Retrospect: The Sex Pistols, God Save The Queen
Can music really generate controversy nowadays? Can one song have a massive impact on an entire country, leading to outrage, mainstream censorship and even alleged fixing of it’s entry in the music charts? Some music can, and still does. A lot depends on timing.
The timing of this now infamous single could not have been more controversial. Released on 27 May 1977, God Save The Queen was set to clash with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations which was clearly a deliberate move on the part of Malcolm McDowell, the manager and one-man powerhouse behind The Sex Pistols. The band have always denied that the song was created because of the Jubilee. Again, going on past history with ingenious and often outrageous marketing strategies employed by McDowell, this is pretty hard to believe.
The lyrics also courted controversy. Johnny Rotten directly equated the Queen with “a fascist regime”, and claimed that Britain had “no future”. The Sex Pistols’ take on God Save The Queen is furiously anti-establishment and while the punk genre has now evolved to become quite poppy and sanitised in some respects, you can still hear a genuine fury behind Rotten’s spat-out, sneering sentiment. Would any band have the audacity to sing these lyrics and release a song like this right now? And most importantly, would anyone care? Punk music is traditionally equated with being anti-authoritarian, and this song is undoubtedly the most famous early example of the punk movement’s disaffection with traditional political systems.
As a song, there is nothing revolutionary about it. Most people would agree that The Sex Pistols were poor musicians, especially after bassist Sid Vicious departed, and our Sex Pistols influenced Wildcard badge pays homage to this. As a moment in history however, this song could not have defined an era, a genre of music, a social and cultural movement, any better. It was banned from sale in many mainstream record stores, banned on BBC airwaves and on tv and banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority which regulates independent local radio. Despite all this censorship, it landed at number two on the UK singles charts, beaten by Rod Stewart’s ironically titled ballad I Don’t Want To Talk About It. Some charts even refused to print what the song at number two was, instead representing it with a black line.
To this day there still remains a mystery about if it really was the biggest selling single in the UK at the time. Some commentators claim the result was ‘fixed’ to avoid offending the monarchy. The sales figures from singles were also compiled very differently in 1977. The charts only calculated the result from what was selling at a selection of record stores, and not all of them. This means that the result itself was probably not as accurate as it could have been. The BBC published an article in 2001 about the greatest song covers of all time and included this track, stating: “God Save The Queen reached number one in the UK in 1977 despite being banned by the BBC and marked a defining moment in the punk revolution.” The BBC have never confirmed or denied if this statement was an error or if the single did indeed top the official UK charts. This just adds to the impact this single had, and still has. The aura of mystery surrounding God Save The Queen‘s chart result is just brilliant; that alone is something that most music cannot hope to replicate.
Chaos, anarchy, rebellion, revolution, spitting, swearing, ripped clothes, androgyny – punk was like no other musical movement that had come before, and indeed, few movements since. This single serves as a timely reminder of how powerful music can be. It really can cause governments and organisations to panic and flounder. The only sentiment I don’t agree with in the song is “No future”; on the contrary I find this song and everything it has achieved hugely inspirational. This time in 1977 there was a real revolution taking place in music, and by people who didn’t let the fact that they were not accomplished musicians stop them. Can we say the same now? No way. For that alone, God Save The Queen deserves to be revered. God save The Sex Pistols; and God save us all. Pick up a guitar, bass, amp, sticks, use your voice or just use your fingers to pick up a pen and write – be inspired to start your own revolution.