6
Jun 08

THE SEX PISTOLS – “God Save The Queen”

FT + Popular211 comments • 12,052 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. 61
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    It would nice to hear from some people here who WERE and ARE bothered, quite frankly.

  2. 62
    Tom on 9 Jun 2008 #

    We have, the comments thread is full of them.

  3. 63
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    They need to make themselves heard again because this is increasingly reminding me of sitting in class with the sodding Genesis/Supertramp/ELO* fan club.

    *and Rush

  4. 64
    Alan on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Breakfast Lies Down in America (2112). rub-sh more like

  5. 65
    rosie on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Waldo: Whoops – but I’d have thought the bunny would know that Beaumarchais/Mozart was far more subversive than anythiing in the bunny’s remit…

    Marcello: it bothered me a great deal once that The Who never had a number one. Now there was an injustice!

  6. 66
    Tom on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I don’t mean bothered by this not getting to #1 – most people aren’t, me included, though the controversy makes this a worthwhile entry to include. I mean bothered about punk and GSTQ itself – I think only Rosie and Doctor Mod are the real nay-sayers here.

  7. 67
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    If you’re remotely bothered about GSTQ then you have to be bothered by whether or not it was kept off number one in Jubilee week since THAT WAS THE WHOLE POINT i.e. it was a PUBLIC GESTURE and NOT a 200 limited edition on Stiff and to me and people like me it was akin to the smug boot being stamped on our faces again and again – and the whole “oh but the Who” thing is the equivalent, really, i.e. WE HAD OUR FUN AND YOU WILL HAVE NONE SHUT THE FUCK UP OUR GENERATION WAS BETTER THAN YOURS KNEEL AND OBEY.

    (and for what it’s worth nobody realised that more acutely than Townshend – see Who By Numbers and Who Are You passim)

  8. 68
    Alan on 9 Jun 2008 #

    i’m glad the window (right age at the time) of people who would care are here FWIW

  9. 69
    Tom on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Yeah but – as lots of people have argued – being MAYBE PREVENTED FROM GETTING TO NUMBER ONE makes it *more* of a public gesture! The legend and the gesture and the record are inseparable – what’s non-bothering is the truth or otherwise of the “kept off” story.

    And the other problem is that you could easily argue that punk has become a more effective, and therefore worse generational hammer than 60s rock ever was: mainstream music discourse, certainly in this country, has never got over it.

  10. 70
    mike on 9 Jun 2008 #

    It would nice to hear from some people here who WERE and ARE bothered, quite frankly.

    Coo-ee, everybody!

    Right then, GSTQ. The absolute honest truth? This was my least favourite of the four Pistols singles. I find it stodgier and less memorable than the others, and rather weighed down by its self-conscious “significance”. “Anarchy” is snottier and brattier; “Pretty Vacant” is more energised and uplifting; “Holidays In The Sun” is sharper and brighter.

    (I also misheard some of the lyrics. “How can there be sin?” sounded like “Gonna be sick”, and I took “Lord God of mercy, all crimes are paid” as “All gala proceeds, all crimes are paid.”)

    As for the message, I took lines like “fascist regime” more as rhetorical flourish than as considered comparative analysis, and was quick to spot the distinction between the Daily Mail’s “How dare the call the Queen a moron!” and the more nuanced actuality of “…made you a moron”, which in turn informed “she ain’t no human being”. In other words, the song attacks the oppressive symbolism of the monarchy, rather than the personal characteristics of the monarch (which would have been a good deal more puerile and dismissible).

    Meanwhile GSTQ was loathed and despised by virtually everyone I knew. At the same time, I was entering the most wretchedly miserable period of my life, in which a combination of external factors and internal crises rendered me barely able to function socially or within my own family. By casting me as the lone weirdo nutter who actually stuck up for this bunch of yobs, my classmates at boarding school had found yet another stick with which to beat me, and I found myself unable to defend myself.

    And so when I remember GSTQ, I remember isolation, victimisation, being a social untouchable and a family scapegoat, and not having one single friend (still less lover) to call my own. For the thick end of the next couple of years, I continued to retreat further and further into myself, with my record collection, the music press and the radio as my only sources of comfort and relief.

    The current issue of Mojo magazine carries four excellent and illuminating long-form interviews with Messrs Lydon, Jones, Matlock and Cook. One observation of Lydon’s particularly struck me. Talking about Never Mind The Bollocks, he says:

    “I’m chuffed to f**k when I know the root of NMTB is the way me and Steve Jones instinctively feel and think about things.[…] Deeply, deeply intellectually primitive. People can sometimes instinctively hit on things. Steve had a tuning fork for life in that way. That’s why he’s great company for me. We row like cats and dogs but biinnnng (makes tuning fork sound), I pick the tone up. It’s f**king lovely.”

    That, to me, explains a lot of the creative tension which went towards making the Pistols so great.

  11. 71
    Waldo on 9 Jun 2008 #

    It’s going to be bloody laughable discussing the next number one after this little lot.

    Rosie – Bun would have not carded you had you said: “I’ll see your Boris and raise you Figaro (as in ‘The Marriage of…’)”

    Marcello – I wish you and I could have done the Prince and Pauper bit (with Waldo naturally the pauper) and gone to each other’s schools for a spell. I don’t really know which one of us would have been killed first.

  12. 72
    mike on 9 Jun 2008 #

    As for the “only getting to Number Two” thing? It didn’t actually bother me one way or the other, although I was almost beside myself with excitement when GSTQ went straight in at #11 the previous week. No other punk single had climbed higher than the mid-30s at absolute best at that stage, so #2 was a very, very big deal indeed.

  13. 73
    mike on 9 Jun 2008 #

    But the BEST moment of ALL of this, as far as I was concerned? The Sunday night chart show on Radio One, in the week that GSTQ hit #2. Tom Browne played the song at #3, then merely announced the song title at #2 before briskly moving onto the countdown.

    Finally, it was Rod Stewart time.

    “And now, at this week’s…” [cues the next jingle in the machine]

    “NUMB-ERR TWO!”

    Cue much embarrassed and apologetic spluttering and giggling from Browne, as the ghost in the machine duly grabbed the last laugh…

  14. 74
    rosie on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Waldo: I was going to say something to the effect that the next few number ones will show us just how the world had changed ;)

  15. 75
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    We killed all your gods soon enough, just by different and subtler means.

  16. 76
    rosie on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Marcello, you do look silly with your tongue sticking through that hole in the side of you face…

    My gods? My god!

  17. 77
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Quiet at the back, I’m teaching you some wisdom.

  18. 78
    Dan R on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Given the weightlessness of cultural memory, there’s no way of looking ‘through’ the belief that a single is culturally important to the ‘reality’ of whether it was important. It’s not like believing in gravity or the existence of Camembert. The Sex Pistols are widely considered to be important, therefore they are.

    Who does it benefit? The rather conservative BBC director-general Charles Curran who got a knighthood and the chairman of of the BBC Board of Governors who ended up with a peerage.

    The problem with the cui bono argument is that it’s sceptically endless. Who benefits from that, I ask. Then you turn round and ask who benefits from my asking. And so on and so on, ad infinitum.

    Is it so very implausible that in the flag-waving royalism of that silver jubilee era, the BBC and the chart-counters thought it would just be a little embarrassing to have GSTQ at # 2? This doesn’t make the decision right but it doesn’t involve a great conspiracy to work.

    The claim about the ‘fascist regime’ is surprising. It’s a rhetorical figure, it’s a metaphor. It’s a way of drawing attention to the state of things. I don’t suppose Lydon, if he thought about it in these terms, really subscribed to the belief that Britain was strictly fascist any more than he believed, with David Icke, that the Queen is not in fact a human being. Still, there were elements of fascism in 1970s Britain: internment and a shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Island, advanced plans for a right-wing military coup should the Bennites get control of government, and let’s remember that the BBC was still marking with a Christmas Tree the files of employees suspected of far-left sympathies. No, this was not Pinochet’s Chile, but nor was it Olaf Palme’s Sweden.

    What stuns me about this is the vocal performance. It sounds, all at the same time, raging, triumphant, and despairing. Many great singers have character in their voice; how many matched style to function, form to content, as did John Lydon?

    This song comes pretty much at the dawning of my musical consciousness. I was certainly aware of the Silver Jubilee. Our school did a big performance to celebrate it: This Is Your Life – The Queen was the structuring principle and there was a different short performance for every one of those glorious 25 years. Thank you for asking, I was Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Rather interestingly, 1977 was represented by one class pretending to be the sex pistols. I don’t remember much accuracy in their impression; they danced about to Anarchy in the UK (in unison, as I recall). I certainly remember the Sex Pistols river boat trip; we talked of little else for weeks. I didn’t follow the details of the music enough to notice any change or falling off when we got to ‘Somethin’ Else’ and ‘Frigging in the Rigging’. I suppose this music was handed down to our primary school playground by older brothers. Certainly the lyrics to ‘Frigging in the Rigging’ are designed for adolescents. I can testify that by 1979, ‘hippy’ had become a term of frightful opprobrium in the playground of my south london primary school, and at our leaver’s party, at least three boys came with their hair dyed green. Punk cleansed our palates. With due deference to S. Bunny esq., when one of the mightiest behemoths of 1970s prog suprisingly hit the #1 spot, I and my friends, aged 11, would hear it as … kind of punk.

    Punk cast a long shadow over my musical tastes in the 1980s and I’ve sometimes come to resent the narrowness of its musical manifesto, though I’ve also come to realise this was the narrowness of my reading of its musical manifesto, assisted by MacLaren, the dogmatists at the NME, and my own lack of understanding. I rarely listen to The Sex Pistols – they seem beyond music somehow – but I retain a massive affection for The Buzzcocks, a band who sadly will never come close to troubling our attention and concern. The Pistols were perhaps musically a blind alley, even if culturally they opened up whole landscapes. It’s too easy to treat their nihilism as a precursor to Thatcherism; that whole free-market fundamentalism was not nihilistic in itself, it allowed the market to do that for them.

  19. 79
    LondonLee on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I remember the Silver Jubilee because our street party was the first time I ever got drunk – on three pints of lager. Also, Monty Modlyn from the same Today show that gave us Bill Grundy came round with a camera crew and tried to chat up my mum.

    Any-hoo, is it possible to think was a brilliant, earth-shattering record and not care if it got to #1 or not? This might be because I’m long past the age where I care about the charts but #2 isn’t exactly a poke in the eye is it? Maybe if Thatcher had conspired to keep ‘Ghost Town’ or ‘A Town Called Malice’ off the top spot I’d get more worked up – or would have done back then.

  20. 80
    Chris Brown on 9 Jun 2008 #

    To expand slightly upon my previous post (now that it’s not midnight) – a couple of years ago Great Lives covered Joe Strummer, and Matthew Parris went on to detail how he and his fellow Tories were hanging out at Clash gigs, apparently energised by the anti-establishment tone they heard. Clearly that wasn’t the band’s intention but perhaps you should be careful what you wish for! I think what that suggests is that the determined will read into music whatever they want to.

    At the risk of cannibalising other threads, I personally don’t find it impossible to believe that the single could be kept off the top artificially – but I can’t call myself wholeheartedly convinced that it really did happen on this occasion. Either way, cui bono suggests that pretty much everyone is better off the way this did turn out: Rod of course, McLaren, EMI, the media and us because we’ve got something to talk about. And a certain Irishman too, but there’s a bunny here…

  21. 81
    Waldo on 10 Jun 2008 #

    # 78 – “and let’s remember that the BBC was still marking with a Christmas Tree the files of employees suspected of far-left sympathies”.

    UPDATE: The Chrismas Tree’s still standing but now, of course, it marks the files of employees suspected of NOT having far-left sympathies.

  22. 82
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    #79 – SPOILER BUNNY ALERT

    #80 – for an as-it-happened field report, see “Rat Race” by the Specials.

    #81 – Michael Gove must be shaking in his Shakin’ Stevens shoes.

  23. 83
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Top Tory election rally attendee Monty Modlyn, my goodness me.

    Other top Tory election rally attendees to have hit singles in 1977: Lynsey de Paul with Mike Moran and Eurovision runner-up “Rock Bottom,” and Kenny Everett with “Captain Kremmen.”

  24. 84
    Waldo on 10 Jun 2008 #

    # 82 – Gove’s bosses clearly thought he was a New Labour MP, which is an honest mistake to make as he certainly sounds like one. Sounds like Andrew Marr, in fact and we all know about him.

    # 83 – So fucking what?

  25. 85
    mike on 10 Jun 2008 #

    #83 – And another future Tory election rally attendee topped the charts in 1977 – but we haven’t quite got there yet, so I shall say no more.

  26. 86
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    #84 – we’ll have less of that so-called punk shocker talk on this board, lad. And get your hair cut else you’ll be looking like that Amy Winehouse feller off the telly like.

  27. 87
    Drucius on 10 Jun 2008 #

    At my local Bruce’s Records they tippexed out Rod and put GSTQ at number one. Happy days.

  28. 88
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Just out of interest, whereabouts was your local Bruce’s?

  29. 89
    Drucius on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Reform Street, Dundee.

  30. 90
    Waldo on 10 Jun 2008 #

    # 86 – I think Amy Winehouse would have made a splendid punkette. A Nancy Spungen for the modern age. The girl’s got great talent but she’s facing match point on her own serve, I’m afraid.

    30-40…

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