God Save The Queen: The Infamous Sex Pistols’ 1977 Boat Trip Down The River Thames.
Above Photo: Sid Vicious on the Silver Jubilee Boat gig on the River Thames, passing Tower Bridge.
I recently read an excellent eyewitness account by Jon Savage of the Sex Pistols’ Silver Jubilee boat trip down the River Thames in London, timed to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year in 1977. First published in British music paper Sounds, I have edited it below and added photos of the Sex Pistols and others on the boat trip, for illustration.
“Before the police came, it was a great party. Make that a capital G.
After an hour of waiting, the boat – the Queen Elizabeth – left Charing Cross Pier at 6.30, and, after a moment’s hesitation, decided to head downstream.
Begins very restrained – too too vous êtes, but come Rotherhithe, some booze and more food, and everyone gets mellow, if such a thing is possible. I mean it’s a nice evening (albeit a bit chilly) and there’s space all around instead of tower blocks, so why be surprised?
The disparate crowd mixes surprisingly well – the only jarring note in fact is the refusal of the bar to serve doubles … never know what these notorious punk rockers might get up to.
Downstream, we turn as a banner is unfurled along the length of the boat – red on yellow, it proclaims proudly “Queen Elizabeth: the new single by the Sex Pistols, God Save The Queen”, or something similar, really low profile.
Inside, the conversation’s covering some pretty recherché territory, but, hey, upstairs, in the covered area the tapes start rolling. Dance. Great selection – moving from arcane dub to the Ramones thru Paul Revere and the Raiders. More boozing/dancing/yammering – general party patter – but expectation is heightened. They have to start playing outside the Houses of Parliament.
We repass under Tower Bridge, picking up a police boat on the way – sniff sniff sussy sussy – but it falls behind: meanwhile Jordan’s telling me about this group she’s managing called [Adam and] the Ants. Upstream it gets chillier – most take refuge in the downstairs bar (big boat this), ostensibly for a film that never happens. There’s no pretence now: we’re waiting.
More turns (Battersea funfair, for the detail-obsessed) and it’s home run time.
The Pistols take the “stage” – at the back of the raised covered area: the conditions are appalling, and it’s amazing that any sort of sound comes out. The main one is feedback – this delays their start and is never fully resolved. Any blasé traces are swept away – pulses race/everyone rushed to be the front. Pure mania.
Rotten gives up on losing the feedback and the band slams into Anarchy, right on cue with the Houses of Parliament. A great moment. It’s like they’ve been uncaged – the frustration in not being able to play bursts into total energy and attack. Rotten’s so close all you can see is a snarling mouth and wild eyes, framed by red spikes.
By now the atmosphere is electric/heart thumps too hard/people pressing, swaying – it’s like they have to play to blast them away. They’re also playing for their/our lives – during Pretty Vacant and the next song, two police boats start moving around in earnest.
Now all adrenalin is flat out do it do it do it now now now NOW – suddenly in I Wanna Be Me they get inspired and take off, No Fun SCREAMED out as the police boats move in for the kill is one of the best rock’n’roll moments EVER. I mean EVER. (Think about that).
Shit, suddenly we’re in the dock ‘n’ the power’s off and Paul Cook’s beating the hell out of the drums ‘n’ there are all those police and WHAT’S HAPPENING and what the fuck IS this …
Suddenly no more party. Suddenly a lot of police on the quay. Altercations begin. Nobody wants to leave. The police want us to leave. So does the owner. The owner can terminate the contract of hire at any time. Small print, baby.
Richard Branson loses his £500. Richard Branson doesn’t want to leave. Tension. Indecision. People trickle off, slowly, after a half an hour. Most stay on. More police. The police move on the boat. People move off. Nothing happens, bar a bit of pushing and shoving on either side.
Someone gets nicked. Now things start getting crazy. People are aided up the long gangway. Explosion of movement. Fear. Confusion. Flash/people running/”Get ‘im”/crying faces/spin around/black mariahs /each for himself/quick spurts of movement/hate/”You’re shit”. And there’s 11 people in the mariahs and we’re on the pavement wondering what’s been happening. Very quick.
We leave. We go to Bow Street police station. No message. No bail. No press. No help.
Some jubilee. But look: I mean McLaren’s brilliant at the Theatre of Provocation, didn’t he set all this up? To an extent. Provocation, yes; incitement, no. OK, I mean all of us were expecting SOME interference, let’s be frank – but not such an emotional overreaction by the police.
The charges run like this (approximately): Malcolm McLaren/”Using Insulting words likely to provoke a breach of the peace”; Vivien Westwood/”Obstructing a policeman”; Chris Walsh/”Obstruction”; Jose Esquibel/”Threatening behaviour”; Jamie Reid (the artist who put a safety pin through the Queen’s lip and obliterated her portrait with “blackmail lettering” on the God Save The Queen record cover) /”Assault”. All denied the charges, and were released on bail.”
I also read a few short accounts of people who were there, and added a couple below.
Tony Parsons, author and journalist, then on NME: Sid [Vicious, the band’s bassist] looked fantastic here. I remember offering him a line that night, but he didn’t want any – ironic considering what happened. He had lovely manners though: “Thank you for offering”, as if I’d offered him a cup of Earl Grey. But John Lydon [aka Johnny Rotten] was built for that moment.
Allan Jones, editor of Uncut, then onMelody Maker: Shortly before the Pistols played, police boats started circling us as we approached Parliament. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else at that moment. The band started with “Anarchy in the UK”, followed by “God Save the Queen”, “No Feelings”, “Pretty Vacant”, and when the power was pulled Rotten was screaming “No Fun”.
Peter York, author and journalist: Clever young Richard Branson thought: “I don’t know what this punk thing is about, but there’s some money in it.”
I felt at the time that these sweet kids were wildly exaggerating punk’s importance and the idea of repression and police brutality and all that. I’m fascinated by Malcolm, but what would be the point of being a situationist, as he was, if you couldn’t get yourself arrested? I was certainly not aiming to get arrested.
Tony Parsons: Malcolm saw the whole thing as performance art, an event. It was about baiting the establishment until it howled. There were a lot of hippies on the boat, all these sweet people from Virgin. There wasn’t actually a huge divide between hippies and punks back then that we made out there was. Both groups were determined that they were going to change the way society was ordered, but both wanted to do it while getting absolutely shitfaced.
Tony Parsons: Lydon and I shared a gramme of amphetamine just before the above picture was taken. I think he never looked better than in this photograph. You get a kind of vampiric beauty if you take that much speed, an unearthly glamour. The downside is that you can’t sleep for 72 hours. He was a glutton for his chemicals. I can’t pretend I knew him well, but that evening was the first long conversation we had; the fact that I had a big bag of white powder was purely coincidental. We got through it together and then he was off. He could be a real twat in all honesty. He was more of a diva than Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. He was like bloody Judy Garland, throwing a complete tantrum because some poor photographer from Paris got a bit too close.
Jon Savage: I think it had got to Lydon by this stage. If you think of the pressure that was on those four young men: Sid was only 20, they hadn’t been to college. They were thrown into this situation and weren’t being particularly well looked after by McLaren. Imagine being stuck on a boat for three hours with people you don’t like, taking speed, the weather is shit and police are surrounding you – it must have been an absolute nightmare. But they gave voice to what a lot of us were feeling – that England was dreaming.
Allan Jones: When the boat was returned to the pier later that evening, you could feel the seething resentment coming off the police ranks. I remember ranks of police were thundering up the gangplank. McLaren stumbled and got to his feet and rather dramatically raised a clenched fist and shouted: “You fucking fascist bastards”, at which point he was dragged off, beaten up, arrested and thrown in a police van.
Tony Parsons: We were all surprised at just how rough the police were when they came on board. So after a token protest, we all went quietly into the night. Apart from McLaren, who came down the gangplank screaming in their faces. The police took him to one side and gave him the worst beating I’ve ever seen anybody given; there must have been about a dozen coppers on top of him. The only thing that saved him was the fact that there were so many of them trying to get at him. I went down to Bow Street nick with Jon Savage. I don’t know quite what we were expecting to do; we had a vague plan of busting them out – punk prison break! I wasn’t going to be having an early night. There was a lot of violence that evening. It was our Altamont. Something beautiful that turned into something incredibly ugly.