If the death of Queen Elizabeth has reminded punks around the world of anything, it’s that John Lydon remains one of the all-time most fascinating, and most fascinatingly misunderstood, characters in the long history of rock ’n’ roll.
Over the past week, the former Johnny Rotten has shocked more than one royalist with his reaction to the passing of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary—aka Elizabeth II—on September 8.
Today, the former Sex Pistol took to Twitter to denounce his former bandmates for attempting to “cash in” on the Queen’s death by green-lighting the use of “God Save the Queen” to various, um, "people". Apologies if the word “people” is a little vague—Lydon doesn’t exactly provide a laundry list of the outlets and organizations that have been given permission to use the Sex Pistols’ most famous song. And the surviving Sex Pistols have issued a statement suggest they have zero idea what he’s talking about.
But we’ll get back to that in a second.
Because folks have historically had trouble thinking—especially when the easy go-to is immediate, blind outrage—the world has long embraced the image forged for Lydon during his brief but brilliant run as Johnny Rotten. Namely, that of a destroy-everything misanthrope whose hatred for everything started with corporate record labels, clueless tourists, Bill Grundy, flared pants, Pink Floyd in particular and hippies in general, Elvis Presley, the Clash, and possibly your mum, dad, and grandmum. At the top of his list, the narrative went, was the Queen, the major case to support that being the Sex Pistols nothing-short-of-fucking-incendiary “God the Save the Queen”.
If only more people—especially those who quickly moved to have it banned from the charts, airwaves, and elementary-school dances—had paid more attention to the lyrics. Ask yourself what Lydon was really trying to say when he was sneering lines like “God save the queen/The fascist regime/They made you a moron/A potential H bomb”.
For those who failed Basic English Comprehension, note that “They” made you a moron, not “she”. Which didn’t stop Lydon from being hunted down and beaten on the streets by Queen-loving monarchists back when the Sex Pistols where the most controversial band in the world. (In fairness, some of the confusion about the message of “God Save the Queen” might have stemmed from the line “She ain’t no human being”. But really, if you think about it, who amongst us hasn’t had days where our behaviour might charitably be described as “less-than-subhuman”. Like the rest of us, the Queen was only human, except on the bad days.)
What’s long been fascinating about Lydon is the way that he’s been too clever to play the part that made him famous.
Ten minutes or so after the Sex Pistols first broke up he was back to being John Lydon, showing open disdain for the spiky, dyed, and dirty punks who once worshipped him, and veering off into a whole new musical world with the often-baffling Public Image Ltd.
These days, he can be found happily pimping Country Life butter in TV commercials, praising Donald Trump, and proudly declaring himself the exact opposite of whatever being “woke” is this week.
Don’t understand where he’s coming from? Well then, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok might have contributed to making you a moron, but they aren’t solely responsible. Unfortunately someone’s always in the washroom when God’s handing out brains.
Since the death of the Queen Lydon’s been busy shocking everyone who expected him to be pogo-dancing on the coffin of England’s much-loved monarch.
Initial news of her death had him taking to Twitter to post the Queen Elizabeth photo used on the cover of the Pistols “God Save the Queen” seven-inch. But, respectfully, it wasn’t the safety-pin-studded version, but instead the undeniably regal original, accompanied by a solemn and seemingly heartfelt: “Rest in Peace Queen Elizabeth II. Send her victorious. From all at johnlydon.com.” Not very punk. And, because of that, punk as fuck.
In case you still don’t get it, flash back to past Lydon interviews. Earlier this year he wrote in a The Times editorial: ““I’ve got no animosity against any one of the royal family. Never did. It’s the institution of it that bothers me and the assumption that I’m to pay for that. There’s where I draw the line.”
Back in 2017 he told the Quietus that the "God Save the Queen" was “about a political situation and the demand for obedience to a monarchy I don’t believe in. But that’s a human being and I would sorely miss her as a human being on planet Earth.”
As for where “God Save the Queen” has been popping up this week, you’ve likely heard it on newscasts that have used it to explain how Elizabeth II's cultural impact spanned different cultures and subcultures.
The remaining Sex Pistols haven’t been completely silent on her passing, as evidenced by this somewhat non-committal Steve Jones tweet:
And this more biting one from founding bassist Glen Matlock:
But as for how the Sex Pistols have “cashed in” on the Queen’s passing, the group said this is a statement to Deadline: “We cannot understand what he would be referring to. Other than a couple requests for use of imagery or audio in news reports on The Queen and her impact on culture, there’s nothing new relating to ‘God Save The Queen’ being promoted or released in any way.”
One supposes Lydon could just phone up and ask Matlock, Jones, or Pistols' drummer Paul Cook for a full rundown of what they've been greenlighting, except he’s been in an extended war with them over the Danny Boyle mini-series Pistol. (Three of the Sex Pistols wanted the music used, Lydon didn’t, with a lawsuit ruling in favour of the majority.)
Ultimately, who gives a shit if they’ve used it nowhere, or okayed everywhere from musical bobbleheads to Queen-themed singing sympathy cards.
What really matters is that the Rotten has managed to shock us—or make that some us—yet again. God save the King. And, yes, we mean it, man.