Friday, May 26, 2017

A Punker Looks At 40: The Legacy of "God Save The Queen"

Lèse-majesté: the crime of violating majesty, an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state.

Next week will be clogged with tributes to the 50th anniversary to "rock's greatest record," the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper.

But an equally important milestone passes tomorrow: the 40th anniversary of the most controversial, dangerous and gloriously offensive record ever made.

Just a year earlier, Queen - the Freddie Mercury band, not Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor - had concluded their masterpiece album, A Night At The Opera, with an electric but sincere version of "God Save The Queen," just after the final gong of "Bohemian Rhapsody" faded. They closed the show with it for years. Rock royalty, indeed.

The Sex Pistols were rebelling as much against bands like Queen as they were against royalty. But the specific approach, the lese majeste of "God Save The Queen," was the most singular moment of the rebellion.

There's no way a mere American, receiving Queen the band, Queen the monarch, and the Sex Pistols all as transatlantic translation, can truly understand how obscene this perversion of the national anthem sounded in 1977 Britain. There's no way to explain the patriotic frenzy of the Royal Jubilee,  (Elizabeth II's 25th anniversary on the throne, and who would have thought SHE would still be around 40 years later). The Bicentennial kind of gets at it - but it would be like the Bicentennial with a living George Washington, or a descendant receiving Kennedy-style adulation, who was seen as the embodiment of the nation itself.

Even before you played the record - because it was most certainly NOT on the radio, so you had to buy it on reputation only, and that's IF you were lucky enough to find a store that would sell it - the obscenity began, with Her Majesty's face defaced by lettering that was then associated with ransom notes but now, precisely because of this record, is seen as "punk rock."

And as the record plays the nation that Hitler had bombed barely 30 years earlier, still full of millions of war veterans, was called "fascist." Elizabeth is lyrically, literally, stripped of her humanity - "she ain't no human being." The very notion of morality itself is rejected - "when there's no future, how can there be sin?"

The only American analogy I can come up with - and this is after decades of consideration - is Henrdix's  Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, another deconstructed version of a national anthem. And you would have to package it with a burning flag on the cover.

But there were a lot more hippies and Vietnam War opponents in August 1969 than there were first generation punk rockers in May 1977. And while the 1960s preached peace and love, "God Save the Queen" was pure apocalyptic nihilism, ending with "no future for you."

"You don't write 'God Save The Queen' because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you're fed up with them being mistreated"- Johnny Rotten

The Pistols' recorded legacy is incredibly brief: less than 20 completed tracks with the core lineup of Johnny Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, and drummer Paul Cook, most of which are on the one true album. Sid Vicious, of course, never really played; the bass parts are either by Jones or by original bassist Glen Matlock.

The legend is that simplicity and Do It Yourself were the punk ethos - but that was the bands the Pistols inspired. Their own record is dense and layered and highly produced. Because it was nearly impossible for the band to play live without violence, Jones had little else to do and spent endless hours in the studio, overdubbing and overdubbing layers of guitar, which is why no other guitars sound like the guitars on Never Mind The Bollocks. Those guitars, and Rotten's snarl and sneer, are the defining sounds of the band.

On the surface, taken just as lyrics, other individual songs are more offensive than "God Save The Queen," especially the abortion rant "Bodies" ("fuck this and fuck that/fuck it all you fucked up, fucking brat"), as is the never properly recorded "Belsen Was A Gas," which comes off more as a failed shock joke.

But it's the four singles, all included on Never Mind The Bollocks, that are the core of the legend.

"Pretty Vacant" is a great rocker, but the lyric is less shocking, other than Rotten's deliberate pronunciation of "vacant" as "va-CUNT." And "Holidays in the Sun" is a desperate goodbye, and thus has a greater humanity to it. The critics tend to look back on the first single, "Anarchy In The UK," as the masterpiece, and as it was first it may have broken more barriers. "I wanna destroy," indeed, though later punks like my hero Joe Strummer of the Clash had plans on how the rubble should be rebuilt.

But bile as bitter as "God Save The Queen" could never be duplicated, and rage this intense was unsustainable. The band self-destructed only months later. The one song more than any other, the one track that was not just part of rock history but of history itself, is "God Save The Queen."

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