Posts Tagged Chrissie Hynde

Did I Ever Get the Feeling I’d Been Cheated?

Anthony C Green reviews Pistol, an FX Production, produced and directed by Danny Boyle, and written by Craig Pearce

Currently streaming in the UK on Disney+

I only subscribed toDisney+ in order to watch the Beatles Get Back last November, and only the continued existence of Family Guy and pressure from my ten-year-old son has kept me subscribed. The news that this was also to be the place to stream a new FX-made six-part drama, produced and directed by Danny Boyle, about the Sex Pistols, based on the 2016 book Lonely Boy; Tales of a Sex Pistol by guitarist Steve Jones gave me another reason to keep my £6.99 a month Standing Order current.

I was fourteen when the Pistols recorded Anarchy in the UK, fifteen at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the height of the band’s popularity/notoriety a year, give or take, later.

And now we’ve just celebrated The Platinum of the Eternal One and I’ve suddenly hit sixty. The original Punk explosion is now so long ago that if we were to travel back in time by the same distance from now to the time it was happening, we would be in the early stages of microphone-enhanced vocals and Bing Crosby Mania.

In any case, I was never a punk. In 1977 I was in my very early stages of second-generation Beatle fandom, and mourning the loss of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I remember liking Pistols’ single Pretty Vacant, but only in the way I liked other current hits sing-a-long hits of the time.

Only later, would I discover Punk as a moment, and Never Mind the Bollocks as one of the most important albums ever made.

It’s also one of the best. That’s what many people forget about the Pistols. Yes, they were a cultural phenomenon that changed forever the world of Popular Music (or for a long time at least, before the movement was co-opted and reincorporated back into the big business, capitalist machine, as all sub-cultures ultimately are, no matter how outwardly radical.) But they wouldn’t have become what they were to become if they hadn’t had the songs. Not many songs, it has to be said, but in the end, the short and (not so) sweet nature of their career, and the fact that there is only one proper Pistols album is soooo right.

The book on which the series is based

And the world of popular music, and entertainment in general, is all the better for stories that are perfect in and of themselves, no matter, in fact often because of, the tragic nature of the end of those stories. The Beatles had to end at the end of the sixties. Elvis had to die when and how he did; and the Sex Pistols had to produce that single near-perfect collection of songs (OK, there’s a handful of post-Lydon Pistols’ tracks you should have in your collection, Silly Boy, Something Else, My Way, but that’s still not proper Sex Pistols material.)

I limbered up for the series by watching John Lydon, Rotten as was, on a couple of lengthy podcast appearances.

He was not a happy man.

Or rather, that is to say, that he strikes me as a man who is happy, with his place in history. True, drinking wine from a pint glass, as he did during one appearance, suggests alcoholism. But he’s still working, limbering up for a new Public Image Ltd. tour, and if he is indeed an alcoholic I’d suggest it is of the high functioning variety(And I too was once such a best, so I know what I’m talking about).

But he was/is not happy about the Pistol’s series, claiming that not only was he not involved in its making, but that Danny Boyle gave him no opportunity to be properly involved, his claim, if true, IS rather scandalous.

He also mentioned several times that this Disneyfied re-telling of the Pistols’ story would trash the band’s legacy and ‘everything we had stood for.’

Arguably, the 1996 Filthy Lucre tour, the clue is in the name, did that, as did other, more short-lived reunions, but we’ll set that aside. All I’ll say here is that I like Lydon, and believe him to have many admirable qualities. Not least, the clear and unconditional love in the way he speaks of caring for his beloved Nora, mother of the late Ari Up, once of The Slits, and his wife of forty-three years, though now several years of rapidly worsening [GC1]  dementia.

But he has never been great at giving credit to his former bandmates, indicating to this day that, whatever it says on the record labels, where the whole band is listed as co-composers, he alone is really responsible for the creation of those songs. This of course particularly unfair on Glen Matlock, the most musical of the Pistols’, a fact that legend has it, and as we will soon come to, in large part led to his removal from the band and replacement by one John Simon Ritchie, AKA Sid Vicious.

And, although of course, it would have been better had Lydon been involved in its making, at least morally, we should remember that the series is actually based on Jones’ book, a fact that must be taken into account when assessing its style and quality.

It also should be mentioned that Lydon’s podcast denunciations were based only upon seeing a single, short-trailer to the series, not on the series itself, which he claimed, and as far as I l now still claims, to have never seen.

This said, is he right: Does FX/Disney/Danny Boyle’s telling of the Sex Pistols’ story really trash their legend? Is it any good?

The two things are of course not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Firstly, I have to say that the best acting performance of Pistol comes from Anson Boon as Lydon. He has him down to a tee, the strange mix of cockiness and insecurity, the manic stare that always was an act of self-parody, and has merely become more so over the years. The would-be wordsmith who is at first reluctant to share his words with the world, the jerkiness of his movements both on and off stage, the man of principle who loves being in the Sex Pistols but not at any price, the boy/man who wishes to put two fingers up to the world, whilst actually quite liking people, and caring about them.

That’s the other point: not only is Boon’s portrayal of Lydon spot on, but Lydon, despite all of his expressed misgivings about the making of the series, actually comes across as by far the most likable character in it. The caring nature that he shows today when he talks about Nora’s dementia, and his reaching out to other sufferers and carers in the same position as the two of them, is already there, in the way he cares about and tries to look out for his mate John Ritchie, and his later agonising over how his own role in re-christening of him as ‘Sid Vicious’ and promotion of him to the status of Sex Pistol (essentially in order to even up the score as far as voting power in the band went) contributed to his early self-destruction, though as Jones says in the final episode, “Sid was always going to end up like that, whether he became a Sex Pistol or not.”

Of the others, Toby Wallace puts in a good performance as the roguish Steve Jones, a young man whose compulsive thieving and shagging were really a mask donned in order to hide the chronic lack of self-esteem caused by being raised by a brutish, hateful, domineering stepdad who had made it his mission in life to drill into the young Steve that he would never amount to anything, and a weak, often drunken mother. It’s not a greatly nuanced performance, but I did find myself rooting strongly for him as he set out to learn the rudiments of guitar in four days straight, helped only by handfuls of amphetamine pills and a determination to prove his stepdad was wrong.

His upbringing also contrasts nicely with that of drummer Paul Cook (played by Jacob Slater), the product of almost stereotypically nice working-class parents for whom nothing mattered more than their son’s happiness. They even allowed Paul to keep his drum kit in their bedroom, as this was the only room in the house that allowed him the space to properly practice, despite the obvious inconvenience to themselves.

The best-known actor in the series is probably Thomas Brodie-Sangster (you’ll know him when you see him) who plays the Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren. I’ll admit I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of McLaren, nor have I ever really brought fully into his role as Situationist-Svengali of genius, feeling that this over-emphasis of his role, which of course is largely a creation of McLaren himself in the truly terrible Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle film, and is I think bought into to a regrettable degree by Julian Temple in his The Filth and the Fury movie, a documentary which should be, but isn’t quite definitive.

But there it is. You can’t ignore Malcolm, and Brodie-Sangster gives a decent performance in his portrayal of him. A little over the top and cartoonish perhaps, but that just about suits the subject matter. Talhula Riley as his King’s Rd Sex boutique sidekick Vivienne Westwood gives a much more measured performance, and it is often her, through a word here and a look there, who exposes Malcolm’s pretensions for what they are – pretensions stolen from others. I’d have liked to have seen more of Westwood, but I’ll return to that shortly.

Of the other roles, Louis Partridge does a good job as the talentless, doomed, sadomasochistic Vicious, as does Emma Appleton as the dark, satanic, equally doomed groupie Nancy Spungen, a woman for whom it seems no one but Sid had a good word, in life or death.

And then thee of course there is Glen Matlock (played by Christian Lees). Poor Glen Matlock, the butt of the band’s jokes for the crime of ‘liking the Beatles’ and being quite good at his instrument. It is of course a cliché that he was sacked because of his love of the Fab Four, and it’s a cliché that is here mentioned early and mentioned often. The truth is, Lydon wanted him out of the band because he saw him as a threat to his dominance through being the only band member who had a justifiable claim to being at least as responsible for their greatest songs as John was. As someone once said, after Glen was replaced by Sid, the band produced their best ever photographs. They looked great. But there were no more songs.’

Yes, the ‘liking the Beatles’ gag is laboured, but Matlock comes out of the series pretty well, which is of course another reason for Lydon to hate it.

And finally, as far as acting performances go, we come to the truly vital role of Chrissie Hynde….

‘What’s that,’ you say, ‘Chrissie Hynde, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders Chrissie Hynde: what’s she got to do with the price of glue?’

I knew Chrissie had been a face on the scene at this time, as the girlfriend of legendary ‘rockist’ to use a word then current, New Musical Express, NME, ‘or ‘Enemee’ as Lydon liked to pronounce it, journalist Nick Kent. I also knew that Chrissie, an American resident in the UK, herself contributed occasional articles herself to the British music press. I also believe I was aware of the fact that she had an affair with Steve Jones, and was, briefly, a musical collaborator with Steve’s near-namesake, Mick Jones, soon to become a key member of the Clash (then trading under the name of the London SS). I also may have just about been aware that she quite fancied the gig herself as the replacement for Matlock once the decision was made to sack him. Maybe. But was I aware that her presence and sheer ubiquitous-ness within the Pistols circle made it likely that she would have at least as much screen time as the members of the Pistols themselves, probably more so in the case of Cook, in five out of the six episodes of a far-off futurist dramatisation of their story?

No, I was not aware of this, any more than anyone else was, including probably Chrissie, because I strongly suspect it isn’t true. What I do strongly suspect is that her role was beefed up in order to fulfil the apparently mandatory need for a Strong Woman character in every television drama series now made.

 If that was indeed the criteria, then actress Sydney Chandler does a good job of meeting it, being most definitely strong, and even more definitely a woman, as revealed in the more than ample sex scenes with (Seve) Jones.

But I believe that this now apparently mandatory role could have been played much better, and more truthfully, Vivienne Westwood.

Another possibility would have been to increase the screen time of punk tend-setter and fashion icon Jordan, a woman who sadly died soon before the series went to air, and at least got an episode dedicated to her.

Or what about a little more of the action for Siouxsie Siox (we do see her reciting The Lord’s Prayer, with Sid Vicious on drums, in what is generally regarded as the debut performance by the Banshees), or the girls who were soon to become The Slits, including Ari Up, daughter of the soon to become Mrs Nora Lydon?

In other words, what about showing that there were women on the scene who had a genuinely important part to play in the Birth of Punk?

Anyway, just a thought, and for those who are wondering, Chrissie also made a brief appearance in episode six too, singing a version of Brass in Pocket, almost certainly long before it was written.

Some of the above leads me to another major criticism of the series. Punk is shown as a movement of philosophical and fashion aesthetics and attitude, essentially led by McLaren, Westwood, Jamie Reed (the man behind the graphics, including the ‘Bollocks’ cover), and to some extent the band themselves, in particular Lydon. But apart from that brief snapshot of the nascent Banshees, we don’t see it as part of a wider musical movement that included The Clash, the Damned, The Slits, the highly underrated X-ray Spex, and bands that were never punks but who got their great break through the opportunities that punk provided, bands like The Jam, The Stranglers, and I suppose The Police and The Pretenders too.

So, the series lacks depth in that regard. If you want depth, I’d suggest reading Jon Savages’ excellent England’s Dreaming book, or investigating the wonderful, regionalised Messethetic collections of great bands that would never otherwise be heard, bands like The Digital Dinosaurs, Crispy Ambulance (best name for a band ever), The Homosexuals, and The Performing Ferrets Hyped to Death’s front door

Somehow, although it undoubtedly lacked depth, Pistol also managed at times to seem stretched. The main case in point here is Episode Four, Bodies. This episode is essentially an attempt to dramatise the rationale behind the macabre lyrics of the song Bodies off ‘Bollocks.’ It is apparently true that the lyrics were based on a real story, that there really was a severely mentally damaged woman called Pauline who was known to the band, and who really did carry around an aborted Foetus in her handbag for a time. But did this relatively minor Pistols track really need a whole episode in order to justify it? I’m also unsure of whether or not Pauline really was a black woman, or was this another attempt to insert another element of unnecessary diversity?

Just on that subject, we do get flashes of the undoubtedly real sense of camaraderie that existed between the punks and Ganga-smoking, reggae-listening Rastafarians. Lydon, in particular, was of course a big fan of Reggae music, a fact that showed through in parts of ‘Bollocks’, and much more so on the first two, arguably first three, excellent Public Image Limited albums.

And there was some nice attention to detail here. Lydon had a Captain Beefheart poster on his wall because that signified his real taste in music. Maybe he did listen to Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5, but he also listened to Beefheart, Peter Hamill/Van Graff Generator, Can, Faust, and the rest of the Krautrock/Musice Cosmiche oeuvre. That’s why those PIL albums sound like they do. It has been said that early PIL is essentially how the Pistols would have sounded had Lydon had his way. McLaren of course preferred a Punk Bay City Rollers, though he didn’t quite get that either.

So, that’s about it really. It’s certainly not a boring series. It has weaknesses, some of which I have highlighted. But it didn’t trash the Pistols’ legacy, and no, it didn’t leave me feeling I’d been cheated….

I have to say that I enjoyed it more the second time around too. First time, for me, there was a bit too much confusion as to who was meant to be who. For instance, I thought Jordan was Siousie Sioux first time around. I also thought initially that Pauline in the Bodies episode was Pauline Black, soon to be of the Selector, and that two random schoolgirl Pistols’ fans determined to follow the band from far away oop North, actually were two members of the soon-to-be Slits. Once these misunderstandings were overcome, it was simply easier to watch.

There was a nice vignette too from Mathew Cottle as the great newsreader Reggie Bosanquet (a man forever known to me as the man who broke the news of Elvis’ death), unapologetically buying ladies’ underwear for himself in the Sex boutique, then slipping the staff a wink at the end of New at Ten in order to let them know he was at that moment wearing his latest purchase under his regulation Newsreader attire.

One last point about the music. The actors performed the music themselves, and aside from James Slater who played Cook, who had previously fronted a band but had never played drums, none of them had any previous musical experience at all. With that in mind, they did a good job and made me forget that I wasn’t listening to the Pistols themselves.

THE highlight of the series was for the recreation, and recreation is the right word here, of the Pistols’ (in)famous Bill Grundy television series appearance. This was very well done indeed, and showed, through sticking almost word for word and frame by frame to what actually transpired, showed conclusively that it was Grundy (played by Steven Pemberton), a drunk, a local television presenter who will only ever be remembered for this moment, who very clearly and very deliberately goaded the young, naïve Pistols and their entourage into using ‘rude’ words. Lydon’s later comment that the accolade for being the first person to use the ’F’ word on British television belonged not to either he or Steve Jones, but to Irish Poet Brendan Beehan, gave Lydon another opportunity to show his literary, knowledgeable side.

I also very much enjoyed the excitement the Pistols showed, like any other young band in any genre, in crowding around a transistor radio in order to experience God Save the Queen’s inexorable rise to become the number one single that never was. The joy the band exhibited in showing the completed single of GDTQ to their families (apart from Jones’ joyless family) made me think perhaps of the Beatles probably handing around a copy of Love Me Do in a similar fashion a decade and a half earlier.

Glen might or might not have been sacked for liking the Beatles but in reality, the two bands were essentially in the same game. Yes, the Pistols may have helped rid the world of fifteen-minute guitar solos (and the Jones character got that particular cliche out the way within five minutes of the opening of episode one), but it was only temporarily, and didn’t we all, in the end, decide that there was room on this Earth for both the Sex Pistols and Rik Wakeman?

As Billy Joel would one day point out, “It’s still Rock ‘n’ Roll to me”

Anthony C Green, July 2nd, 2022.

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