As acceptable a part of Britishness as the Royals themselves
Tom Dibb
16:10 2nd June 2022

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“You thought you’d gotten rid of us didn’t you? But you were wrong old bean, because we’re back with a vengeance,” jibed Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) on the eve of the release of their era-defining single ‘God Save The Queen’ in 1977

In the year's previous, the Sex Pistols had become the most notorious band in the UK. After an expletive-fuelled appearance on the Today Show with Bill Grundy, they were at the height of their controversial powers in time for the Queen's Silver Jubilee (celebrating 25 years on the throne), and the general consensus was one of fear rather than admiration. 

After the unceremonious dismissal of bassist Glen Matlock and the recruitment of the iconic Sid Vicious, the Pistols set about crafting their lasting statement. With their notoriety at an all-time high, ‘God Save The Queen’ was unleashed on an unsuspecting British public just as Jubilee celebrations started to ramp up.

...but the release was not plain sailing for the group. With the single primed for release, the Sex Pistols were dropped by record label A&M — just six days after they officially signed — after their outlandish behaviour lead to lobbying from the label's office and other artists.

The punk legends weren’t down and out for long though, as they were quickly scooped up by Richard Branson’s Virgin Records. With the label's biggest hit to date being Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, it seemed an odd fit for the notorious punk rockers, but Virgin backed them and their desire to shock, and on 27 May ‘God Save The Queen’ was unleashed on the world.

To celebrate, a boat party was hastily arranged by Branson and was set to take the band down the Thames from Westminster to Tower Bridge, with a select group of London’s punk elite (and Branson himself) invited to witness the biggest musical ‘Fuck You’ in history. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, it turns out. The band only played a short set before the boat was boarded by the Police who, sharing the majority opinion, didn’t take much of a liking to the Pistol's infamous manager Malcom McLaren, who was promptly arrested (much to the delight of the band).

But this sort of chaos was the Pistol's MO and by inspiring Police intervention, these safety-pinned street urchins had cemented themselves as bastions of British counter culture. It also helped that ‘God Save The Queen’ was banned from many commercial radio stations throughout the world for its perceived shocking content: it was even kept off the number one spot in the charts by the BBC, with the accolade instead going to the far more forgettable ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ by avowed monarchist Sir Rod Stewart.

A lot has changed in the near 50 years since the single's release. For one thing, The Sex Pistols are no longer the epitome of counter-culture; instead they are as woven into the fabric of acceptable British culture as the Royal Family themselves.

In 2002, the Sex Pistols announced their second reformation (after their legendary 1996 Filthy Lucre tour), a date at the Crystal Palace National Sports Arena set to coincide with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. This time around, something felt different. In 1996 the Pistols played with an air of menace, to prove the current crop of Britpop stars simply couldn’t hang with these legendary punks. When 27 July 2002 rolled around it became apparent that the Sex Pistols had lost their edge, and firmly settled into the role of legacy act pastiche. The party at the (Crystal) palace had a suitably English theme, with guitarist Steve Jones going as far as to have the St George's cross plastered across his speaker stack. They were no longer spreading ‘Anarchy in The UK’ but rather bowing down and celebrating their sense of Englishness.

In June of 2012 the Queen celebrated another Jubilee: for the Diamond, it only seemed right for the punk classic to be called out for royal duties. This time it came in the form of the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games. The irony of the track being blasted out in a purpose-built, tax payer-funded arena in front of Her Majesty herself cannot be overstated. It was a damning indictment of how accepted this two-minute barrage of filth and fury had become.

Now we have arrived at another Jubilee — Queen Elizabeth's Platinum — it seems only right that the Sex Pistols rear their heads again...but perhaps not in the way fans had hoped. A re-release of ‘God Save The Queen’ on 7” vinyl and a commemorative coin priced at £25 complete with adjoined NFT. Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

To top off the 2022 Jubilee celebrations for Sex Pistols fans, we've also received a new mini-series centred around the early days of the band and funded by the Disney corporation. When Danny Boyle’s name was initially linked to the project it seemed a match made in heaven: the director of Trainspotting and the most notorious band off all time? A win.

Sadly, John Lydon's reluctance to be involved in the project now seems prescient. Pistol promised a lot, but what fans got was a royal dud. Part dramatic re-enactment, part pantomime, Pistol perfectly summarises the changing perception of the band over time. It ignores the true intelligence of the band, choosing to instead focus upon buzzwords like chaos: it achieves its aim of painting a picture of the band, but rather than a beautiful oil painting, it instead renders a caricature.

Subversion was always part of Malcom McLaren’s masterplan and to have the Sex Pistols signed to the biggest label, played on mainstream radio and be the biggest band in the world was a win for punk. There was no merit, as far as the Pistols were concerned, in being underground. Bigger is better, they wanted to infiltrate the masses.

But there’s a fine line between subversion and parody and the Pistols have lost the ability to toe it. It’s one thing to have an alternative national anthem under your belt, but when your anti-establishment namesake is plastered on a Primark T-shirt and you’re producing Jubilee-specific merch, any sense of punk spirit becomes increasingly hard to find.

Even Lydon himself has softened his stance on the monarchy, as recently as this month quipping: “I've got to tell the world this. Everyone presumes that I'm against the Royal Family as human beings. I'm not.

“I'm actually really, really proud of the Queen for surviving and doing so well.”

All of this leaves the fans pondering about where the spirit of the Sex Pistols lies. Have they come around to the Monarchy? Did they ever hate them in the first place, or have we been part of some great commerical rock’n’roll swindle? After all, what else can be expected from a band whose first compilation was titled Flogging a Dead Horse?

Whatever the answer, at least we have ‘God Save The Queen’, one of the greatest songs — punk rock or otherwise —ever laid to tape and a time capsule to when serious social upheaval felt possible.

The Sex Pistols will continue to cash-in on their mystique, as is their right. But it is becoming abundantly clear that this mystique is quickly wearing thin. Social pariahs in 1977 they may have been, but in 2022 the Sex Pistols are as stereotypically British as tea and crumpets, double decker buses and Her Majesty herself. 

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Photo: Press/Barry Plumber