Punk’s not dead: why we should watch Danny Boyle’s Pistol for inspiration, not nostalgia

As the Sex Pistols series hits screens, our columnist argues that the music they created has rarely felt so relevant – or necessary

“I’ve never been interested in pop music since the Sex Pistols,” Vivienne Westwood told NME last week. “I don’t think anything came anywhere near it.”

It’s a common attitude amongst the core punk pioneers that nothing all that worthwhile happened to music after the Pistols gobbed their last at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in January 1978. That their Year Zero became a Ground Zero; a culture flash that burnt out leaving nothing but ash. When I first interviewed John Lydon, in a Cotswolds studio with an NME camera crew in tow, he threw us all out in a rage for asking him about “pub band” The Clash.

Talking about punk music with the original punks often feels like Isaac Newton telling you that gravity has been shit since 1666. Like a nose-pinned Boris Johnsons, they seem to show little interest in or respect for their countless offspring. Luckily Danny Boyle’s new Pistol biopic, based on the memoir written by the band’s guitarist Steve Jones, will arrive at the end of the month to remind us what an astonishing moment in music history it was.

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Because the punk pioneers shouldn’t do themselves, or their enduring importance, down. The legacy and influence of the Sex Pistols and their King’s Road cohorts is deeply embedded in pop culture today. Like a three-chord COVID, it’s everywhere. Every crafty R&B swear, every howl of youthful frustration and every stage outfit resembling a walking wardrobe malfunction that appears to have been designed by a nest of rabid rats is down to punk. And, as the sound of demand rather than suggestion, it still remains the primary musical vehicle for championing social change.

Not only is punk still very much alive and spitting in 2022, it’s arguably more potent than at any time since (give or take) ’76. After an initial decade or so of hardcore bands largely echoing the sound and/or image of the originators, via acts such as Bikini Kill, Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine and At The Drive-In its fight-the-power nihilism became the sound and attitude of a wider outsiderdom and a broader, more inclusive battle against prejudice and oppression.

As a result, plenty of the most vital acts in the UK today are punk, or punk-adjacent. Nova Twins and their modern-day riot grrrl revolution. Sleaford Mods and their navvy mouthed class warfare. Bob Vylan laying bare the brutal truths of Boris Britain – its police brutality, drug wars and (checks lyrics again) the fried chicken fascism of cheap eats. IDLES, using anger as an energy against itself, to upend gender stereotypes and rail against violence, intolerance and machismo. Yungblud roaring around in PVC miniskirts, his hair seemingly the result of falling headfirst into an industrial slushy machine.

Attitude-wise, British rap and grime music is urgent and politically incisive, with its creators sharing the same streets and suppressions as the ‘70s punks rather than the shell-shocked veterans of the Compton wars. Even as much of the rising alternative music of the early ‘20s so far – Yard Act, Dry Cleaning, Wet Leg, etc – embraces the sprechgesang chill and angular quirkiness of post-punk, the raw, primal power of punk itself has yet to be bettered as a platform of sonic rebellion.

Social messages can to be muddied by metal, softened by pop and (unless you happen to be Dylan, Neil Young or Conor Oberst) rendered polite, toothless and impotent by folk. Getting hammered in the face with a blood-speckled manifesto by bulging-eyed antichrists that look like they’re ready to scale the gates, gatecrash your lockdown cocktail soiree and kick your publicly funded duck castle to bits is the only thing, musically speaking, that’s reliably put the shits up the establishment since John Lennon sat up in bed in 1969 and suggested that maybe we should think about giving peace a crack for a change.

And the establishment need to be scared. As in ’76, much of the current punk anger is politically driven. Food banks, rocketing bills, Brexit downturns, 150,000 COVID deaths, crony contracts, Partygate lies and hypocrisy, royal scandals, the NHS on the trade deal table, protest rights curtailed, almost 10 per cent of the House of Commons currently under investigation for sexual misconduct; there’ve been Columbian mafia cartels more civilised, considerate and publicly accountable than this shower.

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The Sex Pistols on their Jubilee rager in ’77. Credit: Getty

There’s a whole lot to get angry about in 2022, and our new punk wave – be it in sound or attitude, rock or rap, guitar or laptop – is the best way for that anger to have impact. We shouldn’t consume Pistol as a historical romp through Westwood’s glory days of safety-pin trousers, club riots, bike-chains and hepatitis. We should consider it an inspiration for the current jilted generation; a reminder that a dispossessed youth with a tribe mentality, war paint, vitriolic slogans and a death wish can scream the fury of a nation into the ears of power, and be heard. More anarchy, anyone?

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