6
Jun 08

THE SEX PISTOLS – “God Save The Queen”

FT + Popular211 comments • 11,993 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.

Comments

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  1. 1
    Doctor Casino on 6 Jun 2008 #

    First in!!!!

  2. 2
    Tom on 6 Jun 2008 #

    This isn’t Newsarama you know!

  3. 3
    Doctor Casino on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Wonderful writeup, Tom; I’m sure this straddling of the gap is long-planned and I quite like it. Some stuff worth thinking about here. The idea that punk is and always was pop is very appealing to me, partly because it suggests that pop is and always was punk. The thing that elevates poptimism (in my reading) above camp and contrarianism is the recognition that, just like sweaty basement punk shows with passionately enthusiastic kids clapping their hearts out, great pop singles can stir the spirit, make us scream, and call forth wet cries from the bottom of the heart when you least expect them. The differences between the basement screamers, the Ramones, the “pop-punk” acts of the early 2000s, and ABBA seem smaller than the intersections…

    The only problem for me is that I’ve never much gone for “God Save The Queen.” I kinda can’t remember how it goes in fact. “Anarchy in the UK” was how I got to know them, from occasional “retro” plays on alt-rock radio in the mid-90s. “EMI” and “Holiday In The Sun” are the most fun, and an absolute blast to do at karaoke – bug-eyed R-trilling and all.

  4. 4
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 6 Jun 2008 #

    haha Happy Birthday to me! i’m sure i will have a ton of stuff to say here when i’m less tired and busy but for now — there are dozens of pop-stars i’ve had flings with before and since, and remain enormously fond of, but lydon is my one true and lasting love: he just opened the door to and flooded right in

  5. 5
    Ben on 6 Jun 2008 #

    I tend to agree with your assessment, Tom, that ‘God Save The Queen’ marked the end of the first phase of pop music, the era that began with Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones. From 1977 onwards, the record labels, as you say, sat up and took note that there was a substantial record-buying public that wanted more than just Abba’s candy-pop. The late 70s and 80s were characterised by a vast swathe of chart hits that would be classed as punk, ska or rock (The Clash, The Jam, The Specials, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith etc etc).

    Can I guess that your Popular Act II might end (and Act III begin) with the rise of Britpop, coupled with the Spice Girls, boybands, the technological shift of the early 21st century and the subsequent demotion of the importance of the single as an art form? Maybe ‘Country House’ is the first #1 single of Act III? Or maybe I’m way off the mark here!

  6. 6
    Doctor Casino on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Yes, the Acts thing deserves a little more spelling-out – mainly because I’m interested in the idea of the greater continuity that would connect everything from the 50s through Rod Stewart. I gather that this is as much about record-buying practice as it is about content, which would seem to suggest many smaller chapters (rise of the LP, etc…).

  7. 7
    Tom on 6 Jun 2008 #

    The Acts thing is a conversation-starter more than anything – there is probably a “Prelude” and then you can cut the acts however you like, and there are “Interludes” in my schema too. Ben: it’s not “Country House”, I will say no more as the spoiler bunny has long ears, even if one of them now has a safety pin stuck through it.

    Any dividing line is going to be more than half arbitrary. For instance, you can just as much see the ‘story’ of Popular as a succession of relationships and tensions that drive pop development and push each other out:

    – the relationship between song and performance
    – the relationship between teenager and adult
    – the relationship between single and album
    – the relationship between the charts and outside the charts
    – the relationship between celebrity and interactivity

    etc etc

    The failure of rock discourse tends to be the attempt to apply the models of previous tensions/relationships to the current one.

  8. 8
    lex on 6 Jun 2008 #

    X?

    I don’t agree that this song is so special or unique as to be any more unjudgeable than any other song…

  9. 9
    Tom on 6 Jun 2008 #

    It wasn’t an official #1 so it’s not officially on the marking scheme. (I tried putting N/A in the date and # section but that put it at the top of the Populist chronology, which I didn’t want. But X puts it out of the way at the bottom of the marks list, which I’m happy with.)

  10. 10
    Tom on 6 Jun 2008 #

    (X is also a mark too, of course, though IX is probably what I’d have given it)

  11. 11
    vinylscot on 6 Jun 2008 #

    “Q” magazine (I’m pretty sure it was Q) – had a large feature about 10 years ago on the 50 (or maybe 100)intros that changed everything.

    Shuffling past the “Smoke on the Water”s and “Layla”s we came to GSTQ, which, “Q” informed us, heralded the beginning of a new age. Their writer then went on to describe the same “hairs on the back of the neck” sort of stuff which I myself had felt – although I felt it when I first heard “Anarchy in the UK”!!

    I couldn’t believe that such nonsense could be written – and missed by the editors.

    That was when I gave up on “Q” and a lot of the music press – most of these guys didn’t know what they were writing about. They were writing articles because their bosses wanted these articles, not because they had any love, or even any great knowledge, of the music.

    I was/am also in the punk = pop camp. I like a lot of punk music, but I also like a lot of pop music, heavy metal music, hiphop, opera, and many other genres, and I see no reason why I should not continue to do so.

    I loved GSTQ as a pop record, but it didn’t have the same effect on me as “Anarchy” did – “Anarchy” (to me) heralded the arrival of another kind of music to enjoy, a type which had been hinted at by the likes of The Damned, The Ramones and several other Peely-types. GSTQ was just a good example of this new genre, nothing ground-breaking to me; as far as I was concerned the ground had already been broken.

    I don’t know if it sold enough to be #1 – we spoke about this recently on another thread – but I certainly wouldn’t have grudged the Pistols the honour, especially considering the alternative, a rather sterile pair of Rod ballads!

  12. 12
    Tom on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Those sterile Rod ballads of course had 2 or 3 quite legitimate weeks at #1 and are sitting mournful and uncommented upon!

    The difference between Anarchy and GSTQ is surely that the former was a low-30s hit and this one almost (or did) hit the top – that’s why I’d single it out as the punk=pop moment rather than it’s possibly more hair-raising forerunner.

  13. 13
    Tom on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Oh and Lex at #8: go and listen to “Free” by Deniece Williams, which featured a couple entries ago – I think you’d really like it!

  14. 14
    vinylscot on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Tom #12

    I take your point about “Anarchy” being only a low 30s hit, but it wasn’t exactly unknown. Despite the radio ban, everyone got to hear it, and I believe opinions were formed at that time, not six months later.

    I was sixteen at the time, probably the optimal age to be when this was going on. Everyone in my class knew “Anarchy”, and most had made up their minds by then whether they were going to embrace this punk rock thing or not.

    I’ll admit GSTQ was the one that hit the mainstream – the record company didn’t bottle it, as EMI did with “Anarchy”. – but there were other things working in favour of GSTQ. The Bill Grundy incident and the A&M controversy had ensured the public at large were aware of the band well in advance of the single coming out; the jubilee celebrations came along at the perfect time; and the inevitable radio bans duly arrived, all factors creating a “perfect storm” for this record.

    But, at the time, hearing GSTQ wouldn’t have done that much for you. If you were the type of person to be affected by it, you would already have been affected by “Anarchy”.

    It was a better “pop” record than “Anarchy”, but not as good (a pop record) as “Pretty Vacant” by which time the Pistols were really little more than a rather noisy pop band, a fate which (un)fortunately befell so many of the torch-bearers of this “New Wave”.

  15. 15
    admin on 6 Jun 2008 #

    ha – i did worry about the data issue and how the populist index would read. i like how X gets a ‘by score’ section of it’s own at the bottom of the page :-D

  16. 16
    grange85 on 6 Jun 2008 #

    I love the singles from “…Bollocks” but no more or less and certainly no differently than I loved Sweet and Slade and T Rex before them…I didn’t notice the great big sea-change that happened in 76/77 – to me they were just another pop band and maybe they pissed off my parents more than my earlier fascinations but they never really seemed to do anything more than that. I can’t help but wonder at the ridiculousness of the concept that punk was “needed”, that music was in such a woeful state that punk had to come along and sweep away the drudgery of 70s rock. Surely punk was more about chart music than rock music and by my reckoning the charts were not so much better afterwards…although I guess we’ll see about that.

    I guess if anything punk (and metal for me at least) exposed that there was music “out there” that was different from the music I was hearing on the radio so if anything this was the beginning of the end of my relationship with the mainstream and with “the charts”. And was that because of punk or because I was 13 years old?

  17. 17
    rosie on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Well, here we are then. The moment I’ve been dreading. And after it’s gone, we can carry on as we were.

    Because, you see, that’s what it’s all about in the end. It’s become a myth, and because I’ve never submerged myself in the literature and the musical press, I’ve never been to all that many gigs, and I’ve never much frequented discos or other forms of communal contemporary dance, so I haven’t exposed myself to the creation of the myth so all I know is the pop music I’ve experienced, and I’ve done my experiencing through the mainstream radio and the jukeboxes of the sort of pub I used to inhabit (which tended to be the sort that didn’t have jukeboxes anyway.) And what I see in 1977 is not a seismic shift in popular culture. I see an attempt to shock, but that’s nothing new. The Beatles were shocking once; the long-haired, irreverent scouse gits certainly upset my grandparents generation if not my parents (“But Mum, if you think the Beatles are scruffy, look at the Rolling Stones!” and heavens, the Stones were models of decorum compared, say, to The Pretty Things, who are still going after almost fifty years and provide a direct link between Bo Diddley (whose death we mark this week) and the Sex Pistols.) There’s nothing that I see in this that wasn’t in My Generation or All Day And All Of The Night, so any attempt to shock fell flat I’m afraid.

    What do I hear? Something that does very little for me, as it happens, besides setting my teeth on edge. That doesn’t mean I don’t accept that it could and did to a lot for others (I can well imagine the thrill of hearing it in a dark, sweaty basement club – the original Cavern, maybe), but there was certainly no sense that I perceived that there was a universal clasping of hands to brows and saying, my god something amazing is happening. I hear a puerile tantrum, but as somebody else has said there’s nothing out of the ordinary in a pop song being puerile. I don’t hear innovation, nor enligtening insights.

    And in the wider world, we all had an extra bank holiday (although we didn’t because there was no May Day holiday in 1977). The queen is still with us, having outlived Sid Vicious by a long way, as well as he infamous daughter-in-law, object of other alleged conspiracies, whom we haven’t heard of in 1977. Genial Jim Callaghan’s “fascist regime” staggered on for another two years before being replaced by something much worse – was that the seismic shift that the Pistols set off? More likely than it seems, I’d suggest. Did the fascist regime do to John Lydon and co what fascist regimes traditionally do? Ha! worse than that for the nihilists, they were absorbed into the mainstream. They even appeared where the Beatles and Stones had previously, on a revamped Juke Box Jury. (My main memory of that sad and mercifully brief experiment was my eyes popping out when I saw on its panel the louche young man with the floppy cap who peddled noxious substances in the underground coffee bar in the Liverpool students’ union – he was calling himself Nicky Tesco and I’m sure that means more to others than it does to me.)

    The trouble with shock is that whatever impact it may have had impact is necessarily brief. Listening now, I can only wonder what all the fuss was about. Meanwhile there is a new golden age of pop about to dawn on us. The difference for me is that it is no longer “my” music in the way that the pop of ten years earlier was, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate it. Whether it would have happened without the Sex Pistols may be a moot point, but I really think it was going to happen anyway along with the Pistols, because the conditions were right for it.

  18. 18
    DJ Punctum on 6 Jun 2008 #

    (Author’s Note: as I am being an especially busy sod today I have to ‘phone this comment in, adapted especially from my forthcoming book on the relationship between the British acting profession and the pornographic film industry of the seventies, Too Many Gielguds (Not Enough Colin Gordons)…)

    “I mean, it was number one and Woolworth’s wouldn’t even post our name or the name of our record on their fucking board. What the fuck was that all about? Nothing at number one! At number one…a blank space!”
    (John Lydon)

    And a lie of all sorts was exposed, finally and in a raw, distressed and distempered state. That blank space at number one was as shatteringly significant as the “Blank” in Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation”; you fill in the void, you fucking decide.

    “Don’t be told what you want and-ah don’t be told what you need!”

    No hindsight was needed in 1977 to know that this had to happen; think of all those grindingly deathly chortling ballads and romps leading up to this, all those cynical strips torn off nine months in a tax-free studio because making an album’s a pleasant change from sniffing one’s nose into non-existence…and meanwhile, the world burned, or more pertinently Britain burned

    BED TUBE WORK LUNCH WORK TUBE DINNER TV BED HOW MUCH LONGER CAN YOU TAKE IT

    It was a seethingly dangerous place, Britain in 1977; shut up and absorb your anaesthetic, and just watch what happens if you blink an eye out of synch. Everyone watching the next but one person walking behind them; seep into state-sponsored blandness or watch your blood seep out of the battered black seat of a Black Maria – David Peace’s Black Mass of a thriller Nineteen Seventy-Seven catches the sunnily horrible mood with precise sparseness. Consume and shut up…well, what’s the use in recapitulating; you’ve read Bangs on the Clash and he got it so fucking right about the poor fucking Teddy Boys; hustle them into a corner and take every scrap of memory and power away from them so that they’ve no option left but to kick out at the punks, the only stratum of society in a worse state, aesthetically and romantically, than them.

    But maybe I need to recapitulate, because really we’re talking about England here rather than Britain as such; up in Glasgow it was as grim and violent as it had ever been, but for the usual tiresome historical Battle-of-the-fucking-Boyne reasons. Nonetheless, the wider matrix still applied. Britain clinging to the edge of the bankruptcy cliff, having to rely on the coldly rationalist International Monetary Fund to pay for its education and health systems, or whatever parts of them the IMF deemed profitable (or at the very least they wouldn’t lose anything), and yet eager and ready to donate ample funds to marking the twenty-fifth year of the existence of Britain’s most prominent tourist attraction.

    “God save the Queen/’Cos tourists have money!”

    Sometime in the spring of 1978, The Prisoner began a late-night rerun on Scottish TV, which was the first time I had seen it; every episode a breathless warning from McGoohan NOT TO TAKE THEIR SHIT and yet backtrack nine or ten months to every fucking body you saw was thrilled and ecstatic about taking tea and scones in Union Jack tupperware parties in the street, like it was still May 1945 and Germany really didn’t come out in the end richer and happier than us and Vera Lynn was going to ride to somebody’s rescue but certainly not yours or mine

    “There’s no future for you!”

    The absolute bloody shame of it all. On the Saturday afternoon at the beginning of Silver Jubilee Week there was a parade of sorts down Uddingston Main Street but I wanted nothing to do with it; detoured into the library for some heavy relief (as I recall, William Empson’s Seven Types Of Ambiguity and Koestler’s Tonight At Noon, if we’re talking disillusioned socialists and apologies to Alastair Gray by the way if he’s reading this). And on the previous Saturday I had gone into Glasgow to buy “God Save The Queen.” I saw the disgusted looks that the 40-year-old assistants in Boots gave to any punters who requested a copy. I saw the sideways sneer from the cunt behind the till at HMV in Union Street when other punters asked for the Pistols; not real music, not like Frankie Miller or the Average White Band. So I had to go to Listen Records up the road in Renfield Street, which not only had a copy placed very proudly right in the centre of their front window, but were actually playing it, very loudly, as I walked in. I paid my 59p and got the thumbs up from the guy behind the counter.

    I couldn’t stop listening to it that whole entire week, and my dad was extremely dubious about its motives, but damn me if I knew instinctively that this was A Moment. I’d got “Anarchy” at the same time as the Damned’s “New Rose,” just before Christmas ’76, and remember feeling deflated and disappointed at the ponderous plod of the former; rather than The Future, this seemed too damned polite, too much like Queen if truth be told (the fact that they recorded it at the same time as Queen were working on A Day At The Races in the next studio just adds to the signifiers), whereas “New Rose” was madly and gloriously all over the fucking place, squirting out like suppressed semen, Dave Vanian’s double-tracked voice rarely in synch with its double, Rat Scabies thrashing his cymbals ceaselessly so that cymbals were all you heard, like Sunny Murray backing Ayler, Nick Lowe’s NOW NOW NOW production, the opening quote from “Leader Of The Pack” which seemed so fucking right and perfect. It was 1976’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll single, and next to it “Anarchy” seemed like A Statement, and wasn’t that what we were supposed to be getting rid of?

    But from the alarm calls of guitars and drums at the beginning, you copped that “God Save The Queen” was the real deal. Musically it’s just about perfect; Steve Jones’ massed guitars blur into a ceaseless conduit of oscillation, so dense and linear that sometimes you forget that there are guitars there. There is a solo, but it’s mixed right down so that it’s just another element of the overall kaleidoscope, and that in itself was a slap in the face of Page and Clapton; this is how important all that shit really is. And Paul Cook’s drumming is crisp and pertinent – note the elation which comes when he accentuates the ride cymbal on the final part of each chorus, right on the beat.

    The genius of “God Save The Queen”’s music is that it is such a confident, self-contained world. It starts precisely as it means to go on, and it finishes with a quick feedback whine and then an abrupt shut-off, but not a cutoff like the end of “Anarchy”; you hear the song finishing, the band putting their instruments down and raising their eyebrow at the listener: “what do you think?” or better still “beat that” or best of all “do better than us.” It is inevitably more polished and pristine than the Dave Goodman demo, but it has to be – to have any impact, to make any sense at all, “God Save The Queen” had to be a big and brilliant pop record.

    And then there’s Lydon. Without THAT voice – whatever cynics said at the time, his was the most startling and frightening voice in rock since early Dylan, and maybe the most startling and frightening voice in any arena of music since Cathy Berberian – it would be efficient rock, bloody brilliant rock in fact, but still essentially studium rock. So Lydon has to make it matter by sneering, crying and screaming at the listener, and possibly even himself.

    “God save the Queen/The fascist regime/It made you a morrrrrr-on/Potential ‘H’ bomb.”

    This went hurtling asteroids past “School’s Out” – yes, Lydon might have got the job by miming to “I’m Eighteen” on the jukebox, but you never believed corny old Alice Cooper was really serious about blowing up institutes of education; no, it was a custard pie pose like every other piece of Gerald Ford rock slop he ever slopped out. But this was a total and utterly unambiguous threat.

    “God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being/There is no future/In England’s dreaming.”

    Virgin were talking a quarter of a million advance sales – Virgin, the epitome of everything that punk was intent on destroying, except of course it wasn’t, because Virgin was also the home of Kevin Coyne, and Henry Cow, and eventually Peter Hammill, and all that other avant-garde stuff to which John Lydon had actually been listening (much to the annoyance of Year Zero McLaren). A&M had them for a couple of weeks, then got scared and dropped them, though, as I said previously, Herb Alpert went on to sign Ornette Coleman shortly afterwards, which in itself was pretty punk rock, and some of us still believe that ultimately Dancing In Your Head was the real beginning of punk, apart from Horses, that is, and Rocket To Russia, and Machine Gun, and Christopher Marlowe, and

    But anyway, there was a real chance that this BLASPHEMY OF A RECORD was going to get to number one, after all of those miserable polite chart-toppers, even though radio, except for John Peel, wouldn’t touch it, half the chart return shops wouldn’t stock it, and even Radio Luxembourg banned it from its own chart, and as far as I was concerned that was pretty much the end of the latter for me. Pop protest? Fine if it’s 1965, we’ve sanctioned that now, but in 1977? For real?

    “If the Sex Pistols are to destroy the morals of our society, then the Sex Pistols ought to be destroyed first.”

    “If there’s no future, how can there be sin?”

    And then on Tuesday the single blasted into the chart at number 11 and I did a jig straight into my Latin class. Now I know that these days going into the chart at number 11 means that you’ve sold 11 records, but back in ’77 number 11 was the kind of entry position to which the likes of Abba and David Soul were accustomed. It kept on selling throughout that whole week, was streets ahead of boring old glumster Rod the Nod on sales, and it looked on course to be number one for Jubilee Week, the definitive protest of all those people who looked upon this wretched spectacle and wanted to express their disgust and abhorrence of it in the most democratic way they knew how.

    (N.B.: I’ve left the following two paragraphs as they originally stood, since blood needs fire, sometimes in contravention of admitted rationality)

    And the British Phonographic Industry twisted the truth in the most brutal way they knew how. Come the following Tuesday, “God Save The Queen” was number two, to everyone’s surprise, and on the Tuesday after that had fallen back to number four. The facts of the matter are that, in the week leading up to the Silver Jubilee, “God Save The Queen” and the Rod double A-side were both distributed by CBS, and figures confirm that the Pistols were outselling Stewart by something like four to one. But the BPI coined another ruse. They introduced a special rule which stated that no record shops connected with record labels – i.e. HMV and Virgin, the chain stores where most of the Pistols singles were being sold – were to be discounted from the final chart return figures for the purposes of chart compilation. That rule was revoked the following week, by which time it was, intentionally, too late.

    The NME chart for that week – it still carried a faint tinge authority in 1977 – had “God Save The Queen” at an unequivocal number one. But everything points to the conclusion that The Industry fiddled the charts so that “God Save The Queen” would not be number one in Jubilee Week, would not embarrass Radio 1, would not leave a ghastly silence at the end of that week’s Top Of The Pops – does anyone else recall poor old Neil Innes dragged onto the show to perform his well-meaning non-ironic non-hit “Jubilee”? And the whole point and purpose of the singles chart was thrown into profound question; of course we all knew that there was always some fiddling going on, favours for PR favours, quid pro quo, all the rest of it, that many number one singles had not honestly reached there. But the Pistols, despite having been set up to promote a clothes shop, were in the end, and indeed practically in the beginning, not about The Industry; far more so than the Arctic Monkeys or Lily Allen, they demonstrated that, despite their record being prevented from being heard by the people who most needed to hear it, despite all the attempts by authority and thugs – frequently interchangeable – to silence the Sex Pistols and all who sailed in them by brute force. As Charles Shaar Murray pointed out in his NME review of the single: “If someone tries that hard to stop you from hearing something, you owe it to yourself to find out why.”

    And, despite McLaren’s chortling hindsight-enabled conman routine, the Pistols were real and popular in a way which nobody can really balance now. The Ting Tings? You know that they’ve already been assessed, codified and filed; there are no outraged lorry drivers kicking in their TV screens. They will rise and sustain and fall in a reasonably predictable way. Nothing will really change as a consequence of their existence.

    But with punk and the Pistols, everything changed in ways which permeated right down through several subsequent ages; the free pass for kids to start making music again, the green light for female musicians to have equal status and honest independence, the intertwining with reggae and dub, whose consequences continue to echo through the caverns of contemporary grime and dubstep.

    And of course there’s the philosophy. In an era where writers who try to praise music and musicians in ways and by the use of comparisons which go beyond the cosy Denmark Street world of marketable categorisation are routinely ridiculed and besmirched by failed television presenters masquerading as music critics, the achievement of “God Save The Queen”’s lyric is all the more remarkable. Back then, at thirteen, I was only just getting to grips with notions like Situationism and Anarchy with a Capital A, not to mention Adorno and the CoBrA Group of artists (from which latter movement Jamie Reid’s graphics derived considerably), but Lydon namechecks and summarises them all (“God save your mad parade,” “All crimes are paid,” “We’re the poison in the machine”). You wouldn’t get that now, or if you did…well, it’s in a perilous state; if Lester Bangs were starting out now he wouldn’t get past the reception desk at King’s Reach Tower, all those canting sycophants at Uncut and Mojo bemoaning the loss of the Golden Days of Real Rock Writing, such writing as would never be compatible with their 80-word capsule starred the-customer-is-king review system…

    But there is an escape hatch; the line “We’re the flowers in the dustbin.” In other words, we are the last precious moment, we are your only chance of potential salvation (“We’re the future! YOUR future!”), and so its closest blood brother is “Something In The Air,” which was a gentle clarion call of a scream trying to persuade the stoned of 1969 to get off their backsides and fucking change things. “God Save The Queen” had to be more remorseless by necessity, seizing the listener by the scruff of their complacent neck and trying to shout sense into their stuffed heads of unthinking acceptance. So it stands apart, even tore the meaning of the chart apart, just for a second, opening the curtain and peering through it, revealing what could be done if only we wanted it. Every number one which follows it has difficulty escaping its shadow, for better or worse. It is alone. And it was, and is, number one, in so many infinite and important ways, if only because, by declaring “NO FUTURE,” the Sex Pistols actually gave everybody, me included, a future.

  19. 19
    Billy Smart on 6 Jun 2008 #

    As luck would have it DJ Dale will be “celebrating the music of this week in 1977” on Sunday, so I think that I’ll lay off commenting until I’ve heard both songs in their original context (or at least as close as a bowdlerised Radio 2 version will want to get to their original context…)

  20. 20
    DJ Punctum on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Might be w/e 4th June, though, in which case Dale could get away with passing over it at #11, “No Charge”-style.

  21. 21
    Billy Smart on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Radio 2 website says “Featuring music from The Sex Pistols”! Even people with only a superficial interest in pop history are aware of the significance of this record by this stage, I suppose

  22. 22
    pink champale on 6 Jun 2008 #

    great writeup and some great comments. i was three at the time and so there was never THE MOMENT when i first heard the sex pistols and they changed my life. they were always a background presence (one of my earliest memories is of being in the car with my parents and older brothers and saying something about the six pistols to a perplexing embarrased silence) but by the time i really heard them they were a safely commodified piece of rock history, something that came pre-approved as something important, something that people once found shocking and revolutionary, just as they had the stones and the who and bill hayley. but the thing is, thirty years on, if i listen to GSTQ, or especially if i hear it unexpectedly, it doesn’t sound like a historical fact, it sounds like a real and urgent threat, it sounds like something is happening right now and i’d better watch out. as pete townsed said “it sounds like some one shouting “the germans are coming! and we can’t stop them”.

    no doubt this record has changed my life by changing lots of other people’s lives (not least the people who made the records in the coming golden age of pop), but hearing it now doesn’t feel like i;m in a world shaped by GHSTQ and the changes have already happened, it sounds like year zero is being declared all over again and i’d better do something about it.

    this is glorious pop music but it has a quality which goes outside pop music and feels even now like a shock, like society is being attacked, like i personally am under threat. ‘anarchy in the uk’, ‘bodies’ and ‘holidays in the sun’ also have this, but i can think of pretty much nothing else in any artistic field which does – even other punk records, even the other sex pistols records, are just rock music, GSTQ is something else.

  23. 23
    Waldo on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Okay, I think most people might be done now. Many a catharsis and I posted mine on Rod’s. The only thing I would like to add is that despite the fact that I was indeed outraged by the blatant blocking of GSTQ (I really can’t understand why there is a debate about this at all), it was (and still is) my firm view that punk per se was far more tongue-in-cheek than many people fervently believed. All this talk of “why punk had to happen” produces a bit of a wry smile, I’m afraid, as I never for one moment held it to be a dark force. This appeared to be shared by Peter Cook and his appearances on “The Tube”, where he used to take the piss mercilessly and consolidated this with an equally dismissive swipe at the movement on one of the Derek and Clive albums. Punk was what it was, simply another fad, no different from bubble gum, new romantic, Brit pop and all the rest of it. The most damning thing I can say about punk, perhaps, is that I (who as a mid/late teen caught the eye of the storm totally) actually enjoyed the ride. And I don’t think I was supposed to do that, was I?

  24. 24
    Doctormod on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Rosie #17/Waldo #23–

    Spot on, both of you. Life and ever-increasing age have taught me to be deeply suspicious of mythology, especially self-mythology. I agree with Waldo that “punk per se was far more tongue-in-cheek than many people fervently believed.” Though far away from the epicenter of it all, my observations of the “punks” I’ve known (or taught) in the ensuing years have suggested that a certain factor of self-amusement was somewhere in their motivations and that none of them even remotely believed that they were making any huge contribution as far as changing society and overthrowing the status quo were concerned.

    Personally, my fave Sex Pistols’ song is “L’anarchie dans l’U.K.” (Mais oui! En français!), a cover by the pseudo-Brazilian (actually Australian) cabaret singer Pastel Vespa. (I know, I know–I can hear the roar of disapprobation coming from the “purists,” but it’s hard for me to respect those who suffer from acute irony deficiency syndrome. Obviously, the ironic Ms. Vespa understands the tongue-in-cheek element all too well.)

    I am grateful to John Lydon for one thing: He named his next group after a Muriel Spark novel–even though his explanation for doing so suggests that he missed more than half of Spark’s point.

    And I don’t think I was supposed to do that, was I?

    But you were, Waldo, you were.

  25. 25
    Waldo on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Ha haa!! “L’anarchie dans l’UK” sounds fabulous. I can only wonder what those who sponsor a far more serious crossview of punk would think of this. I wonder if there is a Welsh version too…

    I can remember just before the 1998 World Cup some scurrilous knave producing a “phrase book” for English hooligans. These included: “The referee’s a wanker”, “You’ll never make the station” and, of course, the seminal “You’re going to get your fucking heads kicked in”.

    Magnifique!

  26. 26
    richard thompson on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Rod Stewart said in Q mag that he wasn’t aware that he had kept the Pistols from no 1 and it was just Lydon who appeared on Juke Box Jury when he was with Public Image, Sid was medically speaking dead by then, Johnny even voted everyting a miss I believe.

  27. 27
    Billy Smart on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Lydon now comes over as being noticeably more human than anybody else on that edition of Juke Box Jury. His performance was memorably described by Paul Morley: “He looked at Noel Edmunds with the same expression with which, eventually, the whole country would look at him”

  28. 28
    Billy Smart on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Re 18. Amazing piece, as always, but was being in England in 1977 really that terrifying, I wonder? For the majority of people? In inner cities and small towns, perhaps. If you were black, or queer, or something of a misfit, yes. I reckon that there may have been more of a sense of threat from strangers than subsequently, but also more of a sense of the reliability of the goodwill of strangers. But then I was only 4 at the time…

    I think that chronologically, though, the economic nadir of the Callahagn government was in 1976 with the IMF crisis, and that the country was experiencing a modest upturn, the jubilee celebrations coinciding with a comparatively optimistic mood. One important thing to remember is that the gap between rich and poor was at its narrowest in 1977, which may be a good indicator of the conditions most needed for a cohesive society.

    If he hasn’t already read it, I think that Marcello would find Andrew O’Hagan’s ‘Personality’, about a Lena Zavaroni type figure in 1977, worth investigating.

  29. 29
    Billy Smart on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Aha! This actually follows on from a strand of the great ‘No Charge’ heated debate, but now fits in better here…

    I’ve found my copy of the NME for December the 4th 1976. The Kursaal Flyers are on the cover. The two big news stories are “WAKEMAN REJOINS YES” and “FLOYD: 8 CONCERTS”.

    There is no single of the week, Cliff White awarding ‘Anarchy In The UK’ “Conversation piece of the week”. He didn’t like it very much, but saw some merit in it;

    “Admittedly Johnny Rotten sings flat, the song is laughably naive, and the overall feeling is of a third-rate Who imitation, but even so there’s a certain neurotic aggression that distinguishes it from the rest of this week’s insipid bunch”

    That seems like a pretty fair assessment to me. So what were this insipid bunch of competitor records? They include;

    ‘Shake Some Action’ by The Flamin’ Groovies! “Reminiscent of The Searchers and The Hollies” This would certainly have been my single of the week…

    Ringo Starr – Hey Baby

    Dolly Parton – Shattered Image

    Bernard Cribbins – Country Music

    Chris Hill – Bionic Santa

    Lene Lovich – I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

    Can – Silent Night

  30. 30
    Billy Smart on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Move forward six months to May the 28th 1977, though and the NME world clearly orbits around the Sex Pistols. In addition to a classic cover, they take up a further 8 pages. There’s even a safety pin running through the masthead!

    This is the issue with CSM’s rave for ‘God Save The Queen’. Other singles reviewed that week include;

    The Ramones – Sheena Is A Punk Rocker

    Nick Lowe – I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass

    Bob Seger – Get Out Of Denver

    Parliament – Tear The Roof Off The Sucker

    The Clash – Remote Control

    The Heartbreakers – Chinese Rocks

    The Vibrators – Baby Baby

    The Police – Fall Out

    ELP – Fanfare For The Common Man

    The big news story of the week is “BAD COMPANY: JULY 2 EARLS COURT CONCERT”

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