Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind the FX series Pistol.
The story of the iconic punk rock band the Sex Pistols is the subject of a new miniseries from FX on Hulu. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire; Steve Jobs) directs all six episodes.
Pistol centers on the band’s guitarist Steve Jones (played by Toby Wallace) and tells the story of the band’s rise, trials, and tribulations. Whether you’re a fan of the band in need of a refresher or a newbie looking to learn about the Sex Pistols, here is a look at the true story behind the series.
Jones’ Early Years
The show takes part of its inspiration from Jones’ 2016 memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol.
Born in 1955, Jones was raised mostly by a single mother. He wouldn’t meet his biological father until decades later. At one point, a stepfather entered his life. He, according to a review of his memoir in the Washington Post, was “one of several men, Jones alleges, who sexually abused him” during that time.
The abuse led Jones to spend as little time in the family’s London apartment as possible. Jones “being dyslexic and/or having ADHD” made school that much more difficult. And he never wanted to have a “regular” job. He set out on what the Post describes as an early life of crime:
Yet larceny wasn’t simply a way to survive. It was a psychosexual thrill, a feeling he traces to watching his mother loot a lingerie shop when he was a young boy.
Stealing From His Heroes
But thieving had many upsides, at least for Jones. The Post notes that Jones channeled his love of rock music into his criminal endeavors. Among his victims were Keith Richards and David Bowie.
Rumors about Jones stealing such gear from his idols to outfit his band have reportedly been around for years. However, according to The Post:
What wasn’t so clear before this book is that the wannabe musician was, in part, trying to steal his way into his heroes’ lives (if not their hearts).
How Did The Band Get Their Name?
The origins of the band can be traced to 1975, when Johnny Rotten, (John Lydon, played in the series by Anson Boon), joined as the group’s frontman. Jones and longtime friend, drummer Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) had first formed a band in 1972. Two years later, bass guitarist Glen Matlock (Christian Lees) joined.
But, as the band’s website notes, it wasn’t until Rotten joined that “the band took on a whole new level and became the Sex Pistols.” Jones had spotted him about town, including an occasion where he was wearing an “I HATE Pink Floyd” t-shirt. That simple look seemed to have sealed the deal.
The origins of the band’s name remain contested, according to The Daily Express. The band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), claimed to have come up with the name. He co-owned a shop with Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), called SEX which supposedly served as the inspiration. He wanted “a band of kids who could be perceived as being bad.”
Matlock, however, later said the band came up with their name on their own. They had been trying out names and used that one as a cover. And it stuck.
After the band’s debut with their new frontman in November 1975, they began regularly performing in 1976. As the band’s official history describes the period:
This was a time where your haircut and clothes could get you into serious trouble. With their unique look and sound, the Sex Pistols were such a bolt out of the blue that they would often find themselves in physical danger.
According to the history, they would often have to fight their way back to their van after shows. But the fan found their music and loved it. Skeptics, on the other hand, questioned the group’s unique sound. As Grunge describes it:
In mid-1970s Great Britain, punk rock spoke to the frustrations and rage of mostly working-class adolescents and young adults, frustrations and rage the punks of that moment wore on their proverbial sleeves.
And record companies soon began to take notice of the band’s work. In October 1976, they released their debut single, “Anarchy in the UK.”
December 1, 1976. Queen (yes, the band) cancels an appearance on the British program Today, hosted by Bill Grundy. While on the show, the host, who Classic Rock Magazine describes as “belligerent,” asks the group to say “something outrageous.”
Jones, in turn, responded by saying, “What a fucking rotter.” The incident, according to the magazine, helped take punk rock into the mainstream. It was only the third time the f-word had been used on British TV. And the attention only helped the band and their music.
Writing for the magazine, Jon Bennett notes that punk rock was hardly covered by the newspapers at the time:
It was a tiny movement that had not troubled the Top 10, let alone entered the national consciousness. All of that changed instantly on December 1, 1976
Or as the Sex Pistols put it on their website, “[Punk Rock] had been christened, had reached the international masses.”
Sid Vicious Joins
As the group’s clout grew the following year, creative differences started to take their toll on the band. The band’s website notes a falling out between Rotten and Matlock, who “was stepped in the rock and roll tradition.” Among the central conflicts was Matlock’s friendship with Paul McCartney and enjoyment of The Beatles’ music.
To replace Matlock, the band welcomed Rotten’s old friend, Simon Ritchie/Beverley, best known by the name Sid Vicious (played in the series by Louis Partridge). Musically, he fit right in. But perhaps even more important to the group: he looked like a Sex Pistol.
An Album Goes to Number One
After several failed attempts to work with record companies (including losing a deal after staging a fake contract sighing outside Buckingham Palace), Richard Branson (yes, the billionaire founder of Virgin Airlines) steps in to back the band. He is played in the series by Kai Alexander.
The group signed with Branson’s Virgin Records in May 1977. That year, the Sex Pistols released a number of hit singles. Their work culminated in their “one and only true album,” Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. The album immediately made its way to number one in the United Kingdom.
Rolling Stone later placed the album at number 80 in their list of the 500 greatest ever made.
Going On Tour
While establishment types took great issue with the group (they were charged with Indecent Advertising over their album title), their fans, and in particular younger people, loved them.
In January 1978, they began to arrange a tour in the United States. At first, according to the band’s website, they were denied entry to the country due to their criminal records. But it was all eventually resolved, and the group began playing cities like Memphis, Atlanta, and Dallas. They went out of their way to avoid the country’s major cities and instead focused on the Deep South.
While on tour, the problems between members of the group. The tour ended with a gig in San Francisco. Several of the men had the flu. Drugs were rampant. And they were just sick of each other. As the band’s official bio puts it: “The Sex Pistols as we knew them were no more …”
A Murder & An Overdose
Things took a horrific turn for the worst on October 12, 1978. On that day, 20-year-old Nancy Spungen, Vicious’ manager and girlfriend (played in the series by Emma Appleton), was found dead in the couple’s room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York.
According to a book by Sherill Tippins on the history of the Chelsea Hotel (via Rolling Stone), on the night before Spungen’s killing:
several visitors to the room saw Sid take as many as many as 30 tablets of Tuinal – a far larger dose of the barbiturate than most of us could survive, and one certain to put nearly anyone into a deep state of unconsciousness for hours, and he remained comatose for through the morning’s early hours.
Other guests heard “female moans” from the couple’s room at around 7:30 a.m. that day. At 10 a.m., Vicious called the front desk and asked for help. Spungen bled to death on the bathroom floor and was stabbed with a knife.
Vicious was charged with murder. Many believe that Vicious was innocent. Theories include: a botched double suicide and a robbery gone awry. Some make the case that Vicious was “out cold” from the drugs and could not have killed her.
However, before the full story could emerge, Vicious was found dead of heroin overdose on February 2, 1979. He was only 21 years old.
In the years after the band’s break-up in San Francisco, Jones, Cook, and Vicious continued to perform under the Sex Pistols name. They released several singles between 1978-80. Rotten went his own way.
The band finally reunited in 1996. They went on the ‘Filthy Lucre’ World Tour and played “almost as many gigs on [the] tour as they ever played in the 70s.” They reunited again in 2003. And then, three years later, they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame against their wishes. They responded with the following letter:
Next to the SEX-PISTOLS rock and roll and that hall of fame is a piss stain. Your museum. Urine in wine. Were not coming.
Were not your monkey and so what? Fame at $25,000 if we paid for a table, or $15000 to squeak up in the gallery, goes to a non-profit organisation selling us a load of old famous. Congradulations. If you voted for us, hope you noted your reasons.
Your anonymous as judges, but your still music industry people. Were not coming. Your not paying attention. Outside the shit-stem is a real SEX PISTOL
Controversy Over Pistol
The Sex Pistols are no strangers to filmic depictions of their work. The band ended their relationship with McLaren after he released a mockumentary of their story, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle in 1980.
According to the band’s website, the film is “a story of how [McLaren allegedly manufactured the group and manipulated them to his wishes.” They note that the media “somewhat bizarrely” believed the story. The band members later won back control of their group. In 2000, they released their own movie, The Filth and the Fury.
The making of Pistol has also come with a controversy of its own. John Lydon, formerly Rotten, reportedly told the Sunday Times that the show was “the most disrespectful shit I’ve ever had to endure.” Lydon said he did not consent to the songs’ use in the show. Jones and Cook later sued to allow the use of the music.
According to The Mercury News, Lydon said, “I don’t understand how Steve and Paul think they have the right to insist that I do something that I so morally heart and soul disagree with without any involvement.” But according to the same report, the band has a 1998 agreement that allows a majority of the living band members to make such a decision.
In August 2021, a judge ruled in Jones and Cook’s favor. In response to the ruling, the pair said (via The Guardian):
It has not been a pleasant experience, but we believe it was necessary to allow us to move forward and hopefully work together in the future with better relations.
Pistol debuts with all 6 episodes on Hulu on May 31, 2022, and Disney+ (Star) in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore.