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In 1977, Johnny Rotten, a.k.a. John Lydon, and the Sex Pistols performed their new song, “God Save the Queen,” sailing on a boat called the Queen Elizabeth down the Thames days before the Silver Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II.

Sex Pistols wanted the song and the boat trip to be provocative. They weren’t a snub to the queen herself. It was more of a statement of change, which the punk revolution was all about. Now, 45 years later, Lydon and the Sex Pistols only have respect for their head of state.

Johnny Rotten sailing with the Sex Pistols and friends on the Queen Elizabeth along the River Thames in 1977.
Johnny Rotten | Brian Cooke/Redferns

John Lydon planned to exploit Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee

While the Sex Pistols recorded their debut album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Lydon came up with a brilliant idea. As he was writing “No Future,” which he later renamed “God Save the Queen,” Rotten recognized the possibility of the Sex Pistols releasing the song during Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee.

According to the Guardian, he planned to exploit the festivities. In 1977, the queen celebrated 25 years on the throne, and her Silver Jubilee festivities were to commence in June. Sex Pistols released “God Save the Queen” in May through Richard Branson’s Virgin Records. The BBC banned the song, even though it isn’t about the queen.

Frustrated with the ban, the group’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, and Virgin organized a boat ride through the Thames as a “parody of the Queen’s waterside procession.” They were “keen to milk the controversy.”

On June 7, the band and friends set sail from Charing Cross Pier on the Queen Elizabeth. It went well until the Sex Pistols started to perform. The feedback was unbearable, but they plowed through “Anarchy in the U.K.” as they passed the houses of Parliament.

However, as the Guardian wrote, “the event quickly turned into the kind of fracas familiar from other Pistols gigs.” Sex Pistols played through “God Save the Queen,” “No Feelings,” and “Pretty Vacant” until police boats encircled the Queen Elizabeth. They forced the boat to dock and argued with McLaren and Branson until they arrested McLaren.

Journalist Jon Savage told the Guardian, “Before the police came, it was a great party. Make that a capital G.” Sex Pistols made a big enough stink, but it didn’t ruin the queen’s river procession days later.

Lydon has nothing but respect for the queen

Despite rhyming “God save the queen” with “fascist regime” and “she ain’t no human being” in his song, Lydon respects the queen.

Lydon recently told Piers Morgan on Talk TV, “You mustn’t presume that I’m completely dead against the royal family as human beings. I’m not; I’m actually really, really proud of the queen for surviving and doing so well. I applaud her for that; that’s a fantastic achievement.

“I’m not a curmudgeon about that. I just think that if I’m paying my tax money to support this system, I should have a say-so on how it’s spent. I think it’s quite possibly the end of the monarchy because Prince Charles is not going to be able to handle it. This is the man that plays Pink Floyd to his cabbages.

“That’s a shame in itself too, because I do love pageantry; I’m a football fan, how could I not? I like watching royal weddings because I really did enjoy watching spitfires and B-52s and the likes flying over the palace. I get quite emotional with all that.”

Lydon continued, “I love my country, I love my people, and everything about it, but if there’s problems within it, I think I have the right to say so. When I wrote ‘God Save the Queen,’ this is me expressing my fully competent point of view.

“I’m just as solid about the monarchy and my dislike of it as I ever have been. I’ve always viewed the royal family as a bunch of German tourists with a Greek thrown in… I don’t want to pay no more tax to keep that institution alive. But I totally respect (the queen) as a real person.

“She’s enjoyed that and maintained… a sense of dignity.”


Steve Jones Says He’d Rather Listen to Steely Dan Than the Sex Pistols

Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones says Platinum Jubilee is ‘entertaining stuff’

Meanwhile, Lydon’s ex-bandmate, Steve Jones, is just as excited about the queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

“I’m not against it,” Jones said to the Associated Press of the four-day celebration. “I see all the flags are up everywhere. I mean, it’s entertaining stuff. Tourists just absolutely love it.”

In another recent interview with the Independent, Jones talked about “God Save the Queen” and what it meant when they released it 45 years ago.

“I’ve never had any connection to the monarchy, to be honest,” he said. “It meant nothing to me, still doesn’t. So to me it was just a laugh, it was a giggle. I didn’t realise it would offend a lot of English people. They took it personally. It was a stab against the Queen.

“I think John got [attacked], we used to just walk around – we didn’t have bodyguards or cars or anything, so we were just a target, John more than the rest of us.”

Sex Pistols reissued “God Save the Queen” ahead of the Platinum Jubilee. Although, they won’t be doing a river boat trip again.