I sat through Pistol and quite enjoyed it — far more than I ever did the actual music the actual first time around. Of course, this based-on-a-true-story television drama suffers from the same problems of all rock biopics, which is that it tries to compress (into episodes, or the length of a feature film) events which inevitably took place at different times, in different places, with different personnel, expressing themselves differently, so that there are moments of pure cheese and exposition. As David Hepworth said on The Word podcast, sooner or later there’s a scene in which someone says, “Oh, look, it’s Chrissie Hynde,” or “Ugh, it’s Nick Kent, the NME journalist who fancies himself as Keith Richards.”
Which of course it does. But ignore all that, and you’ve got a story that does have some kind of shape, neater than many other rock biopics, because it is in itself a very compressed story with at least one ending that might have been written for the screen.
But, oh, what if. What if the director and writers had been brave enough to have nobody say, “Oh look, it’s Chrissie Hynde,” and leave it up to the audience to either know (because they know) or realise at that sweet moment when Steve Jones hides around the corner as she rehearses with the Pretenders that that’s who she was all along?
But then this series would have been more explicitly about what it does seem to want to be about, which is to say that its purpose seems to be to elevate Chrissie Hynde as the real talent of the King’s Road Sex shop scene and London Punk/New Wave era. And she probably was.
As to punk rock, I never bought any of it, myself, and I still don’t buy the hype that the Pistols revolutionised anything, or were anything other than a simulacrum of significance. Like all youth movements, there were a bunch of people wearing fancy clothes and an awful lot more people on the periphery looking pretty much the same as they ever did. And their music: that one album was so slickly produced, with its layers of compressed guitars, but it did not match the chaos and ineptitude of the stage act. It always smelled a bit Milli Vanilli to me.
And a lot of the fandom was simulacrum. People went to punk gigs looking for a fight: that was the whole point. It was just football hooliganism relocated. And there may have been a couple of people wearing safety pins through their cheeks in that London, but the people I knew would carefully position the safety pin so it looked as if it was breaking the skin, shortly after they’d applied the Vaseline to their hair after leaving their mum and dad’s house. And they’d take it all off again before stepping through their parents’ front door.
When Rotten/Lydon finished their final gig with the words, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”, my response – even back then in ’78 – was not really, because I never believed it in the first place. I always saw Malcolm McLaren as a Tesco Value Warhol, and the Kings Road/Sex scene a Tesco Value Warhol Factory, with the Sex Pistols playing an even more volatile version of The Velvet Underground.
As I said, though, this is a tale for an accelerated culture, with everything building up and falling apart in a far more compressed amount of time than even The Velvet Underground. As such, it’s a fairly entertaining watch, although it could have lost the length of an episode. There’s less than two years between Glen Matlock leaving the band and the deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. In terms of the band, that particular line-up lasted less than a year. I have a vivid memory of walking through the Priory Church grounds in Dunstable with a few people from school. I remember one of them having a transistor radio and getting excited by “Pretty Vacant” being on, and then mentioning Glen Matlock being kicked out of the band for liking the Beatles. We would have been no more than 13, going on 14. I didn’t feel part of this at all, and although it was a myth put about by McLaren, I secretly sympathised with Matlock because I too liked The Beatles.
And the point about Chrissie Hynde is: as soon as that single, “Stop Your Sobbing”, was released in January 1979, we were back to normal. The revolution hadn’t happened. I don’t know what you’re hearing on the original studio recording, but I’m hearing a cover version of a 60s heritage act, complete with jangly guitars, which is always rock’s default position. Left to its own devices: jangly guitars, here she comes.