Should Have Been a #1…? ‘God Save the Queen’, by The Sex Pistols

I’ve done a few of these posts before: songs what should have been #1s, for a variety of reasons. Songs that missed top spot because of inconsistencies in chart compilation methods (‘Please Please Me’), songs that were way better than an act’s actual chart toppers (‘Crazy Horses’), songs that are just really, really good (Wizzard). Here, though, we arrive at a record which many allege was kept from reaching number one in the charts because the moral fibre of the British nation depended on it…

‘God Save the Queen’, by The Sex Pistols – #2 in June 1977

June 1977 marked Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Royal tours were planned, street parties were to be held, bunting was being strung from lampposts, Rod Stewart was keeping things sedate and acoustic at the top of the charts… But a gang of snotty, upstart kids calling themselves The Sex Pistols and playing an aggressively simple new style of rock music called ‘punk’ had other ideas.

They had only had one chart hit: ‘Anarchy in the UK’ which reached #38 at the end of 1976. But they had a reputation – which was probably more important than the music – having caused outrage when they called a TV host a ‘dirty sod’ and a ‘fucking rotter’ during a live interview. (Legend has it they were booked last-minute as a replacement for Queen, as Freddie Mercury had a dentist’s appointment. They were then plied with alcohol and goaded into saying something salty.)

In March 1977 they added Sid Vicious to their line-up, after original bassist Glen Matlock left following one argument too many. ‘God Save the Queen’ was one of only two songs Vicious stayed sober long enough to play on. Meanwhile, the conservative press and commentariat were working themselves into quite the tizz at this bunch of louts: “My personal view on Punk Rock is that it’s disgusting, degrading, ghastly, sleazy, prurient, voyeuristic and nauseating. I think most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death,” opined a Tory at the time.

Come the release of their second single, the band were already on their third record label. ‘God Save the Queen’ (she ain’t no human bein’) wasn’t written with the jubilee in mind, according to lead-singer Johnny Rotten (named for his rotten teeth), but the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren couldn’t pass up on the publicity. He organised a flotilla down the Thames, with the Pistols playing the song outside Westminster, and which ended in eleven arrests being made.

By that point, the band were riding high in the charts, with ‘God Save the Queen’ having risen from #11 to #2 just in time for Liz’s big day. The BBC had banned it, some magazines refused to acknowledge the song’s existence – preferring to mark its position on the charts with a dash – and various record stores refused to stock it. Virgin, the Pistol’s new label, were selling twice as many copies of ‘God Save the Queen’ as they were of Rod Stewart’s incumbent chart-topper. However, the BMRB, the company behind chart compilation, ordered that for one week and one week only… shops couldn’t sell their own records. No matter how many copies Virgin Records sold, they wouldn’t count.

Should it have been a #1, if every single had been counted? Possibly. Will anyone ever prove it? Probably not. It’s a bit like the Loch Ness Monster… The last thing the tourist industry of Inverness want is definitive proof that there’s no Nessie. The last thing ageing punks want is proof that they weren’t really denied a chart-topper. It is a hundred times more punk to believe you were silenced. Listening today, forty-five years on, ‘God Save the Queen’ sounds raw and thrilling, but lyrically pretty tame. I love the way Rotten rolls the word ‘Mo-ron’ around, and the refrain of No Future! is fairly iconic. (‘No Future’ was the song’s original title.) Essentially, it’s not so much an attack on the Queen as it is on Britain’s rigid class system: a fascist regime. However, there are far more shocking songs on their debut album, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks (Here’s the Sex Pistols)’ – try ‘Bodies’ and its tale of a teenage abortion for a start.

Then again I wasn’t around in 1977. Maybe punk was genuinely thrilling, or terrifying, depending on your viewpoint. And for an older generation who had gone through the war, rock ‘n’ roll, the swinging sixties, and David Bowie’s drag, perhaps these uncouth, uncivil, ill-mannered upstarts were the final straw. I never thought to ask my grandpa what he made of The Sex Pistols, before he passed away… Though he would get very exercised at the sight of men with stubble, earrings and untucked shirts, so I can probably imagine where he stood on Rotten, Vicious and co.

The Pistols enjoyed several more Top 10 hits after this huge breakthrough, but by January 1978 they had disbanded. By February 1979, Sid Vicious had been accused of murdering his girlfriend Nancy, and had died of a heroin overdose. They burned brightly but briefly, a fleeting menace to the establishment. As I write this, Queen Elizabeth has just celebrated her 95th birthday, and will celebrate 70 years on the throne next year. While the Sex Pistols have long since disintegrated, only briefly reforming for money-spinning tours in the decades since their heyday. Last I heard, Johnny Rotten was wearing MAGA-hats, and endorsing Brexit, still winding everyone up in his role as the grandfather of punk.


21 thoughts on “Should Have Been a #1…? ‘God Save the Queen’, by The Sex Pistols

  1. Well, it would have made a bit of a fuss if it had topped the chart, I have to say, but as it was banned I never got to hear it at the time. When I did eventually hear it I was less than impressed. Where Anarchy In The UK is jaw-droppingly dripping with venom and anger, this was a bit of a damp squib. As both were banned, the first I heard of the Pistols was Pretty Vacant, which was quite good, and Holiday In The Sun which was a bit better than Vacant. I bought the album eventually, and it’s OK, but Anarchy In The UK, and all the hostile press, is the turning point for UK music (and eventually US pop/rock music) as it kickstarted a movement filled with vitality and the more angry side of my generation being critical of the War generation and their intolerant ways, really the last children of the British Empire, a mind-set that still pollutes rational & national thinking, albeit to a lesser degree.

    For me though, I wasn’t fussed by The Sex Pistols, bar Anarchy, John Lydon’s Public Image were better, and punk did nothing much for me till The Stranglers started having hits, not that much punk was getting airplay until towards the end of the year, except on Marc Bolan’s TV show. But it did set up New Wave, Goth Rock, New Romantics & 2-Tone as Huge in 1978-80, and it’s impact was enormous.

    • I do think it would have been a good thing to have had one true punk number one, as a precursor to Blondie, the Jam, Specials etc getting there a few years later.

      And I’d agree that God Save the Queen is perhaps the tamest song on the whole album, when compared with Anarchy, Bodies, New York … It’s almost a punk pantomime. Snarling and spitting but not saying much

  2. I remember the furore very well. John Peel was allowed to play the single, as his Radio 1 show went out late at night (although knowing how he was always one for cocking a snook at the establishment, I’m sure he would have played it even if he was not allowed to). I used to listen to his show in the bath and nodded off just in time to hear him tell us what it was! Interestingly, it wasn’t just Tory MPs who had their say. A veteran Labour MP, Marcus Lipton, went on record saying that ‘if pop music was going to be allowed to destroy our established institutions, then it ought to be destroyed first’. Oddly, he made a pop record himself in 1970, though I don’t think John Peel (or anybody, come to that) ever played it on the radio.

    • I can’t find a version of that MP’s song, not even a low quality YouTube upload. Must have had quite the cultural impact! I suppose I shouldn’t have just picked on the Tory outrage – I’d guess anyone over fifty would have been venting their spleens similarly

  3. The Sex Pistols…did what they did…garage band music pretty well…but there were 60s garage bands more talented. Ok…I was never that taken by the Sex Pistols. That doesn’t mean I don’t like some of their songs. I do like the rawness and I like the album…but the Clash put them to shame.

    They are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on one album…one album. Influence? Yes, they did influence but so did other bands that are not in… but that is a discussion for another day. They probably mean more there than here.

    • Maybe in the states you’ve got Iggy Pop, the NY Dolls, the Ramones… not as much need for the sex pistols. I think the UK needed the kick up the arse that they brought with them

      • Plus The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed and, to some degree, Captain Beefheart and The Tubes (though, they took heat for going mainstream). Rundgren was in the middle of that stuff, too.

        I had a high school buddy that was into The Pistols. He raved about them. I leaned more towards The Clash.

        Doesn’t 70 years make Liz II the longest-lived monarch on the throne?

        Did you catch this:

        I had to laugh…

      • I think yes, she overtook Queen Victoria and the King of Thailand to become the longest reigning a while back.

        As for Lydon, he seems like the type who’ll say whatever’s going to get him noticed, going against the consensus, starting an argument in an empty room… which is a big part of being a punk, I guess. I have a soft spot for him, even when I don’t agree (plus we share a birthday!)

      • I was just doing a little reading on Sid. Mostly a fatherless boy…pitiful. He was pretty messed up. Nancy’s death didn’t help. Was he really named by Lydon after being bitten by Lydon’s hamster? Did he kill Nancy or was it an accident?

        I see Malcolm McLaren managed them, which has a bit of a tie-in to Adam Ant (which I love and is a fringe of this genre) via Bow Wow Wow.

        Speaking of McLaren, I share a birthday with Bruce McLaren…and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Boo!).

      • Apparently the hamster story is true, and it seems nobody knows what really happened between Sid and Nancy. There was a lot of heroin involved…

      • I like some of their music but there are a lot of deserving bands that have more than one album and influenced a bunch of people…that was my point.
        I’m not saying they don’t belong…they do but they were a hip choice for Wenner…

        Rotten…I like him on some points but others I think he is a worm…see the Allman Brothers lol.

      • I had to laugh at “…one album.” And, they didn’t even bother to show up! I find that rude.

        I’ll have to look that up.

        And…EEK! My link was above, not below. Sorry…

      • The Allmans (Gregg and Dickey) were going to kick his ass…he fled the studio after trashing them.

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