Since punk rock’s earliest days, the genre has sought to challenge social norms and traditions.
But when the Sex Pistols came out with “God Save the Queen” 40 years ago, on May 27, 1977, it was instantly greeted with widespread, visceral condemnation.
Released only months after the band’s infamous and expletive-laden television debut on the Bill Grundy show in December 1976, many viewed the song as an all-out assault on the morals and values of British culture. Others saw it as an attack on civilization itself. London Councilor Bernard Brook Partridge described the song’s creators as “the antithesis of humankind” and wished for their “sudden death.”
What made “God Save the Queen” so much more menacing in the eyes of its critics than any other punk song released in 1977? Why did the BBC bar it from radio airplay? And why was it denied its rightful place at the top of the U.K. Singles chart despite outselling the number-one hit of the time, Rod Stewart’s “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It”?
Many think the song was denounced because it distilled punk’s key complaints into a single, targeted hit against British civic and political life, which was embodied by the royal family. Originally entitled “No Future,” the song ended up changing its name to “God Save the Queen,” an appropriation of the British national anthem. The Pistols’ version was an “anti-anthem,” a critique of Queen Elizabeth II, whose Silver Jubilee – a celebration to commemorate the 25th anniversary of her ascension to the throne – happened to coincide with the year of the song’s release.
The artwork that accompanies the song depicts defaced images of her Jubilee portrait and torn pieces of the Union Jack and Royal Stewart tartan. The lyrics, meanwhile, reflect the state of an empire that seemed to be imploding during the economic downturn of the mid-1970s:
Oh when there's no future How can there be sin We're the flowers In the dustbin We're the poison In your human machine We're the future Your future!