By Kevin Broughton
Spoilers ahead, okay?
London, 1975. That’s where and when the punk rock movement really got its groove on, at least in the minds of the suits at FX. (*asterisk: It’s an FX production, but available only on HULU… which is a bit of a rip-off in principle, since I had to re-up my Hulu subscription to watch this pretty good docudrama.) It’s a decent, if (probably) apocryphal account of the shooting-star history of the Sex Pistols, whom many people with shitty taste consider an “important” band.
Let’s do a couple of disclosures: 1. I’m not a punk rock guy. It took very little talent – indeed, less than marginal talent – to have a “good” punk band, especially 45 years ago. That was my impression going into this limited series, and it was only confirmed therein. The band – and their fans – acknowledged that they sucked as musicians. 2. I only care about punk rock to the degree it influenced 30 years’ worth of alt country bands. Johnny Ramone knew about five chords, which is two more than Sex Pistols “guitarist” Steve Jones ever knew. And nobody in the Ramones, or Sex Pistols – or even the Clash, which had actual talent – was as good a musician as anyone in Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Lucero, or Blue Mountain.
The general story of Pistol is based on Jones’s memoir, which kinda makes everything suspect; he’s portrayed as illiterate in the series. So, his memoir is probably more of an oral history. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, otherwise.
Jones can’t read, but he can steal. And in trying to boost some exotic clothes from an exotic store, he runs afoul of an ex-pat American chick. Her name’s Chrissie*, and she’s from Ohio. (She’ll go *back* there one day and be *amazed* that the *farms* have *been replaced by shopping malls*.) Y’all can figure this spoiler out, right?
The store’s owner is a bon vivant named Malcom McLaren. He’s a faux-Marxist revolutionary – he doesn’t mind turning a profit on pervy clothing – who wants a band to spread his hypocritical version of chaos.
And he doesn’t give a shit that Jones can’t sing – that was Steve’s original vision: being the next David Bowie (LOL.) He gives him a nice, white Les Paul that allegedly belonged to a member of the New York Dolls, while simultaneously recruiting a similarly untalented freak as a “vocalist,” Johnny Rotten.
Objective viewers might be shocked that everybody, throughout this story, acknowledges that the band has very little talent. Seriously, the consensus is that they suck ass. There’s a strong suggestion that McLaren just wanted to orchestrate something in keeping with his Marxist/anarchist ideal…then pulled the plug when they became too “rock ‘n’ roll.” The best musician, bassist [his name doesn’t matter, does it?] was run off at Rotten’s and McLaren’s insistence and replaced by Sid Vicious who (wait for it) didn’t know how to play the bass.
Predictable results ensued. [OH, WAIT, Y’ALL, BIG SPOILERS AHEAD.]
A few months later, Sid said goodbye to his handpicked version of Yoko Ono by stabbing her in the guts multiple times until she bled out, then O.D.’d when out on bail. And there went the Sex Pistols. What a cool “punk rock” ending, huh?
Here’s the thing:
They were a shit band who couldn’t play worth a damn. They lasted all of two years and change. And yet, they’re some kind of iconic “band?” Whatever.
Truth: Rotten wrote a couple of decent songs. But they were essentially an overrated joke. They made one album. Best part of the series: Seeing a hot version of Chrissie *Hynde in some decent sex scenes. And, in truth, it’s a decent portrayal of a short period in rock ‘n’ roll history.
It was interesting to me in the same way a book on the “Know Nothing” Party of the 1840’s U.S. is to me: Mildly compelling in that particular moment, with several instances of “Dang, I didn’t realize that.” But, far less relevant than conventional wisdom, in terms of the history of rock music.
It really is worth the watch, if you have the time.
But the Sex Pistols were and are a shit band.