terms, as the greatest rock catalyst since Bob Dylan and the Beatles. The Damned’s “New Rose” may have been the first punk rock single but it was the Sex Pistols who licensed people to think: “I could do that.” Straight away, there were bands like the Clash and Joy Division who formed or reinvented themselves as a direct result of seeing them play. “They were terrible,” Joy Division’s Bernard Sumner once said. “I thought they were great. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.” His bandmate Peter Hook said: “I wanted to tell the world to fuck off, just like Johnny Rotten.” Down the years, the example of the Sex Pistols has inspired the Specials and Depeche Mode; U2 and Simple Minds; the Smiths and the Fall; Nirvana and Green Day; the Prodigy and Eminem; Trainspotting and Natural Born Killers. The Sex Pistols were the birth of something new and immense. After them came the flood.
Yet if you think about what the Sex Pistols actually were rather than what they initiated, you’re struck by their deathward trajectory — the denial and negation crystallised in Rotten’s cry of “No future!” Public Enemy’s Chuck D called them “art kamikazes” and that spirit of self-destruction, of being consumed by the fire you started, comes from Rotten alone. The music was thrilling and immediate but trying to get to the bottom of what Rotten was doing can lead you to some very strange places.
In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus uses a coincidence of names as an excuse to write a long digression about the murderous millenarian cult leader John of Leiden, who subjected Münster to a reign of terror before being tortured to death in 1536. It should be an absurd stretch but it doesn’t feel like one. Disfiguring every syllable he sang, Rotten had the energy of an apocalyptic preacher, unleashing a power that frightened him as well as the listener. He once said he was scared to approach the microphone because he was shocked by how he sounded. Even though he’s associated with the cultural revolution of 1976-77, he sometimes seemed like a creature from another time: a folk devil, a bug-eyed lord of misrule.
Johnny Rotten, a name invented and owned by McLaren, only lived for two-and-a-bit years. It was as John Lydon that he launched Public Image Ltd, the truest expression of his musical radicalism, advertised butter, appeared on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, and so on. Lydon has repeatedly insisted that he was never an anarchist and has nothing against the Queen, and talks about the Sex Pistols with a weird blend of pride (in his own role) and contempt (for everyone else’s). Predictably, he waged a legal battle with his former bandmates in an attempt to stop Pistol using their music, but he lost. Before it had even been made, he called the series “the most disrespectful shit I’ve ever had to endure”, which is a strong claim from someone who was once knifed because of a pop song.
Lydon’s support for Brexit and Donald Trump has disappointed many fans but I don’t think that it’s inconsistent with his original mission to demolish the status quo. Populism is much better at knocking things down than building something better. As the Atlantic’s James Parker argued in 2016, Trump “co-created a space in American politics that is uniquely transgressive, volatile, carnivalesque, and (from a certain angle) punk rock”. In his memoir, Fred Vermorel, allegedly quoting Baudrillard, writes about “the ecstasy of making things worse”. Perhaps Rotten then, and Lydon now, would counter that things couldn’t get any worse, but however much we talk about punk in terms of community and DIY creativity, it was also about the glee of smashing things to pieces. Heath Ledger understood this perfectly when he partly based his version of the Joker on Rotten: some people just want to watch the world burn.
I doubt you could put on screen the writhing confusion and alien menace of Johnny Rotten in a way that was both true and palatable to a Disney+ audience. Lipstick Traces: The Movie? I don’t think so. A Malcolm McLaren version of the Sex Pistols story would have to be a postmodern comedy in the spirit of 24 Hour Party People. Pistol, meanwhile, is based on Steve Jones’s memoir Lonely Boy, so what we get is an energetic, well-made biopic of a rock band. Fair enough, but being a rock band was far from the most interesting thing about the Sex Pistols.