The latest in this series examining some of the most controversial songs of all time looks back at the crowning glory of The Sex Pistols and of punk music as a whole.
“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.” – John Lydon (Rotten)
When I began writing this series it was obvious that I was going to have to tackle this song, although for a while I thought that would be the exact reason I wouldn’t write about it. I mean, what can you say about punk, the Sex Pistols, 1977, the Jubilee and that BBC ban that hasn’t already been said? And then I got to thinking when it was reported the other day that the Queen, the same one who is still there nearly 40 years later, is now the longest serving monarch ever. I further thought about Britain under austerity, a government that treats poor people like a virus and all this when we’ve had a another jubilee, plus a royal wedding and birthdays celebrated by lots of flag-waving patriots and I thought “wow, that song is as relevant now as it was the day it was released”. And then I realised I simply had to write this article.
How could I not when the newly elected leader of Britain’s biggest opposition party is a republican himself, and seems to have awoken a whole swathe of British people who would surely heartily approve of the sentiments echoed in ‘God Save The Queen’. If you are of the opinion that the very institution of monarchy is something you find offensive then this song is a clarion call.
More than merely a single or a song, ‘God save The Queen’ is no less than one of the most important singles and to a greater extent one of the most vital cultural statements of the 20th century. All of which may sound a bit hyperbolic, but consider this – Elvis and The Beatles were seen as threats to the establishment but ultimately they were wholesome family entertainers, often loved by kids and parents alike. The Rolling Stones were the archetypal rock and roll bad boys but in truth their anti-establishment credentials extend to a drug bust they didn’t want, and Jagger’s witnessing of mild police brutality during an anti-war rally that led to the half-baked revolution sentiment expressed in ‘Street Fighting Man’. Besides, by the time punk came along the Stones were the establishment.
No, the truth is that once you dig beneath the romanticisation and layers of mythology then it is a rock and roll single without peer, embodying all the boysterous and angry rebellion that a rock and roll song should. Let’s peruse some of the facts. In a year when the British population were getting ready to celebrate 25 years of the Queen’s rule, a group of her ‘subjects’ release a single with the same title of the national anthem with the opening couplet “God save the Queen, it’s a fascist regime” and it stirs up such a controversy that both the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority give it a blanket ban, none of which stops it racing up the charts in Jubilee week where it seems destined for the number 1 spot until somehow it is placed at number 2 despite selling 150,000 copies that week.
It’s ban and the public outrage that surrounded the Sex Pistols more generally in their brief career was maybe the last time any band truly rocked the establishment and even though that same establishment would quickly commodify punk music the impact it left on a generation of bored, disaffected, working class kids is indelible.
‘God Save The Queen’ stands as the high-watermark of punk’s achievements, the moment when it became useful, when it went beyond posturing and empty slogans and said something the nation needed to hear, whether it liked it or not. Imagine that in 2015, a massive hit record openly and scornfully attacking the monarchy. It wouldn’t happen, the music business has long since learnt that although controversy sells records, mediocrity sells more. And that’s yet another reason this record is still so relevant, because it reminds us of a time when music didn’t belong to industry but to the fans who bought it.