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.