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Music

Timeline: How the Sex Pistols crashed the Silver Jubilee

@TylerGolsen

As Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Platinum Jubilee in honour of her 70th year as monarch of the British commonwealth, memories of jubilees from the past have been floating through puff pieces and pro-royal publications for a number of weeks. The lavish ceremonies, parades, and performances all serve to bolster the reputation and public perception of the royal family, and it’s easy to conclude that the entire UK is caught up in the hoopla.

However, a strong undercurrent of anti-royal sentiments has always accompanied the celebrations. Just look at the British charts: ‘Prince Charles is a Sweaty Nonce’ has climbed into the top 20 of the UK Singles Chart courtesy of The Kunts, the same act who took ‘Boris Johnson is a Fucking Cunt’ into the top five back in 2020. Those who were old enough to recall the Queen’s Silver Jubilee back in 1977 might have been feeling a bit of dèjá vu considering what song was climbing the charts 45 years earlier.

The Sex Pistols‘ song ‘God Save the Queen’ was more than a single: it was a direct attack that coincided with the peak of the British punk movement. Specifically released (although not specifically written) to coincide with the Queen’s 25th anniversary of her ascension to the throne, an entire anti-royal movement was condensed into three minutes of hard-driving punk rock that very nearly overshadowed the Jubilee itself. Never before nor since has a pointed critique ever come closer to affecting real change.

That’s because ‘God Save the Queen’ was so popular that it threatened to land at number one the same week that the Silver Jubilee was being celebrated. The fact that it landed at number two on the Official UK singles chart led to accusations of a fix from insiders at the British Market Research Bureau, who were allegedly pressured not to include sales from various record stores around the country. Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It/The First Cut is the Deepest’ single was announced as the official number one song of the week, but the legend of the Sex Pistols staging a coup on the charts quickly became canonised in the annals of pop culture history.

The song itself wasn’t the only attack the Sex Pistols staged against the monarchy during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. On June 7th, a riverboat named the Queen Elizabeth sailed down the River Thames and towards the Houses of Parliament carrying the Pistols, manager Malcolm McLaren, and a small entourage that included friends and a film crew. Blasting from the boat was the Pistols playing their own rebuke of the system, creating an alternate celebration of anti-authority that was in direct opposition to the status quo of the Jubilee.

Part publicity stunt and part political protest, the river boat ride became one of the essential events in the Sex Pistols’ ultimately short-lived contemporary run. 45 years later, we’re looking back at some of the events that preceded the legendary ride and take a dive into how the Sex Pistols managed to turn a promotional performance into one of the most infamous acts of counter-programming in British music history. This is a timeline for the Sex Pistols’ Silver Jubilee jaunt down the River Thames.

How the Sex Pistols crashed the Silver Jubilee…

May 27th, 1977

‘God Save the Queen’ is released as a single

It took six months and three record labels for the Sex Pistols to release a second single. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ had been released back in November of 1976, but after being dropped by both EMI and A&M Records, it wasn’t until May of 1977 that the band could capitalise of their momentum.

It turned out to be a case of accidental perfect timing: although ‘God Save the Queen’ had originally been recorded as early as October of 1976, the final release of the single was looking to sync up perfectly with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations.

The celebration week for the Silver Jubilee officially begins

While the Silver Jubilee officially kicked off with celebrations as early as February, the UK celebrated during the first week of June. It was to culminate with televised celebrations on Tuesday, June 6th, which was set to be a Bank Holiday throughout the country.

Meanwhile, Malcolm McLaren and Virgin Records head Richard Branson were renting a party boat for the Bank Holiday. McLaren had fully envisioned the publicity stunt and had convinced the Sex Pistols to take part, ostensibly as a promotional push for the ‘God Save the Queen’ single.

June 1st, 1977
June 7th, 1977: Noon

The Sex Pistols board the Queen Elizabeth

With a boat ready to sail and a makeshift stage constructed for the band to play, the Sex Pistols and their entourage boarded the rented Queen Elizabeth boat with a gaggle of reporters, photographers, and filmmakers. The initial hours were spent simply hanging around for night to fall.

According to NME journalist Tony Parsons, who was one of the reporters on the boat that day, the band (or at the very least John Lydon) had been taking amphetamines and weren’t terribly comfortable with the circus around them. “You get a kind of vampiric beauty if you take that much speed, an unearthly glamour. The downside is that you can’t sleep for 72 hours. He was a glutton for his chemicals,” was how Parsons described Lydon.

The band prepares to play

After a few hours of simple milling about, the Pistols began to get restless. “The atmosphere on the boat was paranoid and claustrophobic, but also very exciting,” journalist Jon Savage told The Guardian. “Imagine being stuck on a boat for three hours with people you don’t like, taking speed, the weather is shit and police are surrounding you – it must have been an absolute nightmare.”

As Savage indicates, police were already starting to form around the boat before the band even began to play. “Shortly before the Pistols played, police boats started circling us as we approached Parliament,” Melody Maker journalist Allan Jones recalled. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else at that moment.”

June 7th, 1977: Nightfall
June 7th, 1977: Night

The Sex Pistols play as police begin to surround the boat

Once the Pistols were given the go-ahead to play, river police quickly descended on the Queen Elizabeth.

There doesn’t seem to be a consistent recollection of exactly what the band played on the boat: Setlist indicates that only three songs were played, none of which were ‘God Save the Queen. However, Allan Jones recalled that “The band started with ‘Anarchy in the UK’, followed by ‘God Save the Queen’, ‘No Feelings’, ‘Pretty Vacant’, and when the power was pulled Rotten was screaming ‘No Fun’.

The police begin making arrests

The police managed to force the Queen Elizabeth to dock, at which point McLaren attempted to cause a commotion in order for the rest of the passengers (and the band’s equipment) to safely make it off the boat. All told, 11 passengers were arrested, but the band managed to escape.

“We were all surprised at just how rough the police were when they came on board,” Parsons recalled. “So after a token protest, we all went quietly into the night. Apart from McLaren, who came down the gangplank screaming in their faces. The police took him to one side and gave him the worst beating I’ve ever seen anybody given.”

McLaren’s vision was complete, however: a chaotic end to a scrupulous attack on the established order… or at the very least a hell of a promotional stunt for the ‘God Save the Queen’ single.

June 7th, 1977: Night Part II
June 9th, 1977

The Queen takes her own trip down the River Thames

Apart from location and its legendary ties to British culture, McLaren chose the River Thames for another reason – the Queen herself would be riding down the same path that the Sex Pistols took just two days before. The Queen’s jaunt went on without incident, but the fact that the Thames had already been sullied by the sounds of punk rock still hung in the air.

The Pistols, meanwhile, turned their attention back to sessions for Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Although recording sessions had mostly been completed by the end of June (apart from a brief return in August to record the new track ‘Bodies’), the album wouldn’t be released until October of 1977, after which the Sex Pistols only had three months of their life as band left ahead of them.

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