Jun 08

THE SEX PISTOLS – “God Save The Queen”

FT + Popular211 comments • 12,277 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. 151
    thefatgit on 10 Nov 2009 #

    I was approaching my 11th birthday when this came out. Too young to “get it”. 2 or three years later, I watched “The Great Rock N Roll Swindle”, Julien Temple’s spoof “spoof”. I realised then, what The Sex Pistols represented. McLaren as Pied Piper of Hamelin playing the tune to entice the rats/kids out of the Kingdom to their doom/salvation (which perspective, you choose). The Pistols were the tune the Piper played.

    Had I been older, I would maybe have dismissed McLaren’s importance and focussed on The Sex Pistols and Lydon as much as maybe Punctum.

    McLaren for me is always going to taint any Pistols record. His grubby fingerprints show up on everything The Sex Pistols did. Yes it’s pop. Pop in it’s most beguiling and enticing form, but underpinned by an agenda. How to make the most money from the least effort. Would the Pistols be anywhere near as famous/relevant/notorious (again you choose) without McLaren? Punk was gonna happen as a movement anyway. The Damned’ “New Rose” had to be where it all kicked off. The Clash’s “White Riot” provided the necessary radical edge.
    Eddie And The Hot Rods’ “Do Anything You Wanna Do” simply sounded like energetic Pub Rock, an end-of-gig stomper, but within it was Punk’s mission statement. Without McLaren “pulling the strings” behind Lydon & Co. Where would the focus of a nation’s ire be placed? By their very existence, the Pistols diverted the microscope away from Strummer and Jones, who had, for me, much more important things to say.

  2. 152
    AndyPandy on 10 Nov 2009 #

    Re 148 “so much homemade music”: try 1992/93 and Hardcore/rave – and every year since for a million times more homemade music being made without the embarrassing “politics”, fakery, earnestness and unnecessary reviving of the rock carcase that was punk.

  3. 153
    thefatgit on 10 Nov 2009 #

    Agreed, AndyPandy, but I think now with CueBase/FruityLoops/GarageBand etc. you can do it and post it online. In 1992, you still had to fork out for pricey synths, turntables and drum machines. With a PC and some cheap software (and some talent, of course) you can be the Next Big Thing. In my youth I felt the politics was more important, but now it’s just so much rhetoric. Punk’s gift, if you can call it a gift, is that you’re free to get out there and do it if you want and bugger the consequences.

  4. 154
    Mark M on 4 Dec 2009 #

    I note that on The Culture Show last night, John Lydon, lead singer of Public Image Limited, was an emotionally open and unashamedly intellectual figure, only vaguely related to the panto Johnny Rotten who has been doing the media rounds in recent years…

  5. 155
    thefatgit on 4 Dec 2009 #

    @154..yes and that snippet of “Religion” at the end sounded quite fresh as well.

  6. 156
    lonepilgrim on 4 Dec 2009 #

    They should give him a radio show like Dylan’s Theme Time.

  7. 157
    lonepilgrim on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Malcolm McLaren R.I.P.

  8. 158
    thefatgit on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Bloody Hell! I just heard. I hope they give him due credit for a couple of fine albums in “Duck Rock” and “Fans”. Malcolm, sleep well you old curmodgeon, you.

  9. 159
    thefatgit on 9 Apr 2010 #

    Of course I meant “Waltz Darling” for “Fans” *slaps head*.

  10. 160
    Erithian on 9 Apr 2010 #

    Stuart Maconie ventured last night that “Duck Rock” was more influential than “Never Mind the Bollocks”, and the track they played as a tribute was “Madam Butterfly”, so at least there you got your wish. Thanks for a great deal of fun Malcolm.

  11. 161
    punctum on 9 Apr 2010 #

    My tribute to Malcolm, a different sort of X.

  12. 162
    glue_factory on 9 Apr 2010 #

    Duck Rock was the first album I ever owned, bought by my mother from Littlewoods, Hounslow High Street and requested by me on the strength of Buffalo Gals. To be honest, as an eleven year old, I found it a bit “wierd and scary” but I’m sure it laid seeds within me of what I’d grow to love in pop music. If nothing else, it introduced me to messers Horn, Dudley, Jeczalik and Langan, whose work would be all over a lot of the records that dominated my life in the 80s. And it gave me the first rap I ever memorised and impressed the hard kids with, on the 91 bus on the way to school.

    The ‘Chicken’ and Bow Wow Wow incidents as recounted in Reynolds Rip It Up leave a bad taste in the mouth, but hopefully they can be excused on the grounds of (not so) youthful exuberance and I’d rather remember Malcolm with the odd, krauty-afro stylings of Legba and that ghostly scream on Buffalo Gals.

  13. 163
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Apr 2010 #

    Yesterday’s Jeremy Vine show (hardly a home for the avant-garde) began with Vine intoning: “There’s only one way of starting the show today. Thank’s, Malcolm!” And on came GSTQ. I was in my car at the time with the window down on a glorious day. It was a wonderful few minutes. As the track came to its conclusion, Jeremy came on again with: “That record sounds just as raw and exciting as it ever did..” (or words to that effect).

    I can’t ever remember the “JY Prog” starting like that!!

    RIP, Malcolm, you mad old bastard!

  14. 164
    jim on 19 Aug 2010 #

    wonder if they would have loved or hated this Japanese version of God save the queen from Puncolle Punk

  15. 165
    Hammy on 20 Mar 2011 #

    It bugs me a little that some people think ‘punk’ was all-pervasive in 1977. In terms of the ‘rock media’ it was, but, for just one example, a year later (at the height of The Terror) BOF Bob Dylan drew over 200K ‘rock’ fans to Blackbushe, all in denim and rugby shirts with not a hint of punk fashion to be seen. Punk’s main influence turned out ultimately to be on other areas like comedy, fashion and rock journalism. And to the average gig-going young person it didn’t seem all that ‘controversial’ or challenging (though much of it was simply dreadful, by any concievable aesthetic yardstick). In the sticks we all went to see any band we’d read about, punk or BOF. If it was ‘new wave’ you put a skinny tie and shades on, and a denim jacket if it leaned towards BOF-ism. Most of us just watched bemused from the sidelines as (mainly NME) journalists apparently went through untold inner turmoil to locate the revolutionary heroism in it all while the bands themselves went all out for the same old rock shag/money/drug fest. Hardly year zero, unless you were a rock journalist or (to use a word popular in 1977) a poseur.

  16. 166
    punctum on 21 Mar 2011 #

    What is, or was, “The Terror”?

    In future, instead of “most of us,” use the term “I” since that is what you meant.

  17. 167
    Mark G on 21 Mar 2011 #

    I daresay ‘most of you’ i.e. you and your mates, stood around ‘bemused’ at the folderol going on. It does sound like you were having your ‘ball’ taken away from you and you didn’t even know.

    I have the Xmas NME from 1977, and for all the reviews of punk/new wave and the ‘exciting’ developments, you can check the musician classifieds and see that the majority were “vocalist/guitarist wanted for new band, influenced by The Faces”…

    Because when the films/documentaries try to recreate 1977/punk times, they tend to overload on Mohicans (there were none in 77), and leave out the jeanjacketed ‘bemused’ onlookers.

    Oh, and also, there weren’t that many NME journalists around. And even if there were, you would not be at the same gig as them, I’d wager.

    I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. When the teds said “punk is dead”, it wasn’t. It died when the punks said it wasn’t.

  18. 168
    Hammy on 23 Mar 2011 #

    I think I did mean ‘most of us’, really, apart from those ‘square peg individuals’ (see above) essaying a flamboyant marginality. But well done to them, eh.

    Saw what you did there Mr G – ‘you and your mates’ – places me nicely with that small group of sullen bedenimmed beer monsters at the bar clutching carrier bags full of prog albums and sulking about ‘new wave’. I bet you’re great at dealing with feckless tradesmen.

    Alright I’m going….

  19. 169
    ace inhibitor on 17 Sep 2011 #

    spotted in M&S overpriced food emporium today: ‘Chineapple punks’ (see what they did there?), in that familiar upper/lowercase mix, garish yellow on pink obviously. Tagline: ‘Never mind the pineapple cubes bla bla something’

    See? Its NOT dead…

  20. 170
    wichita lineman on 5 Jun 2012 #

    Haven’t heard Neil Young’s GSTQ but wondering whether he sings the second verse:

    Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
    May by thy mighty aid,
    Victory bring.
    May he sedition hush,
    and like a torrent rush,
    Rebellious Scots to crush,
    God save the Queen.

  21. 171
    Mark G on 5 Jun 2012 #

    Funny, at the end of the DiamJub concert, the band played a 2 verse instrumental version of GSTQ, and Alice and I attempted some imprompteau lines for it (hakuna matata was one of them). If only we’d seen the entry above!

  22. 172
    wichita lineman on 6 Jun 2012 #

    The reason I mentioned it is because of that. I wasn’t watching but apparently it felt like people should sing along, only nobody knew the words (apart from, presumably, people in Scotland).

  23. 173
    punctum on 4 Jul 2012 #

    Excellent, well-researched piece on GSTQ’s “real” number two status: http://yesitsnumberone.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/ever-get-feeling-youve-been-cheated.html

  24. 174
    Mark G on 5 Jul 2012 #

    So, in short, the BRMB sample didn’t use Virgin shops (where the Pistols single was selling more than the average), and did use Woolworths, Smiths and Boots (where the single was banned)

  25. 175
    punctum on 29 Aug 2012 #

    Finally, 7,237 words about the Pistols, me, ghosts, towers and the inbuilt failure of attempted destruction being turned into reconstruction: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-sex-pistols-never-mind-bollocks.html

  26. 176
    Jimmy the Swede on 1 Oct 2012 #

    I’d like to think I wasn’t the only one who caught Johnnie Walkers’s “Sounds of the 70s” yesterday. His show is always wonderful, of course, but this one was a belter. His featured album was the Pistols and the broadcast contained a recent interview with Steve Jones. Johnnie being Johnnie couldn’t help but mock the fact that he still couldn’t say “bollocks” over the air and substituted “ollicks” instead. At one point, he cracked-up with laughter and roared “this is ridiculous!” as indeed it was. Apart from the Jonesey interview, there was a clip from back in the day when Rotten and Sid were explaining why Matlock had left.
    “He was fired because he was an oaf,” explained Rotten.
    “And ugly,” slurped Sid. (he was charmingly eating a meal). “And he liked the Beatles,” he added. “Says it all!” Walker mocked this comment when the clip ended.

    Johnnie then interviewed Ian Hunter, a very interesting character. He was born in Oswestry, that great town of rebellion and his dad worked for MI5!

    Good interview and great show.

  27. 177

    Yes I as a teen treasured the fact that Hunter hailed from a neighboring rural town — until Genesis P. Orridge’s parents retired to Bayston Hill. Mum and I once saw GPO in Shrewsbury — in Mardol in fact — and she said “Look at that funny little man!”, which is how I think of him to this day.

  28. 178
    Erithian on 14 Apr 2013 #

    So another seditious chart entry peaks at number 2! Do the conspiracy theories start here??

  29. 179
    swanstep on 15 Apr 2013 #

    Not especially relatedly, is anyone else watching any of the Coachella stream live on youtube? E.g., OMD have an after-dark (Sunday Night slot) between Franz and Nick Cave in a few hours.

    I watched bits of a few things yesterday (Saturday) and the extremes of The Violent Femmes’ rough-and-readiness and the DJ/dubstep computerized madness of Knife Party seemed to me to go down best (and Janelle Monae was pretty good by any but her own standards), whereas the much hyped Phoenix, Postal Service, and New Order sets left me cold.

  30. 180
    hectorthebat on 21 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 135
    Life (USA) – Dozen Discs That Shook the World (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1970s (2001) 3
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    PopMatters (USA) – The 100 Best Songs Since Johnny Rotten Roared (2003) 17
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 173
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 175
    Shredding Paper (USA) – The 50 Greatest Singles Ever (2002) 31
    woxy.com (USA) – The 500 Best Modern Rock Songs of All Time (2008) 11
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1970s (2008)
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Kerrang! (UK) – 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (2002) 30
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 20
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Records That Changed the World (2007) 10
    Mojo (UK) – The 50 Greatest British Tracks Ever (2006)
    New Musical Express (UK) – NME Rock Years, Single of the Year 1963-99 (2000)
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (2002) 52
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 150 Singles of All Time (1987) 18
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 3
    Q (UK) – 50 Greatest British Tracks (2005) 4
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 29
    Q (UK) – The 50 Most Exciting Tunes Ever (2002) 1
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Sean O’Hagan, The Observer (UK) – Fifty Years of Pop (2004)
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 3
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Uncut (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles from the Post-Punk Era (2001) 6
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 1
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 66
    Spex (Germany) – The Best Singles of the Century (1999)
    Zounds (Germany) – The Top 30 Songs of All Time + Top 10 by Decade (1992) 24
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Rocks Musiczine (Spain) – The 100 Best Rock Songs in History (1995) 30
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 4
    Sounds (UK) – Singles of the Year 1

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