OK, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking, ‘Whoah! Are you sure about that?!’ The answer is, of course, yes, I’m sure about that – and no, it’s not that version of God Save the Queen, it’s the other version. You know, the one that got banned, and in Jubilee Year.
The punk rock movement had arrived in force in 1977, with increasing numbers of music bands reacting against what might be termed the pop consensus, and producing more anti-Establishment music with harder-hitting lyrics. From the States came artists like the Ramones and Iggy Pop, while from the UK emanated bands like the Clash, the Buzzcocks, and, of course, the Sex Pistols. Notoriety and shock value were always staple features of the punk movement, but the Sex Pistols took things a stage further with their appearance on the Today show on Granada Television on 1 December 1976. At the end of an ill-tempered interview with broadcaster Bill Grundy, the host ill-advisedly threw down the gauntlet to the band with the words ‘Keep going, chief, keep going. Go on, we’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.’ And they did, with guitarist Steve Jones calling him a “dirty bastard” and a “dirty f***er”. Remember, this was in the mid-70s, and while we’ve now grown somewhat inured to swearing on television and radio, in a more strait-laced time this was profoundly shocking, particularly in a late-afternoon TV show, and the channel’s switchboard was jammed with telephoned complaints.
Controversy continued to follow the Pistols into the next year. Soon after the Grundy interview, after the band were reported as having thrown up in corridors at Heathrow Airport and spat at other passengers and one another, they were fired by their label, EMI. Then, bassist Glen Matlock was fired by the band, for (it was said) liking the Beatles. His replacement, Sid Vicious (real name John Simon Ritchie), was a heroin addict with a troubled past who could not even play the bass guitar. The band were next signed with A&M Records on a £25,000 deal, and just a week later left the label for £50,000. Clearly, the various severance packages they were getting from label after label were proving quite lucrative, especially for band manager Malcolm McLaren.
Then, after the Sex Pistols signed with Virgin, came the national anthem – OK, not that national anthem, but the song that shares its name. The lyrics were certainly provocative for the time:
God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
A potential H-bomb
God save the queen
She’s not a human being, and
There’s no future, and
The band and their manager accompanied the single release with a Virgin-hired boat party down the Thames, after which the police arrested eleven, including McLaren. The tabloids had a field day with the band and their manager, inevitably criticising the release in Jubilee year, and the BBC responded, in time-honoured (or possibly -dishonoured) fashion, by banning the record, on 31 May 1977. Since then, the controversy has continued, though now it tends to centre around whether it actually got to No 1 in the singles charts. According to the official chart, as read out on Radio 1 every Sunday afternoon, the single stalled at No 2, behind Rod Stewart’s Double-A-side of I Don’t Want To Talk About It/First Cut is the Deepest – but, according to the NME magazine, it had in fact gone all the way to the top. The question, inevitably remains: did it really outsell Rod Stewart, and did the powers that be censor this piece of embarrassing news in Jubilee Year in order to spare themselves any more blushes? The debate continues.
Also continuing, in one form or another, would be the band themselves, and they next courted controversy with their debut album, the provocatively-titled Never Mind the Bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols. Released in October 1977, it (perhaps inevitably) topped the album charts, and has gone down in popular-music lore as one of the all-time classics among LPs. A 1987 poll conducted by Rolling Stone magazine voted it as the second best album of the previous 20 years (just behind the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album), and six years later NME writers voted it the third-greatest-ever album.
The Pistols did not half suffer for their art, though: in June their art director Jamie Reid received a broken leg in an attack, while singer Johnny Rotten was slashed in the face with a razor, and drummer Paul Cook was stabbed and attacked with an iron bar – all by supposedly honest British citizens who presumably thought they were protecting Her Majesty’s honour. One year later, the band effectively fell apart: Rotten and Vicious moved to New York, and Jones and Cook sailed off to Rio. In October 1978 Vicious was arrested and charged with the stabbing murder of his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen. While awaiting trial for the crime, he died of a heroin overdose on 2 February 1979. All the while, McLaren was continuing his business ventures, and could hardly be said to have done all that badly out of the notoriety.
Forty years on, the experience of the Sex Pistols and their music is still a salutary one, with important lessons to draw on about art, censorship, and just how free a country Britain is, or thinks it is.