Punk-anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ turns 40

Today, May 27, marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Britain’s alternative national anthem God Save the Queen by punk band the Sex Pistols. A song and a band that helped reconnect rock music with culture, participation and rebellion, and resonated far beyond the British shores.

By the time the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen was released, with its criticism of Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee, seventies Britain’s nostalgic yearn for the past, snobbishness, xenophobia, narrow-mindedness and economic decline, the Sex Pistols had already been fired by two record companies, sworn on national television (something almost unheard of at the time), and banned from playing in most towns and cities across England.

Nevertheless, God Save the Queen became the best-selling song of the summer of 1977, selling 150.000 records in five days, even though the record company initially refused to press the single, the printers refused to print record covers cover and posters, TV and radio refused to air promotion material, Woolworths, Boots and WH Smith wouldn’t sell it, and the band were investigated by MI5 and discussed in parliament under the Treason Act.

The song, written in singer Johnny Rotten’s squat in London suburb Hampstead, together with the anarchic live performances of the Sex Pistols, also helped spawn a musical and cultural youth rebellion that is still relevant today.

It also made the Sex Pistols public enemy number one in the press, with headlines such as “punish the punks,” and amongst the older generation, ensuring that several of the Pistols were beaten up and Johnny Rotten was cut with a razor blade in the face and hacked by a machete in the knee.

Seventies decline
To be able to understand the impact of God Save the Queen, with lines like “they made you a moron,” “Don’t be told what you need,” “we’re the flowers in the dustbin, we’re the poison in your human machine,” and “there’s no future in England’s dreaming,” it is important to remember what Britain was like at the time – economically and musically.

Three decades after WWII, with most of the British Empire gone along with British economic influence and political power, Britain was in a post-imperial melancholy with a monarchy that had lost its magic. When Queen Elizabeth II, in a jubilee speech to the nation, said that “the Commonwealth can point the way for mankind,” millions of poor and powerless Britains knew that the country could not even take care of its own inhabitants.

Changing class-structures were leading to many young people questioning their place in society, and there was a general air of political polarization, immigrant-bashing, abandoned factories, new pre-fabricated housing and economic decline.

Unemployment exceeded the 1 million mark for the first time since the thirties in 1972, a state of emergency was declared in 1973 after the oil crisis that also led to a three-day working week and power black-outs, public spending was cut by 1 billion pounds in 1976 due to IMF loan conditions. Everyone was on strike, and there was the added danger of IRA bombs and hooligans. England even failed to qualify for the 1974 football World Cup, eight years after having won it. The optimism of the “swinging” sixties was well and truly gone.

This crisis was not reflected in the music of the time, however. Mid-seventies music was often elaborate post-glam-inspired clothing and production, lengthy guitar solos, inflated rock-star egos and escapist lyrics that were often totally out of sync with what most young people were experiencing at the time.

In the words of Johnny Rotten, “a cloud of apathy had set in” where politicians could “strut their stuff using prejudice, hate, family values.”

Killing flower-power
But the Sex Pistols, and the punk movement they inspired, were not only rebelling against the backward-looking “old Britain.” They were also rebelling against the sixties hippie/flower-power celebrity-orientated culture, what Johnny Rotten called the “false positivism of the hippies.”

Because the consumerism, classlessness and revolutionary rhetoric that the “swinging” sixties had promised was proving to be a sham that died a sudden death in the early seventies. After all the songs about revolution in the late sixties, capitalism, consumerism and the Vietnam War was all still there, as was racism, misogyny and homophobia.

“Those who survived plunged into rampant egotism, self-enlightenment, drug abuse, religious cults, Hollywood celebrity status, anything that would protect their fame and leave them free of political responsibility,” as Peter Doggett writes of the mid-seventies.

Young people who wanted to express themselves and be participants, not merely spectators or consumers, needed a different inspiration and set of values.  Values that, like punk, championed the voiceless and sometimes talentless, attitude over aptitude, re-linked popular music with politics and made art and culture a first-hand experience again.

Bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar
The symbolic birth of punk could be said to be at David Bowie’s concert on July 3 1973, at the Hammersmith Odeon in London – the farewell to his Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s alter ego who according to the lyrics of accompanying album was to be killed by his fans.

Two local lads from nearby Shepherd’s Bush, Steve Jones and Paul Cook, who were later to become guitarist and drummer in the Sex Pistols, let Bowie kill Ziggy on the night, while they stole amps and other equipment from Bowies trucks, claiming to be roadies (Jones had previously stolen one of Rod Stewarts guitars amongst a lot of other things).

As Bowie had sung in the first song of the concert, “the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar.”

In a sense, punk was in a sense the logical conclusion of other rebellious rock music, from Gene Vincent and Elvis in the fifties, to Iggy and the Stooges in the late sixties, to the New York Dolls, pub-rockers Dr. Feelgood and David Bowie in the seventies.

The punks were in a sense the bastard children of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and “Johnny Rotten was Ziggy Stardust with a very bad attitude,” as rock photographer Mick Rock puts it.

‘I Hate Pink Floyd’
But punk was really born when John Lydon (to be dubbed “Johnny Rotten” on account of his poor dental hygiene) was spotted by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren on the King’s Road, sporting a Pink Floyd t-shirt that he had written “I Hate” on and green spiky hair.

Rotten was given an audition as singer for the band, lip-syncing to Alice Cooper’sI’m Eighteen” on a jukebox, and was given the job on account of his attitude and appearance, even though he couldn’t sing.

Once the Sex Pistols started playing gigs, initially with customized version of others people’s songs but eventually with their own material, their load and noisy rock’n’roll, fuck you in-your-face attitude and willingness to play loads of gigs in anything from strip-clubs to universities meant that they gained an ever-growing fan base, who themselves went out and formed bands, made their own art-work or started producing Xerox-copied, type-written punk fanzines or amateur films.

Today, most young people have smartphones, social media, cable television and many other sources of entertainment and ways of mirroring and promoting their identity. In seventies Britain they had pop and rock music.

“It was like being in a darkened room for 21 years and someone showing you a way out … you just thought ‘God I could do that,” Peter Hook said of seeing the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1976. “They destroyed the myth of a musician being some kind of God,” Bernard Sumner added. They formed what was later to become Joy Division and New Order that night.

In an audience of about 40 people had also been Steven Morrissey, Mick Hucknall, Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, who all ended up in influential bands inspired by the concert, and TV-presenter Tony Wilson, who was to put the Pistols on TV for the first time and start punk-inspired Factory Records, a record company that had no press or promotions department and who gave all their artists a 50/50 split of profits, creative freedom and “the freedom to fuck off at any time,” soon after.

‘You dirty bastard, you dirty fucker’
Punk got off the ground because young people were bored and fed up with the restrictive and austere nature of seventies Britain, and the politicians apparent inability to do anything about the situation.

They were also tired of waiting for years and paying big money to see big stadium bands like Queen or Pink Floyd, when they could see an exciting band like the Sex Pistols for a fraction of the price every other week and hang out with them after the show, and because the Sex Pistols seemed both relevant and possible to emulate.

Punk’s do-it-yourself attitude, where a band like the Buzzcocks could produce their debut, the Spiral Scratch EP, for 500 pounds including the pressing of 1000 records and 1000 sleeves was a huge catalyst. Where “the line between the band and the audience was blurred … [in] an age of participation in which everyone could be an artist,” according to Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.

Where those who felt powerless, including women, who were seen as second class citizens in sixties and seventies Britain (Siouxsie, The Slits, Polly Styrene) and gays (Tom Robinson), could use punk to take centre stage and grab some power back to retain some self-respect.

And then there was the Bill Grundy interview on the Today Show on December 1 1976, where the Sex Pistols swore on live TV, having been provoked and chided by a TV-presenter in his fifties who seemed the embodiment of what punk was criticizing.

The interview, where guitarist Steve Jones called Grundy a “dirty bastard” and a “dirty fucker,” made front-line headlines in all English national newspapers. This ensured that the Pistols’ would be puritanically and hypocritically barred from playing most of the gigs on their upcoming 1977 tour, while later in the year, the National Front was allowed to march through the predominantly black neighbourhood of Lewisham, chanting racist slogans and provoking a riot.

Punk in Africa
The Grundy interview, together with the furore over God Save the Queen and the only album that the Sex Pistols were to release, Never Mind the Bollocks, released in October, made sure that punk was in the media spotlight. It also ensured that punk bands were formed far beyond the shores of Britain, in places as far apart as welfare state-Denmark, military regime-Brazil, “white” Australia and apartheid South Africa.

In South Africa, the birth of punk coincided with the 1976 Soweto Uprising. The South African punk scene had most of the things the British scene had, with homemade fanzines and home-produced records or tapes.

Wild Youth from Durban, one of South Africa’s first punk bands, was formed after singer Michael Flek had been the Britain in 1977 and seen several punk bands.

“We were crap musicians but we made up for that with power, self-conviction and catchy songs … What punk did in South Africa, it was the first thing in changing the way young people thought. It made them question every aspect of life,” As Michael Flek put it.

And punk was far from a safe, middle-class white scene in South Africa. National Wake, a multi-racial South African punk band who lived and practised together in violation of South African apartheid laws, played in the Sharpeville Night Club and rural townships and were visited by the vice squad for their efforts.

It was nothing to do with music
So if punk is to be more than of historical interest, a style of load and abrasive mid-to-late seventies music (although the sound and look of punk in 1976-77 was really quite broad), then it is important to look at the ideals behind punk and how it promoted the message over talent and music. As Johnny Rotten has said, “It was nothing to do with music, and indeed anything that means anything to someone really has very little to do with music. Music is pandering to mass consumption tastes.”

Punk and the Sex Pistols may have ended up falling prey to its own (media) success, the commodification of the music and its message by the record companies, hard drugs and the increasing army of Johnny Rotten look-alikes and post-card punk posers. The Sex Pistols imploded after playing for over 5000 people, their biggest ever audience, in San Francisco in 1978, “at exactly the right time for all the wrong reasons,” as Johnny Rotten put it.

Punk also grew up, from a screaming toddler to an angst-ridden teenager, embodied by bands such as Joy Division and The Cure, who were inspired by and used the energy and attitude of punk to express more complex emotions.

Nevertheless, the Sex Pistols’ positive message of negativity, as well as the punk movement’s focus on change, participation, being yourself-originality and against conformism is still relevant today.

A new God Save the Queen?
So maybe it is time someone wrote a new God Save the Queen, a proper and powerful negative anthem of change for our era. An era not unlike the one Rotten was criticising, an era with its own sense of “no future” brought on by global warming, Trump, Brexit and increasing commercialism, inequality and making scapegoats of immigrants and the unemployed.

Writing songs and playing gigs won’t change the world, but music with a radical message can change the perspective of people in a way than politics often does not.

“You don’t write God Save the Queen because you hate the English race. You write it because you love them and you are fed up with them being mistreated,” Johnny Rotten later said of his most famous song and the most famous song of the punk era. The song “is even more relevant today than it was when the Pistols first played it. I’m not very happy about that at all.”

Bands today have no guts
Music today is more effortless. After all, the internet and cheap recording equipment makes  producing and promoting music today a lot easier than in 1977, where bands like the Sex Pistols initially had to have day-jobs (or if none were to be had, be on the dole), play loads of poorly attended gigs and load and unload their own van to “make it.”

Maybe the Sex Pistols were the last rock band who was truly able to shock and transcend the commercialism and conformism of society. Countercultures that came after punk, such as house/rave, skate kids and travellers, have been less able to shock or influence the established order or articulate a coherent opposition, however temporary. Or perhaps people today are less easy to shock?

And maybe bands today are more like businesses, as Johnny Rotten has said, that have “no bollocks. No guts. They’re all young, bored, and fed up with their lives. But they don’t sing about it. They don’t do anything to change it.”

A bit of a generalisation. But if he is at least half right, perhaps it is time they did.


England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage

Babylon’s Burning, Clinton Heylin

77 – The Year of Punk & New Wave, Henrik Bech Poulsen

The Punk Years (film documentary series)

The Filth and the Fury (film documentary), Julian Temple

Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks (film documentary)

The Anarchy Tour, Mick O’Shea

Rotten – No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, John Lydon

Sex Pistols: Agents of Anarchy (film documentary)

There’s a riot going on, Peter Doggett

Punk in Africa (film documentary)

Sid Vicious, Alan Parker

Joe Strummer: The future is unwritten (film documentary)

Women Make Noise, Julia Downes ed.

From Joy Division to New Order, Mick Middles

Factory – Manchester from Joy Division to Happy Mondays (film documentary)

Unknown Pleasures, Peter Hook

Joy Division (film documentary)

Torn Apart, Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade

Cured, Lol Tolhurst

Never Enough, Jeff Apter

Autobiography, Morrissey

Footnotes, Boff Whalley


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