The Queen’s 1977 Jubilee was an opportunity for the Sex Pistols to quite literally rock the establishment’s boat. For the occasion their record label, Virgin, and its boss Richard Branson, hired a boat on the Thames and had the Pistols play “God Save The Queen” in a parody of the Monarch’s river pageant, much like the one we witnessed in June.
Waving red and white flags they launched into “Anarchy in the UK” while floating past the Houses of Parliament. “God Save The Queen” had been banned from the airways, and was, according to Branson, deliberately kept off the Number 1 spot in the charts that week. “The band were ‘nice young lads’ basically,” says Branson, who was with them on the boat that day. “But they had some problems that came with sudden success very quickly, particularly Sid Vicious who hit drugs in a major way.”
The boat gig was the brainchild of the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to give the band a proper platform in the wake of radio and television bans. According to Lydon the band wasn’t quite aware of what was going on. “I didn’t even know it was Jubilee,” he said. “ All I knew was we had a gig on a barge, that was it. All that police attention on the river Thames, wow. OK, we’re annoying someone here, big time, which is great."
Despite an apparently tame party (albeit one with plenty of drugs, booze and rocking out), the boat’s captain radioed for help and police boarded when it docked. Several of the band’s entourage were arrested, including McLaren, his partner the clothing designer Vivienne Westwood, Sophie Richmond, Fred Vermorel, Jamie Reid and Lydon’s brother Jimmy.
A furious McLaren was reported to have launched himself down the gangplank screaming into the police's faces. Author and journalist Tony Parsons, who was there, told the Guardian: “The police took him to one side and gave him the worst beating I've ever seen anybody given.”
The boat load of press and photographers there to witness this meant the following day’s front pages were full of outrage about the Sex Pistols' antics, with one calling Lydon “the biggest threat to our youth since Hitler”.
For Branson it was a surprising turn of events in what had been an apparently peaceful protest: “The band had done nothing wrong, nobody had done anything wrong, but the very act of raiding the boat and then about 12 policemen physically beating up Malcolm McLaren with truncheons obviously propelled the Sex Pistols onto the front pages of all the papers.”
The stunt, which Julien Temple says “has been blown out of all proportion since”, attracted plenty of anger from Royalists and Teddy Boys. It escalated into violence and Jamie Reid was attacked in the street the following Monday. Temple was punched in the face while walking along Oxford Street, Paul Cook was hit by an iron bar (“I was attacked by some old Teds,” Cook said. “They didn’t like the fact I was wearing brothel creepers. We had no bodyguards like bands do today”) and Lydon was stabbed in the arm by a mob at Dingwalls Club in Camden. The Daily Mail’s headline shrieked “Punk Rock Rotten Razored”.
“God Save The Queen” had been the pinnacle of the Pistols’ success. “It all went sour after that,” says Cook. The band had only played three gigs that year and within seven months of the Jubilee they were defunct.