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Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols TV show proves the filth and fury endures

Oscar-winner Danny Boyle’s six-part series chronicles the highs and lows of the punk icons’ extraordinary story

In 1977, we witnessed the ultimate culture clash. As millions came together to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, with flared trousers and bunting the order of the day at street parties across the country, the punk movement in the UK reached its zenith. All this played out against a backdrop of rampant inflation.

When the Sex Pistols released God Save the Queen to coincide with that Jubilee, the establishment went into full moral panic mode. The song, which featured some of the most provocative pop lyrics ever penned (“God Save the Queen / A fascist regime”), was banned by the BBC and commercial radio stations. Pop charts were rigged lest Her Maj was listening to Radio 1 and choked on her cornflakes. Big retailers including WHSmith and Boots refused to stock the single. Newspapers were full of outrage and venues refused to allow the band to play.

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The Sex Pistols were signed by A&M records, with great pomp and circumstance near Buckingham Palace then dropped six days later. Copies of God Save the Queen were pulped bar a few, which trade for thousands these days. Virgin Records stepped in; Richard Branson toying with cultural carnage before saving up enough money to buy an island.

The Sex Pistols’ infamous live gig on a Thames cruiser, devised by Malcolm McLaren to provoke maximum fury, turned into pure chaos. The police tried to intervene and photographs captured the clash. McLaren was delighted – this was the moment that the Sex Pistols made most sense. And it was all downhill from there.

The Sex Pistols are re-releasing their most infamous song to coincide with the Platinum Jubilee. Of course they are. It still looks incredible. Jamie Reid’s artwork remains simply, symbolically powerful. But of course, it also feels like a cash-in – rebellion repackaged as titillation, repurposed as entertainment. A toothless exercise in mock rock shockery.

More interesting, perhaps, is an origins story of the Sex Pistols, directed by Danny Boyle and airing on Disney+. The six-part series is based on  Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’s 2016 memoir Lonely Boy. John Lydon is furious about it – which means it must be worth at least some of our attention. 

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Their alienation was real. The lack of opportunity was real. Jones was poor, illiterate, alone, damaged. Like Lydon, he was a punk with or without the band

And Pistol doesn’t hang around in setting out its stall. “Everything is falling apart. And all us poor fuckers who have got nothing are supposed to just stand there and shut up and sing God Save the Queen. That’s sort of mental.” So says Jones, played by rising star Toby Wallace, in the opening episode. 

It’s the moment impresario McLaren decides he can work with Jones, build a band around him, monetise his alienation while creating chaos across the country. If only Jones didn’t have such terrible stage fright – brought on by an abusive childhood – it would have been his face and voice leading the band.

“Ruffians like you excite me,” grins McLaren – played, very well, by Love Actually alumnus Thomas Brodie-Sangster. “I don’t want to fuck you – I want you to fuck the world. Viv and I want to create a revolution inspired by the raw authenticity of forgotten kids like you.”

Across six episodes, we watch the rise and fall of the UK punk pioneers. It’s funny, and possibly better viewed as a comedy at times. But we see their alienation was real. The lack of opportunity was real. Jones was poor, illiterate, alone, damaged. Like Lydon, he was a punk with or without the band. 

Early scenes show Jones stealing equipment from the Hammersmith Odeon music venue – including a microphone still smudged with Ziggy Stardust’s lipstick. We witness his fateful first meeting with Chrissie Hynde (played compellingly by Sydney Chandler – in fact, many will wish the drama centred on her story rather than that of Jones) at McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Sex emporium on King’s Road, where we also find Maisie Williams brilliantly playing the late Jordan. We marvel at the commitment of the Bromley contingent. Outrage and boredom hand-in-hand in the Kent suburbs.

John Lydon (known back then as Johnny Rotten)’s unique voice and outlook are captured by young actor Anson Boon. There is the chaos with Sid Vicious – and the awful treatment of Nancy Spungen by his bandmates and McLaren even before her drug-fuelled murder. Everything good and terrible about punk is here.

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As millions celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, many will recall two incomprehensibly incompatible worlds coming together in 1977. 

“It would have amused Malcolm McLaren so much that the Sex Pistols ended up on Disney,” Danny Boyle said at the global premiere in London last week. A punk story playing on Disney+ (hardly synonymous with rebellion and anarchy, right kids?) suggests the establishment won. They always do. When rebellion, however orchestrated and monetised, goes up against cold hard cash, put your cash on the cash every time. 

But it’s more complicated than that. Look past some of the silliness and Danny Boyle’s skilful telling of this story shows a little of why the sound and the fury continues to echo to this day.

Pistol is available on Disney+ from May 31
@adey70

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