This Day in Music History (May 31)

(Welcome to the latest installment in an intermittent series of blog posts about important, interesting, amusing, or outright random events that happened on… [drum roll]… this day in music history!)

On May 31, 1977, the BBC banned the Sex Pistols’ single “God Save the Queen”.

So… I’m a punk fan. I’m not really an actual Punk, either in terms of attitude or in terms of dress sense or in terms of hair style, but I’m definitely a fan of punk music. It’s fast, simple, angry, catchy, and often a lot of fun. Among the great British punk bands, the Clash were always my drug of choice… but who doesn’t love the Sex Pistols?

Ah. Well. Quite a few people, as it happens. Some probably don’t much give a bleep one way or the other—those who don’t do punk or rock or popular music or just music in general. But some had… other reasons.

Exhibit A: the Pistols’ second single, “God Save the Queen”, released on May 27, 1977—a couple of weeks before Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee (25th anniversary). And the song was… not complimentary. It borrowed the name of the official UK national anthem to call the country a “fascist regime”, say the Queen “ain’t no human being”, and proclaim “there is no future in England’s dreaming”. The timing seems to have been a coincidence—frontman John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon claims not to have even known of the occasion, and says the song was an expression of sympathy for the English working classes and of resentment towards the monarchy.

Predictably, various people were Not Amused. The BBC refused to play the song, announcing a ban on May 31st. The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) that regulated commercial radio stations warned that any station that played it would be in violation of the Broadcasting Act. When the band tried to play the song during a gig on a boat on the River Thames on June 7th—the actual day of the Jubilee—a scuffle broke out on board and eleven people, including the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren, were arrested once the boat docked.

Also predictably, the single did very well indeed despite (or more likely, because of) the controversy. It sold 150,000 copies on release and 200,000 in its first week. It reached #1 in the UK on the unofficial NME charts but only managed a measly #2 on the official UK Singles Chart. There have since been persistent mutterings (including from McLaren and the band) that it did in fact become the best-selling single in the UK but was held off the top spot for political reasons.

Since then, among other accolades, it’s been ranked 175 on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Even the respectables have come around. Ish. In 2001, the BBC acknowledged that “God Save The Queen reached number one in the UK in 1977 despite being banned by the BBC and marked a defining moment in the punk revolution.” On its fortieth anniversary in 2017, the Telegraph newspaper said, “With God Save The Queen, the Sex Pistols turned a national celebration on its head. With one brutal jab of their safety pin, they burst the establishment’s lofty balloon and changed pop culture forever.”

A bit of a turnaround, no?

Also on May 31st:
1809: Death of the great Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn
1948: Born today, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham
1966: Filming began on the Monkees’ first TV series
1976: The Who achieved a Guinness World Record as the loudest rock band after hitting 120 decibels during a performance at the Charlton Athletic football ground
1993: Oasis were discovered during an appearance at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow—Creation Records owner Alan McGee was in the audience to kill some time while waiting to catch a train
1998: Geri Halliwell announced she’d quit the Spice Girls

Blazej Szpakowicz likes music and enjoys writing about it. He can sometimes be found in the basement of CFBX building.