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Friday, 29 April 2011

God save your mad parade

I could be totally wrong about this (no, really, I could!), but I don’t think so-called royal “pageantry” in the UK has worked successfully since it was skewered by the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen in 1977.


OK, that was just one pop music moment, more than three decades ago. Royalism is obviously not so unstable that a bit of mockery from some media-savvy punk rascals is going to undermine the whole steel-clad House of Winsdor. No, not at all.

But for the generation who grew up on punk, and for those who came later and absorbed its iconography and its messaging, the Lydon-McLaren-Reid satire of GSTQ has surely made the royal family and it all represents … well, faintly ridiculous.

Yes, the cult of Diana was genuinely popular. But that was Elton-John-and-George-Michael middle England stuff. It wasn’t relevant - to say the least - for millions of 20-50-somethings who listened to Never Mind The Bollocks when they were young (and hopefully when they were not so young as well).

Re-reading Jon Savage’s chapter on the Silver Jubilee and GSTQ it’s decidedly eerie to be re-immersed in the near-hysterical pro-Jubilee media saturation of June 1977. There are scary passages about how Lydon, Reid and Paul Cook get physically attacked by tooled-up patriots (and Teds!). Yet, though it was a painful, paranoid time for the band, their symbolic assault on the symbols of power was, as Savage insists, genuinely significant. If anything, though, it was too freighted with meaning and hidden energies for anyone involved to really understand or cope with.

Writing about the recently-deceased Poly Stryene in the same chapter, Savage says that X-Ray Spex’ “chaos of symbols” was typical of much of punk and reggae’s revolutionary millenarianism - and I think that’s exactly right. As I recall, it’s also very much Greil Marcus’ point in his Lipstick Traces. Here was a DayGlo world turned upside down. (Apocalyptic, end-of-times material like this was … er, heavy heavy manners, and Lydon’s friend Jordan comments, rather movingly, that by mid-’77 Lydon was finding it difficult to sing such “powerful words” over and over again).

This is the point. Charged symbols and raw emotion. They’re surely at the heart of punk - and other powerful music forms.  

The simultaneous high- and low-point of the Pistols-Jubilee episode is the famous River Thames boat trip gig on 7 June ’77, like today a Bank Holiday granted to celebrate a royal pageant. Tellingly Savage only gets on the boat (genuinely named the “Queen Elizabeth”) because he worked at Sounds and used his media status to force his passage. He ended up in a little media/acolytes scrum, crammed in tight with other journos like Tony Parsons and future style writer Peter York.


York, he of the rather wondrously acid-drop phrasing, must surely be the only person doing broadcast media commentating today on William and Kate’s do who was also onboard for this Thames version of God Save The Queen. I wonder if he still listens to Mr Rotten’s little pearl of bile-soaked wisdom?

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