God shave the queen

Art can become virtuously official or fiercely transgressive. We can attest to this with regard to musical and graphic works created around the figure of the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II of England.

In 1974, the group Queen offered a version of “God Save the Queen”, the English national anthem, performed by its guitarist Brian May. From then on, they used it at the end of their concerts to say goodbye to the public. A patriotic gesture, not at all subversive, which ended up being official to the point that, in 2002, on the fiftieth anniversary of Elizabeth’s reign, Brian May was climbed onto the roof of Buckingham Palace to play in honor of his Majesty.

In 1977, on the other hand, the group Sex Pistols released a song titled “God Save the Queen”, just like the anthem, but with radically different lyrics. Because where the English anthem proclaims: “God save our gracious queen, / Long live our noble queen. / God save the queen, / make her victorious / happy and glorious”, the song of the Pistols, composed by their vocalist Johnny Rotten, screams: “God save the queen, / the fascist regime. / They make you an idiot, / a potential atomic bomb”, to add next: “God save the queen, / she is not a human being, / and there is no future / in the dream of England. […] There’s no future. / There’s no future. / There is no future for you. / There’s no future. / There’s no future. / There is no future for me.”

About the time the song appeared, Rotten commented: “England in the 1970s was very depressing. It was completely run down, there was rubbish in the streets, total unemployment, practically everyone on strike. They educated people in a system that made it very clear to you that if you came from the wrong place you had no hope and no job prospects. Out of all that came me and the Sex Pistols and a bunch of copycat jerks after us.”

In the words of Ángel Perea, my top musical adviser, this flagship song of the most genuine British punk “is a bitter irony of explicit critical aggression against the decadent empire. Perhaps the simplest, most direct and treacherous criticism ever written in a popular song. In concerts, Rotten took his parody of the anthem to the extreme by altering the pronunciation of “God Save the Queen” (God save the queen”) by “God Shave the Queen” (“God shave the queen”).

This rabid countercultural onslaught was not limited to the musical plane. To design the single’s cover, artist Jamie Reid dedicated himself to disrupting a portrait of the queen that would become one of the most iconic and irreverent images of the 20th century. Using a limp English flag as a background, Reid intervened her Elizabeth II face by blindfolding her with the song title and gagged her mouth with the name of the group.

The reactions were swift. Offended by the song’s lyrics and sleeve design, Virgin Records workers refused to press the record. When it finally appeared, it sparked heated protests, and despite many stores refusing to carry it, 150,000 copies were sold within ten days. Broadcasters refused to broadcast it, making it, according to The Guardian, “the most censored recording in the UK”. Johnny Rotten responded to the attacks by saying, “You don’t write a song like ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English. You write a song like that because you love them and you’re tired of being mistreated.”

The oppositional art of the Sex Pistols and their graphic designer contrasts with the antiseptic and glamorous adoption of the patriotic symbols that Queen made both in her shield and in her instrumental version of the English anthem. Years later, the same thing would happen with the stylized serigraphs that Andy Warhol made in 1985 with the due consent of the queen.

In May of this year, months before Isabel’s death, in a television interview, Rotten pointed out about her devastating composition: “’God Save the Queen’ it is an anti-monarchist song, but not a misanthrope. Everyone thinks that I am against the royal family as human beings. I’m not. Actually, I’m very proud of the queen for surviving and doing so well. I just think if my tax money is being used to support this system, I should have a say in how it’s spent.”

On September 9, the day after the queen died, Rotten posted on his Twitter account: “Rest in peace, Queen Elizabeth II. May she be victorious.”, accompanying her trill with the photo of the queen intact, without the vandalization of the 1977 disc. Regarding the future of English royalty without the presence of Elizabeth, she had already said: “I think it will be, possibly, the end of the monarchy, because Prince Charles will not be able to replace her. We’re talking about a guy who puts Pink Floyd on his crops.”

The measured tone of the rotten Rotten, added to the sorrowful condolences of English groups such as Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Def Leppard and Judas Priest, along with those of figures such as Mick Jagger, Elton John, Billy Idol and Jon Bon Jovi -who came to dismissing the queen as “second mother” and “the nation’s dearest grandmother” – makes these good bad boys look like a softened combo.

Or it will be a sign that the rich also cry, and that veteran punkers, rockers and metalheads also have their hearts.

God shave the queen