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When the Sex Pistols Had a Capitol Riot of Their Own


Johnny "Rotten" Lydon, image borrowed from Rolling Stone here: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/johnny-rotten-punk-art-819119/


I've been reading John Lydon's memoir, Rotten, off and on for the last little while. Something he said is, I think, relevant given the last four years of the Trump administration. I'll paraphrase as I didn't think to highlight the thing when I read it, but in essence, he said that scandals in America were about sex while scandals in England were about politics. The last four years of Trump have reversed that as his base completely ignored his sexual antics and rose up in arms whenever anyone tried to attack him politically. Almost forty-five years ago the Sex Pistols made such an attack on the monarchy and, just like Mitt Romney after voting to remove Trump in the Senate, were vilified by a people who couldn't separate their identities from an institution that didn't care about them.


For Lydon, lead singer of The Sex Pistols, his political commentary proved dangerous. In May of 1977, the Pistols released their second single, "God Save the Queen." And because I'm posting this on social media and not academically, I'll quote the whole thing to give you an idea of how political it actually was (and the official music video appears below the lyrics).


God save the queen

The fascist regime

They made you a moron

A potential H bomb

God save the queen

She's not a human being and

There's no future

And England's dreaming

Don't be told what you want

Don't be told what you need

There's no future

No future

No future for you

God save the queen

We mean it man

We love our queen

God saves

God save the queen

'Cause tourists are money

And our figurehead

Is not what she seems

Oh God save history

God save your mad parade

Oh Lord God have mercy

All crimes are paid

Oh when there's no future

How can there be sin

We're the flowers

In the dustbin

We're the poison

In your human machine

We're the future

Your future

God save the queen

We mean it man

We love our queen

God saves

God save the queen

We mean it man

There's no future

In England's dreaming

God save the queen

No future

No future

No future for you

No future

No future

No future for me

No future

No future

No future for you



If that weren't enough, a month later the band chartered a boat and sailed it on the River Thames during the Queen's Jubilee with the intention of playing the song for the crowd of boats and loyal subjects gathered to celebrate the queen. Before they could play the song, however, the police descended on the boat and arrested the band and several members of their entourage. It was just the beginning of England's overreaction to a new kind of music that not only threatened the music establishment but the political one as well.



(The Sex Pistols on a boat in the Thames where they attempted to sing "God Save the Queen" during the Queen's Jubilee celebration. Got this from a Tweet from Twitter by @DannyDutch


One incident was described by Bob Gruen:

Once I was in a bar called the Speakeasy with Steve Jones and Johnny Rotten. Steve and I went into the bathroom, into the stall to smoke something. We could hear two people washing their hands and talking. Since this was a rock star bar full of musicians, I assumed the artists at least got along with each other and had a sense of free thought. But these guys were talking about how angry they were and how much they hated the Sex Pistols because they’d insulted the queen. I couldn’t believe it. Steve and I were listening to all this anger. I didn’t get it at all. That’s when I felt like a tourist. Musicians angry at a band because they sang a song against the queen? I guess Steve had a better idea of what was going on. Afterward we went back out into the bar and were drinking beer out of these big, heavy beer mugs. To me, it was still just a bar full of musicians, but Steve was aware of the undercurrent. Johnny Rotten was a couple of feet away from us talking to somebody. All of a sudden Steve said, “Get down, there’s gonna be a fight.” Just as we ducked under the edge of the bar, every glass in the place went flying in the air. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. From every direction, heavy beer glasses came crashing down on us, smashing against the walls and pillars of the bar. Within seconds the place was ankle deep in broken glass. I asked, “What the fuck was that for?” Steve answered, “Some people don’t like us.”

In another incident, during the recording sessions of their only album, John Lydon, Bill Price, and a producer on the album ducked out to a nearby pub. On their way back they were attacked by a mob of a dozen men who chased them to their car. The mob broke the windshield and windows and stabbed Lydon in the hand with a knife and in the leg with a stiletto. The assault permanently disabled his left hand. The attack occurred because of the band's song and the fact that it attacked the monarchy. Apparently, it was a problem to attack the monarchy in 1970s England.


And for the last four years in America, this same attitude has prevailed. Under the Trump administration, his followers have felt it acceptable to perpetrate violence against those who would criticize or question his righteousness. Aside from being a terrible state of affairs, it is ridiculous that anyone can essentially deify a political leader, no matter what country they're in. That's why I share the story of The Sex Pistols and "God Save the Queen" because the attack on the capitol just a couple of weeks ago was the zenith of this attitude of political violence and ultimately as misguided and foolish as England's reaction to an upstart band who said some naughty things about an old woman.


Thankfully, Trump is no longer in power and we can begin to return to some semblance of normalcy. Maybe Joe Biden will paw some poor intern and leave a stain on her dress so that Republicans can get back to what they're good at: moral outrage.


(I wrote this the day before the inauguration and still harbored thought about the damage done to the country by the polarization of politics under Trump. I have had a few days more to think on it and though I am less concerned about Trump than I have been, I still worry that mob reactions or overreactions similar to those we saw in Trump's America and the incident I described above occur far too frequently. I can only hope that new leadership can begin to repair the long-developing rabidity of the hoi polloi. I don't hope that people will agree, only that they will return to the forms of civility that have occasionally graced the political context. But even then, I may be overly optimistic. Even the Founders were so opposed to contrary ideas that they nearly came to blows several times, and secession was bandied about as a possibility at least twice before the Civil War. Perhaps the proper hope, then, is not a return to former tolerance, but the development of a new tolerance and a willingness to reason and converse without insult and emotional savagery. But for all the hope I place in Biden and Harris, I don't think they have enough magic within them to do that, though I wouldn't be surprised if they walk on water.)

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