I have a suspicion that a certain generation of music writers tend to romanticise the impact of punk rock just a little. I can’t comment from a personal perspective myself, being of slightly more recent vintage, but the notion that acts like the Sex Pistols marked a wholesale revolution which changed the entire music industry, and indeed fashion and musical tastes, overnight doesn’t really hold water. Maybe in London it was a genuinely exciting new musical movement which inspired a new generation of writers and wannabe musicians, but you suspect the impact in the rest of the country was rather less spectacular.
The story of the Sex Pistols and their brief musical career is a fascinating tale to read and one which has given rise to a number of legends over the years (the fate of Sid Vicious’ ashes anyone?), but one which keeps rearing its head time and time again is the alleged chart-rigging which went on over their biggest hit single God Save The Queen. Not chart-rigging to inflate its reported sales, oh no. In this case, so the story goes, so scandalised were the powers that be at the prospect of such a disrespectful record going to Number One during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee week that they contrived to downplay its sales, resulting in the single charting at a much more respectful Number 2. Thus was the nation’s dignity saved. Or something.
Over the years this apparent injustice (fuelled by the likes of John Lydon and even their then label boss Richard Branson who are both convinced it took place) has become something of a cause celebre, a wrong that should somehow at some point be righted – giving the Sex Pistols the Number One single the establishment felt they shouldn’t have back in the day.
Hence upon the occasion of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, God Save The Queen was re-released in a blaze of publicity, suggesting that 25 years on the chance was upon the nation to send it to the top of the charts where it surely rightly belonged. Sadly for them, the call went unheeded although the single did reach a not totally disrespectful Number 15. Five years later the issue reared its head again, and a plot to organise a mass buy-in of the record to coincide with its 30th anniversary in 2007 became one of the earliest examples of a pointless chart campaign. The NME at the time were all over it, urging every one of their readers to download the track just to see what would happen. Articles to this effect are still on their website:
Sadly for all those involved the idea had even fewer legs than it did five years earlier, and this apparently spontaneous re-issue of God Save The Queen limped to Number 42 and everyone quietly forgot about it.
This week it may not have escaped your attention that it is the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and quelle surprise once again there is talk of how we now have the opportunity to right a wrong and give the Sex Pistols the Number One single they were denied back in the day. To no great surprise (except possibly to the excited individuals fruitlessly urging their followers forward on the official Facebook group created for the occasion) this attempt is destined to go the same way as all the others, and you will find little trace of God Save The Queen in any midweek sales flashes. Quite simply nobody is bothered. Even John Lydon, enthusiastic cheerleader for the 2002 re-release is angrily distancing himself from the fad this time around. He has a new PiL album to promote after all.
Personally I was always slightly dubious about the provenance of the tale. You would think after all this time somebody working behind the scenes would have stepped forward and admitted: “yes, I conspired to prevent the Sex Pistols making Number One to prevent the Queen being embarrassed”. Yet no such confession has ever been forthcoming. On the occasion of the 2002 re-issue of the single, I wrote a lengthy piece as part of the dotmusic chart commentary, stating:
To be honest this conspiracy theory is not something I've ever really subscribed to. Malcolm McLaren has admitted on several occasions that just about everything the Sex Pistols did was 90% hype, and being "cheated" out of a Number One single was a wonderful story with which to make his charges seem like social outcasts and to guarantee even more headlines. It is entirely possible that the Sex Pistols did indeed outsell Rod that week but it must be remembered that this was in an age when the singles chart was based on a sample of 200 or so selected shops each week and that the data was collected by the assistants manually noting in a diary which records they had sold. The system could and indeed was widely abused and for every establishment conspiracy against the Sex Pistols there were probably countless other examples of acts being penalised because the teenager working the till on a Saturday wasn't going to bother writing down the sales for acts he hated. Indeed I often wonder how it was that a single which could not be heard on radio or TV and which in some towns was impossible to even purchase actually managed to hit the survey enough times to be listed even as the Number 2 single.
It is amusing to note the almost unceasing efforts people go to to keep the conspiracy theory alive. The Wikipedia page for the single takes time to note a page on the BBC News website about the cover of the single being ranked as one of the most memorable of its era which states blandly that the single “topped the charts despite being banned”, with the writers of the page wondering if this isn’t a tacit admission that the fix was on:
In 2001 in a unrelated article about the best record covers of all time, the BBC website published the following "God Save The Queen reached number one in the UK in 1977 despite being banned by the BBC and marked a defining moment in the punk revolution". There has been no official statement from the BBC (before or after this article was written) regarding this admission and thus the issue as to whether the song did make it to the top of the British charts still remains unresolved.
I mean Jesus wept, it is a line in an ineptly researched throwaway archive piece on a news website, the author of the article almost certainly assuming that the single was a chart-topper without bothering to check. Yet somehow this is a CLUE and is worth noting.
As I mentioned in my own archive piece above, I’ve often marvelled at just how it was that the single even made Number 2 given that most people couldn’t hear it and many shops refused to stock it altogether. A single that was never on the radio and which was impossible to buy making Number 2? That was surely the biggest fix of all. Even aside from that, given that the idea was apparently to avoid the scandal of such a seditious piece of music being Number One at the point the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, quite how the single being one place below made it any better has never been made clear. Surely a full establishment suppression of the track would have involved contriving to remove it from the charts altogether. Would that not have made more sense?
Believe it or not, a couple of years ago some enterprising researchers did uncover the truth. During a brief period when the BPI were more than happy to let anyone who asked nicely enough scour through their archives stored in a cupboard under the stairs, the officially audited sales reports for the week in question in 1977 were dug out. They confirmed clearly and unequivocally that I Don’t Want To Talk About It by Rod Stewart did indeed sell substantially more copies than God Save The Queen. There was no fix, no conspiracy and no real injustice. The Sex Pistols simply lost the sales race, nothing more.
You will notice that all of the recent attempts to right the wrong have had something in common – they seem to conveniently coincide with a re-release of the single and re-promotion of the Sex Pistols’ well-worn back catalogue. 2012 is no different and indeed the “Sex Pistols For Diamond Jubilee No.1” Facebook page points fans not only towards a newly available live version of the single but also a specially limited edition physical version of the track which had been brought out to commemorate. The whole thing has the air of a ham-fisted attempt by Universal Music themselves to astroturf some demand for a still lucrative bit of back catalogue. It couldn’t possibly be that the whole conspiracy tale is indeed a ruse to ensure that the legend of the Pistols continues to run, way beyond their music actually having any relevance to anyone under the age of 40.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
ADDENDUM: For an even more forensic take on the God Save The Queen myth, and one which makes use of the statistics referenced in the forum post detailed in the comments below, check out the post on the Yes It's Number One blog which deals with this particular moment in music history.