With the re-release of the Sex Pistols’ controversial song God Save the Queen, in time for the Diamond Jubilee, Channel 4 News asks former bass player Glen Matlock what the band’s message was.
Like Pistols frontman John Lydon (previously known as Johnny Rotten), Matlock does not agree with the decision by Universal Music to release a 2012 version of the classic punk track.
What seems inevitable is that God Save The Queen will not have the chart success it enjoyed in 1977 during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, despite a Facebook campaign to win it the number one spot. Nor will it shock to the same degree.
Thirty-five years ago, the Sex Pistols’ second single was controversial for two reasons: its cover and lyrics. The sleeve showed the monarch’s eyes and mouth obscured by the title and name of the band, with the words looking as though they had been taken from newspaper cuttings in the style of a ransom note.
It could have been worse: one of the other designs included placing swastikas over the Queen’s eyes and, in true punk style, a safety pin through her lips.
Unlike some other Pistols’ songs, there was no swearing, but queen was made to rhyme with “fascist regime” and we were told that “she ain’t no human being” and “there’s no future in England’s dreaming”.
The song was banned on the airwaves: the BBC and commercial TV and radio refused to play it and many record shops and high street chains Woolworths and WH Smith were unwilling to stock it. But it still made it to number two in the official charts, although it has been frequently and convincingly claimed that there was a fix to stop it making the number one spot.
The design of the sleeve, the work of artist Jamie Reid, led to it being named the greatest record cover of all time in 2001 by Q magazine, which a year later ranked it first in a list of the 50 most exciting tunes ever.
We were so far up our own backsides, we just wanted to do what we wanted to do. We weren’t trying to build a guillotine. Glen Matlock
It may have been a clever marketing ploy to have the single ready for the jubilee (the original plan was for it to be released earlier, although events conspired against this), but what were the band saying? Did they really want to see the back of the monarchy?
John Lydon certainly wants nothing to do with the re-release, saying it “totally undermines what the Sex Pistols stood for”, before adding in a statement: “I am pleased that the Sex Pistols recordings are being put out there for a new generation, however, I wish for no part in the circus that is being built up around it.”
Lydon has explained that the song was written to stop the English people from being “mistreated”. A working-class boy, he has always been angered by Britain’s class system, criticising private schools for encouraging snobbery and cultivating a sense of superiority, and damning the upper classes for their tendency to “parasite off the population as their friends help them along”.
As the Pistols’ own website puts it: “The Pistols were inspired by anger and poverty, not art and poetry.”
And the song: “The nation was gripped by Royal fever. The Queen was a national treasure. Everyone loved her, everyone except the Sex Pistols. Or did they? ‘We love our Queen.’ The last sentence is taken from the song’s lyrics.
The Sex Pistols reunited in 1996; Glen Matlock is on the far right
Reid has called it “probably the last public protest against the monarchy”. But Glen Matlock told Channel 4 News that a song created by four 19-year-olds should not be over-analysed.
“We were so far up our own backsides, we just wanted to do what we wanted to do,” he said. “We weren’t political like the Clash. To try to analyse it is specious. We weren’t trying to build a guillotine.
“Originally, the song wasn’t called God Save The Queen, it was called No Future. It coincided with the jubilee. John (Lydon) told me he didn’t realise it was the jubilee and was disinterested in the jubilee.” And the song’s message? “Don’t be taken like a bloody idiot.”
Nowadays, Matlock seems relaxed about the monarchy. “I like the flags, the pageantry of it all.”
Steve Dior, a musician who has played with all of the band’s members except Lydon, told Channel 4 News: “They were politically naive. They all had separate ideas. Being anti-Queen was just an easy target. But there was an awareness of people being privileged and under-privileged, that it wasn’t a fair system.
“We were definitely against the jubilee at that time. She wasn’t paying tax and was so privileged and we were supposed to be celebrating. There was no way it was fair.”
Picture on left: John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) in 1977
Punk rock, led by the Pistols, was “about frustration and wanting to change the status quo and it needed a very loud and angry voice to change it,” said Dior. “We wanted a chance and an opportunity – a chance to get on in the world, to not be on the dole and treated as useless – and we had to be obnoxious and in-your-face to get it. “
But he has now changed his tune on the monarchy. “Diana brought in change. Now we have the princes and they’re more accessible. It’s more palatable than it was. The benefits outweigh the negatives and I think they bring a lot to the table, out there promoting this country.”
Who wrote God Save The Queen?
Lydon, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook are all credited with writing God Save The Queen. Dior, a friend of Matlock, believes the Pistols’ former bassist played the biggest part. But Jones has spoken scathingly abour Matlock’s contribution, saying in 2011 that he was “tired” of his claims that he had written the Pistols’ most famous songs.
“As much as he likes claiming he wrote God Save The Queen, Anarchy In The UK and Pretty Vacant, at the time he hated the words, which John (Lydon) wrote,” he told Hustler magazine.
So what is the truth? According to Matlock: “They were John’s lyrics and my music.”
Who released the song?
A&M had originally intended releasing God Save The Queen, but had a change of heart at the last moment, paying the trouble some Pistols £75,000 to go away and leave them alone.
That was not before some of the singles had been pressed. Their owners are very fortunate: they are now worth thousands of pounds if they are in good condition.
The Pistols then signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin, which released the single in May 1977, shortly before the jubilee.