Gotcha Covered

Gotcha Covered: “God Save The Queen”

It was 40 years ago this month — January 14, 1978, in San Francisco’s not-long-for-this-world Winterland Ballroom  — that the Sex Pistols’ doomed US tour finally came to an end and with it, the band as an ongoing legitimate concern (at least until the inevitable reunion). Johnny Rotten’s famous last words, bitterly introspective and defeated, are well-documented; closing their set-ending version of the Stooges’ “No Fun” with a sour laugh and the line “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated,” a sort of last-straw reaction to all the nonsense their manager Malcolm McLaren had put the band through. It didn’t help that McLaren exhibited them as an antagonistic gang of provocateurs throughout the South and sold the final San Francisco stop as a middle finger to McLaren’s loathed hippies, instead of booking the band in venues that would more readily attract more actual fans than curious rubberneckers. As it was, a catalytic band with near-limitless generational influence was milked for its shock value to normies and then soon discarded, even as their heirs sprung up all across parts of the States that desperately wanted to see them.

The Winterland “No Fun” bookended “no future” thanks to the opening cut, “God Save The Queen,” the band’s most notorious song in the UK and a bizarre curiosity outside of it. It still sounds bracing, even after decades of punk’s canonization and default-mode state of Gen-X rebellion have made it feel more ordinary than it should’ve been. By the early ’80s, the song had become comedy fodder — pricelessly goofed on by SCTV as The Queen Haters’ “I Hate The Bloody Queen” — and a case of right-anger-wrong-target, where a far more hateful adversary than the Queen Mum in Margaret Thatcher proved to be an even bigger public enemy #1 for the counterculture. (See also The Dead Kennedys’ original 1979 “California Uber Alles,” which missed the mark so widely over the looming fascist state being a granola New Age Jerry Brown hippie-reich that the Reagan rewrite two years later was retitled “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now”.) “God Save The Queen” has largely existed since then as a historical object: the BBC listed the song as a blank entry when it landed the #2 slot on the UK pop charts, and allegedly suppressed it from making #1. It is a song that is difficult to separate from its original performers and the unrest-filled Silver Jubilee it soundtracked. As for the artists that tried inevitably had to go to almost absurd lengths to make it their own… don’t expect much reverence out of these versions.

The Bollock Brothers (1983)

The Bollock Brothers were a novelty/comedy band formed by Londoner Jock McDonald, and maybe their most famous record is the full-album-cover, Never Mind The Bollocks 1983, which recast the Sex Pistols’ 1977 album as rinky-dink synth-pop. If you wanted to ascribe some sort of motive to that idea, maybe it’s an angry reaction to post-punk’s eventual transformation into the New Pop of the early ’80s — or maybe, given most of the other Bollock Brothers albums, it’s a New Pop hanger-on goofing on rock’s recent past. Either way, the real provocation here is who McDonald ceded the mic to on this “God Save The Queen.” In July 1982, 33-year-old unemployed interior decorator Michael Fagan broke into Buckingham Palace — for the second time in roughly a month — and wandered around for a while just taking in the scenery. Eventually he managed to get as far as the Queen’s actual bedroom, at which point she woke up and ran off to alert the palace’s security staff. (Until Fagan clarified his own account of the situation in 2012, folklore had him doing anything from sitting on her bed to engaging her in friendly conversation to her pushing him into a closet.) Shortly after he was released from the psychiatric hospital where he’d been held for evaluation, Fagan joined the Bollock Brothers for a Never Mind The Bollocks 1983 session in which he recorded vocals for “Pretty Vacant” and, more fittingly, “God Save The Queen” — which is a lot more amiably-minded towards its subject (“a lovely human being”) under a halting, quiet, almost emotionless delivery that couldn’t be further from Johnny Rotten’s if it were delivered by Bill Grundy.

Neil (1984)

If “deadpan recitation from the man who broke into the Queen’s bedroom” wasn’t weird enough for you, how about the guy who played the lentil-appreciating hippie on The Young Ones? Neil’s Heavy Concept Album, a 1984 comedy LP that built on the surprise success of Nigel Planer’s #2 UK hit cover of Traffic’s “Hole In My Shoe”, features a ton of bizarre metacommentary-infused jokes about prog, psych, and all things hea-vee, with significant assistance from Canterbury Scene vet keyboardist Dave “not the Eurythmics one” Stewart. And while the album starts more or less as you’d expect from Scumbag College’s resident peacenik — covers of early psych numbers like Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle” and Pink Floyd’s “The Gnome” mingle with Neil’s perspectives on vegetarianism and talking to plants — his efforts to keep things on track keep disintegrating as different genres and concepts keep intruding. (At one point, his mother calls on the phone to interrupt an acoustic number, “Bad Karma In The UK,” and transforms it into an electro-rap track.) The album’s weirdest detour has to be this lounged-up version of “God Save The Queen,” where Planer — doing double-duty as both Neil and the oily American cabaret singer/comedian who tries to badger him into a duet — beats Richard Cheese by a couple decades. What Neil gradually recognizes as “an old Sex Pistols song” (as though it’s a musty, half-forgotten standard) is surrounded with cornball jokes (“Neil, let’s go!” “But I just got here.”) and an anxious discomfort at the American’s casual sexism and overall unpleasantness nearly overwhelms the then-surreal notion of turning one of punk’s most definitive moments into pseudo-Dean Martin smarm.

Anthrax (1985)

Despite metal and punk’s sometimes adversarial relationship, all of metal’s Big Four were simpatico enough with punk to record memorable versions of some of the latter genre’s more noteworthy songs — to varying effect, anyways. Metallica’s cover-driven Garage Inc. was bookended by two songs by UK crossover thrash masters Discharge (“Free Speech For The Dumb” and “The More I See”). Megadeth did a notorious cover of “Anarchy in the U.K.” for 1988’s So Far, So Good… So What! that featured the Pistols’ Steve Jones on guitar and some grievously misheard lyrics (“I wanna destroy, possibly”). And Slayer’s Undisputed Attitude was a whole album’s worth of punk and hardcore covers that served as a sort of early-days blueprint for the band. None of those could be mistaken for peak material for any of those groups, but Anthrax’s version of “God Save The Queen” had the benefit of both sounding appropriately snarly and coming out at a pivotal time in the band’s existence with the debut of singer Joey Belladonna. Joey manages to pull off a quasi-Rotten lead vocal, nailing every inflection save that rolled “r” in “moron”, without lapsing too far into an embarrassing phony British accent. Bumping up the tempo a few BPM and letting Dan Spitz go berserk with a vaguely Middle Eastern flourish on his guitar solo gives it enough of a jolt to keep from being a redundant curio and places it square in “strong deep cut” turf.

Manic Hispanic (1995)

What El Vez and his Elvis/Bowie/Paul Simon/everyone else-spoofing is to the classic rock canon, Manic Hispanic is to the punk movement: a simultaneously irreverent and proud reconfiguring of familiar sounds into a Chicano setting. Guitarist Steve Soto and singer Mike Gaborno assembled a band that made a memorable ’95 debut with The Menudo Incident, which put a cholo-punk spin on everyone from the Clash (“Garageland” changed to “Barrio Land”) to Black Flag (“Wasted”, where “I was a hippie/burnout/surfer” is reworked into “I was an ese/vato/cruiser”) to Soto’s old band the Adolescents (“Amoeba” translates pretty directly into “Amigo”). Their version of “God Save The Queen” shares the original’s title, its arrangement, and its ferocity, but not its language — just about every line’s been translated into Spanish, albeit beyond my one high school semester’s worth of comprehension (though it does sound like at least some of the lyrics have been rewritten). Still, sometimes all you need to understand is “¡No futura!

Shellac & David Yow (1998)

Sure, the Bollock Brothers can go and cover Never Mind The Bollocks, why not. But how’s about this: what say you get Shellac and the Jesus Lizard’s David Yow to do a set of (most of) the album, live, on Halloween? With Yow as a note-perfect Rotten, Steve Albini standing in for Jonesy, Bob Weston staggering around as Sid Vicious, and Todd Trainer playing Paul Cook on drums, it stands as one of the most berserk impersonations-slash-tributes your imagination could ever concoct. According to on-the-scene reports, the Chicago audience reportedly lost their minds from confusion, surprise, and/or antagonized rowdiness, at one point chucking pieces of a destroyed jack-o-lantern towards the stage. The whole thing is a perfectly raucous car-wreck of a set, with “God Save The Queen” closing things out — Albini staggering through chord changes he’s reading off a legal pad as a bloody-lipped Yow wails his way towards the same antagonistic conclusion that the Pistols’ Winterland set did. At one point, after Yow drops his “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated” line and the band starts to leave the stage, someone in the audience can be heard shouting “What the hell was that?” Fair enough.

Motörhead (2000)

As Love & Rockets made memorably clear, the best way for punks and heshers to call a much-needed truce and overcome their differences is to put Motörhead on the box. So, it’s not surprising that Lemmy Kilmister and his cohort, having already gone on record as being into the R.A.M.O.N.E.S., decided to cover the Pistols. It’s also not surprising that it’s a straightforwardly kick-ass version, with the biggest changes being a more foregrounded bass (which, ironically enough, was the exact opposite of what they let Sid do live) and that characteristic Lemmy growl. It’s even unsurprising that their music video stunt of performing it on top of a Union Jack-strewn double-decker bus is a deliberate homage to the time the Pistols performed it in 1977 on a similarly adorned boat floating along the Thames. Hell, we can even allow for the lyric tweaks (“When there’s no future/ They can’t keep saying/ We’re the snake and we’re done right in”). What will not, can not, stand is the sight of Lemmy without his mustache. Sure, he spent the better part of the late ’90s without it, but a lot of people made a lot of mistakes in that questionable decade and I’d really rather not think about it too much, sorry.

Nouvelle Vague (2009)

Nouvelle vague translates as bossa nova in Portuguese and new wave in English, and if you think that calls for some confluence of ideas then Olivier Libaux and Marc Collin are way ahead of you there. The Parisians who formed the band allude to all three movements — the trans-Atlantic umbrella category for punk, post-punk, and synth-pop alike, performed with flourishes of Brazilian jazz and other forms of MPB, and with the cool insouciance and iconoclasm of classic French cinema. That’s how you get a breathily sly “God Save The Queen” performed with all the acoustic delicacy of a classic Caetano Veloso song and a singer in Mélanie Pain who sings the lyrics with all the playful subversion of Anna Karina dancing with Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur in Band à part. There’s no rage, no intensity, no volume — just a “no future” that might as well be a “c’est la vie,” which is a pretty sanguine way to be, all in all.

Haruna Ikezawa (2009)

Have you ever wanted to hear the Sex Pistols as sung by an anime voice actress? No? What if I told you it was the actress who supplied the voice for Athena Asamiya in SNK’s King Of Fighters video games? Because that’s the only role she’s played that I’ve recognized firsthand from hanging out in arcades circa 1999 and hearing her shrill squeak-screams of “psycho baaaaaaaaall” if I even came within a 20-foot radius of a Neo-Geo cabinet. Anyways, enjoy the song that was one of the most controversial entries into the UK pop charts ever, as sung by someone who is imitating an especially chirpy 11-year-old girl.