Former Sex Pistols welcome ruling in court battle with Johnny Rotten

Two former Sex Pistols have welcomed a High Court ruling following a legal battle with ex-bandmate Johnny Rotten over the use of the punk band’s songs in a forthcoming television series.

Ex-drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones sued the group’s former frontman, real name John Lydon, to allow their music to be used in TV drama Pistol, directed by Danny Boyle.

The six-part series, which is being made by Disney and is due to air next year, is based on a 2016 memoir by Mr Jones called Lonely Boy: Tales From A Sex Pistol.

In a ruling on Monday, Sir Anthony Mann found the pair were entitled to invoke “majority voting rules” against the ex-singer in relation to the use of Sex Pistols material in the series, under the terms of a band member agreement (BMA).

Sex Pistols court case
Paul Cook arrives at the Rolls Building at the High Court in London with his wife Jeni (Yui Mok/PA)

In a joint statement after the judgment was made public, Mr Cook and Mr Jones told the PA news agency: “We welcome the court’s ruling in this case.

“It brings clarity to our decision-making and upholds the band members’ agreement on collective decision-making.

“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.”

During a week-long hearing at the High Court in London, Mr Jones and Mr Cook argued that, under the terms of the BMA, made in 1998, decisions regarding licensing requests can be determined on a “majority rules basis”.

But Mr Lydon, who has previously told the Sunday Times he thinks the series is the “most disrespectful shit I’ve ever had to endure”, argued that licences cannot be granted without his consent.

His lawyers told the court that the agreement had never been used and that he considered it a “nuclear button” for the claimants and their manager, Anita Camerata, to “impose their wishes” on him.

John Lydon, centre, poses for a photo outside the Rolls Building at the High Court
John Lydon, centre, poses for a photo outside the Rolls Building (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

They said he had a “deep-felt and passionate aversion to becoming a ‘prisoner’ of a hostile majority” and, in his evidence to the court, Mr Lydon said the agreement “smacks of some kind of slave labour”.

In his ruling, Sir Anthony said Mr Lydon had been offered the chance to speak to Mr Boyle, the series show runner and the actor who will be playing him, but declined.

His request to see the scripts was refused, but the judge said he heard evidence that that was because no-one outside the project was allowed to see them.

The judge found that Mr Lydon must have been aware of the effect of the agreement, saying: “Mr Lydon must have been fully advised about the BMA and its consequences.

“On his side he had an English lawyer, a US attorney and his manager … it is impossible to believe that he did not know what its effect was and I reject the suggestion made by him that he did not really know or appreciate its effect.

“That piece of evidence was a convenient contrivance. It is highly likely that, even if he did not read it himself, it will have been explained to him and he will have understood its effects.

“The inherent likelihood of that is reinforced by his own evidence about his concerns to protect the Sex Pistols’ legacy.

“A man with those concerns, which I accept he had, would expect to be made to understand important documents that he was signing. He would not have been cavalier about that.”

The group Sex Pistols, signing a new recording contract with A&M Records outside Buckingham Palace in London, (l/r) Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, bass player Sid Vicious and the group’s manager Malcolm McLaren (Archive/PA)
The Sex Pistols signing a recording contract outside Buckingham Palace (PA)

Sir Anthony also concluded that the agreement was not affected by a series of earlier decisions made in relation to licensing the use of the band’s songs – including for the Netflix series The Crown and the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, which was also directed by Mr Boyle.

The judge added that Mr Lydon had become “fixated with the notion that the BMA cannot and should not apply”, and that coloured his recollection and evidence.

He said: “The fact that Mr Lydon signed it is completely inconsistent with his assertion that he regards an agreement in those terms, depriving him of a veto, as shackling his wishes in an unacceptable way which would disincentivise him from participating in decisions about the exploitation of Sex Pistols rights.

“For present purposes it is relevant to note that he must have made an informed decision to sign it and – if it is a shackle – to shackle himself.”

Mr Cook and Mr Jones’s claim was against Mr Lydon alone, but was supported by original band member Glen Matlock, who was replaced by Sid Vicious, and representatives of the estate of Vicious, who died in February 1979.

The Sex Pistols were formed in 1975 and disbanded in 1978, but have performed live shows together a number of times since then, most recently in 2008.

Sir Anthony said at the outset of his judgment: “Despite their relatively short life as a group, they had a very large impact on popular music and popular culture and acquired a fame and renown which lives on today.”

He also said that relationships between the band members have “always been strained”, even going back to when they were performing.

The judge added: “Mr Lydon has not shrunk from describing his difficult relationships with the other members – difficult in different ways with different members – and that has persisted even through their comeback tours in the 1990s and 2000s. It persists today.”