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.


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  1. 91
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Does that score include her recent “Philip Larkin moment”?

  2. 92
    Waldo on 10 Jun 2008 #

    That tennis metaphor just reminded me. Didn’t the fabulous Senor Nadal put Federer to the sword the other day? What a twatting! 6-1, 6-3, 6-0! Sweet Jesus!

    Wait a minute…”Sweet Jesus”??? BUNNY, NO!!!!!!!!!!

  3. 93
    Waldo on 10 Jun 2008 #

    # 91 – Ha-haa! I think it probably did, yes. When she does finally hit that final backhand slice into the net, she’ll be forever referred to as “The Tragic” Amy Winehouse, everyone will love her and sales will skyrocket. Then the obituries will commence:

    “Poor Amy”.

    “Poor sweet Amy”.

    “Poor sweet SWEET Amy”.

    “Amy’s gone…” (Continued on P 94)

  4. 94
    Waldo on 10 Jun 2008 #

    …(which by an amazing coincidence, it has!)

  5. 95
    Billy Smart on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Beat tabloid headline configuration for the troubled singer: ‘TRAGIC DRUG AMY’

  6. 96
    Erithian on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Way off topic here, but yes I got her “Frank” album recently and was struck not only by a fine selection of songs but by just how healthy and, not exactly pretty, but still sexy she looked in the CD booklet. She doesn’t have to go down that road if someone can get a grip on her and the paps can lay off a little. I suppose the latter ain’t gonna happen, but I guess there’s still hope.

    Anyway, on the topic in hand. Re the alleged fix, I clearly recall the way Record Mirror handled the story. In the closest you’d ever get to an apocalyptic headline, it went:
    Friday, noon: Five days’ sales of Sex Pistols single:
    IBA advises “Don’t play single”

    There then followed a variety of quotes from at one side, Tony Blackburn, practically foaming at the mouth; Cliff, comparatively restrained: “I don’t like what punk rockers do, particularly to themselves”; and the line Marcello slightly misquoted upthread, “If pop music is going to be used to destroy our established institutions, then it ought to be destroyed first”. The quote was from the LABOUR MP for Lambeth North, Marcus Lipton. On the other side, in what must have been one of his earliest pop press quotes, was Paul Weller: “God save the Sex Pistols and youth”; plus the Clash and other luminaries.

    One thing’s for sure, if the figure of 150,000 sales in five days is accurate, then something shady must have been going on to keep it below a fourth-week number one at a time when singles sales were not especially booming (certainly not compared to 12 months later).

    I often wonder, though, how many of those involved were really trying to bring down the Establishment and how many were just really enjoying the moment? I recall Sounds’ review of the Pistols’ Jubilee boat trip and the bit that read: “”No Fun” belted out as the police boarded the boat and switched off the PA is one of the great rock’n’roll moments ever, I mean EVER. Think about that.” Certainly a few of those involved could put together cogent arguments about the monarchy and John Lydon’s background is consistent with a dissenting view, but not that many of us were a threat. How many would have enjoyed the record, even the sense of mischief in having an incendiary record like that threatening the national order, and still had a crafty cake at their local Jubilee street party?

    I and many others don’t recall that period as being as bleak as all that, certainly not as bad as ’73. For me, the spring of ’77 was fine weather, I was doing pretty well at school, United had won the Cup (we went to the victory parade and Brian Greenhoff waved at Mum), while for Queenie, apart from having a good time for the Jubilee, she got to see Virginia Wade win Wimbledon and meet Ian Botham after he’d taken 5 Australian wickets for 74 on his Test debut.

    Oh, and Rosie – Nicky Tesco sure beings back memories for me. I saw the Members (of “Sound of the Suburbs” fame) at mine and Billy’s alma mater RHC, and remember being chuffed as hell to be so close to the band that I could literally tell the time by the singer’s watch. Happy days.

    But you’re right, Rosie, about the sometimes unacknowledged influence of the music of the past on punk. Marc Bolan said at the time, “If I were Pete Townshend and saw the Jam I would be amazed.” Bolan was buying heavily into punk at the time, to the extent of touring with the Damned (although whose career that was supposed to benefit is a moot point) and having new wave-ish acts on his ITV show – which was all too soon curtailed.

  7. 97
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    It was the Bowie curse (see also Bing Crosby in the same year).

  8. 98
    LondonLee on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Oops, sorry about my Bunny tempting earlier.

    Want I want to know is, does Marcello have a secret dossier marked with Christmas trees of every celebrity suspected of “Top Tory” political tendencies?

  9. 99
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Not “suspected” – KNOWN Top Tory celebrities who have expressed their love and admiration of the party. There are quite a few suspicious ones around at the moment but I will not reference them as such unless they come out and openly express their support for Child Catcher Cameron.

  10. 100
    Drucius on 10 Jun 2008 #

    The debt to the past isn’t unacknowledged, the Pistols covered the Stooges, as did The Damned (and the MC5), the Clash toured with Bo Diddley, etc etc. If anything, it was noting the acknowledged influences of punk bands that got me into a zillion other bands and genres.

  11. 101
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    We know all this but it was a case of not allowing oneself to be strangled by the past, imprisoned in it.

  12. 102
    Erithian on 10 Jun 2008 #

    We’ve already discussed (in the “No Charge” thread for perfectly valid reasons) the way punk hit Manchester. Last Friday in a Scouse theme night on BBC4 inspired by Alexei Sayle’s series on Liverpool, we saw two episodes of “Rock Family Trees” about the original Merseybeat bands and the “new Merseybeat” scene that thrived mainly around the club “Eric’s” in the post-punk days. The flavour of the latter can best be indicated by the story where Ian McCulloch was in the audience at a punk gig, getting increasingly annoyed at the swaying dancing of a youth in front of him, and nearly started a fight. The youth, name of Julian Cope, replied “let’s not fight, let’s harness our aggression and start a band.” Some great footage, and evidence that Big in Japan’s Jayne Casey, while seeming a scary harridan, was a generous and pleasant woman – at least by the time the programme was made.

  13. 103
    lonepilgrim on 10 Jun 2008 #

    As much as I enjoyed the provocation and the sheer thrill of GSTQ at the time my interest in the Pistols waned after Pretty Vacant.
    There was an article in the NME at the time which reported on their tour of Denmark and described Paul Cook and Steve Jones failing to provoke some local ‘hippies’ and Rotten’s derisive attitude towards their narrow mindedness. His interview on Capital Radio that summer revealed a far broader musical taste than the three chord thrash that has become the cliched version of punk. You can read the interview here: http://www.fodderstompf.com/ARCHIVES/REVIEWS%202/capital77.html

    As Rotten says: Stagnant. I think that’s the fashionable word. You couldn’t go see a rock band without knowing what it was gonna be like before you got there. That’s the trouble with most punk bands, you can predict what their next song is gonna be, and as soon as they start up you can sing along with the words. Without ever hearing it before, which ain’t so funny. That’s a real bad night out, and you do feel cheated, there should be loads of different things.
    When I saw the Stranglers for the second time that year the middle of the road types from school tipped up with safety pins in their lapels and did the obligatory pogoing down the front. It all became very predictable very quickly.
    What was more revelatory for me, stuck out in the suburbs, was the introduction to reggae, and dub in particular, through punk.

  14. 104
    DJ Punctum on 11 Jun 2008 #

    Admittedly, the Pistols’ interest in the Pistols also waned somewhat after “Pretty Vacant.”

  15. 105
    DJ Punctum on 11 Jun 2008 #

    That’s what makes “Holidays In The Sun” so compelling; the palpable feeling of Lydon actually declaring war on the rest of the group – just before the guitar break, he abandons scansion, tempo and structure and it’s bloody but elatingly terrifying (“Please don’t be waiting for me”).

  16. 106
    Mark G on 11 Jun 2008 #

    On reflection, “Holidays in the Sun” would be my favourite Pistols single.

    Not even the BBC banned it! In fact, only Capital Radio did, because it might offend their advertisers.

    Which put to the sword the idea that commercial radio would be the liberating force it had been advertised as being.

  17. 107
    LondonLee on 11 Jun 2008 #

    Didn’t Capital play GSTQ though? I distinctly remember my sister telling me she and her mates were outside the BBC in White City waiting for the Bay City Rollers (or someone) to come out from a TOTP appearance when a Capital Radio bus pulled up outside playing The Pistols very loudly and the DJ shouted “THEY WON’T PLAY THIS! BUT WE WILL!”

  18. 108
    DJ Punctum on 11 Jun 2008 #

    No idea – my local station was Radio Clyde, and the only DJ there who played it was Brian Ford on his unmissable Wednesday evening punk show Street Sounds.

  19. 109
    Erithian on 11 Jun 2008 #

    One of its first plays on the BBC must have been on a curious and entertaining programme on Radio 4, 18 months or so after its release, called “Listen to the Banned”. The programme examined the history of and reasoning behind the banning of certain records, and included short excerpts from GSTQ and Anarchy, plus the likes of “Wet Dream”, “Strange Fruit” (banned during the war to avoid upsetting white GIs!), “Gloomy Sunday” (also banned during the war to avoid inspiring suicides!) and Bing Crosby’s “Young and Healthy” (because “once you claim you can be too old for love, you’re implying it has a physical connotation”!)

    It revealed that there was no such thing as an absolute ban, rather a sticker saying “Not To Be Broadcast Without Permission”, and permission could be hard to obtain. Mind you it did censor itself to an extent: there were still bleeps on Derek and Clive’s “Who are you calling a —-, —-?” sketch.

  20. 110
    Mark G on 11 Jun 2008 #

    I remember seeing that radio prog scheduled, I did wonder what they did about playing the Derek and Clive stuff.

    There was an excellent article about ‘banned’ records in Record Collector a few months ago.

  21. 111
    LondonLee on 11 Jun 2008 #

    When I worked in the record department of WH Smith we got a letter from head office instructing us to remove all copies of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Inflammable Material” from the racks as they’d no longer be selling it. I could sort of understand the stupid political reasons for such action (not that I agreed with it of course) but the letter also told us to do the same with Public Image’s first album. What the hell was that all about?

  22. 112
    Waldo on 11 Jun 2008 #

    # 96 – Marcus Lipton was indeed my MP. He was something to do with the Lipton chain of shops. I’ll always remember the old booby once falling asleep during Prize Day at our school, the drunken old bastard. But in 1977, he was on his last legs and fell off his perch in a matter of months after he made these remarks. He had previously hit the news for slagging off the Rollers, sentiments with which I entirely agreed. I believe he came in to Parliament at the 1945 Labour landslide.

  23. 113
    DJ Punctum on 11 Jun 2008 #

    The track “Religion” I guess.

  24. 114
    LondonLee on 11 Jun 2008 #

    I think that was our guess at the time, been a long time since I’ve heard it.

  25. 115
    Mark G on 11 Jun 2008 #

    Or maybe because it was JRotten’s new album, first one (properly) since “bollocks”…

  26. 116
    LondonLee on 11 Jun 2008 #

    Well we already had it in stock so they were a bit slow on the uptake there. I can imagine the WH Smith Chairman at his club one night and someone reading The Telegraph pipes up with “I see that this Rotten blighter has gotten himself another beat combo, someone ought to put a stop to that.”

  27. 117
    DJ Punctum on 13 Jun 2008 #

    An interesting theory makes itself known at my request (I won’t, as you will appreciate, name the source):

    “In 1977 the charts were being compiled by the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB). In order to compile the charts a number of retailers manually filled in diaries, noting the catalogue number (or ticking a box for the bigger sellers) every time they sold a record. On Saturday the diaries were sent to BMRB’s offices in Ealing. From all the diaries received (at the time I believe around 750 were completed) a selection of just 250 were used to compile the charts. All of the sales from those 250 diaries were manually put into a computer. The computer then simply added up the totals and produced a ranking. (This lead to what the industry used to call “panel sales”, and sales data was presented in index-form until the mid-1990s).

    “The easiest way to change the results would have been to be choosy in the selection of which diaries to include out of the 700 available, (allowing for some that wouldn’t turn in in Ealing on time), to make up the 250 diaries used to compile the charts. For example, the Sex Pistols record would be selling from Independent stores, HMV and Virgin type retailers. It was less likely to be selling well from Boots, Woolworths and WHSmith. In fact I believe that most of those retailers had actually banned the sale of the record through their stores. Therefore if you slightly increased the ratio of say, Woolworths diaries over Virgin diaries, you could quite easily alter the ranking.

    “Now to hearsay. I understand that the industry was worried that, because God save The Queen was on the Virgin label, then the sales through Virgin Record shops could be over-reported by “keen shop staff”. Therefore, perhaps for this particular week, Virgin diaries should not be included in the sample. If that was the case, then you would need other diaries to replace the excluded ones, and what better than to use additional Woolworths ones – especially if there was a desire by certain parties to keep God Save The Queen off the No.1 spot at a time when the country was celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

    “The outcome was that by skewing the sample of diaries used in favour of general retailers against specialist retailers, a less controversial record retained the number 1 slot over a record that would possibly throw the record industry into a bad light.

    “Did it happen? Well, it’s very feasible, and a number of sources who were in the industry at that time have confirmed that the record companies were concerned about the situation, and even spoke to BMRB. But would BMRB have changed the diary selection? I don’t know, and I suspect we’ll never know.”

  28. 118
    Tommy Mack on 13 Jun 2008 #

    Paul Cook’s machine gun tom-tom/bass drum fill just before (I think) ‘GSTQ, we mean it man!’ is absolutely ace!

  29. 119
    Tommy Mack on 13 Jun 2008 #

    No, it’s after ‘God saaaaaaaaaaaays!’

  30. 120
    Matthew H on 14 Jun 2008 #

    Intriguing, all that panel sales caper.

    I always wanted to know if Berkhamsted’s WH Smith had a Dataport(?) machine in the early/mid-’80s, but was too shy to ask.

    We’d have skewed the Gallup findings by, oooh, at least an extra three or four Heaven 17 sales.

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