Thirty years after its release, John Lydon—better known as Johnny Rotten—offered this assessment of the song that made the Sex Pistols the most reviled and revered figures in England in the spring of 1977:
“There are not many songs written over baked beans at the breakfast table that went on to divide a nation and force a change in popular culture.”
Timed with typical Sex Pistols flair to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, the release of “God Save The Queen” was greeted by precisely the torrent of negative press that Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren had hoped.
On May 31, 1977, the song earned a total ban on radio airplay from the BBC—a kiss of death for a normal pop single, but a powerful endorsement for an anti-establishment rant like “God Save The Queen.” While some in the tabloid press accused the Sex Pistols of treason and called for their public hanging, the BBC was more moderate in its condemnation.
In response to lyrics like “God Save The Queen/She ain’t no human being,” the BBC labeled the record an example of “gross bad taste”—a difficult charge to argue, and one the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have wanted to dispute.
Even with the radio ban in place, however, and with major retailers like Woolworth refusing to sell the controversial single, “God Save The Queen” flew off the shelves of the stores that did carry it, selling up to 150,000 copies a day in late May and early June. With sales figures like that, it seems implausible that “God Save The Queen” really stalled at #2 on the official UK pop charts, yet that is where it appeared, as a blank entry below “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” by Rod Stewart, the ultimate anti-punk.
Like every other effort to suppress the song, refusing even to print its name in the official pop charts played right into the Sex Pistols’ hands Like naughty schoolboys concerned only with the approval of their peers, the Sex Pistols baited the British establishment throughout their brief career, but never more so than during the Silver Jubilee.
When they took to the waters of the Thames and attempted to blast “God Save The Queen” from giant speakers loaded onto a boat chartered by Virgin Records chief Richard Branson, the police dutifully responded by chasing the boat down and arresting its passengers when they reached the dock.
When members of Parliament threatened to ban all sales of the single, a Virgin spokesman replied: “It is remarkable that MPs should have nothing better to do than get agitated about records which were never intended for their Ming vase sensibilities.” Like the BBC ban announced on this day in 1977, these incidents only fed the controversy the Sex Pistols had set out to create.