“We’re not into music,” Jones tells the rock press after the band’s first gig. “We’re into chaos.” Pistol fudges some of its facts for drama, but gets the sound right. Besides the best-known Sex Pistols tunes like “Anarchy in the UK,” “Holiday in the Sun,” “Pretty Vacant” and “God Save the Queen,” Pistol also features the stories behind lesser-known cuts like “Bodies,” and their very first song as a group, “Lazy Sod.”
The period songs are fun and very diverse. Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop represent early clues to the new direction. Rod Stewart and Rick Wakeman stand-in for record industry indulgences. The Beatles are mocked for their augmented chords, Reggae is presented as a street level political movement, and Abba is reviled outright. Spoiler warning: seeing Jones dancing to “I Got the Music in Me” just might send viewers on a trek for some Mandys, the early 1970s rock star drug of choice. In the series, Jones, who went on to become “the 94th greatest guitarist of all time” by his own reckoning, cites Otis Redding as the reason he found liberation in music. The first episode is called “Track 1: The Cloak of Invisibility,” which references Jones’ alternate means of escape. He’s a street punk before he’s a stage one.
The series opens with footage of David Bowie’s 1973 farewell concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, the legendary show concluded the revolution begun with the rise of the Spiders from Mars. Pistol includes a little-known footnote, Jones really did steal some equipment from the venue during the run, including drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey’s cymbals. The series makes it more cinematic, dubbing Jones as the “Phantom of the Odeon,” imagining himself in Bowie’s spotlight, and stealing a microphone with the Starman’s lipstick still on it.
Jones will later be gifted with the 1974 Les Paul Custom electric guitar which had belonged to Syl Sylvain of the New York Dolls. This is a true fact, and should have been as much foreboding warning to the Sex Pistols’ guitarist as it is unintentionally subliminal foreshadowing of things to come in the series’ events. Before the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) took the most promising underground New York City rebel ensemble and dashed them on the rock-hard concrete. For those who don’t know the Sex Pistols story, they live up to the motto imposed on them in the series: “get pissed, destroy.”
Pistol hits all the high and low points of the Sex Pistols various rises and falls. Bill Grundy’s famously provocative Dec. 1, 1976, Thames Television interview is painstakingly recreated right down to the original opening credits. The disaffected youth movement which rose from the three-chord anthems is populated with short stories of rejection, transformation and societal regurgitation. The Sex Pistols’ promise to “kick this country awake if it kills us” is shown to be fulfilled in its least affirmative consequence. The British monarchy still stands. The collateral damage of doing business with McLaren is ground underfoot. Only Hynde and Westwood sidestep indignity, but only by degrees.
Pistol is created and written by Craig Pearce, who co-wrote the screenplay for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, and he sprinkles Presley on the soup like a condiment. Jones may not remember whether he peed on Presley’s grave when the Sex Pistols visited Graceland, but the tour of the American south is memorably rendered. The standout scenes come at the expense of Sid Vicious’ nose.