Next month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Britain’s alternative national anthem God Save the Queen by punk band the Sex Pistols. The song and band helped reconnect rock music with culture, participation and rebellion, and resonated in many places around the world, writes Peter Kenworthy.
By the time the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen was released, with its criticism of Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee, seventies Britain’s nostalgic yearn for the past, snobbishness, xenophobia, narrow mindedness and economic decline, the band had already been fired by two record companies, sworn on national television (something almost unheard of at the time), and banned from playing in most towns and cities across England.
Nevertheless, God Save the Queen became the best-selling song of the summer of 1977, selling 150,000 records in five days, even though the record company initially refused to press the single, the printers refused to print record covers cover and posters, TV and radio refused to air promotion material, Woolworths, Boots and WH Smith wouldn’t sell it, and the band were investigated by MI5 and discussed in parliament under the Treason Act.
The song, written in singer Johnny Rotten’s squat in London suburb Hampstead, together with the anarchic live performances of the Sex Pistols, also helped spawn a musical and cultural youth rebellion.
It made the Sex Pistols public enemy number one in the press, with headlines such as 'punish the punks', and amongst the older generation, ensuring that several of the Pistols were beaten up, and Johnny Rotten was cut with a razor blade in the face and hacked by a machete in the knee.
To understand the impact of God Save the Queen, with lines like 'they made you a moron', 'don't be told what you need', 'we're the flowers in the dustbin', and 'there’s no future in England's dreaming', it is important to remember what Britain was like at the time – economically and musically.
Three decades after WWII, with most of the British Empire gone along with British economic influence and political power, Britain was in a post-imperial melancholy with a monarchy that had lost its magic.
Changing class-structures caused many young people to question their place in society. There was a general air of political polarization, immigrant-bashing, abandoned factories, new pre-fabricated housing and economic decline.
Unemployment exceeded 1 million for the first time since the thirties in 1972, a state of emergency was declared in 1973 after the oil crisis that led to power black-outs, public spending was cut by 1 billion pounds in 1976 due to IMF loan conditions. Everyone was on strike, and there was the added danger of IRA bombs and hooligans. England even failed to qualify for the 1974 football World Cup, eight years after having won it. The optimism of the 'swinging' sixties was well and truly gone.
This crisis was not reflected in the music of the time, however. Mid-seventies music was often elaborate post-glam inspired clothing and production, lengthy guitar solos, inflated rock star egos and escapist lyrics that were often totally out of sync with what most young people were experiencing at the time.
In the words of Johnny Rotten, 'a cloud of apathy had set in' where politicians could 'strut their stuff using prejudice, hate, family values'.
Fed up and bored
Punk got off the ground because young people were bored and fed up with the restrictive and austere nature of seventies Britain, and the politicians apparent inability to do anything about the situation.
They were also tired of waiting for years and paying big money to see big stadium bands like Queen or Pink Floyd, when they could see an exciting band like the Sex Pistols for a fraction of the price every other week and hang out with them after the show, and because the Sex Pistols seemed both relevant and possible to emulate.
Punk’s do-it-yourself attitude, where a band like the Buzzcocks could produce their debut, the Spiral Scratch EP, for 500 pounds including the pressing of 1,000 records and 1,000 sleeves was a huge catalyst.
A catalyst, where those who felt powerless, including women, who were seen as second class citizens in sixties and seventies Britain (Siouxsie, The Slits, Polly Styrene) and gays (Tom Robinson), could use punk to take centre stage and grab some power back to retain some self-respect.
Punk in Africa
This catalyst also ensured that punk bands were formed far beyond the shores of Britain, in places as far apart as welfare state-Denmark, military regime-Brazil, 'white' Australia and apartheid South Africa.
In South Africa, the birth of punk coincided with the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Wild Youth from Durban, one of South Africa’s first punk bands, was formed after singer Michael Flek had been the Britain in 1977 and seen several punk bands.
'We were crap musicians but we made up for that with power, self-conviction and catchy songs … What punk did in South Africa, it was the first thing in changing the way young people thought. It made them question every aspect of life,' as Michael Flek put it.
And punk was far from a safe, middle-class white scene in South Africa. National Wake, a multiracial South African punk band who lived and practised together in violation of South African apartheid laws, played in the Sharpeville Night Club and rural townships and were visited by the vice squad for their efforts.
Nothing to do with music
Punk and the Sex Pistols were eventually too a degree defeated by their own (media) success, the commodification of the music and its message by the record companies, hard drugs and the increasing army of Johnny Rotten look-alikes and post-card punk posers. Especially when the Sex Pistols broke up after playing for over 5,000 people, their biggest ever audience, in San Francisco in 1978.
Punk also grew up, from a screaming toddler to an angst-ridden teenager, embodied by bands such as Joy Division and The Cure, who were inspired by and used the energy and attitude of punk to express more complex emotions.
But if punk is to be more than of historical interest, a style of load and abrasive mid-to-late seventies music, it is important to look at the ideals behind punk and how it promoted the message over talent and music.
Because the Sex Pistols’ positive message of negativity, and the punk movement’s focus on change, participation, being yourself-originality and against conformism is still relevant today. An era not unlike the one Rotten was criticising, with its own sense of 'no future' brought on by global warming, Trump, Brexit and increasing commercialism, inequality and making scapegoats of immigrants and the unemployed.