We meant it, ma’am
Next month sees another jubilee – 25 years since the Sex Pistols cut through the pomp and stood up for another England. The band’s manager Malcolm McLaren recalls the hysteria of 1977 – and says that it’s punk, not royalty, which we should be celebrating.
Malcolm MacLaren Sunday May 19, 2002 The Observer
Twenty-five years ago, at the CBS record-manufacturing plant in England, workers rescued some of the contraband records from being melted by hiding them in their coats – copies of the Sex Pistols’ new single, ‘God Save the Queen’. Just one week after signing the Pistols, A&M had rescinded on their contract and attempted to destroy all the records. Now my office had to field unsolicited calls offering to sell illicit copies of ‘God Save the Queen’ at the extortionate price of Â£20 a copy. I was naturally a bit reluctant, but after some thought, I purchased several boxes. A few weeks later, I signed the group to Richard Branson’s Virgin label. The excitement from Virgin’s employees was such that they wanted to conspire with me and create an alternative celebration to the Queen’s silver jubilee by hiring our own boat to follow her flotilla down the Thames.
The Sex Pistols were banned from playing on land, and their song ‘God Save the Queen’ banned from being played on the airwaves. So the only place left was the water. One of the most delirious memories I have is of seeing crowds of artful dodgers – punk rockers – jamming London’s bridges, hanging from its lampposts, screaming and shouting merrily, throwing bottles and empty yoghurt pots down on to the boat as it blared their favourite song out across the Thames: ‘God save the Queen/she ain’t no human being/ she made/you a moron/ a potential H-bomb/ God save the Queen/ we mean it maaan!’ It was a frenzied, chaotic, cacophonous, exhilarating, inspired moment. A ticket to a carnival for a better life.
We confronted the River Police. The boat was driven back to Charing Cross escorted by the same. I was among the many arrested when we disembarked and spent the night in jail. Somehow, I never saw Richard Branson. He just seemed to disappear. In front of the judge, I felt something in the air had truly changed. His dutiful air of smug importance made me laugh. I was made to feel a criminal, to beg forgiveness, and furthermore, he said, if I were to ever appear before him again, for a similar offence, he would have no hesitation in sending me to one of Her Majesty’s Prisons where I would spend a term of no less than three months.
On that same fateful day known as the silver jubilee, the media fell in love with the Sex Pistols, with the money they could potentially make, with the power they could potentially wield. That day, the Daily Mirror placed our portrait of the Queen – a modified version of the famous Cecil Beaton photograph with a safety-pin pierced through her nose – on its cover. The official portrait was relegated to page 3. The media preferred to love ours instead.
The media’s innocence and virginal attitude at that time seemed to provide us with the power of God or government or both. And with it, the ability to change the way people thought about things. It made me feel reasonable when demanding the impossible. And thereafter, it suddenly became forbidden to forbid.
Pop culture had made a difference. Punk rock’s musical revolution was open to everyone. You didn’t need to have the necessary skills to compete with your forebears. The old stars were driven back to hide in their country houses. It was a do-it-yourself phenomenon. For a moment everybody was an artist. The culture had been de-mystified. Its old properties, once controlled and considered important by an industry, were now worthless. It was a blow against the commodification and the pop brands that purported to have control of the culture. Punk rock fans didn’t need to buy anything – they just had to be . This was the most frightening idea of all for the record industry. They were simply out of control.
That week of the silver jubilee, it was nearly impossible to buy the record. It couldn’t be purchased in the majority of high street stores. It couldn’t be heard on the radio, except on rare occasions as a news item. The record was banned from advertising itself. The commercial TV stations refused to accept our homemade ads. London Transport refused to allow our posters on the Underground. Yet the record was undoubtedly No 1. The national charts were falsified by the record industry itself. A Rod Stewart track was put at No 1, even though ‘God Save the Queen’, sold by the same record distributors, was outselling it by two to one. How did it ever achieve such status? This was against all normal marketing rules. It broke with such traditions and clear economic values. The consumer was an alien that they didn’t understand.
When my young son, Joseph CorrÃ©, went to WH Smith and looked up at that store’s own record chart, he saw just a blank mark at the number one spot and asked the saleslady what was the No 1 record. She replied, ‘We don’t sell that record here.’ He didn’t understand. ‘But why have you got a blank spot? Isn’t the No 1 record ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols?” ‘We don’t wish to talk about it.’
The day after the silver jubilee, everything in the media was under the critical eye of the new generation. The silver jubilee was a turning point, a moment whose impact is still felt today. Because it opened up the door to all the disenfranchised – the young, the everyday common outlaw. The culture had been reclaimed by them. Anything seemed possible after that. This generation of punk rockers responded to an irresistible urge to choose between love and creation. They chose creation. Instead of getting married and settling down in a normal respectable job, they sought adventure, provocation, and with it, to change life. All independent minds blossomed. Independent film companies, independent record companies, independent TV companies were born. Advertising changed to accommodate the new mood – ‘less is more’, ‘small is cool’.
Anti-fashion had become the last repository of the marvellous – and all its designers, the last possessors of the wand of Cinderella’s fairy godmother. With my partner at the time, I was thrilled at how our anti-fashion ideas (the bondage trouser, the ‘God Save the Queen’ T-shirt, rubber skirts) created a whole new feeling; clothes created not to sell. Things new made to look frighteningly old-fashioned became an idea, a statement of intent and not a product. A useful tool to create debate. This fed into a desire never to return to normality again. Does passion end in fashion? Or does fashion end in passion?
Shopping today has become the new cultural ideal and occupation of the planet. Shopping is art. Everyone has become their own curator. The church back in the Middle Ages sold salvation; sold the ability for people to feel they didn’t have to acquire things. Later, the museum replaced the church. And then, the department store replaced the museum. There is a new word to describe this phenomenon: ‘Shoppertainment’. Shoppertainment is the satisfaction you get when you go shopping. The entertainment is not in the spending, but when you get home and believe that in shopping, you have acquired self-knowledge, salvation, fulfilled your desires and dreams. Of course this sense does not last. So you go back to the shops the next day and spend more.
The same ‘God Save The Queen’ T-shirts sold back then in Sex, my shop in the King’s Road in Chelsea, are today sold in stores in Beverly Hills. Twenty-five years on they appear on the backs of Kate Moss and Lauren Hutton, photographed in Vogue. It could be said that it’s now the antithesis of what it originally stood for, and its imaging inadvertently could be said to help promote the brand, the royal family, the ‘Firm’ (as the Duke of Edinburgh is so fond of saying – actually a term often used to describe a criminal gang), the Queen.
The royal family is a story about hypocrisy and at the same time, a story about England. The royal family is a celebrity brand with an immense PR machine behind it. It’s just another business, except we pay for it and they profit by it. A neat trick. However, the royal family is England’s biggest show business act. They are people who are brought up to a certain way of life, who are given the means to extend their knowledge and to extend their understanding. But they are not given the opportunity to use their minds in connection with it. They are a brilliant metaphor for all that is pretentious, deluded, selfish and insincere about England. They made me finally face the fact that I had to be a rebel in this society – to be an outsider – with all of the penalties this would entail, or else accept the hypocrisy of England and its monarchy.
On golden jubilee day, will those TV cameras, acting as part of some Ridley Scott production and image-making apparatus, eventually burn the Queen out? Maybe the media will top itself and ultimately become responsible for turning the monarchy and its golden jubilee celebration into simply another super-expensive beer commercial for fascism? And include the rest of us as unpaid extras on the most expensive theme park on the planet. This is show business: Paul, Mick and all will no doubt be there for Ma’am.
I was forced to stand in line in the streets at the Queen’s coronation in 1953. I waved a flag as she went past in her golden carriage. I think then a great deal of the population thought the Queen had been chosen by God. And in those days, if you didn’t believe in God, God help you. We were taught, of course, that England was not just this tiny little island, this muddy hole, but all of this candy-coloured pink mass across the globe. The country was still a Christian land. The Union Jack, the Queen, the Government, and the Church of England were the pillars of all our thinking and supposed wisdom. You were made to feel culturally moribund without such beliefs.
Fifty years on, how many people in England actually believe in God? If you break that into an educated population, what percentage actually believes in a personal god? In an impersonal god? Or a force that is necessarily good? How many people go to church? And yet, everything connected with our establishment remains based on an assumption of belief – swearing on the Bible, ‘So help me God’. What about all the people who don’t believe in it, who are paying for it, who still accept it? These are encumbrances which damn few people have the will to reject. The alternative is to encourage people to be willing to take the consequences of standing up as individuals. Not saying ‘I can’t take up a position on this because I don’t know enough’ but ‘I do take up a position because I just know all of this isn’t true. It hasn’t a function at all.’
Yet last week Johnny Rotten, the Sex Pistols’ singer, said he had lobbied the palace to perform for the Queen at her golden jubilee party, that he was never ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ monarchy and that while we’ve got a monarchical system it might as well ‘work properly’. Then there’s my former partner Vivenne Westwood, who has accepted both an OBE and a Queen’s Award, and now thinks the monarch is great. This confuses me. I don’t understand how their views could have changed so much. I still feel much the same as I did in 1977. There are two words that might sum up the oppositions of our culture today. One is ‘authenticity’ and the other is ‘karaoke’. Karaoke is miming the words of others. It is a life by proxy, liberated by hindsight, unencumbered by the messy process of creativity. And not having to take responsibility from the moment its performance ends. I feel we live today in a karaoke world. You might say Tony Blair is our first karaoke Prime Minister.
There is, however, a counterpoint to all of this – an unquestionable desire and thirst for the authentic. What is it? Where can we find it? I found it that silver jubilee day on the Thames: those punk rockers strung out on the bridges of London, those ‘God Save The Queen’ T-shirts, that Daily Mirror front page, that hysterical laughter in front of the judge after my night in jail, those were all part of an attitude that expressed itself in something that could best be described as real – something that was authentic.