When Queen Elizabeth visited the States last month, the media circus would have made PT Barnum blush. Red carpets were unfurled and black ties adorned by the highest of state officials to welcome the consumate blue-blood, a woman whose utterly parasitic uselessness is outdone only possibly by Paris Hilton. Enough Union Jacks were thrown up around DC to make one think we had been re-colonized.
Sadly, this woman lives in the most unreachable of ivory towers. It can take quite a shock to really shake archaic monarchy, but it has been done before. And it can be done again.
So it was a timely reminder that this month also marks another historic anniversary. On June 7th, 1977, the same week Lizzie celebrated her Silver Jubilee while unemployment and poverty raged in her own country, an "alternative Jubilee anthem" rang out so loudly that it was banned by the BBC and earned the wrath of an entire empire (crumbling though it was). It marked the beginning of a musical revolution whose shockwaves can still be felt today.
When the Sex Pistols started playing loud, raunchy, offensive rock n’ roll in the mid-seventies, it signalled a massive catharsis for the young underclass of Britain. The economic depression that had hit Britain has been well-chronicled, as has its effect on the nascent punk movement. "No one had a job. Everyone was on the dole." former Pistol Steve Jones remarked. "If you weren’t born into money then you might as well kiss your fucking life good-bye."
"Britain was in a state of social upheaval," says the infamous John Lydon, better known to the world as Johnny Rotten. Riots and strikes were commonplace on the evening news (when the television was actually working). The Labour Party, having promised prosperity and security for working people, had proven itself incapable of and even hostile towards any progressive social change. "People were fed up with the old way. The old way was clearly not working."
But something striking is actually how little of the pre-punk music actually reflected any of this. The blow-dried, quasi-orchestral sound that dominated "progressive rock" had become as irrelevant as the multi-millionaire musicians who played it. Journalist Nick Kent put it bluntly: "Bohemian-fucking-rhapsody was Number One for nine weeks! People were like ‘if this is Number One for one more week I’m going to kill myself–or start a band.’ Most people started bands, and that’s how punk was born."
The Sex Pistols were there at Year Zero. Within a few months of forming, their sound had knocked off the glammy stage shows and platform shoes and replaced them with loud guitars, torn sweaters and Rotten’s signature sneer. When they appeared on live TV calling personality and host Bill Grundy a "dirty fucker," that only sealed the deal. "Outrageous!" cried the papers. "Criminal!" screamed the politicians. "Wonderful!" delcared the crowd.
But when the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee in the summer of ’77, the Pistols’ music went from rubbing officials the wrong way to being on a collision course with "respectable" British tradition. In some ways it was their peak in a career cut short.
"You don’t write a song like ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race," according to Rotten. "You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re sick of seeing them mistreated." The song was never intended to coincide with the Jubilee, but all the bile and hatred against monarchy and privilege was only amplified by the coincidence. Its aggressive and cocky style quite literally sounded like the group had hocked a loogie in the Queen’s face. It declared her a fascist, inhuman, and insisted that England was "dreaming" to believe there was any future in a monarch like her. The single was promptly banned by the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, essentially placing a media blackout on it.
It would only escalate. On the day of the Jubilee, the 7th, the Pistols, with manager Malcolm McLaren (this stunt was his idea), and a handful of fans in tow, staged a performance of the song on a boat floating by the Queen’s celebration on the Thames. It was an inflammatory act. The police forced the boat to dock, and several of the Pistols’ fans were arrested. Meanwhile, despite receiving no airplay, the song had climbed to Number Two on the charts and was poised to overtake Rod Stewart at Number One. But despite selling more copies, "God Save the Queen" remained in the second slot for fear of offending people.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Sex Pistols would implode almost as quickly as they exploded. Within a couple years the band had broken up, Sid Vicious was dead, and punk would become what it hated. Like all genres, the industry figured out a way to make punk marketable. In the span of a few years the sound that ignited a generation had been absorbed back into the system. In perhaps the most telling of all sell-outs, Johnny Rotten would go from being the snotty punk screaming at the Queen from the River Thames to the headlining act at her Golden Jubilee in 2002.
But none of this negates what the Pistols helped set off. Punk’s first stand would go on to inspire a new wave of independently minded punks who stuck by their DIY guns, and took their rebellious sound into much more explicitly political realms. From the snide sarcasm of Dead Kennedys to the righteous ferocity of Minor Threat.
Did the Sex Pistols’ music actually have what it took to do away with the parasites living off the sweat of the British people? Of course not. At least not directly. But the fact that a musical style could so successfully sway a generation of young workers to openly question authority was all the reason the state censors needed. The very same authority that punk challenged felt very threatened by it. And for that one rare moment, music and politics became the exact same thing.
No matter what the Pistols, or punk rock, became later, the floodgates were opened that week. And it’s an example that today’s artists can learn from. Rotten said it best himself: "we managed to offend all the people we were fucking fed up with." And that is, it should be said, one of the things that makes rock n’ roll great.
***** Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington DC. He is a regular contributor to Znet and Dissident Voice, and has also appeared in CounterPunch, Socialist Worker and MR Zine.
His blog, rebel frequencies can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com and he can be reached at [email protected]