‘God Save the Queen’ is the second single by British punk icons, the Sex Pistols. Shortly after its release, Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten claimed, “There are not many songs written over baked beans at the breakfast table that went on to divide a nation and force a change in popular culture.”
The song is undoubtedly a punk classic and one of the highlights from the original British wave. In addition to its composition, the lyrics and the furore they caused cemented the song’s place in pop culture history – making it one of the most punk songs of all time.
The song was released during Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee of 1977. If by some miracle, you haven’t heard the song, the title ‘God Save The Queen’ may seem like an uber-patriotic reaffirmation of the house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. However, it is not. Given Johnny Rotten’s take, as mentioned earlier on the song’s polarising nature, it is clear there was more to the track than meets the ear.
Everything about it was controversial. Released on the 27th of May 1977, slap bang in the middle of the Queen’s 25th anniversary of her accession, the single caused widespread horror. The lyrics and the cover were seen as highly provocative at the time.
The extent of the offence caused was so deep that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) flat out banned the song. The Independent Broadcasting Authority refused to play the song, and ubiquitous chain Woolworths refused to stock the single. The BBC called it an example of “gross bad taste”. This furore played into the band and their manager, Malcolm McClaren‘s hands. Between late May and early June, they were shifting 150,000 units a day.
The song’s original title was ‘No Future’, as the lyrics display a general malaise towards the British monarchy and a general anti-authoritarian stance. In 2017 Rotten said “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.”
The song’s title also caused great offence as it took its name directly from the UK’s national anthem. This, in tandem with it being the Queen’s Jubilee, and the lyrics were too much for many sections of the Mustard clad, red-trousered, stuffy British public to take. The lyrics equate dear Queenie to a “fascist regime”. They also sardonically claim, like a progenitor to David Icke’s whacky theories, “God Save The Queen/She ain’t no human being”. Rotten’s lyrics also embodied that jaded nihilism of punk that made it such a tangible force for the youth, “there is no future in England’s dreaming”.
It seems as if the change of name from ‘No Future’ to ‘God Save The Queen’ was, in fact, a coincidence rather than a well-orchestrated business move or a piece of stringent anti-authoritarianism. Sex Pistols drummer, Paul Cook, maintained, “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.”
Johnny Rotten has also expanded on the intention behind 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.” His purpose of evoking sympathy for the British working class seems fair enough, given the mire of the 1970s on the island. After all, Britain in the ’70s was dubbed “the sick man of Europe”.
The song also caused much debate surrounding its chart standings. It reached number one on the NME charts in the UK and made it to number two on the Official UK Singles Chart, which the BBC used. However, given the number of units it was shifting in its first month, many people doubted that it could have been stuck in the penultimate position by chance.
The rumours that the charts had been “fixed” by the BBC were exacerbated by the fact the song that pipped it to the top spot was Rod Stewart’s forgettable single ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’.
More recently, Rotten has also thrown shade on the BBC’s general reputation. He claimed that when the BBC banned him personally in 1978, it was for calling out Jimmy Saville’s depravity in the until-recently-concealed interview with his post-Pistols band, Public Image Ltd.
The furore ‘God Save The Queen’ caused has only added to the band and the song’s legacy. Punk in all its essence, it remains a three-chorded staple for rebels everywhere. Its lasting impact made somewhat of an ironic turn on the 3rd of November 2016.
Andrew Rosindell, a Conservative MP, argued in a motion for a return to the broadcasting of the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ at the end of BBC One’s daily transmissions. Rosindell’s call came as he wanted to commemorate the Brexit vote and Britain’s consequent withdrawal from the European Union. Rosindell’s claim drew much ire, largely because the BBC had dropped the practice in 1997 when they switched to 24-hour news broadcasting (which rendered the need for a closing song obsolete).
In a bizarre twist of fate, that same evening, BBC Two’s flagship programme, Newsnight, ended their broadcast with host Kirsty Wark saying that they were “incredibly happy to oblige” Rosindell’s request. They proceeded to close with a Sex Pistols’ song clip — much to Rosindell’s displeasure.
Watch the music for ‘God Save The Queen’, below.