Punk is something you possibly can study at school today. Students internationally earn class credit with essays examining the movement and its legacy. My niece learned about punk within the British equivalent of ninth grade. And I teach punk-related topics like DIY at California Institute of the Arts. So once I watched FX’s “Pistol,” Danny Boyle’s recent limited series in regards to the Sex Pistols, I couldn’t help in search of “teachable moments” to bring up in school next yr.
“Pistol” is basically a period costume drama based on “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol,” a memoir by the guitarist Steve Jones, set in Seventies London. Unlike a documentary, a drama must fastidiously ration its expository moments, avoid anything that seems like a lecture. But when Boyle and the show’s creator, Craig Pearce, desired to recreate the historical moment moderately than simply serve up a cosplay commemoration, they needed to convey the sociopolitical context that fired punk’s ire. Here’s where “Pistol” fell short: It’s hard to see how a young Twenty first-century person could come away with a real sense of just how threatening the Sex Pistols and the punk movement felt to the establishment.
One technique Boyle uses is to punctuate the narrative with vintage real-life footage of a declining and disunited kingdom within the mid-70s — fusty pageantry and the oblivious elite are contrasted with striking employees and concrete deprivation. I winced on the frequent use of an anachronistic cliché that’s turn out to be obligatory in punk docs and dramas alike: mounds of black garbage bags piled up throughout London. It’s a reference to a garbage collectors strike, but that truly took place in early 1979, several years after the events depicted in “Pistol.” Poetic license, possibly: The rubbish mountains symbolize a rustic falling apart.
Yet no punk anthem ever cried out for more efficient local government. If anything, punk exulted in scenarios of collapse and chaos. It’s price stating that the movement didn’t emerge in response to Thatcherism (one other cliché in punk docs) but erupted during a period of Labour government, against a backdrop of hobbled and ineffective socialism. Its initial politics were inchoate: Punks kicked against authority, but additionally used the word “liberal” as an insult.
Punk also lashed out at a distinct sort of establishment: the previous generation’s stadium rock pomp and self-indulgent hippie meanderings. The music of the punks’ older siblings had turn out to be its own smug alternative establishment. Snippets of prog rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman performing a stage spectacular in a ridiculous costume are deployed in “Pistol” to represent the decadence into which the Sixties generation had fallen.
But would a younger viewer today understand the stakes here? What does it mean when Sid Vicious brutalizes Bob Harris, the bearded, soft-spoken host of “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” BBC television’s haven for prog, folk and singer-songwriters? Punks bitterly remembered when the Recent York Dolls performed on the show and Harris smirkingly dismissed the proto-punk band as “mock rock.” But I’d imagine a youngster today would find the attack mystifyingly disproportionate. Taking sides inside music so virulently probably doesn’t compute to kids who’ve grown up within the streaming culture, where you possibly can sample every genre and era.
“Pistol” is graphic in regards to the violent side of punk. Sid Vicious gashes his own chest with a broken bottle at a concert throughout the group’s chaotic tour of America in 1978. Later that yr, the bassist, a heroin addict, stumbles into the Chelsea Hotel bathroom and finds his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, slumped in a pool of blood. (The series dodges the query of whether this was murder or, as one theory went, a suicide pact that went awry.) However the sheer shock of punk’s sadomasochist imagery and actions is tough to recreate today. Over the many years since, we have now seen rather more outrageous behavior — onstage and offstage — from pop stars. Troubled kids slashing themselves up in public is a plot point in “Euphoria.”
The series skips the physical assaults on the band from Royalists outraged by the only “God Save the Queen” — an odd omission, provided that it might have imparted a way of the fear and loathing that the Pistols triggered within the British public. While punks committed symbolic violence through their appearance, music, graphics and lyrical provocations, it was they who were overwhelmingly the goal of fists, boots and blades wielded each by regular residents and by members of other youth subcultures (just like the reactionary Teddy Boys). Ari Up, the singer of the Slits, once told me about being stabbed by a standard, disco-going youth and saved from serious injury only by her thick coat. Whilst late as 1983, it may very well be dangerous to look even vaguely punky, as I learned after leaving a Killing Joke concert in a provincial English town and getting chased by a gang of taunting youths throwing bottles at my head.
Now, 45 years after 1977’s Summer of Hate — when “God Save the Queen” railed against the “mad parade” of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee — punk itself is an engine of nostalgia. More anniversarial than adversarial, it’s caught up in commemorative cycles, dragging out the identical familiar but increasingly haggard faces, voices and anecdotes for a fresh round of exhibitions, documentaries and magazine retrospectives. First-wave punk bands tread the boards still. Some reformed after an interval, others had simply never stopped in the primary place. The Damned vowed “I’m gonna scream and shout til my dying breath / I’m gonna smash it up til there’s nothing left” but settled as an alternative for singing “Smash It Up” onstage into their 60s. If you wish to hear the Stranglers’ golden oldies, you possibly can go to a gig by what’s left of the band or to a concert by their estranged original singer, Hugh Cornwell, who has said “we’re all tribute bands now.”
Due to my age, nationality and rock critic background my social feeds teem with individuals who have a stake within the Sex Pistols’ story. Either they were there, right within the thick of it, or involved within the postpunk fallout of independent labels and fanzines. Reading the tweets and Facebook posts, I discovered myself wondering how those that were parents would explain the importance of this supercharged moment in rock history to their kids without getting a shrug and an eye-roll.
My youngest son is 16 — the identical age as me once I got into the Sex Pistols. Having elected to look at “Pistol” on his own, without the dubious advantage of my real-time annotations, he enjoyed the series (the look of it, the music) but admits, “I didn’t really get the importance of it. Didn’t seem so life-changing.”
Partly it’s because things that were once shocking have turn out to be commonplace and acceptable. The F-bombs Steve Jones dropped during prime time are actually on a regular basis occurrences on cable and streaming television. Having dressed as a punk for Halloween as an 8-year-old, my son found it hard to assume that “people were once genuinely terrified of that look.”
“I get pissed, destroy!” vowed John Lydon in “Anarchy within the U.K.” But chaos probably doesn’t have the identical allure to youth in these unstable times. Lydon himself has renounced anarchy, distancing himself from those “spitefully wanting to wreck every part for no reason in any respect” and pledging allegiance to “a community called the human race and a good tighter community called culture.” He even has warm words for the Royals, declaring that he’s “really, really pleased with the Queen for surviving and doing so well.”
The musical antagonisms that defined punk have also faded. Once punks scorned the Boring Old Farts, their cruel nickname for the Stones/Led Zep/Who generation (on the time of their late 20s or early 30s). Lydon now admits that despite having legendarily scrawled “I Hate …” on his Pink Floyd T-shirt, he loves “Dark Side of the Moon.” Steve Jones recently revealed he’d moderately take heed to Steely Dan than punk rock.
Perhaps, with the political context so distant in time and with the unique historical actors reversed on their former fierce stances, there really is nothing to learn from the punk adventure: It was just an unrepeatable episode. Still, my teen got here away with one inspirational lesson. Though he has zero interest in forming a band, watching “Pistol” convinced him that if someone did ask him to affix a bunch, he would say yes. “After those Sex Pistol guys,” he said, “I spotted you don’t have to give you the option to play. Anyone can do it.”