Few songs are as easily identifiable as the Sex Pistols’ punk anthem ‘God Save The Queen’ if you can’t name the track title, album and humble beginnings of the song from Steve Jones’ first ripping chords then the chances are by the time Johnny Rotten arrives with his razor-sharp vocal you’re left in no doubt.
Working as part of the punk legends’ iconography, Rotten, AKA John Lydon, once said of the archetypal punk tune: “These are fun songs. Done for a laugh. God Save The Queen? It’s kind of high camp, in a way,” said Sex Pistols singer in 2002. “You certainly don’t think it’s going to be taken as a declaration of civil war.”
By the end of 1977, the year of its release and Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, the Sex Pistols had seen their way through a seemingly endless succession of battles. Not only across television, the newspapers and radio but also in the spittle-dripping concerts, most of which were left entirely gobless. The reason for much of this turmoil was the band’s controversial single ‘God Save The Queen’.
Originally called ‘No Future’ and driven by Glen Matlock’s bass, the band member was kicked out of the group prior to its release and replaced by Sid Vicious. The band’s second single, and a landmark moment on their only album Nevermind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols, would fuel an onslaught on the band that wouldn’t subside until their break up in 1978.
The track is an atomic blast of pent-up angst. It saw Rotten and his band explode in a series of provocative lyrics and a snarling performance that spoke highly of an ongoing disillusionment and its radiation still lingers to this day.
Despite the year being 1977 and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the band have always denied that they wrote the song — a track clearly aimed at the establishment, even likening the Queen to a “fascist regime” only a few decades on from World War II — to deliberately coincide with the event. Paul Cook saying that “it wasn’t written specifically for the Queen’s Jubilee. We weren’t aware of it at the time. It wasn’t a contrived effort to go out and shock everyone.”
In fairness, the expectation that the band, and perhaps more pertinently their shrewd manager Malcolm McLaren, would conduct such a stunt isn’t out of the realms of possibility. After all, this was a band who only a few months earlier had sent the British press into meltdown following a four-letter rant on the infamous Bill Grundy show. But it would appear the sentiment of the track wasn’t only about goading the elders, it was about galvanising the disadvantaged.
Rotten once said of the lyrics: “You don’t write ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up with them being mistreated.” Despite the grandiose sentiment much of what the band was doing was fuelled by pure unbridled enthusiasm, especially on the part of the young singer.
Rotten told Rolling Stone in 2017: “I’d written this down as one solid piece. We did quite a bit with [producer] Chris Spedding before doing the album, and he taught me aspects of song structure and how to not ignore the music and just to stop ranting. Music was new to me. Even though I had bought records ever since I can remember, it’s quite different to be in the studio trying to keep in time with the tune and fit the words in.”
Rotten embellished further on the lyrics and once again, despite the obvious sentiment, the song was not a loaded gun at the Queen’s temple: “To me, the lyrics themselves were a fun thing. It was expressing my point of view on the Monarchy in general and on anybody that begs your obligation with no thought. That’s unacceptable to me. You have to earn the right to call on my friendship and my loyalty. And you have to have value-proven points in order for me to support you. That’s how it is.”
With the song released on May 27th 1977, the buzz around the band had already ensured that sales were more than likely. But Malcolm McLaren was still keen to underline the fever pitch atmosphere that he knew would lead to money in the bank. As well as quite possibly one of the most controversial singles covers of all time — featuring a James Reid designed image of the Queen with the ransom note font across her face — he planned a very special excursion.
On 7th June, officially the Silver Jubilee holiday, McLaren planned a boat trip down the Thames intended to pass by the pomp and pageantry that was going down in Westminster. Yet, after a scuffle involving soon-to-be Public Image Ltd. member Jah Wobble and a cameraman, the police were called and several members of the band’s party were arrested when they docked.
It was enough to throw some petrol on the already smouldering release and send sales rocketing. The single peaked at No. 2 on the British chart being pipped to the top spot by Rod Stewart’s ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’. This, however, is an ongoing point of contention.
In the middle of the single’s surge to the peak of the pile, the BBC banned the song, as did the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which dictated what was played on the radio. But it went further still. People suggest that in order to prevent it from reaching the top spot for one-week compilers “decreed that shops which sold their own records could not have those records represented in the chart”, and thus sales from the band’s label Virgin at their Megastores were written off.
While it may have stopped the band reaching the milestone it didn’t stop its infamy growing both the Sex Pistols and punk in stature. It firmly put punk, quite possibly the greatest youth subculture of British history, in the mainstream, despite its protestations.
Whether it was “high camp” or a sincere track about the working class, it’s undoubted that the Sex Pistols snotty anthem for the disillusioned will remian a glimmering jewel in the punk crowd forever. We mean it maaaan.