Oh the humanity! It wasn’t punk rock’s start, but it was the start of it being noticed and frightening parents far and wide. After months of notoriety and an astonishing 125 000 pounds (about $700 000 in today’s funds) paid to just “go away” from EMI and A&M Records, the Sex Pistols finally release their first record for the Virgin label. “God Save the Queen”, arrived this day in 1977.
True, the Clash and the Stranglers (and in the U.S., the Ramones) had all put out albums by then, even the Pistols themselves had a prior, minor hit with “Anarchy in the UK” on EMI Records. But it was this 7” single really defined “punk” for the masses and caused a ruckus. Radio stations in the UK banned it, many record stores refused to stock it, the band were beaten up by monarchists (mind you, performing the sneering song saying the queen “ain’t no human being” on a boat near the palace on the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee had to be known to be a wee bit provocational!) …but it sold 150 000 copies in the first week, probably hit #1 – the first punk single to do so – and helped the band, in their short career make people ranging from Siouxshie Sioux (enjoying her 64th birthday today) to Peter Hook to Morrissey decide to start bands.
So, why did we say “probably” hit #1? Well, the chart compiled by influential music publication the NME put it at #1 that week. However, the BBC – which banned the song for “gross bad taste” – had it at #2 on their own chart, behind Rod Stewart. If that seems a bit fishy, consider that for that week or two, and those weeks only, the chart refused to count sales from stores which owned record labels… ie, the copies sold at the large Virgin stores in the UK, didn’t count. That particular rule was dropped as soon as Sid Vicious and the boys had fallen out of the limelight.
Years later, Johnny Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) said of the song, “you don’t write a song like that because you hate the English race, you write it because you love ’em and are fed up with them being mistreated.” That said, he wasn’t in favor of a re-release of the single to coincide with the Queen’s golden anniversary in 2002. He called that a “circus” and “totally undermines what the Sex Pistols stood for.” It came back out anyway, and made it back up to #15. Controversy notwithstanding, or perhaps because of it, the song lives on like an anthem for the late-’70s disaffected. Rolling Stone list it among their 200 greatest songs of all-time (curiously enough right behind another hit song from that year, but from an entirely different point of view – Abba’s “Dancing Queen”) while Q magazine once declared it “the most exciting song” ever. What would be quite exciting indeed would be to come across a legitimate A&M Records copy of “God Save the Queen.” They never officially released it, and had the Pistols on their roster for a very short time. But in that short time, they began pressing copies of the single, which they withdrew quickly when they dropped the band. However, a few executives and other types around A&M in England held on to a copy or two, and now the few that do show up regularly fetch over 10 000 British pounds in auction.