John Lydon, who fronted Sex Pistols as Johnny Rotten and who has done everything in his power to continue to deserve that nickname, hates director Danny Boyle’s new miniseries Pistol. He hated it as soon as it was announced, he hated it during court battles over the rights to the music, and now that Hulu has debuted the six-episode run, his feelings have not warmed up. So what happened, and how did we get to this point?
What Is Pistol?
It’s a fictionalized adaptation of Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, the 2017 memoir by guitarist Steve Jones. The book recounts his childhood, including a disturbing relationship with his stepfather, but Pistol is more interested in the later chapters that delve into how Sex Pistols came together.
The series stars Toby Wallace as Jones, Anson Boon as Lydon, Louise Partridge as Sid Vicious, Jacob Slater as Paul Cook, and Christian Lees as Glen Matlock, as well as Maisie Williams, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Emma Appleton, and more.
Is the Miniseries Accurate?
Pistol is first and foremost a work of fiction. But as far as based-on-a-true-story tales go, this one is surprisingly accurate. Jones really did steal some of David Bowie’s gear, “Bodies” was actually based on a real woman who brought the band an aborted fetus in a bag, and Sid Vicious really tried to assault TV host Bob Harris.
But not every detail is perfectly faithful to the historical record. Pistol hypes up the drama around the band’s attempt to get Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious away from each other, and while Jones’ memoir mentions that a “plan to kidnap Nancy and force her to go back to America had failed,” it doesn’t appear to have gotten as far as Pistol suggests. Other details, such as Jones’ early attempt to front a band and his run-ins with the law, have also been exaggerated for dramatic effect. But none of these exaggerations were designed to make Lydon look worse.
So What Is Lydon’s Problem?
Money, of course. In April 2021, as production on Pistol began to pick up steam, Lydon complained that he hadn’t been hired as a consultant. He called the decision not to cut him a check, “The most disrespectful shit I’ve ever had to endure. I mean, they went to the point to hire an actor to play me but what’s the actor working on?” he said. “Certainly not my character. It can’t go anywhere else [but court].”
In response, Lydon attempted to block Sex Pistols’ music from being licensed for Pistol. Jones and drummer Cook then sued him.
How Did the Court Rule on the Lawsuit?
The lawsuit revolved around a 1998 Sex Pistols band member agreement (BMA) that set down “majority voting rules” as the way they would resolve future disputes. Lydon didn’t disagree that the BMA existed, but instead tried the legally-dubious tactic of arguing that it was unfair to him. He said it allowed the rest of the band to “impose their wishes” on him, and also cited his “deep-felt and passionate aversion to becoming a ‘prisoner’ of a hostile majority.”
In the end, Judge Sir Anthony Mann ruled that the BMA for “majority voting rules” took legal precedent over Lydon’s more recent announcement that he could do whatever he wanted, and fuck those other guys.
Afterwards, Lydon complained that his failures to get paid in any way, shape, or form for Pistol had left him, “scuppered,” “brassic,” plain old “fucked,” and “seriously in a state of financial ruin.”
Boyle Hopes Lydon Hates Pistol
Last month, Boyle gave an interview suggesting that drawing Lydon’s ire was all part of the master plan. “I mean, obviously, you can’t make a series about him because he’s unmanageable. Everyone knows that,” Boyle said. “So to get this book from Steve is like a side door in. It allows you to look at the whole group. But you have to acknowledge there’s a genius in there and it’s Rotten. He’s the person that changed everything, a key cultural figure in our landscape.”
Boyle added, “I love Lydon for what he does and I don’t want him to like it — I want him to attack it,” he explained. “I think that’s his absolute right. Why would you change the habit of a lifetime?” In other words, if you can’t beat them and you definitely don’t want to join them, the next best thing is mining their grumpiness for some sweet free press.
Pistol is streaming now on Hulu. If you’re looking to revisit the incredible legacy of Lydon and the rest of the Sex Pistols, revisit our features on The 50 Best Punk Songs of All Time and The 30 Best Punk Bands of All Time.