How the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen' Dominated the Silver Jubilee

In 1977, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Silver Jubilee commemorating 25 years on the throne with a series of national festivities.

A grand river procession, a service of thanksgiving at St Paul's Cathedral, and a ride in the 18th-century Gold State Coach not used since the coronation in 1953 were all watched by millions of people around Britain and the commonwealth.

Despite its popularity, the queen's Silver Jubilee came at a turbulent time for Britain, punctuating a period of economic and social unrest. One of the responses of this time was the punk movement, which, in its own way, marked the queen's jubilee—with a song.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Sex Pistols'"God Save the Queen," which was released at the time of the Silver Jubilee and became one of the most contentious songs of the decade.

A biopic series focussing on the punk rock band's career is currently airing on FX on Hulu and sees the Sex Pistols once again dominating headlines in a jubilee year.

Despite the timely release of the song in 1977, the explicit references made to the queen, and the fact that it dominated pop culture around the royal pageantry, members of the Sex Pistols have maintained throughout the years that "God Save the Queen" was neither intended as a response to the jubilee nor a personal attack on the queen herself.

Sex Pistols "God Save the Queen" Jubilee
When Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 25th year on the throne in 1977, a British punk group released a special tribute which resulted in a broadcasting ban. Pictures, an artwork made for the Sex Pistols in 1977 by artist Jamie Reid on display in Ireland, January 14, 2012. Johnny Rotten (inset left) photographed January 5, 1978; Queen Elizabeth II (inset right) photographed June 7, 1977. PETER MUHLY/AFP via Getty Images/Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook said, per Far Out Magazine, that "it wasn't written specifically for the Queen's Jubilee. We weren't aware of it at the time. It wasn't a contrived effort to go out and shock everyone."

This was seconded by lead vocalist John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon, who told officialcharts.com that "I wrote a record. It wasn't about a specific moment in time or history—I wrote a record about a subject matter that mattered to me, in a personal way, and then all this situation enveloped and unfolded. I never did it as an act of spite against the Jubilee. I don't think that's been quite completely understood."

But what was it that made the song such a controversial hit? In short, the lyrics were the root cause of both its popularity and its censure.

The song opens with the line: "God save the Queen. A fascist regime."

Then goes on to say: "She ain't no human being" and "our figurehead is not what she seems."

The artwork for the record also satirized the queen by using one of the official Silver Jubilee portraits taken of the monarch for the cover. PR moves like the timely release of the song and its artwork have been attributed to the band's manager at the time, Malcolm McLaren, a leader of the punk movement.

In March 1977, McLaren staged a press stunt ahead of the "God Save the Queen" release in which the band signed their new recording contract with record label A&M outside Buckingham Palace.

After the band's lewd antics at the post-contract signing party that included bassist Sid Vicious trashing an office bathroom, the label dropped the band after less than a week. This all added to the cultural buzz around the Sex Pistols.

Sex Pistols Signing Buckingham Palace
The Sex Pistols signed their contract with A&M Records outside Buckingham Palace, March 10, 1977. Bettmann via Getty Images

On its release, "God Save the Queen" sold huge numbers in the U.K and became a hit among the rebellious post-war generation of teenagers. Despite, or perhaps in spite, of this, the establishment took against the song and the Sex Pistols, who were renowned for their cursing during interviews and anti-social behavior.

The BBC, Britain's national state-funded broadcaster, reportedly banned the song from being played on its radio stations and music television show Top of the Pops.

The record charted at a peak of number two in the U.K coming behind Rod Stewart's "I Don't Want to Talk About It." However, rumors have circulated ever since that "God Save the Queen" was kept off the top spot by foul play.

The queen has never publicly commented on the song and its popularity did not come at a cost to hers during the jubilee celebrations.

Speaking to Piers Morgan in May, Rotten sought to set the record straight on the intention behind the song and his personal views on the queen, as the song that has been called "anti-royal" is released on vinyl ahead of the Platinum Jubilee.

"It's very anti-monarchist but not anti-human," he said.

"You must not assume that I'm completely dead against the royal family as human beings, I am not."

He then went on to add that he holds the queen herself in high regard, stating: "I'm actually really really proud of the queen for surviving and doing so well. I applaud her for that. That's a fantastic achievement. I just think if I am paying my tax money to support this system, I should have a say so on how it's spent."

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