Jun 08

THE SEX PISTOLS – “God Save The Queen”

FT + Popular211 comments • 9,575 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. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 205
    Andrew Farrell on 28 Aug 2015 #

    You are Toby Young and I claim my five pound.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.)

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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”.

  11. 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.

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