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Courtesy Disney +

The Sex Pistols lift the lid on Danny Boyle’s hotly anticipated series

The band – and the cast of Pistol – talk punk, Vivienne Westwood, Chrissie Hynde, court cases, and tribulations on the eve of their new Disney + series

“We were all 19, 20 years old. Kids. Kids who basically didn’t have a fucking clue,” fizzes Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones down the line from his LA home. “We came along at the right time. We turned everything on its arse.”

In two and a half years, between 1975 and 1978, the Sex Pistols spat into the face of the British establishment. They swore live on tea-time TV and, in their anthem “God Save the Queen”, authored the most censored song in British pop history. The Clash may have been the last gang in town, stretching punk’s tentacles into new territories, but the Sex Pistols were its punch to the gut, its calling card and, arguably, its heart. “I guess we were burning so brightly that it was never going to last,” reflects Sex Pistols’ drummer, Paul Cook.

Steve Jones’s 2016 tell-all memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol inspired Danny Boyle to make his six-part series, Pistol, alongside writers Craig Pearce and Frank Cottrell-Boyce. The project hasn’t been without trademark Pistolian controversy. Frontman John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, brought a court case that was ultimately unsuccessful – more on that later – and a war of words has ensued between the singer and the rest of the band ever since.

The series roars through the trash can alleys and seedy Soho streets, taking in hopes, dreams, edgy couture, musical alchemy, and fractious relationships. Fashion queen Vivienne Westwood and her partner, the Svengali Malcolm McLaren, feature – so too a pre-Pretenders Chrissie Hynde, who came to London from Ohio in the mid-70s and found work at Westwood and McLaren’s famous boutique, SEX. Jones is quick to confirm events that unfold early on in Pistol: “Yeah, we used to ‘hang out’, if you know what I mean.”

To fully appreciate who the Sex Pistols were, it is imperative to know from where they came. Britain in 1975 was awash with discontent, mired in recession, engulfed in an energy crisis, the Three-Day Week, IRA bombings, and more. “It was fucking grim,” recalls Jones. The incumbent Labour Party was losing its grip, and the foundations were set for Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power come the decade’s close. 

For the budding guitarist, instead of fear, the streets of London offered sanctuary. Home wasn’t a happy place. There, he had a stepfather who didn’t merely abuse him verbally, but sexually too. It was abuse he admits he couldn’t talk about “for years”. Writing his memoir afforded an opportunity to get it off his chest, lighten the load, and obtain a sense of “release”, he says. “It took me a long time to get to grips with my upbringing. You have to discover the scars. It’s painful but, men especially, hang on to that shit to their grave.” 

Cook was shocked when Jones revealed all. “It just came out one day,” the drummer recalls. “I hadn’t seen him for many years, as he was [living] in LA, but we spoke, and it was like, ‘wow’. It took a bit of time to sink in, really.” Jones spent much of his childhood at Cook’s house. “It kind of all made sense then: the way he never wanted to go home. He was always living out on the streets, coming round to the stable family environment of my place. It’s really brave of Steve to put it out there. First, in the book, and now in the series.”

As for the series, although he is impressed with the results, Cook is keen to stress that it is very much “Danny Boyle’s version” of Steve Jones’s book and admits to finding it “really hard” watching himself as he was all those years ago. “It’s weird,” he says, “because it’s a lifetime ago and it feels like I’m watching somebody else, in a funny sort of way.”

Although many in the cast started out as musical novices, three months of intense rehearsals threw them in at the deep end. Authenticity was of paramount importance to Danny Boyle, so the cast had to learn their instruments. The performances in Pistol are therefore performed by them exclusively and are completely live. No elements were pre-recorded, manipulated, or addressed in post-production. “I came into this with a blank canvas musically, which I think helped,” remarks Anson Boon, who steps behind the microphone to play Johnny Rotten. “I was so naïve when I first started. I’d say, ‘It’s okay if I can’t sing because Johnny Rotten can’t sing’, but I was so wrong. He’s so good at what he does. It’s not conventional, but he’s so accomplished. The Sex Pistols were perfectly imperfect. That, in a way, is even more impressive.”

Boon’s portrayal of Rotten is such a full-throttle, tour-de-force that you fear his neck will launch itself through the screen and into your face. It’s a star-making turn and set to be the most iconic performance in a Boyle work since Begbie in Trainspotting. “I really wanted to do him justice,” confesses the 22-year-old. “Although I have played a real person before, I’d never played one, as [Factory Records supremo] Tony Wilson put it, who is ‘so revered and so reviled’. There’s a real rhythm to the way he speaks. He’s so good with words and so intelligent. He’s a genius.”

“It took me a long time to get to grips with my upbringing. You have to discover the scars. It’s painful but, men especially, hang on to that shit to their grave” – Steve Jones

Playing Chrissie Hynde was, rather understandably, an imposing task for American newcomer, Sydney Chandler. As if learning to sing and play guitar wasn’t daunting enough, Hynde tasked the budding musician to sing directly to her as she developed her character. “She had me come into her art studio,” Sydney recalls. “There were two guitars sitting there, and she said, ‘pick one. Play me my songs’!” 

In hindsight, Chandler’s grateful for the pressurised audition. “It was actually so helpful,” she explains with a hint of relief. “Chrissie said, ‘If you can play in front of me, you can do this in front of Danny, the cameras and everything’.” Chandler lights up: “And then she picked up the other guitar and played around a little bit with me, which was very cool. I will not forget that experience!” 

“I dusted off my sewing machine when I got the job,” imparts Talulah Riley, who’s tasked with filling Vivienne Westwood’s shoes in the show. “Vivienne spends so much of her time doing, making – she uses her hands a lot. So, I started making clothes. I also went to the Westwood headquarters in Battersea, and she sat with me for a long time. She was very generous with information. She has this luminosity. She’s cracking fun!”

The series has renewed interest in the group and a flurry of activity is underway. A new compilation album, Sex Pistols: The Original Recordings has been released but, for the group that reunited intermittently between 1996 and 2008, it’s unlikely there’ll be any further activity. Acrimony has only been enhanced through Lydon’s high-profile court case (he attempted to block the use of the Sex Pistols music in the series, but lost.) 

“A lot of the press are trying to stir up a war of words,” Cook observes, “and I don’t want to get involved in a slagging match with John.” He says the court case centred around the original agreement the Pistols had where there would be a “majority rules” outlook on any decision. “We had never triggered that before, because we all wanted to get along amicably and work things out,” Cook says. “When this series came along, John, for some reason, didn’t want to have anything to do with it whatsoever.”  

Cook hopes that there’ll be a time when he “gets on” with John again, and there’s something in his voice that makes it clear he would rather harmony existed between everyone, especially as there was never any wish to cause upset in this endeavour in the first place. 

“The intentions were always really good,” affirms Boon. “I’m just really sorry that John feels the way he does. I’m such a fan of his so it’s really disappointing.” He continues, “I really did my research and I’ve left him little signs throughout. I learnt to be completely left-handed, and any time you see me eat, I’m eating food that I know John liked. I only drink his favourite brand of beer, which is Red Stripe. I was cautious down to the very last accessory, the very last paperclip on his jackets.” 

Nevertheless, Lydon has maintained his distance and his disapproval. The singer’s management rebuffed attempts to get his views for this piece, saying John would not be involved in promoting the show, claiming that he was ‘excluded’ from the whole thing by his bandmates. Lydon took to his website to post a statement that said as much too. 

You get the purists, the punks still squatting in council flats. That’s got nothing to do with me. I don’t want to suffer to impress some people. Fuck that. I suffered enough when I was a kid” – Steve Jones

Never Mind the Bollocks may have been the Sex Pistols’ sole album statement, but what a statement it remains. It may still strike the eardrums like a sledgehammer, but a deceptive pop nous lies beneath its snarling hood. And, in Rotten, they had a wordsmith for the ages – an articulate mouthpiece for the disaffected. Songs like “Anarchy in the UK”, “Pretty Vacant” and “Bodies” made Never Mind the Bollocks the perfect soundtrack for tumultuous times.

Violence was only ever a broken beer bottle away. Cook recalls an altercation Sid Vicious had with Paul Weller. “That happened in a club somewhere. I remember Sid coming in with a scar down his face the next day saying he’d had a dust-up with Paul Weller. They were quite violent times. Everybody was really angry. There was a lot of violence around. You wouldn’t mess with Paul, actually.”

Fashion, music, and culture were changed irrevocably by punk. For a small window of time, the scene, and the Sex Pistols in particular, corralled the 70s youth into action. Some argue that punk has “sold out” since.“I don’t know what ‘selling out’ means,” snorts Jones. “What, making a few quid off of punk? I mean, we never said we weren’t in it to make some dough. You get the purists, the punks still squatting in council flats. That’s got nothing to do with me. I don’t want to suffer to impress some people. Fuck that. I suffered enough when I was a kid. I’m all for making a few quid. What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t everybody?”

Joe Corré, Westwood and McLaren’s son, believes the ‘selling out’ accusation is true. In 2016, he burnt over 4.5 million pounds worth of punk memorabilia in protest over renewable energy. In defence of his actions, he is reported to have said, “Punk rock is not important. Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need.” 

“I’m very fond of Joe,” Jones offers, “but I thought it was a silly move. I don’t think anyone really gave a fuck, to be honest with you. He could have done something good with it – sold it and given the money to charity or something.”

On the topic of money, if the band patched things up tomorrow it’s unlikely there’d be any reunion. “We did the big reunion in ’96. We did a few shows in 2002/3 and 2007. And we did 30 shows in Europe in 2008,” says Jones. “It seems like it always starts out great, and then, near the end, it gets horrible and dark.” He pauses for a moment. “I don’t think I’ll be doing that anymore.”

“My main regret is that we couldn’t hold it together a bit longer,” chips in Cook. “We had another great album in us. Even without Glen (Matlock – original bassist) and with Sid, we could have made an album, but it was not to be. The pressure on us was just so awful, there was no way we could’ve kept it going at the time.”

Punk looks set to seduce a whole new generation thanks to Pistol. Those already familiar with the Sex Pistols’ story may find something new, while those around at the time of punk’s explosion can take stock and look back. With that in mind, when the day comes, does Steve Jones have any idea as to what would he like on his tombstone? 

The 66-year-old punk icon doesn’t disappoint. He pauses. “Never Mind the Bollocks.” When all is said and done, surely even John Lydon couldn’t disagree with that.

Pistol is now available to stream on Disney+