Where FX’s New Sex Pistols Drama Failed

Punk is something you can study in school these days. Students around the world earn class credit with essays examining the movement and its legacy. My niece learned punk in the UK equivalent of ninth grade. And I teach punk-related subjects like DIY at the California Institute of the Arts. So when I watched FX’s “Pistol,” Danny Boyle’s new limited series on the Sex Pistols, I couldn’t help but look for “teachable moments” to bring up in class! ‘next year.

“Pistol” is essentially a period costume drama based on “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol,” a memoir by guitarist Steve Jones, set in 1970s London. Unlike a documentary, a drama must carefully ration its exposition moments, avoiding anything resembling a lecture. But if Boyle and series creator Craig Pearce wanted to recreate the historic moment rather than just serve as a cosplay commemoration, they had to convey the sociopolitical context that sparked punk’s wrath. This is where “Pistol” failed: it’s hard to see how a young person in the 21st century could come away with any real sense of the threat the Sex Pistols and the punk movement felt to the establishment.

One of the techniques Boyle uses is to punctuate the narrative with vintage real-life imagery of a decaying and disunited kingdom in the mid-1970s – the fusty pageantry and oblivious elite are contrasted with the striking workers and urban deprivation. I winced at the frequent use of an anachronistic cliché that has become mandatory in documentaries and punk dramas: mounds of black bin bags piled up all over London. This is a reference to a garbage collectors’ strike, but which actually took place in early 1979, several years after the events depicted in “Pistol”. Poetic licence, perhaps: mountains of trash symbolize a country in the process of collapsing.

Yet no punk anthem has ever called for more efficient local government. On the contrary, punk exulted in scenarios of collapse and chaos. It’s worth pointing out that the movement didn’t emerge in response to Thatcherism (another cliché in the punk docs) but sprang up during a period of Labor government, against a backdrop of hobbled and ineffectual socialism. His initial politics were incomplete: punks opposed authority, but also used the word “liberal” as an insult.

Punk was also unleashed against a different kind of status quo: the rock pomp of the older generation stadiums and the indulgent hippie meanderings. The music of the older punk siblings had become its own smug alternative establishment. Excerpts from prog rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman performing a spectacular scene in a ridiculous costume are deployed in “Pistol” to represent the decadence into which the 1960s generation had fallen.

But would a young viewer today understand the stakes here? What does it mean when Sid Vicious bullies Bob Harris, the bearded, soft-spoken host of ‘The Old Gray Whistle Test’, the BBC’s television paradise for singer-songwriters, folk and program? Punks fondly remembered when the New York Dolls performed on the show, and Harris smirked at the proto-punk band as “fake rock.” But I imagine a teenager today would find the attack incredibly disproportionate. Taking sides in music so virulently probably doesn’t matter to kids who grew up in streaming culture, where you can sample all genres and eras.

“Pistol” is graphic on the violent side of punk. Sid Vicious slashes his chest with a broken bottle during a gig during the band’s chaotic 1978 tour of America. Later that year, the bassist, a heroin addict, falls in the bathroom of the Chelsea hotel and finds his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, collapsed in a pool of blood. (The series dodges the question of whether it was murder or, as one theory put it, a suicide pact gone wrong.) But the clash of punk’s sadomasochistic images and actions is difficult to recreate today. In the decades that followed, we’ve seen far more outrageous behavior — on and off stage — from pop stars. Troubled children who cut themselves in public are a plot element in “Euphoria.”

The series skips the physical assaults on the group from royalists outraged by the single ‘God Save the Queen’ – a strange omission, given that it would have given a sense of fear and loathing that the Pistols unleashed in the audience British. While punks have committed symbolic violence through their appearance, music, graphics and lyrical provocations, they are the ones who have been the massive targets of fists, boots and blades wielded by both ordinary citizens and by members of other youth subcultures (like the reactionary Teddy Boys). Ari Up, the singer of the Slits, once told me that she was stabbed by a normal young man who loves disco and saved from serious injury only by her thick coat. Even in 1983, it could be risky to look even vaguely punk, as I learned after leaving a Killing Joke concert in an English provincial town and being chased by a gang of mocking youngsters who threw bottles at his head.

Today, 45 years after 1977’s Summer of Hate – when “God Save the Queen” railed against Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee “crazy parade” – punk itself is a driving force of nostalgia. More anniversary than confrontation, it is caught up in commemorative cycles, dragging the same familiar but increasingly haggard faces, voices and anecdotes for a new series of exhibitions, documentaries and magazine retrospectives. First-wave punk bands are still on stage. Some reformed after an interval, others had simply never stopped. The Damned swore “I’m gonna scream and scream till my last breath / I’m gonna smash it till there’s nothing left”, but instead just sang “Smash It Up” on stage until in his sixties. If you want to hear old Stranglers hits, you can catch a gig of what’s left of the band or a gig of their original singer, Hugh Cornwell, who once said, “We’re all tribute bands now.”

Due to my age, nationality, and background as a rock critic, my social media is full of people who have an interest in the history of the Sex Pistols. Either they were there, right in the thick of it, or involved in the postpunk spinoffs of indie labels and fanzines. Reading the tweets and Facebook posts, I wondered how anyone who was a parent would explain the significance of this electrifying moment in rock history to their kids without shrugging their shoulders and rolling their eyes.

My youngest son is 16 – the same age as me when I joined the Sex Pistols. Having chosen to watch “Pistol” on his own, without the dubious benefit of my real-time annotations, he enjoyed the show (the look, the music) but admits, “I didn’t really get the significance of it. It didn’t seem so life changing.

This is partly because things that were once shocking have become commonplace and acceptable. The F-bombs that Steve Jones dropped in prime time are now commonplace on cable and streaming TV. Having dressed up as a punk for Halloween at the age of 8, my son had a hard time imagining that “people were once really scared of that look”.

“I get angry, destroy!” swore John Lydon in ‘Anarchy in the UK’ But chaos probably doesn’t hold the same appeal for young people in these volatile times. Lydon himself renounced anarchy, distancing himself from those “who want to destroy everything for no reason” and swearing allegiance to “a community called the human race and an even closer community called culture”. He even has warm words for the Royals, saying he’s ‘really, really proud of the Queen for surviving and doing so well’.

The musical antagonisms that defined punk also faded. It used to be that punks despised the Boring Old Farts, their cruel nickname for the Stones/Led Zep/Who generation (at the time in their late twenties or early thirties). Lydon now admits that despite having legendarily scrawled “I Hate…” on his Pink Floyd t-shirt, he loves “Dark Side of the Moon.” Steve Jones recently revealed that he prefers listening to Steely Dan over punk rock.

Perhaps with the political context so far back in time and with the original historical actors toppled to their old fierce positions, there’s really nothing to learn from the punk adventure: it was just an episode irreplaceable. Yet my youngster came away with an inspiring lesson. Even though he has no interest in forming a band, watching “Pistol” convinced him that if someone asked him to join a band, he would say yes. “After watching those Sex Pistol guys,” he said, “I realized you don’t have to know how to act. Anyone can.