Today: the Sex Pistols and 'God Save the Queen'
First released: 1977
Highest UK chart position: 2
Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols' manager and provocateur, knew the value of publicity. The public, he thought, were tiring of rock superstars such as Rod Stewart and Elton John, and hating the posturing of Roxy Music and long set-pieces from Emerson, Lake and Palmer. His group of four disaffected London lads would appeal to certain youth elements and outrage everyone else.
The ploy worked better than even McLaren could have imagined. The group was signed to EMI and a single, "Anarchy in the UK", was released. Following an ill-tempered, four-letter-worded television exchange with the veteran broadcaster Bill Grundy, supplies of the single were withdrawn and the band was paid pounds 50,000 to leave the label.
A&M then signed the Pistols, but a protest from other stars made them renege on the deal. This time, the Pistols collected pounds 75,000. With some reluctance, the Pistols signed with Richard Branson's Virgin.
John Lydon, who became Johnny Rotten, wrote the lyrics to "No Future" while living in a Hampstead squat. It was arranged, quite competently, as it happens, by the other Pistols - Steve Jones (guitar), Glen Matlock (bass) and Paul Cook (drums). Admittedly, Rotten had a job staying in tune - as if he cared - but this only added to the effect. McLaren saw the song as an alternative national anthem and renamed it after its first line, "God Save the Queen". Virgin announced that their first Pistols' single was to be "God Save the Queen" and all hell broke loose. The pressing plant refused to press the single and the printers the sleeve, so these disputes had to be resolved.
In truth, the song's lyrics mean little. To call Britain "a Fascist regime" means that Johnny Rotten hadn't a clue what he was writing about. John Peel played the single twice, and then both the BBC and the IBA banned it on grounds of bad taste.
The single came out just before the silver jubilee of the Queen's accession to the throne. Royalists threatened violence against the Pistols, and Jamie Reid, designer of the cover, which defaced a picture of her Majesty, had his leg broken. The Pistols allegedly threatened to kill the DJ Bob Harris for not playing their records.
Not only did the public have difficulty hearing the single, they also had trouble buying it. WH Smith, Woolworths and Boots refused to stock it. Many people bought it in Virgin's own stores. It came into the chart at No 10 and looked as though it would be at the top during jubilee week itself.
Anxious to avoid that, the authorities came to an instant decision: shops which sold their own records could not be included in the chart. Hence, Virgin's sales for the crucial week were ignored for the purposes of compiling the chart, and Rod Stewart stayed at No 1 with "I Don't Want To Talk About It".
After that, the Pistols did another nihilistic single, "Pretty Vacant", but they soon disbanded, with Rotten being replaced for a one-off release by the train robber Ronnie Biggs. Sid Vicious, who had replaced Glen Matlock before "God Save the Queen" was released, died of a drugs overdose while on bail for murdering his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. The Sex Pistols lasted little more than a year as a chart act, but they had opened the door for other confrontational groups.
In 1996 the Pistols reformed, and Radio 1 broadcast a whole concert live. In 1997 EMI, which now owns the Virgin catalogue, issued a special edition of the LP Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, to celebrate 100 years of EMI.
'Behind the Song', by Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh, is published by Blandford, price pounds 14.99. Independent readers can buy the book for pounds 12.99 (including p&p). To order, call 01624 675 137.