Jun 08

THE SEX PISTOLS – “God Save The Queen”

FT + Popular212 comments • 13,309 views

#405.5, 7th June 1977

Did it get to number one? I don’t know. Would it have made any difference either way? It might have accelerated the opprobrium, naturally there would have been questions in the house, a headline or twenty… but in this case a close call was enough. Malcolm McLaren was in a win-win situation, of course: “God Save The Queen” is easily as powerful as a martyr single as it would have been as a chart-topper. Witness the NME’s recent, risible attempt to get it to its “rightful” position – it landed at #42. All crimes are paid, indeed. The Pistols’ failure to hit the top is much more a badge of pride – “they” (whoever “they” were) were worried! – than an injustice to be righted.

A Pistols Number One might have taken us in two directions – both of which happened anyway. It would have underpinned the triumphalism that’s become a characteristic of the long aftermath of punk: an eruption that’s become a touchstone, a definition of the terms in which radical change can and should happen in pop. Those terms, of course, can never be met – the fond endorsement when something tries is as stifling as the harrumphing when something fails.

The establishment and industry responses to punk may have been the same initially: appalled recoil (shared by a vast number of non-punker kids, in fact). But they soon diverged – the music biz didn’t think “this mustn’t happen again”, quite the opposite: “this must and will happen again, and this time we’ll be there”. Similarly the critical and tastemaker response: punk made heroes of its vanguard, gifting some of them long careers. “I will see it coming next time” became a new hero story. And as the post-punk settlement rolled into place, so too came a reinforcement at all levels of the business of the eternal truth about music, whose temporary overthrow was the mid-60s’ great achievement: it’s the crap stuff that sells. Or, in the words of Malcolm, “Of course the real fans aren’t buying it.”

The other direction is more positive: a Pistols number one would also have reinforced the link between punk and pop – a shock and a challenge, yes, but at the same time a novelty, something else to be assimilated into the great gleeful tapestry of pop music. By covering “God Save The Queen” I’m paying lip service to punk’s sense of exceptionalism, but I’m also trying to deny it: this is pop, like anything else. The apparent rejection of punk by the charts was a smokescreen – the renewed attention to the 7” single would reinvigorate the Top 40. And of course it wasn’t just punk – almost all the most interesting music for the next 20 years happens on single, across a bunch of genres just now poking their heads above commercial water, creeping up on us while we fuss about fixes and safety pins and spit. I occasionally think of Popular as a three-act story: this is the end of Act I, the false start of the second great age of singles, which was also the world that shaped me as a listener.

And at the end of all that, is it a great single itself? Oh yes. Someone – Mark or Mike – perceptively noted in the comments box how “punk” was a wild many limbed-thing, internally riven and never any kind of agreed movement: they identified two pertinent wings, the “back to basics”, pop-rejecting end of it and the more millennial, year zero end. “God Save The Queen”’s power is in how well it appeals to both – the rowdy monarch-baiting working as a broad-based “fuck you” to the nobs, before the amazing shift to the more visionary “flowers in your dustbin” material that so excited people like Greil Marcus (and me).

Straddling these is Johnny Rotten, gleeful and vicious. He’s one of those performers whose physicality and voice are completely inseparable – you simply can’t hear the cackles and digs on “Queen” without seeing his bug-eyed goading stare. His performance makes the song explode: his iconic contempt on “we mean it, maaan”, his straight-backed ranting on “there cannot be sin”, and the way half his lines – “we’re the future, your future” – are as much tease and come-on as attack. The other Pistols? The guitarist is fine when not dicking around with glam divebombs, the drummer is doing a good job nudging Johnny from point to point, if there’s a bassist here I’ve never paid him attention. More than the band’s other singles, this is Rotten’s show.

As the record finally detonates, there is a world of difference between “There is no future in England’s dreaming” – so wake up then! – and “There is no future, an’ England’s dreaming” – bye bye. The two hearings are two summaries of punk’s impact. I’ve never checked which Johnny Rotten actually sings: I’m not sure which I want to be real.


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  1. 181
    Inanimate Carbon God on 23 Jan 2015 #

    There’ll be trouble when the kids come out…


  2. 182
    Harrryo19 on 23 Aug 2015 #

    With the passage of time and a reasonable volume level this seems a basic rock and roll song well within the tradition of Louie Louie and other similar garage rock. Makes one wonder what the fuss was all about.

    Takes me back to the days when I would frequent my favorite music venue, the Quiet Knight in Chicago. In one of the smaller rooms off of the main room there was a punk band playing similar riff at ear splitting volume. It blew me out of the room. Made me feel the same way my Dad must of felt when he got blown out of the basement when my teenage self was playing 60’s rock records at a healthy volume.

  3. 183
    wichitalineman on 24 Aug 2015 #

    Re 182: With due respect, the opening line compares the British royal family to a fascist regime. Louie Louie, even in the most fevered minds of the FBI and other critics, was only about shagging. That’s only a part of what the fuss was about with GSTQ, and it would still be seen as treasonous (leading to all manner of media-led shitstorms) in 2015.

  4. 184
    Mark G on 24 Aug 2015 #

    It would be seen as treasonous, but thanks to the realisation that rock/pop music can say such things but at the end of the day things don’t actually change, the level of media shit-storm would be limited to a massive tut, rather than the hysteria of the “seek them out and kill them, we wont mind” led by the media and various Tory MPs (all on record, one at least included on the Great R&R Swindle movie).

    I remember a while back being involved in some sort of debate as to what song subject would it take to get truly banned and reviled thesedays – beyond the obvious ‘paedo’ angles. I must have took this to my kip as in the morning my brane had written a sort of “Gang Of Four” post-punk stomper called “Stupid Little Soldier” and I knew that was the one I was definitely not going anywhere near.

  5. 185
    wichitalineman on 24 Aug 2015 #

    Yes, that’d do the trick in 2015. Something anti-Help For Heroes.

  6. 186
    Tommy Mack on 24 Aug 2015 #

    A neat trick of the right wing press, that: anyone who criticises the military hates our brave boys etc

    I remember my mate saying he hoped British troops got caught committing atrocities to stop the X Factor version of heroes getting to #1. He’s not a nice man.

  7. 187
    Andrew Farrell on 24 Aug 2015 #

    They did – it didn’t.

  8. 188
    punctum on 25 Aug 2015 #

    #183: popular misunderstandings; it does not relate to the Royal family as such but to public perceptions of them, what The Establishment allowed and/or encouraged them to become.

  9. 189
    Jimmy the Swede on 26 Aug 2015 #

    As Brenda approaches Vicky’s record, the Royals are back in the spotlight/firing line again. To say that they (and the concept of Royalty per se) polarises opinion goes without saying. Brenda herself, I suggest, is a different matter. The poor little cow hasn’t put a foot wrong, which you certainly couldn’t say for much of her family and many in her countless governments. When she finally edges one, the finery of an opulent state funeral will be the least she deserves. The coronation of that nincompoop son of hers will be, I hope, an entirely diferent story.

  10. 190
    Tommy Mack on 26 Aug 2015 #

    Jimmy, that’s a matter of opinion! I don’t if anyone deserves an opulent state funeral any more than they deserve to be born into power and wealth. QEII no doubt does a very difficult job under trying circumstances but then so do lots of people and many of them don’t have a pot to piss in.

    We’re the flowers in your dustbin.

    She’ll no doubt get an almighty send off cos tourists are money*. Unless Jeremy Corbyn gets in and has the council throw her in the Thames in a sack.

    *BTW, I think this is the most cutting line in the song: more than the ‘facist regime’ bit: Britain is a nation of cheap hucksters, pimping its Imperial past out for a cheap buck from Johnny Foreigner because there’s NO FUTURE…

  11. 191
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Aug 2015 #

    A good and honest contribution, Tommy. Where you and I would seemingly touch base would be regarding the situation post Brenda. It will be a very different scene then, I think, even with regards the tourists/money angle. I do however think it’s worth remembering that this country is not alone in cashing in on tourists. Indeed foreign visitors are the main source of income for most countries around the globe. I have to admit, though, the prospect of Comrade Corbyn hurling poor old Queenie off Westminster Bridge in a sack would be blinding. I can imagine Huw Edwards doing the broadcast of his life.

  12. 192
    Mark M on 27 Aug 2015 #

    Thing is, you don’t still need to have a royal family to cash in on royal tourism.

  13. 193
    Cumbrian on 27 Aug 2015 #

    I’d be intrigued to know more about this:

    “Indeed foreign visitors are the main source of income for most countries around the globe.”

    Because it strikes me as fairly obviously false.


    This shows that there are 221 countries and territories for which there’s some sort of data available. 160 ish of them have the majority of their economy based in the service sector (i.e. where tourism would lie) – but, of course, the service sector isn’t just tourism or tourist related activity. For one, it’s got banking in it, nevermind education, health, etc sectors that serve the local population. So for the above to be true, tourism would have to make up a huge amount of the service sector percentage in each country (ranging from 100% of Bolivia’s service sector) to 50% of the service sector for Gibraltar (which may actually be possible but unlikely given it’s a tax haven and probably funnelling large amounts of cash through it). Unless we’re going to start counting “foreign visitors” as including those who rinse their money through a particular country’s banking, property and other assets, it doesn’t seem at all likely that most countries make most of their money from foreign visitors.

    All this by way of saying, the economic impact of the Royal Family and all of their castles, heritage, etc, is vastly overstated, not just in the UK but likely in any other place that they’ve had a Royal Family and have similar tourist assets. Factor in the money that we pay them, the security around them and everything else that goes into their upkeep too and it shrinks further (at least in terms of pure profit; you can obviously make the argument that the Royals are putting people in security in jobs, etc, so it rolls up their economic impact – nevertheless, even doing so, it won’t be that big in the grand scheme of the economy).

    This doesn’t mean that I’d necessarily be happy to just cast them adrift. I’d be reasonably up for our current Queen to be the last Royal Head Of State, provided that there was some sort of sensible constitutional settlement for the limited role that she still plays – but I don’t trust any of our politicians to come up with something that isn’t measurably worse than the status quo.

    I could, of course, be talking complete rubbish, so I am willing to listen to counters to the above on the economics of this, but it just doesn’t seem likely to me.

  14. 194
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Aug 2015 #

    # 193 – Cumbrian, yes, you are of course right. I should have said that foreign visitors are a “substantial source of income for many countries around the globe” but certainly not the main source for most of them. Thanks for outlining this so conclusively.

    As for : “This doesn’t mean that I’d necessarily be happy to just cast them adrift. I’d be reasonably up for our current Queen to be the last Royal Head Of State, provided that there was some sort of sensible constitutional settlement for the limited role that she still plays – but I don’t trust any of our politicians to come up with something that isn’t measurably worse than the status quo”, I couldn’t agree more. But the fly in the ointment still remains Brenda herself. I firmly believe that Parliament (even one presiding over a government led by Corbyn) wouldn’t take any constitutional action whilst the old gal still draws breath. Of course the second the umpire’s finger goes up, Charles immediately becomes both King and Head Of State in any case so Brenda is (IMHO) very unlikely to be the last. My point, which I repeat, is that the landscape will change forever the second Queenie is lost to us.

  15. 195
    Andrew Farrell on 27 Aug 2015 #

    The landscape changes all the time, indeed the actual landscape is changing in ways which might (might) have been ameliorated if she’d shuffled off in favour of Charles a few decades ago.

    Which is really the only argument in favour of the monarchy I can really stomach, that in a time of politicians swung around like weathercocks by the winds of whatever will get them elected, it’d be nice to have someone with an actual stewardship of the land, who has an interest in the long-term welfare of it.

    “Hasn’t put a foot wrong” of course apart from nearly driving the bus off a cliff in the wake of Diana’s death – what are Liz’s achievements exactly?

    In short I complete agree – about the polarisation :)

  16. 196
    Tommy Mack on 27 Aug 2015 #

    “My point, which I repeat, is that the landscape will change forever the second Queenie is lost to us.” – you don’t think people will hang on for King William V? My guess is that William is popular enough that people would sit out twenty or so years of Charles to see him on the throne.

    I am ambivalent about the monarchy (in the true sense of the word, meaning strong but conflicted feelings): my instincts are against hereditary power and idolatry but I do wonder whether the British Royal Family carry an invaluable iconic status (this due in no small part to the legacy of colonialism). Other countries can send some visiting dignitary but we can send THE Queen, THE Prince of Wales: they are, for want of a better word, internationally recognised celebrities of a magnitude matched by few monarchs or heads of state. I could be wrong: I have lived in Britain all my life, clearly the British media is going to inflate the importance of Britain and British affairs.

    I’m pretty much with Cumbrian: “reasonably up for our current Queen to be the last Royal Head Of State, provided that there was some sort of sensible constitutional settlement for the limited role that she still plays – but I don’t trust any of our politicians to come up with something that isn’t measurably worse than the status quo” – if you let the people choose, the people often choose Barabbas.

    I agree with Jimmy though, that QEII personally carries a lot of the monarchy’s cache. Once Charles takes the throne, you could imagine support for the monarchy declining and an enterprising centre-left or even centre-right prime minister holding private talks with William about a modern ‘stream-lined’ monarchy in order to keep the brand alive.

  17. 197
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Aug 2015 #

    This is a good debate. I agree with Tommy’s comment, balancing his instinct against hereditary power and idolatry (which I share) with acknowledging the iconic status of Brenda and Chuck. I once sponsored the view that the Head Of State could reasonably be the Commons Speaker, a figure not only elected as an MP in the first place but subsequently elected into the Chair by fellow members. I no longer hold this opinion.

    I think Andrew (#195) asks the wrong question when questioning Brenda’s achievements. After over 63 years in the job, it would be much fairer to ask how many times she’s cocked up. Certainly the reaction to Diana getting totalled wasn’t her finest hour. But I think we may be in danger of getting into a game of “What has the Queen ever done for us?” if we’re not careful. I also think it’s useful to remember that Elizabeth was on the way to a happy life as a “simple” Royal princess before that little shit abdicated. It’s certainly true that this was a case of the hereditary principle falling arse about face (he didn’t want it, so give it to the brother). This is more than a little ironic when folk keep slagging Brenda off for owing her position to her solely being the daughter of the King.

  18. 198
    Andrew Farrell on 27 Aug 2015 #

    Apologies to Jimmy if I’m misventriloquising him, but I imagine he means that every royal member for a while will be a bit provisional, in the way that things in general are when you can remember the other side of them. Elizabeth in particular has had a lot of changes – her other titles section on wiki counts only 4 countries (including the UK) that she’s been head of from 1952 to now, 16 that have heaved her off (only 3 of which were on the list in ’52) and 12 that have kept her on since splitting their countries off.

  19. 199
    Andrew Farrell on 27 Aug 2015 #

    We pay a staggering amount of money for her and her family to make a mockery of the idea of meritocracy – “What has the queen ever done for us?” is exactly the question to be asking.

  20. 200
    Cumbrian on 27 Aug 2015 #

    #196: Am not sure about the William thing. He’s losing his hair. He’s beginning to look less and less like his Mum and more and more like his Dad. I think the fascination with him, as with much in this country, is the superficial, handsome prince and lovely princess fantasy. Give him enough time to look a bit care-worn and I doubt people will be as pro-William as they are now.

    Also, he’ll likely be 60 before he gets on the throne himself, if we’re being honest. Given that the Queen is particularly unlikely to abdicate due to what happened to her father and her belief in the duty aspect of her role, plus the longevity of her mother, I think she’s got at least another 10 years in her, and Charles (given the ages of both of his parents) can expect to knock around until he’s 90+ as well.

    As Jimmy points out upthread, I think there is little appetite for a debate on how to replace or streamline them until the Queen goes – but if we want a change in the status quo, we actually need to have this debate sooner rather than later, otherwise it will be pushed back for quite some time yet.

  21. 201
    Andrew Farrell on 27 Aug 2015 #

    There was some talk a while back about Charles* abdicating in favour of William*, though the reasons why he’d do that escape me at the moment.

    *or whoever – a corollorary of what I was saying above is that most people don’t really get that you can pick a different name to rule under – if Charles does it, it will only have skipped a generation, but also 80 years.

  22. 202
    Mark M on 27 Aug 2015 #

    Re196: As the son of a British diplomat, I can report that yes, people in other countries got a whole lot more excited by royal visits than they did if John Major was in town, and also that Britain’s international branding is built almost entirely around the monarchy. While all the big bash of the year at all the other ambassadors’ residences was independence day (well, except for the French), we had the Queen’s [official] Birthday, which of course isn’t actual British holiday. How can that be equivalent to the Fourth of July? Also, eating dinner under a huge portrait of dear old Liz off plates with crowns on them when you’re in Bogota is weird (actually, it would also be weird in London).

  23. 203
    Mark M on 27 Aug 2015 #

    There are appear to be six main arguments for abolishing the monarchy:

    1) The sheer randomness of sticking to one family for long-lost historical reasons. (To which I agree)

    2) The variable quality of people that process produces. (Likewise)

    3) The cost: this is endless disputed – has anyone got a link to a serious look at this? Whenever I’ve looked into this, there seem to be dodgy calculations on both sides: republicans forgetting we will still need a head of state of some sort, royalists attributing all sorts of economic benefits to having a monarchy that don’t actually follow – as that article I linked to at #192 shows, the majority of the most-visited royal palaces are in ex-monarchies.

    4) The Tony Benn argument about the government making use of crown powers to rule as an executive rather than through parliament. Never been fully sold on this, nor on the idea that the government of the day would simply cede those powers when the monarchy went because of a constitutional rewording. Not really how power works.

    5) It’s incompatible with democracy: in theory, but not actually in practice. Monarchies manage to co-exist with all sorts of regimes, from fascist to social-democratic. Although he made a horrible mess of the end of his reign (but did know to quit), Juan Carlos I played a massive part in Spain’s transition from dictatorship.

    6) That having a monarchy props up/encourages the class system. This is the one that I believed when I was 15, and it just seemed to make sense. But if you look at any index of global inequality, the top 10 least unequal countries will feature some monarchies. Now, I think that’s an accident of history, rather than anything else – or if there is a causation, it is that the Swedes and the Dutch etc had the least cause to get rid of their monarchies. Obviously, there are horribly unequal monarchies and not-that-unequal republics, too. But no universal correlation.

    In summary, although I remain an instinctive anti-monarchist, I’m not sure I can make a good case for why life in Britain would significantly improve* without them.

    *Well, except for anti-monarchists stuck working at magazines aimed at middle-aged women.

  24. 204
    Ed on 28 Aug 2015 #

    @199 As I see it, making a mockery of the idea of meritocracy is the single greatest service the Royals perform for their country.

    In America, with no (formal) royalty and a dedication to the idea that anyone can make it if they work hard enough, there is an overwhelming consensus that if people are on top, it’s because they deserve it. It is an inspiring idea in some ways, but it has its downsides, including a tendency to blame poor people for being poor, and a willingness to let someone like Donald Trump strut around like a genius even though he inherited hundreds of millions of dollars and a world-class set of connections from his dad.

    In Britain, on the other hand, it is universally understood that the people at the very top of society are there only through accidents of birth. Merit and hard work had nothing at all to do with it, and everyone knows that.

    That makes it much easier to accept the wider truth that we are all shaped by our origins. Our parenting, neighbourhoods, education, connections and expectations vary enormously according to where we happen to have been born, and the Royals are an embodiment of that fact. When privileged people are tempted to believe that they are entitled to the advantages they enjoy, the Royals should be a reminder that that is not the way the world works.

  25. 205
    Andrew Farrell on 28 Aug 2015 #

    You are Toby Young and I claim my five pound.

  26. 206
    Ed on 28 Aug 2015 #

    Ha! :)

    Toby’s dad would certainly sympathise, I think. He makes his point eloquently here: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/29/comment

    I’m not really sure what point Toby proves. He has apparently become an influential public figure without possessing any merit at all.

  27. 207
    Phil on 28 Aug 2015 #

    I guess I don’t need to tell many people here that freelancing can be a bit precarious, a bit hand-to-mouth, a bit month-to-month – a bit Micawber, really: if you’re bringing in £50 less this month than your budget says, you really know it, and £50 more is cause for celebration. Happy days (he shuddered).

    Anyway, back when I was doing it, I read a column by Toby Young pulling what I can only call the Prolier Than Thou move. Basically he was getting back at his partner for complaining that he was always checking his Blackberry on holiday – when one’s a freelance, hard life, not living on a private income like some people, “not a real gentleman” shouldn’t be an insult, dignity of labour, etc. And there’s me reading it, making about the same before tax as I currently do after tax (as a part-timer); I didn’t own a Blackberry, I didn’t get published in the Guardian and I’d never had my autobiography made into a feature film, but I did make a point of taking one week a year off work, going on holiday with my family and being on holiday with my family.

    (Pithy conclusion goes here, but in this case it would just sound like an attack of Tourette’s.)

  28. 208
    thefatgit on 28 Aug 2015 #

    Two things that “enhance our status” in the world: The Royals and Trident. Which one, if we had to lose one, would be more value for money to bin off without affecting our own way of life too much?

  29. 209
    Tommy Mack on 28 Aug 2015 #

    Royals, I’d imagine. You can still wring some cred out of their memory. The memory of a nuclear deterrent probably doesn’t buy you a seat anywhere near the top table of military might.

  30. 210
    Adam Puke on 18 Sep 2015 #

    Ooft. In the short time since this thread was reactivated, the aforementioned potential monarch-drowner has caused a stir with both his mode of dress and “God Save The Queen”.

  31. 211
    beeflin on 24 Jan 2016 #

    I’ll always remember the first time I heard the Sex Pistols, this record slamming out of a fellow student’s radio. The guitar-heavy intro more shockingly powerful than anything I’d heard since “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, the enormous aggression of every moment of the vocal and the unrelenting, precise artillery of the drums. What’s not to love? And there may be rock guitarists who can play things Steve Jones can’t, but who cares? To me he will always be the greatest rock’n’roll guitar hero since Chuck Berry laid the template down, the ultimate arbiter of good taste, accuracy and restraint of the ego.

  32. 212
    Gareth Parker on 10 May 2021 #

    A thrilling single to this very day, in my opinion. A nailed on 10/10 for me.

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