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God Save the Queen - The Pistols' Jubilee

About the author
Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His books include The Art of Listening (Berg, 2007), Theories of Race and Racism (Routledge, 2001)
Queen flagGod Save The Queen image, perforated for use as bunting for the Silver Jubilee boat party. Jamie Reid, 1977
On Jubilee night - 7 June 1977 - The Sex Pistols set sail with a pirate band of supporters and industry associates for a trip down the river Thames. Aboard the aptly named Queen Elizabeth they launched an assault in sound. It carried its crew of treason mongers up the “jugular vein of empire” to cut short the revelry aimed to mark the 25th anniversary of the Queen’s accession. As the river police start to encircle the floating night-club, the Sex Pistols warmed up their amplifiers. A banner was unfurled on the side of the boat: QUEEN ELIZABETH, THE NEW SINGLE BY THE SEX PISTOLS “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.”

Jon Savage, who covered the trip for music paper Sounds, wrote: “The Pistols take the stage - at the back of the raised area: conditions are appalling, and it’s amazing that any sort of sound comes out. The main one is feedback - this delays their start and is never fully resolved. Any blasé traces are swept away - pulses race, everyone rushes to the front. Rotten gives up on losing the feedback and the band slams into Anarchy (in the UK), right on cue with the Houses of Parliament. A great moment.

It’s like they’ve been uncaged - the frustration in not being able to play bursts into total energy and attack. Rotten’s so close all you can see is a snarling mouth and wild eyes, framed by red spikes”. It was a high point in punk’s Theatre of Provocation. The atmosphere that night was thick with paranoia, which was in part drug induced but as the police presence grew an impending sense spread that something was going to sour.

Sex Pistols poster of God Save the Queen
This sonic frenzy couldn’t have been further from the “extraordinary stillness and tranquillity of the people on the route” noted at the coronation procession in 1953 by Edward Shils and Michael Young. The piercing treble of the guitars acted as a wince-inducing counterpoint to the solemn invitation to celebrate the jubilee as an act of national communion. The evening ended in confrontation as the partygoers disembarked from Charing Cross pier. Ten people were arrested by the police including Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols manager, and Jamie Reid, who was responsible for their artwork. Walking away from the wreckage, Jon Savage wrote: “So here we are in the here and now, ten o’clock on the Thirteenth of June, in the Year of Our Lord 1977. It’s like the moment in The Day of the Triffids when the sailor and girl are walking hand in hand through the deserted streets of London, alone with their sight in a world of the blind. Because England’s dreaming - and for all our fragility - it seems as though we’re the only ones left awake” .

As we approach another royal jubilee, this time golden, I want to recall these events by way of opening up questions about the relationship between the monarchy, nationhood and the legacy of Empire in our postcolonial times. This summer marks the silver jubilee of the release of the Sex Pistol’s anti-monarchist monody. My starting point is that these irreconcilable chords struck in 1977 echo with relevance today, after 50 years of Elizabeth’s reign and five years of Prime Minister Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia.’

The Queen with a safety pin through her lips
The sales of God Save the Queen soared over that Jubilee week,with over 200,000 copies bought. Many claim it was denied the number 1 spot in the chart through industry manipulation. Instead, the poll was topped by Rod Stewart’s saccharine ballad I don’t want to talk about it. The success of the record was the high water mark of the Pistols’ career. Jamie Reid, the architect of the publicity campaign that surrounded the record, reflected: “That single made world wide news. In retrospect, it was probably the last public protest against the monarchy. We have really been duped in the last few years: royalty has taken over media space to the extent that they’re now a living soap opera”.

The impact of the single was as much visual as aural. Jamie Reid worked on a range of designs that subverted official images of the monarchy. He had met Malcolm McLaren at Croydon Art College in April 1968. They were involved in student sit-ins and made connections with the radical student movement in Paris and elsewhere in London. After leaving Croydon, Reid became involved in agit-prop political work through his publication the Suburban Press. The magazine cost the princely sum of 10p and had a circulation of 5,000. What both Reid and McLaren shared was the idea that art could not only be found in everyday life but that it also could find a purpose there. Through the Suburban Press Jamie Reid experimented with the use of slogans and artwork borrowing ideas from the Situationist movement. Many of these ideas were utilised with great effect in the Sex Pistols’ art work. The emphasis was not just to create new things but to re-cycle, cannibalise and use what was already there.

The Queen with eyes and mouth covered
The preparations for the release of the record began in March 1977. At the time the Sex Pistols were signed to A&M records. Sensing scandal and panic A&M paid the Sex Pistols and their management to leave the label. The band was then signed by Virgin. Reid produced hundreds of designs for the new record. Each took as its reference point a portrait of the Queen by Cecil Beaton. Reid lifted this image from the Daily Express newspaper. “We had roses growing through and a knife stuck in the jugular vein: poor Queen, There was no point beating around the bush.” The designs centred around the mouth and eyes of the portrait. One superimposed swastikas on the eyes, while another placed a safety pin through the Regent’s lips. The image that they settled on made the queen look like a criminal or blackmail victim. Like a hostage note a collage of newspaper type spelt out the name of the record, masking the Queen’s eyes. Her mouth was filled with the name of the band. The 7 inch 45rpm single was released on 25 May.

The upholders of public morality seized the opportunity to condemn the punks. A group of Members of Parliament called for the record to be banned. A Labour MP stated in the Daily Mirror, “If Pop music is going to be used to destroy our established institutions, then it ought to be destroyed first.” It needs to be remembered that this whole incident took place in a time before the Royal Family’s fall from grace, before the scandals of Fergie’s toe sucking and Charles’ infidelity. The tabloid press passed the verdict and the mobsters exacted punishment. Jamie Reid suffered a beating that left him with a broken nose and a broken leg that kept him bedridden for two months: “A victim of wearing my own God Save the Queen artwork on a T-shirt. I was beaten up outside a rockabilly pub in the Borough [London]. A grizly business!”

The thing that remains disruptive about God Save the Queen is that it insisted that England was/is in a state of soporific stupor. There could be no escape beyond the nostalgia in which the past is eternally replayed in the waking somnolence of nationalism. The Pistols’ record ends with a final vamp and repeats the menacing dirge “No Future, No Future, No Future for you. No Future, No Future, No Future for me.” In this rigged circuit there is no unfolding change only the future of the Imperial past. I want to submit that this is an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of the state of the nation. Twenty five years on, ‘Cool Britannia’ remains afflicted by what Paul Gilroy calls postcolonial melancholia. The nation is like a child unable to move on from the loss of its Imperial parent.

Silver spoon turns plastic

Since 1997 the New Labour government has gone to great lengths to present itself as youthful and in touch with its own image.

Tony Blair and Noel GallagherPrime Minister Blair welcomes Noel Gallagher to 10 Downing St
Chris Smith during his time as Culture Minister emphasised how important the music industry is to the United Kingdom economy. In his book Creative Britain he commented that there are now more members of the Musicians' Union than of the National Union of Mineworkers. Perhaps, this emphasis on pop music at the centre of government should not be surprising. Tony Blair was at one time a member of a prog-rock band and can find his way around the fret board of a Fender Stratocaster.

But, even as the young celebrities crowded the drinks parties at Number 10 there was a distinct feel of nostalgia for a previous era when London swung. Paul Gilroy commented in a public lecture earlier this year:

“The appearance of Noel Gallagher’s Union Jack-emblazoned, but Korean-made, Epiphone guitar may have been calculated to cement the notion that the Swinging Sixties were back, but Oasis were not The Who or The Beatles, and England found it hard to even qualify for the World Cup, never mind win it. Though it is an invaluable pointer to those sensitive spots where the body of Britain’s post-colonial polity was poorly sutured, the terrace chant of 'two World Wars and one World Cup' now sounds increasingly bizarre.”

The return to the martial memories of war-torn Britain remain inevitable. Gilroy concludes:

“...the memory of the Second World War has been stretched so thin that it cannot possibly accomplish all the important cultural work it is increasingly relied upon to do. A generation for whom knowledge of that conflict arrives on a long loop via Hollywood are nonetheless required to use a cheaply-manufactured surrogate memory of it as the favoured means to find and restore their ebbing sense of what it means to be English.”

It is here that the monarchy provide a relay to the past. Before her death the Queen Mother was the most straightforward point of connection within the linkages of national memory. Her support of appeasement and what Christopher Hitchens calls her weakness for directing “disobliging comments” at Jews have been glossed in order to achieve this.

This is not to suggest that there isn’t change of both style and content. Indeed, one of the symptoms of postcolonial melancholia is that now it is the white English who are deemed the victims. This is particularly the case with regard to the Royal Family. We are invited to feel sorry for the Queen who has muddled through coping with the vicissitudes of her dysfunctional family. This is actually quite an ancient theme in popular attitudes towards the monarchy. Richard Hoggart wrote in the fifties that the working class felt envy and resentment towards their “royal betters”,yet at the same time pitied them for having to do a “rotten job” enslaved to duty. The silver spoon turns plastic in the royal mouth, or perhaps this is what they would have us believe.

Michael Billig concludes in his study Talking of the Royal Family that part of the monarchy’s power lies in its appeal to tradition, certainty and heritage in the face of uncertainty. The monarchy, rather than being outmoded, is attuned to times of uncertainty. Here subjects are able to measure a more assured sense of an optimistic future through gauging their progress against the surety that the royal family will always be there. The Queen and the Royal Family serve as ‘living fossils’ that hold to the past as means of coping with a faltering present. “The past heritage of royalty - or, the imagining of its historical continuity - offers a promise for a future which might otherwise be a disconcerting blank” . It is precisely this sense of blankness that punk rock inhabited, sometimes wilfully. Dick Hebdige writes that “the punks turned towards the world a dead white face which was there and yet not there”. No future.

Tyranny of national kinship

Golden Jubilee commemorative stampPitcairn Islands, Golden Jubilee commemorative stamp. The Royal Collection ©Lucian Freud
In 1941 George Orwell commented that: “A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase”. In this sense the monarchy serves the idea that nation is kinship, even amongst its critics. This is a dangerous and damaging idea. If the royal family is viewed as at the top of the tree of national genealogy, then citizenship becomes a matter of blood line. This ethos of consanguinity feeds racial discourse and reproduces a heterosocial definition of who belongs to England i.e. the heterosexual family becomes the primary measure of societal norms and affinities.

Michael Billig illustrates the danger of this implicit racial logic through a discussion of the way people in his study talk about royal courtships and marriages. He gives one example of a middle-class family who articulated a strong sense that the Queen vetted Prince Charles’ choice of bride. The Queen just wouldn’t allow him to have a black bride. Billig interprets this in the following way: “There is the racist desire that the idealised national family should be white. Then, there is the social pressure against articulating such racist themes directly. There is the attribution of the wish to another person: the Queen” . This respectable family are conscious of not seeming racist. Yet, they articulate a racist construction of national community and kinship in which the true English are necessarily white. In this sense, the Queen and the royal family provide a palpable barrier to the emergence of a more heterogenous sense of nationhood. The future of multicultural Englishness is blocked because non-white residents are always cast as friends - at best - and certainly not family. The royal family provides the vehicle to articulate the limits of belonging to England for black and brown citizens.

Johnny RottenJohnny Rotten
The issue of the monarchy is not merely about republicanism and caste power, it is also linked to the degree to which Britain - and specifically England - can move beyond the legacy of empire and become a multicultural democracy. The Sex Pistols’ abrasive tones also speak, albeit inadvertently, to this question. Punk rock was a kind of symbolic treason, a sacrilege that was served on the images of nationhood, the Queen, the Union Jack, even Parliament itself. Dick Hebdige has commented that encoded within these styles was also a relation to black youth styles and in particular reggae music. “Where punk depended on the treble, reggae relied on the bass. Where punk launched frontal assaults on the established meaning systems, reggae communicated through ellipsis and allusion”.
Sid ViciousSid Vicious
Hebdige goes on to suggest that punk might be seen as kind of white ethnicity, a translation and counterpart of the rituals and aesthetic of reggae. Yet, ultimately there is a lack of fit within the two styles despite the attempts to build alliances across the line of colour. “This tension gave punk its curiously petrified quality, its paralysed look, its dumbness which found a silent voice in the smooth moulded surfaces of rubber and plastic, in the bondage and robotics which signify punk to the world. For, at the heart of the punk subculture, forever arrested, lies this frozen dialectic between black and white cultures - a dialectic which beyond a certain point (i.e. ethnicity) is incapable of renewal, trapped, as it is, within it own history, imprisoned within its own irreducible antinomies”. The separate laws to which Hebdige refers, is defined by the icy whiteness that keeps Englishness in the deep freeze. It is this ambivalent relation to race and nation that limited punk then and now.

Re-issues and flush middle-aged punks

On 27 May, 2002 Virgin records re-released God Save the Queen. Perhaps, it is the inevitable fate of pop rebels - if they survive their youth - to have to reckon with their callow analog voices from the present point of middle age. A fifty-something Pete Townsend has had to get used to listening to his lyric “I hope I die before I get old” and John Lydon – aka Johnny Rotten - is now facing the 25th anniversary of No Future. But God Save the Queen touched the nerves of empire that remain at the heart of Englishness. It is arguably as relevant now in Britain under Blair as it was in 1977. Imperial melancholia has deepened as the past refuses to stay behind us.

John LydonJohn Lydon
Lydon has grown old disgracefully. His menacing glare is as uncompromising as ever. In May 2002 he announced that the Sex Pistols will reform for a one-off show at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in South London on 27 July 2002. Lydon said in a newspaper interview “Sourpusses need not apply. Don’t come if you’re going to be a miserable git. I want to make you proud to be British.” Interviewer Simon Hattenstone concluded: “There was always something of a nationalist in Lydon. If you listen carefully enough to the lyrics of God Save the Queen, he says, you realise he was having it both ways” . Both ways, indeed. This is a paradox that is at the centre of what Dick Hebdige calls irreducible antinomies. In the end, you simply cannot have it both ways.

Jamie Reid is said to have commented to Malcolm McLaren in 1977 “Wouldn’t it be great just to disappear”. But, such guerrilla tactics are impossible in the world of pop. It is something of a beautiful irony that the Sex Pistols will be reforming in Reid’s native Croydon. Disappearance is not an option. John Lydon told a BBC London Tonight interviewer that “there was no punk movement, just the Sex Pistols and a bowel movement.” Scatology aside, it is perhaps fitting that the band will be playing in the leafy sphincter of the Capital’s concrete arsehole. The Great Rock’n’roll Swindle rolls on and no doubt flush middle-aged punks will be buying the special edition Sex Pistols boxed set that will be in the shops in time for the jubilee. Yet none of this really matters, God Save the Queen is a record of enduring significance. Like a bright comet it will pass time and again through the national cosmos, lighting up the dark skies only to be confounded by a society that refuses to wake from England’s dreaming.


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