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‘Pistol’: Separating Fact From Fiction in Danny Boyle’s New Sex Pistols Miniseries

The first attempt to dramatize the Sex Pistols saga came with the release of the Julien Temple’s movie The Great Rock and Roll Swindle in 1980, just two years after the band imploded. The farcical film tells the story from the perspective of manager Malcolm McLaren and is so cartoonish that parts of it are actually animated.

It was the start of a mini-industry of Sex Pistols retrospectives that told their story from every conceivable angle, including the Gary Oldman/Chloe Webb movie Sid and Nancy, the Julien Temple documentary The Filth and the Fury where he flips around The Great Rock and Roll Swindle by letting the band tell their own tale, and memoirs by original bassist Glen Matlock, guitarist Steve Jones, and frontman John Lydon. (We’re still waiting on drummer Paul Cook to write a book and complete the set. If you want a neutral perspective, the best place to turn is Jon Savage’s 1991 book England’s Dreaming.)

Danny Boyle’s new six-part limited series Pistol on FX is the latest attempt to head back to mid-Seventies London and see how the owner of a provocative clothing store unleashed a group of teenage misfits into a decrepit rock scene, and how they somehow made one of the best albums of the decade before imploding in spectacular fashion just two weeks into their first American tour.

The series is based on Jones’ book Lonely Boy and is framed around the guitarist, but Matlock, Cook, and the estate of Sid Vicious are all on board to various degrees. John Lydon, unsurprisingly, was not involved and even took his former bandmates to court in an unsuccessful effort to stop it. “It is so destructive to what the band is and so I fear that the whole project might be extremely negative,” he said. “How can anyone think that this can proceed without consulting me and deal with my personal life in this, and my issues in this, without any meaningful contact with me before the project is announced to the world. I don’t think there are even words that I can put forward to explain quite how disingenuous this is.”

Lydon may be enraged that he’s not controlling Pistol and isn’t even the central figure, but he’d possibly be relieved to know that it sticks closer to the historical record than recent biopics about Queen, Elton John, and Mötley Crüe. But like all projects of this nature, it takes certain liberties with the truth, some small and some quite large. Here are eight of them.

1. Glen Matlock Enters The Story Too Soon
Years before they were Sex Pistols, childhood friends Steve Jones and Paul Cook played together in rock group the Strand (later known as the Swankers) along with Wally Nightingale on guitar, Jim Mackin on organ, and Stephen Hayes (and later Del Noones) on bass. In Pistol, we first see them at the moment that Jones decides to change their name to the Swankers. Hayes, Mackin and Noones have been erased from the story, and Glen Matlock is already in the band. In reality, he didn’t enter the picture until Jones and Cook became close with McLaren and he suggested that Matlock, who worked the Saturday shift at his store Sex, might be a good fit.

2. Jones Wasn’t Arrested For Stealing Gear From a Hawkwind Concert
By his own account, Steve Jones was an unrepentant thief in his youth. His most famous heist took place at the final Ziggy Stardust concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 when he walked off with much of the band’s gear in an after-hours caper. (The incident forms the opening scene in Pistol.) But episode one of the series shows Jones getting busted while trying to steal the gear of Hawkwind (Lemmy Kilmister’s pre-Motörhead band) and getting brutally beaten by the police and hauled off to prison. And while he was arrested in the summer of 1974 and taken to the Ashford Remand Centre, he can’t even remember what it was for. “[That] is probably another example of my memory closing down when life gets too difficult,” he writes in Lonely Boy.

He was spared a lengthy prison sentence after McLaren told the judge that he was an upstanding member of society, but that is highly dramatized in Pistol when the McLaren character rushes into the court last second and spins out a ridiculous lie about Jones taking care of his ailing mother and enduring the death of his beloved Uncle Dickie.

3. Chrissie Hynde’s Role in Jones’ Private Life is Greatly Embellished
Chrissie Hynde did work at Sex long before forming the Pretenders and she was around throughout the early days of the Sex Pistols, but Pistol casts her as a main character in the saga and an on-again/off-again love interest of Jones. “She was shocked when she saw it last week,” Jones told the New York Times. “But I do think it’s a good story. Even if it wasn’t as long as that, my relationship with her, I just think the way it’s been written makes it interesting. If you’re a train spotter, you’re going to hate it, because it’s not in the timeline, but whatever.”

For the train spotters, here’s how Jones talks about their fling in his book: “When Chrissie was working at the shop she’d shut the place down and we’d put Malcolm and Vivienne [Westwood]’s gospel of Sex into practice,” he wrote. “[Another time], I had her over a bathtub at a party.” In other words, they were friends from the Sex scene that had occasional flings, but it was nothing like the deep and long-lasting relationship seen in Pistol. She also worked at Sex for a relatively short period of time. In Pistol, it seems like she’s there for years.

4. Hynde Didn’t Almost Marry Steve Jones
The real-life Hynde faced numerous immigration issues during her time in England and was forced to return to her native Ohio at one point. That part of her story is skipped over in Pistol, but it does show her attempting to marry a member of the Sex Pistols to legally remain in England. In Pistol, she nearly weds Jones, but he vanishes at the last minute to have sex with Pauline, the mentally ill woman that inspired “Bodies.” Lydon steps in and agrees to marry her in his place, but he too ditches out shortly before they can go through with it.

What actually happened is that she asked Lydon to marry her first, but it was Sid Vicious that actually agreed to do it in exchange for two quid. (Jones played no role in any of this.) They gathered the necessary papers and nearly went through with it, but the registry office was closed that day for an extended holiday. “The next day wouldn’t work as Sid had to go to court for putting someone’s eye out with a glass,” Hynde wrote in her book Reckless: My Life as a Pretender. “You really couldn’t take him anywhere. So I never did marry Sid Vicious.”

5. Steve Jones Didn’t Fire Glen Matlock
Glen Matlock left the Sex Pistols in early 1977, not long after the Bill Grundy interview made them notorious all over England. Over the years, the band justified the decision to fire him by saying that Matlock liked mainstream music too much, didn’t look enough like a true punk rocker, didn’t grow up on the streets like the rest of them, and that he found the message of “God Save The Queen” too radical. In Pistol, his character is seen having numerous fights with Lydon and chiding McLaren for not paying them enough. At a pub one night, McLaren urges Jones to fire him. Jones then takes Matlock into a bathroom and does just that.

As Matlock lays out in his book I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol, his departure from the band wasn’t nearly that sudden or unexpected. Lydon’s growing ego and bombastic behavior had been gnawing at him for months, and by the time of their tour of Holland in January 1977 he didn’t even want to stand on the same stage as the singer. “He was totally conceited, arrogant, and stroppy just for the sake of it,” he write. “I didn’t need it. I thought, ‘This is stupid, I’d had enough. I’ve really had enough.’”

He flew back to England and began putting together the band that became the Rick Kids. When he heard the Pistols were rehearsing with Sid Vicious, he said he barely cared. And when McLaren sat him down at a pub in February and told him his future in the band was looking pretty bleak, he claims he didn’t protest much. “Malcolm, I’m just not interested anymore,” he recalled saying. “I can’t be bothered if they’re rehearsing with someone else behind my back. I knew about it already, and although I don’t actually care, they should have said something to me. So let’s leave it at that…It’s come to a natural split. You lot and go off and do what you want.”

6. Sid Vicious Does Indeed Play at Least Some Bass on Never Mind The Bollocks
In Pistol, the band records the entirety of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols while Sid Vicious is recuperating from hepatitis in a hospital. Steve Jones handles all of the bass parts in his absence. When Vicious leave the hospital, he asks Jones if it’s too late to play on the album. “Don’t worry about that,” Jones says. “I took care of that for you. It sounds great.”

Vicious was indeed laid up with hepatitis during much of this time, and he was indeed an extremely unskilled bass player, but he was released from the hospital before they wrapped and he came to Wessex Sound Studios for the “Bodies” session. His work was so shoddy that producer Chris Thomas mixed it way down and had Jones play another bass track on top of it, but he’s technically on there somewhere. (There’s been a lot of subsequent confusion over the bass parts on Never Mind The Bollocks since Lydon claimed in his first memoir that they brought in Matlock as a hired gun to play on it. There was indeed discussion of that, but it never happened. They cut “Anarchy In The UK” before he left the group, so he does play on that one song.)

7. Nancy Spungen’s Introduction To Sid Vicious Happened a Bit Differently
In the fifth episode of Pistol, Nancy Spungen walks into a Sex Pistols concert at London’s Screen on the Green Cinema on April 3, 1977, finds herself transfixed with Sid Vicious, and introduces herself to him in a backstage men’s room. It’s the start of a very tumultuous relationship that eventually leads to her death at New York’s Chelsea Hotel the following year. Vicious was arrested for her murder, but the truth of what actually happened in that hotel room will likely never be known.

In real life, Lydon actually introduced the two of them, and it took place in March 1977 at Sid’s very first Sex Pistols show. “I thought it would end in disaster, but not in the way it turned out,” Lydon wrote in his second memoir, Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored. “I thought he’d fuck her and go, ‘Ouch, what an ugly old bag!’ in the morning. But he liked the idea that she looked wasted and ruined.”

8. Jones, Hynde, and Paul Cook Didn’t Drug Nancy Spungen and Put Her on a Plane to America
The addition of Nancy Spungen into the world of the Sex Pistols caused so much turmoil that Malcolm McLaren cooked up a scheme for his secretary, Sophie Richmond, to take her to Heathrow and force her on a plane back to America. “We didn’t get as far as Heathrow,” recalled Richmond in England’s Dreaming. “She was terrified of getting on a plane without drugs. It resulted in me and Nancy standing in the street arguing.”

Richmond called up McLaren and Pistols roadie John “Boogie” Tiberi to help her out. “When Nancy saw Malcolm and Boogie arrive she ran down the street,” recalled roadie Steve “Roadent” Conolly in England’s Dreaming. “The three of them followed and caught her … From twenty yards out I could see these four people all screaming at each other.” The plan was unsuccessful and Spungen remained in England.

But in Pistol, the trio of Jones, Hynde, and Paul Cook are sent by McLaren to give Spungen drugs and put her a plane. In this version of reality, they were successful and she actually left the country for a short time. But she came back just as the Sex Pistols were playing “God Save The Queen” on the Thames and has a tearful reunion with Vicious. It’s far more dramatic this way, but this isn’t how it happened.

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