Jun 08

THE SEX PISTOLS – “God Save The Queen”

FT + Popular211 comments • 12,124 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. 31
    will on 7 Jun 2008 #

    I first heard God Save The Queen sometime during the early 80s. You see, in my case the bans had worked. My tender 7 year old ears were prevented from hearing that nasty Mr Rotten leering about ‘the fascist regime’, though I saw them play Pretty Vacant on TOTP a few weeks later and loved it.

    And now? Well I can’t add much more to what’s already been said, except to say it’s up there on my personal Desert Island list. In cultural terms, it’s quite possibly the most important British pop single of all time.

  2. 32
    DJ Punctum on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Various Billy S xposts:

    Lena and I are looking forward very avidly to imagining the look on Dale’s face when he has to play “GSTQ” tomorrow!

    Indeed I am familiar with O’Hagan’s work of upmarket slasher fan fiction (much better in my opinion than, say, Gordon Burn’s similarly themed Alma Cogan</i), which is in part why I have never published my own marathon dissertation on the tragic Ms Zavaroni (originally it was going to the final entry on my 1974 A-Z Koons project, if you remember that far back) – also in part because that piece goes far too deep on a personal pain basis even by my standards; there’s a limit to the amount of confessionalising any writer can do. Plus I’m happy now and life is different so I don’t really feel the need to publish it, let alone the urge.

  3. 33
    DJ Punctum on 7 Jun 2008 #

    Oh, and that NME “Anarchy” review was written by Cliff White, soulboy to the max, and of course by slagging the record off he was arguably more “punk” than the record was!

  4. 34
    LondonLee on 7 Jun 2008 #

    The hairs on the back of my neck didn’t stand up until ‘Holidays In The Sun’ because my ears were a little behind the curve on punk (Marcello seems awfully precocious for such a wee bairn and I’m two years older). I thought ‘Anarchy’ was a horrible noise and I don’t remember ever hearing GSTQ until a years or two later. The Jam were my entree into punk, being just that little more tuneful, then when I did “get” it I was blown away. Life changed, ELO records in the bin, flares chucked out..all that good stuff.

  5. 35
    lonepilgrim on 8 Jun 2008 #

    Before punk my friends and I prided ourselves on being outside the musical mainstream because we listened to ‘challenging’ music, rather than admitting that we were a bunch of pretentious nerds. When punk came along there was a moment when we could aspire to be both ‘challenging’ and mainstream. I remember feeling outraged that GSTQ was kept off the top spot having rushed out to buy it but in many ways that outrage was more satisfying than if it had been left alone.

  6. 36
    Waldo on 8 Jun 2008 #

    It always struck me peculiar that the Pistols actually harmonise on the chorus of “Anarchy”, which surely flies in the face of the whole concept of the song. The only explanation, it seems to me, is that Lydon was being sneeringly ironic, which I suggest puts money in the bank for the Waldo “Punk was far more tongue-in-cheek…” theory, since irony indicates humour, even though it isn’t quite the same thing.

  7. 37
    Tom on 8 Jun 2008 #

    There’s a lot of comedy stuff on the Great Rock N Roll Swindle, of course (including a Frenchified Anarchy IIRC!)

  8. 38
    Waldo on 8 Jun 2008 #

    Yes, of course you’re right, Tom. “A band that could not play…”

  9. 39
    lonepilgrim on 8 Jun 2008 #

    ..and today I spotted a five year old in the supermarket dressed in a ‘billy is a punk’ t-shirt with the words spelled out in a debased version of Jamie Reid’s blackmail typeface. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

  10. 40
    DJ Punctum on 8 Jun 2008 #

    About Swindle: both Lydon and McLaren were very friendly with Peter Cook and did their damnedest to persuade Cook to write the screenplay but it never quite came off, and indeed Cook even out-punked Lydon one evening when he came round to Cook’s place and was proferred a bowl of Smarties, at the bottom of which was a selection of what I will diplomatically term “Blue Meanies.”

    At the time Cook was also writing a weekly column for the Daily Mail (he didn’t believe a word he wrote in it but said that he just wrote what he thought the Mail people wanted) including one searing, ultra-right wing anti-punk rock tirade which he sat up and co-wrote with McLaren the night before.

  11. 41
    Waldo on 8 Jun 2008 #

    Cooky’s working for the Daily Mail. It’s a steady job but he wants to be a … oh no, wait, we’ve done that one!

  12. 42
    Billy Smart on 8 Jun 2008 #

    So – Dale Winton’s verdict – “You know, given all the fuss at the time, it actually stands up as a good record”

    It might be preferable for the single’s historical reputation if people still were prepared to condemn it as a seditious and despicable racket. Which is a reaction that some people might still have if, say, ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ or ‘Reality Asylum’ came onto mainstream radio.

    Dale is kind of right, though. By this juncture, The Sex Pistols are such a familiar cultural landmark that only people exposed to this music for the first time realise what a weird and bizzare thing Rotten’s voice was, as unique and unprecedented as Mick Jagger or Bryan Ferry.

    A particular delight is how every single line is phrased in an odd way, you can’t anticipate where the emphasis is going to be, drawing and compelling the listener in. The definitive Rotten vocalism is the mirthless cackle, a tone that you can never be certain if its guying you or genuinely unhinged. I think that this uncertainty is best shown in the balance between the “your future” and “no future” lines here.

    People cite these lines so often that you can forget how amazing they are. There’s a burning incisive intelligence combined with an uncertainty about what to do next that evokes both living in a time of decay and also what it feels like to be a teenager. I think that you have to hold both interpretations concurrently in your head to really feel this song. You could say that it was a petulant whine, or a situationist artwork, but its brilliance lies in it being both.

    And doesn’t this recording sound big? Everything is separated out and made to seem hugely exciting. It doesn’t plod or bludgeon, but it rages!


  13. 43
    rosie on 8 Jun 2008 #

    There’s been a long and sometimes honourable tradition of newspapers frothing at the mouth at what they perceived as ‘seditious and despicable’, but I’m not at all sure that most thinking people (ie those who don’t take what they read in the paper as gospel) agreed with them. And I find one of the most fascinating things to have arisen in this thread is that Malcolm McClaren – that supreme self-publicist – collaborated with Peter Cook on a ferociously anti-punk op-ed. Just what was needed to make the escapade perfect! I bet they were laughing as they went into Coutts together!

    And if the ‘fascist regime’ (this is just laughable) really found Mr Lydon such a threat to the system, do they arrest him and send him to Rockall, or Stornoway, or Basingstoke? Does he suddenly disappear from the archive, never to be spoken of again? Is he publicly hanged, drawn and quartered at Speakers’ Corner? Is he shot in the Palace of Westminster rifle range? Perhaps he’s bumped off in a freelance operation by Peter Wright and his chums?. He is not. The best the system can come up with is making him only the second best-selling single of one week in June, 1977. Gee! How humiliating! How it irreparably damaged his reputation!

    Frankly, I don’t give a toss whether it was number one or number two It was thirty-one years ago after all, and the pop charts aren’t exactly of world-shattering importance. Nobody got dead (except Sid and that was self-inflicted stupidity.) I’m human and not, of course, beyond feeling aggrieved about a chart even several years beyond this (I’m wary of marauding lapines but the one I have in mind concerns a place I once visited for one day only for the sole purpose of riding on a ferris wheel)

    I don’t care if there was or wasn’t a conspiracy, any more than I care whether the good Generalissimo scuppered poor Cliff ten tears earlier, but given the amount of heat generated by the issue I’m apt to wonder, like the wannabe barrister I once was, cui bono?. Not Queen Elizabeth, I’m sure of that. She would have been more concerned with the placement of her horses at Epsom. Not genial Jim Callaghan, who had other things on his plate. Not the BBC – they invited Mr Lydon to appear on Juke Box Jury after all, and they had form in handling a banned number one with insouciance. But Mr Lydon, who found fame and notoriety and not a little money (I’ve been trying to ascertain from the song what exactly he wants and knows how to get, and I can’t be sure but I suspect that he’s been quite happy with fame and fortune) has done very nicely, thank you. And Mr McLaren made a killing in bondage gear.

    Anyway, enough rambling. How about a FOIA application to settle the matter once and for all? Or would that run the danger of killing a potent myth stone dead?

    Meanwhile, The Pistol’s philosophy of “I know what I want and I know how to get it” was about to become political hegemony for the next twenty years – some might say longer than that. Was that what they wanted? Doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me. I saw more than a few Johnny Rottens when I was supporting a City dealing room some years after this. “Comes into Liverpool Street” was the scathing put-down of the old guard.

  14. 44
    Chris Brown on 8 Jun 2008 #

    @ Rosie 43: Excellent post, most of which I agree with, but I always thought he was singing “Don’t know what I want”. It’s pretty clear what he did want though.

  15. 45
    Waldo on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Yes, Dale was surprisingly comlimentary about “GSTQ”. I was actually ready for extended claws but no. I think he dealt with “the fuss” with an element of charm: “The Sex Pistols on Radio 2 on a Sunday afternoon! Who would have thought?!” Quite.

    Rosie, I too did the Harry Lime bit back in 1991. Whilst my girle (who’s still my girlie) rode that with me, she wisely chose not to join me on the “Hochbahn”, a truly terrifying experience which I would never repeat even in exchange for a night with Katherine Jenkins.

  16. 46
    Waldo on 9 Jun 2008 #

    “Cui bono?” Bono.

  17. 47
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #


    We were listening, and noted Judge Dale’s qualification: “it actually stands up as quite a good record.” That “quite” says it all.

    We wondered whether the deliberate passing over of most of the decent records in the Jubliee Week Top 20 was a cunning plan on Phil n’ Dale’s part to prove exactly why “GSTQ” was so important; most of what was played was so sterile and static and prematurely senile that it demonstrated exactly how much of an Exocet this record was – it OBLITERATED the previous 45 minutes, made it null and void.

    It could have been a more pleasant listen, of course, if, say, “Got To Give It Up” or “Lido Shuffle” or indeed “OK” had been played but again that’s at best a sidebar to the main thrust – there are good records in any given chart but hindsight tends to distort and the GENERAL feeling at the time was one of a stink of smug deadness which HAD to be cleared.

    As regards what The Man did to Lydon in 1977, as opposed to two or more years later, he was attacked and beaten up on several occasions (incurring amongst other injuries the severing of the tendons in his right hand), as were Paul Cook and many other “lesser lights” for the crime of being punks and not falling into line behind the Royalist diktat (cf. “Change Of Mind,” UNMUTUAL), that is when he was not being arrested/raided for no reason (and also beaten up) by Robert Mark’s wonderful Metropolitan Police which continued into the early eighties and occasioned his quitting of Britain. Were the Pistols brave, resistant, stalwart tongue stickers out? No – they were scared shitless, couldn’t go out anywhere and they ended up in an irrevocable and in one case fatal mess because of it.

    Are those who think that the pop charts aren’t of world shattering importance and can’t be bothered with what happens in them (yet manage to compose lengthy texts to demonstrate how bothered they’re not) really happy here in Popularland? You see, round here we consider pop a matter of life and death, and a whole lot more serious than that as well.

  18. 48
    rosie on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I thought we were discussing pop music, not the charts. With the number ones chosen as representative of their times. I don’t think we’ve ever agreed that the number one was the best or the most influential at the time.

    I can’t help being reminded of Jeffrey Archer, who once claimed that he was the best writer in the country because he sold more books.

    Who is this “we” of whom you speak, Marcello? Is that a Royal ‘we’?

  19. 49
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Pop music is all about the charts: pop music is suffocated by the charts. Pop is quixotic: pop is preplanned. Pop is outrageous: pop is far too safe for the greater good. Pop is a mountain: pop is (this week) a puddle.

    The “we” of which I speak is myself and my wife. Who’s your “we”? Wyndham Lewis?

  20. 50
    Drucius on 9 Jun 2008 #

    To me, it was a matter of great pride that “The Man” was so threatened by GSTQ that “He” had to suppress it. Pride and outrage.

    Yet “Anarchy” is by far the better song, so GSTQ was a slight disappointment to me. I even liked Sheena Is a Punk Rocker more. Possibly because me mum’s called Sheena.

    Oh, and it seems to me that Rosie is indulging in an orgy of point missing.

  21. 51
    Mark G on 9 Jun 2008 #

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

    I still think “Where there’s no virtue, how can there be sin?” would have been a better line, so go me.

  22. 52
    Tom on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Things can be serious and not-serious at the same time, obviously. Some bands take themselves very seriously and yet remain forever figures of fun – since we don’t kowtow to artistic intentions in those situations, why shouldn’t we take bands *more* seriously than they might have intended too?

    (Of course with the Pistols there are several prominent and different personalities involved all of whom ‘intended’ quite different things and were themselves enormously inconsistent and subject to the pressure of events.)

    Punk *was* important, or at least, as someone who started listening to music after punk, it felt important to me as a huge gravitational force on the attitudes and styles of the people who DID live through it (and who were making the music I grew up listening to). I listened to …Bollocks a few times, liked some of it, didn’t think much of the rest: that’s not the issue. The weight of punk didn’t lie in any specific records.

    As my review hopefully captures, I’m enormously undecided as to the ultimate benefit (or otherwise) of punk: how much it kicked open doors of possibility in pop, how much it’s turned out to be a millstone. I don’t think it makes much sense dismissing it as just a fad, BUT I think it was obviously a fad as well as anything else it was.

    (I like things being two or more things at once: Popular works as a vehicle for people who take pop extremely seriously and for people who don’t, and I like the way it brings these two into collision, which most pop conversation seems structured to avoid.)

  23. 53
    Waldo on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I see Itchy and Scratchy are at it again!

  24. 54
    rosie on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Ah! HMtQ was know to have said round about this time, “We, and by that I mean both of us.” So that’s what you mean by “we”, Marcello – not the mass of Populists! Who are many and varied, and so it should be.

    Aw, Marcello, you know you love me really, and what would you do, and where would you be, without me as your foil? All this desperation for something to be number one – sounds like a cry for acceptance to me, and you’ve told us before about all your peers at Uddingston Grammar School who couldn’t or wouldn’t get “the message.” But so what? You dared to be different and that’s a far more admirable trait than wanting to be the guru chronicler of your generation.

    Drucius, chuck, please explain what point it is I’m missing? Evidently I am a bear of very little brain so please keep long words out of it. The point I take is that yet another generation had seen what none had seen before them, just as those who went out and bought Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues and The Who’s My Generation. But others take other points. There is nothing new under the sun, and there is no absolute truth.

  25. 55
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Far too many easy and mistaken assumptions being made here – did you see the broadcast of Birtwistle’s The Minotaur on BBC2 Saturday night?

  26. 56
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Likewise, when something belongs to everyone it belongs to no one, and hence no one will take care of it.

  27. 57
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    “The Minotaur does not fully comprehend the duality of his physical nature as half-bull, half-man; only in sleep and, ultimately, in death does his human side become evident. Ariadne hopes that, with the help of the Oracle, she will enable Theseus to find a way out of the labyrinth should he survive his encounter with the Minotaur. She believes she can persuade Theseus to take her back with him to Athens. Both see the Minotaur as scapegoat and deliverance.”

    You say “Summertime Blues,” I raise you a Boris Goudonov.

  28. 58
    Alan on 9 Jun 2008 #

    My take on the conspiracy to keep it at 2 is much as Rosie put it with ‘cui bono’. who would bother? on the other hand, the positing of such a conspiracy seems all too much of obvious benefit to the victim – in fact it seems to be a piece with the original intention of the song, and such a conspiracy would be put out by the fans spontaneously regardless of any evidence. ultimately, not bothered if it is or isn’t true, but on the other hand it would be interesting pop history to see real actual evidence of either the origin of an urban myth, or actual chart fact fudging.

    i was 8 that summer, and remember the school’s jubilee celebrations. i was dressed as a union jack. years before morrissey got the idea. this also explains how i became so rac1st

  29. 59
    rosie on 9 Jun 2008 #

    No Marcello, I’d been in Liverpool all day (making a point, amongst other things, of having my lunch sitting on the very bench in The Grapes, Mathew Street, where the Fab Four sat after a sweaty gig at the Cavern and were photographed doing so. Make of that what you will) and didn’t get back until late evening. But I did hear and enjoy The Minotaur on Radio 3 the Saturday before.

    I’ll see your Boris and raise you Figaro.

  30. 60
    Waldo on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Bunny says that was an illegal move, Rosie!

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