While the entire planet seems to be all giddy for the Royal Wedding and wrapped up in its pageantry, I can’t help but remember that not all Brits share in the excitement, as the commentators on the TV coverage would have you believe. Most of the people that I know in the UK never seem to have too many nice things to say about the Royals or the monarchy, actually.
I personally have nothing against it, I suppose that to me as an American the whole thing is all part of the UK’s charm. But what it does remind me of is the fact that dissidence to the Crown has long held a place in music history.
One probably couldn’t even count the number of anti-Thatcher songs that were recorded during her tenure, but perhaps the most volatile and influential example of music vs. royalty was during the punk era of the 70’s.
First, let’s paint the picture of what was going on at this particular point in British history. During the 1970s, Britain’s economy took a downturn and was punctuated with high unemployment, several union strikes, out of control inflation, and a shrunken middle class. It literally became the ‘Have’s and the Have Not’s’. Young people had few prospects and barely any possibilities of finding a job, let alone affording an education.
So what do you do when you’re 20 years old with nowhere to go and full of vigorous angst? You start a band, of course.
Enter the Sex Pistols.
Barely able to even play their instruments, the Sex Pistols were more about what they accomplished in toppling the establishment than with their actual songs. They might not have been the first punk band ever, but they were the key component in its emergence and influence.
The origins of Alternative music can be traced back to the 60’s, but most will agree that it was the punk era that galvanized it and set it loose. New and adventurous musical ideas were running rampant and began bubbling up. In New York, it was the Ramones who looked at the grandiose rock of groups such as the Eagles or Queen (heh), and decided such over-the-top pretentious music was out of touch with them. They decided to make the sort of music that anyone could make, right there in their own garage. They brought rock back down to earth.
That set the wheels in motion. You had the anxiety of young people in the UK who were yearning for something different and something to call their own, and you had a more basic approach to music coming to light. All it needed was the one spark to make the whole thing explode and take over.
The Sex Pistols (who are said to have had a copy of the debut Ramones record in the studio for inspiration while recording their album) brought along the attitude with their ferocious approach to music and image.
Overnight, they were a scandal. Headlines in the UK immediately described it all as “the Filth and the Fury”. It was just what young people in England needed, and it’s just what the stale state of music needed at the time, too.
To make it even more blasphemous, the second single that they released from their one and only album Never Mind The Bullocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols was entitled “God Save The Queen”. Yes, sharing the same title as the national anthem of the UK. Only, this was no homage to the Queen whatsoever.
Complete with the controversial cover, matters were made worse (or better, in a punk and musical sense) because the single was released just in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee (the 25th anniversary of her coronation) in 1977. Smack in the midst of the celebration and the pomp and circumstance came this anthem for restless and fed up youth. It spewed venom over the Royals’ lavish lifestyle while singing over and over that the people of Britain have “no future”.
The BBC quickly banned the song, so it was practically never heard on the radio. Despite that, it shot up to the top of the charts. It never was allowed to be printed in the #1 spot, however, since the chart was essentially dictated by the BBC. (in May 2001, the BBC wrote that the single “reached number one in the UK despite being banned by the BBC”. Score.)
Considering the success of the single with no airplay gives you a sense of how strong the subversive and underground tendencies were in the British public. It also proved that all you needed was the will to make a difference and a message, and the music just followed suit. It was what bound like-minded people together and helped lay the groundwork for Alternative music for many years to come.
Kids in “punk bands” today might think life sucks and might write songs describing their inconveniences. But at the end of the day, they get picked up from school in an SUV and have a nice meal in their stainless steel appliance kitchen.
THESE GUYS, however, had a gripe. And it changed music forever.