The release of the Sex Pistols’ “God the Save the Queen” took place during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, 40 years ago this week. That means that British punk rock just entered middle age. If it could, it would probably be getting a hair transplant, hitting the gym, buying a flashy red sports car, moving to a respectable house in the suburbs, and generally behaving in a manner embarrassing to its offspring and unbefitting its age.
In some ways, that’s exactly what’s happening. A city-wide, year-long, multivenue celebration known as “Punk London,” which will include installations and events held at, among other places, the British Library, is taking place with the full cooperation of people whose parents likely found the Sex Pistols and their ilk a threat to all that was good and decent in Dear Old Blighty.
Yes, it’s true – even punk rock has been corporatized to death. It’s now being celebrated and embraced by the very forces that sought to extinguish it in the first place. There has been a bit of a backlash among folks who were actually part of the British punk scene back then, or are direct descendants of those who were. Joe Corré, son of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and punk designer Vivienne Westwood, led the pushback, greeting the announcement of the “Punk London” celebration with an announcement of his own: He’d burn what he estimated to be $5 million worth of authentic punk rock memorabilia as a form of protest. Corré made good on his promise on Saturday, when he rented a boat, sailed it down the Thames, set fire to a bunch of swag, and shot off fireworks, in what might be viewed as a memorial service for punk’s initial run. (It should be noted that reports suggested a fairly low attendance figure for the Corré-run "Punk funeral pyre" event. The ongoing "Punk London" soiree is enjoying healthy numbers, by contrast.)
Ahh, but let’s look back through the mists of time, toward those depressingly gray London skies looming over a city in economic turmoil, when four ingrates with very little chance of getting anywhere in life dropped a filthily gritty post-Kinks riff-o-rama positing the Queen of England as symbol of the death of hope for her country’s youth - particularly that part of the youth not born into money.
The tune, with lyrics by John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, did not mince words, and arrived via a menacing snarl that seemed to speak for all disenfranchised youth.
“God save the Queen/The fascist regime/They made you a moron/Potential H-Bomb,” Lydon spits in the first verse, and then he promptly commits the ultimate sin for British subjects, by suggesting the female monarch was indeed beneath contempt. “God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being/There is no future/And England’s dreaming.”
Talk about dropping the mic.
“God Save the Queen” scared a generation of proper English types mortified by the Mohawk-adorned, safety-pinned, snotty and sneering youth they were starting to encounter staggering around in the Capital city. This was the sound of the old order collapsing. Here was the arrival of nihilism, of disrespect for tradition, a howl from the rubbish tip in the voice of a youth movement wholly aware that it had no clear future.
But now, British punk is a museum exhibit. It has no real teeth, and not just because many of its remaining progenitors are entering their denture years. Seminal American punk is in the same boat. CBGB, considered by many to be at least one of the birthplaces of this country’s punk rock, was chased out of its New York City home by the Bowery Resident’s Committee in 2006. A pale imitation version reopened last year as a restaurant in Newark Airport, where orders can be placed on an iPad. Picture a TGI Friday’s, with punk rock posters.
What hasn’t been corporatized is the punk rock attitude, however. And Corré shed some light on just what defines that attitude during his pyro-pity-party on the Thames over the weekend.
“Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need,” Corré told the assembled, according to the New York Times. “If you want to understand the potent values of punk, confront taboos. Do not tolerate hypocrisy. Investigate the truth for yourself.”
Good advice for punks. And everyone else, too. Don’t let ‘em make you a moron.