Of course, Disney put out a Sex Pistols show
Given the dire state of affairs, a Sex Pistols miniseries, even helmed by arch-nostalgist Danny Boyle, isn’t a particularly offensive proposition. There have already been several treatments of the group, including the 1986 Sid and Nancyfeaturing Gary Oldman at the height of his chaotic early style, as well as the 1980s The Great Rock’n’Roll Scam, featuring the band members themselves. And with ready-made sources in the memoirs of guitarist Steve Jones, 2017 Lonely Boy: Tales of a Sex Pistolit’s no surprise that the adaptation’s industrial complex eventually picked up the legendary outfit.
It’s also no surprise that the show isn’t very good. Perfectly predictable both in form and content, Guna six-part series airing on Hulu in America and Disney+ in the UK, is a mix of digital grit and ostensibly lopsided camera angles, while its handsome cartoonish cast alternates with breakneck speed between worn sneer and tearful vulnerability. The cynicism of the narrative is breathtaking: the early episodes focus on Jones’ young life of crime and his blossoming as a punk rock archetype under the protection and guidance of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, a role Thomas Brodie-Sangster plays like he was drunk. and asked to do his best Malcolm McLaren impression. Jones’ episodes of stage fright are explained by cutaways to gruesome depictions of his sexual abuse by his stepfather. The fact that these scenes are half a step away from Gaspar Noé is probably an attempt at boldness and audacity, rather than the complicity that emerges from them. Later episodes, when not laced with clichés of runaway success, exploit Sid Vicious’ rapid deterioration with all the verve of its original makers. The basic skill of Gun – Boyle is undeniably a pro – makes everything worse, not better; it was done on purpose.
Critics tended to focus on the pretty and talented cast and the stereotypical narrative. Elsewhere, the reception is as varied as anything, ranging from a small fandom to haters as repulsed as myself. This latter band seems essentially divided into two factions: first, the band’s faithful, who find PISTOL to be a brilliant profanation of punk pioneers. Second, there are the snobs, who say the Sex Pistols were a bad punk band, and that we should all listen to Crass instead. Sound advice, and both have something going for them, but all make the mistake of assuming that the Sex Pistols were a punk band, and not quite something else. If they were, then the show would be fundamentally correct in its narrative arc: from humble beginnings, a scrappy band is taken under the wing of an enterprising, idealistic manager and emerges as a potent symbol of youthful exuberance. facing a sclerotic establishment. , to let himself be swallowed up by his own voracious appetites for glory, drugs, even, at a pinch, freedom. A failure, in other words, if it is moving.
But the Sex Pistols were not a failure. The life and, more importantly, the afterlife of the Sex Pistols is an unequivocal success, and not only or even mainly in the “underground”: the group is a cultural object so perfectly adapted to its time that it occupies several apparently distinct layers of identity. and speech without contradiction, without blinking, but only with a roll of the eyes. Never mind the Bollocks, here are…, their only album, reached number one on the UK charts upon release and has since been certified platinum. In the decades since, John Lydon, formerly Rotten, has become a cultural icon, directing his trademark vitriol at audiences and talk show hosts with comforting reliability, most recently against Gun and Danny Boyle, who neglected to hire the former frontman as a consultant. Meanwhile, the group’s frenetic aesthetic principles have found their way into every corner of cultural life, from catwalks to car advertisements. It is called punk, although since its inception, punk has been varied in sound and appearance. Safety pins, ripped jeans, spiky hair: the widespread recognition of these and other signs of nonconformity is largely due to the Sex Pistols.
To take it from Gunyou would think that Malcolm McLaren invented youth culture.
In this way, there was nothing new in the band’s emergence as a flashpoint for the UK’s youth subculture. Throughout the post-war period, various trends and styles froze as forms of affiliation for disgruntled working-class youth who listened to American music and disdained bombed-out local society and austerity. Clear trends emerged as mods and rockers staked their cultural territories, leading to street brawls and media vilification of associated clothing and musical styles. As the fifties became the sixties, many bands rose to prominence partly by association with this phenomenon. The wave that swept in the form of Beatlemania had long since developed into mod, rock and other youth subcultures.
To take it from Gun, one would think that Malcolm McLaren invented youth culture, or at least exploited it in a marketable form for the first time, let alone the fact that “the Establishment” he and the other characters oppose constantly includes, in addition to Rod Stewart and Queen, products of the same process that will eventually embrace the Sex Pistols themselves. It is one thing that the people ignored this story; quite another for the show to be. (A notable exception to this is reggae, which one member of the group calls “the music of the outcasts”, in an attempt to slow down early versions of “Anarchy in the UK” – while Gun serves a purpose.) Glen Matlock, the only member of the band who can really play his instrument, is often the object of ridicule and ends up being kicked out of the band for his love of the Beatles who, in this context, are just symbols mainstream conformism which, not for nothing, is synonymous with the suffocating effects of knowing how to play music.
Jones and McLaren repeatedly insist that it is not the skill of the music, but the passion with which it is played. In one particularly embarrassing rehearsal scene, Jones stands over Matlock, brandishing a stolen Les Paul, answering each of Matlock’s calls of “Edim9” or a seemingly incredibly complex chord with a resounding power chord being played, according to his words, “Like a punch in the face.” This initial bravado eventually turns into confused mumblings from Sid Vicious, Matlock’s replacement, who defends his near-total inability to play his bass by claiming that the music doesn’t matter at all, only the looks. It is not a mutation, much less a deterioration of the original spirit, but its apotheosis. Performance is always a mix of technique and the spirit that drives it, and reverence for one while denigrating the other is usually an excuse for insufficiency, not overabundance.
It’s a constant refrain throughout the show: “authenticity”, against and against inertia and corruption. McLaren’s initial enthusiasm is driven by his desire to “shake things up”, although what he means by that is never quite clear, because by the time the show draws to a close the band have played exactly as he had planned, and he swears to destroy them because they have become too “like a rock band”. This is despite Johnny Rotten’s own claims to honesty and authenticity, which increase with his notoriety in two forms: first, as complete transparency of his financial greed, and second, in his denial of what it claims to be the lie of the rock concert, where the public is held at a distance from the performer.
The Sex Pistols’ tight response to this is far from unique, and it persists to this day in thousands of clubs, warehouses and basements, but it really can only be partial. Apart from the simple facts of someone performing and someone listening, there is a social function that is fulfilled when the roles of performer and audience are respected, even creatively. It has to do with the way theorists describe ritual as a multilevel process of coming together and separating: first between initiates and strangers, then practitioners and devotees, to subject and object. But the result is not endless fragmentation. Rather, in the execution of all these divisions, a higher order interrelationship is created, drawing even initiates and outsiders under the banner of a reality in which anything is possible to begin with.
This is perhaps the reason why the culture of the rebellious youth is particularly conducive to capitalist reproduction and profit. When the local practice no longer succeeds in exhausting the paradoxical ritual need to separate and bring together, this energy is transported into increasingly abstract realms. The subculture is transformed into a vehicle by which moneymakers can suspend the ritual process in the pure positive, while maintaining the veneer of opposition: constant resistance, constant submission. Sure, Johnny Rotten may have been face to face with his audience, but now we’re delivered his music by the Walt Disney Company, and for all those “in the know” shaking their heads, there will be one. thousand who will take it as at least a faithful record of the real thing and fork out.
Sure, Gun unwittingly makes this case, instead offering the Sex Pistols as a symbol of hope and inspiration for the future. Punk, on the other hand, remains a living form, constantly moving in new directions not so much in the face of consumer culture as behind its back, in its shadow, playing with the boundaries of audience and performer, without dismiss. The assimilation into the mainstream of its most recognizable aspects is a liberation from the suffocating ritual of cultural rebellion; failure always offers a glimpse of freedom. So it would be easy to laugh at an attempt to impress the bourgeois when the bourgeois were brought up on this kind of amazement. But Gun and the band it’s based on are something else entirely. Capitalism is a religion and, as many have said, only the faithful can blaspheme.
Jack Hansson is a writer living in New York.