Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols biog fires blanks
How very appropriate that Pistol, Danny Boyle’s biopic of the Sex Pistols based on Lonely Boy, the autobiography of guitarist Steve Jones, should be on the subscription channel Disney +. From the home of the world’s foremost animation studio comes the finance to reduce one of the most scorched earth, dangerous, youth-rousing, establishment-bashing bands and movements in musical history to a cartoonish jaunt-along through their brief but incendiary existence.
As John Lydon says, “The Sex Pistols have become the property of Mickey fucking Mouse.”
It is difficult now through the lens of time to imbue the reader with the sense of sulphurous excitement and rebellious provocation provided by the sheer headlong, searing statement of intent the Sex Pistols embodied in word, music, attitude and deed via their singles and debut album, Never Mind The Bollocks, before the inevitable crash and burn brought about by the divisive machinations of their manager. Heat seeker guitars, pounding drums, driving bass and those snarling Dickensian-urchin vocals wrapped around lyrics dripping with poisonous, sardonic derision. It was sheer, unadulterated, intoxicating angry energy. A surging, writhing power let loose.
The Sex Pistols were a musical force that made you want to throw open your windows and shout, I’m as mad as hell, and get in the face of the bloated complacency abroad in the land. Howl your pent-up anger loud and proud. Rock and roll noise pollution bristling with swagger and braggadocio. There was nothing quite like them before, and there has certainly been nothing like them since. Their ilk and the indelible razor cut they made on musical history is something that we will never see the likes of again.
How much more impoverished is the recent record industry landscape of deeply entrenched, homogenised, processed, auto-tuned elevator pap masquerading as popular music, with its hand-held sanitised corporate tedium and cookie cutter chord sequences? A shameful indictment of what happens when you hand over the keys to the kingdom of music to accountants and disembowel youthful rebellion with sheep penned ‘rock schools’ and ‘academies’ in place of playing purloined guitars with an attitude and a leather jacket.
Never Mind The Bollocks was the last record I bought that felt dangerous to own. I paid for it, but felt like I’d stolen it. And what a fist-pumping, gritted teeth pleasure it was and still is. For it exists in my mind, body and spirit as a manifesto to rise up and be a part of something, to destroy yes, but also to rebuild. It remains the last chance saloon of artistic rebellion against the indolent, self-important, mores and mavens of mid-1970s power brokers and their officers at large before music was once again swallowed up by business people and their gatekeepers, stifling creativity, and freedom of expression. The outcome, amongst many others? The dearth and death of the Great British Rock Band.
The Sex Pistols, almost single-handedly, for one brief shining moment, revolutionised the music business and tore up the script of what it took to play music. At a stroke, they swept away the cosy self-indulgence and twenty-minute guitar solos far too prevalent in music at the time. This was nothing short of musical anarchy and record companies were where they should be: shocked to their core, purveyors of feeding a need, power diminished. Sadly, any semblance of this soaring feeling is almost entirely absent from the hammy, comic strip shorthand served up by Danny Boyle in Pistol, which felt about as dangerous as buying a candy floss.
In truth, this is the second time that screen adaptations have emasculated and trivialised the power of the Sex Pistols, their message and impact not only on the music business in particular but on society at large. First, by their erstwhile manager, the loathsome popinjay that was Malcolm McLaren and his rewriting of the punk rock and Sex Pistols legend in his vainglorious film project, The Great Rock n Roll Swindle. And now at the hands of Danny Boyle, who gave up ideas of the priesthood for directing when he divined that “it’s basically the same job – poncing around, telling people what to think.”
And whatever he thinks he is telling us about the Sex Pistols is certainly not ordained by any god I know. A flaccid, Please Sir for the noughties with more fake accents than a 9 bob French book. Short on style, devoid of any meaningful substance: it is a punk fancy dress party with plastic trousers and a karaoke machine.
Malcolm McLaren saw himself as the man who invented punk, a puppet master who manipulated the masses and was, in the vast garden of his ego at least, the perfect embodiment of the Svengali manager, falling in love with the idea of himself as a new Epstein/Klein hybrid. But in reality he only shared their religion, and catastrophically for Sex Pistols finances, Allen Klein’s particular propensity for the underhand daylight robbery of funds generated by a band’s creative output, without a shred of Epstein’s care for his charges. McLaren was the man lacking any other talent but for business, who positioned himself in just the right place to crap on the possibility of a brave new musical universe that he helped create, and turn it into a bonfire of his vanity.
The travesty of the Great Rock n Roll Swindle is that finances were put in place to allow McLaren to fawn about on the big screen like a pampered Fauntleroy with his pretentious pronouncements in the guise of a gospel truth. A hideous and preposterous ego trip made celluloid in this winter of discontent.
And now, some four decades after that debacle comes another, not improved by time and distance. An Austin Powers-style safety-pinned spoof of a punk primer that John Lydon tried to stop but was outvoted by his former colleagues.
Whatever else one can think or surmise about the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten, one thing is certain: he is the seething heart and energy of the Sex Pistols. A man whose lyrics writ large an articulated angry, and irreverent street intelligence of disaffected youth. He gave the band a clear and undiluted voice, an identity and a rallying cry. A man of spiky integrity who has, in his own words, ruined himself financially by taking on the Disney powerhouse, Danny Boyle, and the surviving Sex Pistols via the judiciary in order to protect the legacy of the band and its music.
He (still) means it maaaan.
The defendants point to the fact that John Lydon sold his rights to control the use of Sex Pistols' music in the 1990s in return for money. As such, a ‘majority rule’ came into place within the band to decide issues arising from the use of their songs - a necessary protection so that no outside party could dictate what could and could not be fairly used. This mechanism prevents any one member from unfairly blocking the decision-making process. And this is at the heart of Lydon’s case. His former bandmates wanted the series made, he did not, and by their own inner agreement, he has been outvoted. It is a decision he calls ‘evil.’ And after watching it, one can only agree. It spits in the face of the memory of the group.
But this argument is missing the point of his case. If we leave the issue of money aside, and that can be the only reason this parlous piece of piffle got made, there was clearly no quality control of how the series portrayed the actual people involved in real life, much to the detriment and damage of the Pistol’s legacy and the bravery of what it took to be a punk rocker and express yourself in that volatile ferment of 76-77.
And that is where Pistol needed Lydon’s hand at the helm badly.
Maybe it is all too late in the day. Maybe nobody cares anymore. And we are just left with the never-weres picking through the bones of our sacred cows and presenting their distorted version of it for their own enrichment.
Unfortunately, and it is a great pity, John Lydon failed in his attempts to kick this frivolous punk-by-numbers pastiche to the kerb, and save all of us who were there or thereabouts from a finger paint and crayon version of events given to us by the man who directed Shallow grave, the place where this flimsy, awkward confection of junk, not punk, should be rightfully buried.