WHY IS THAT: God save the Queen’s birthday blowout
Written by Adam Bryce
We look at the history and influence behind some of the most important parts of contemporary culture, one thing at a time. First up, the Queen.
Today, in New Zealand, we celebrate the Queen’s birthday. A public holiday where Kiwis, as part of the commonwealth, join the party for the leader of the monarch. Notably, today is not Queen Elizabeth II’s date of birth but the first Monday of June is nominated due to the fact that, if a British monarch has a birthday that doesn’t fall in the UK summer months, they can have a second official birthday (nice for some).
As with most commemorative holidays these days, the history falls a distant second to the retail industry’s monopoly of the day to discount their goods. But, you won’t find INDEX celebrating the Queen in particular either nor her fashion sense? (You’ll have to find that elsewhere). Instead, we’d rather delve into a more interesting topic Queen-related sidestep and this is the Sex Pistols’ iconic God Save the Queen album cover artwork.
Let’s rewind to 1977.
The Sex Pistols had just released the controversial song ‘God Save the Queen’. They were the at the height of their popularity; the kings of punk in a time when England’s youth were desperately seeking change in the way the country was being run. Its class system, from the monarch down to the working class, was, for the first time, being threatened and the Sex Pistols, managed by Malcolm McLaren, were a global symbol of the movement.
Punk music had been around since the 60s and the genre started to gain momentum in early 70s New York. However, it was under the influence of McLaren, that the punk rock scene really began to take hold and spread at a rapid rate the world over.
In late 60s London, McLaren met a teacher by the name of Vivienne Westwood and the two fell in love, moved into a council flat together and had a son (who, incidentally, went on to found luxury lingerie brand, Agent Provocateur).
Westwood eventually left her job and began to sew clothes that McLaren had designed with the underlying philosophy of creating shock and inspiring change. Eventually, they opened a bricks and mortar under the moniker, SEX, and sold their garments to an eager punk public. The store, still heralded as one of the most important institutions in the history of fashion, was much more than a retail outlet, it was an integral hub for the earliest members of London punk.
And so, with Johnny Rotten (lead singer of the Sex Pistols) and his bandmates all adorning clothing created by McLaren and Westwood, SEX simply became a global phenomenon. Inspiring an entire generation and still, to this day, continuing to inspire much of what is being designed in 2020.
Prior to the release of God Save the Queen, a song which is said to be written out of the band’s love for England but hatred of the way the monarchy were holding the country back from progression, McLaren commissioned artist and anarchist, Jamie Reid, to create the album cover’s artwork. At the time, Reid was running a radical political magazine named Suburban Press and McLaren was a firm fan due to their shared views on society.
Reid came to the party and crafted an anti-establishment visual using a portrait of Her Majesty photographed by Cecil Beaton — a fashion, portrait and war photographer, and best known for his elegant photos of high society (hence Elizabeth). The artwork didn’t only feature full bleed on the record sleeve, but with McLaren’s wily ways, made its way onto t-shirts made by Westwood.
A few versions of the artwork came to light and the most popular was the record sleeve where the printed image Queen’s eyes and mouth have been seemingly ripped away, exposing underneath, in ransom-note-style typography, the band’s name and song title. One of the more shocking adaptations portrayed the Queen with a safety pin through her mouth and swastika’s pasted into her eyes.
The Sex Pistols were only around from 1975 until 78 but, in three short years, the impact they had, not just on music but on culture, was immense and ever-lasting. And the same accolade can be said of McLaren and Westwood, as their influence is still being felt today as icons of social change.
Reid, who ended up creating numerous artworks for the punk band, eventually found himself in the throes of social issue campaigns such as the poll tax and criminal justice bill and still provides great inspiration to many.
Long live the Queen.
God Save the Queen album cover by Jamie Reid
Macolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood