Why the music world has a long and tumultuous relationship with Queen Elizabeth II
Last week, when Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest-reigning monarch, died, Britain’s national anthem – God save the queen – was replaced with God save the king, after Charles III took the throne. His death raised questions about the constitutional monarchy and obedience to the royal family. But this is nothing new. For years, artists have expressed their dissent through music.
In 1977, the biggies of English punk rock, the Sex Pistols, attempted their own version of the British national anthem. They sang: God save the queen/ She’s not a human being/ And there’s no future/ And England is dreaming, an example of the internal turmoil of a country — economic crisis and stagflation — which gave rise to under- punk culture, largely characterized by opposition to establishment views.
While the song was immediately banned by the BBC, 11 people, including the band’s manager, were arrested after the song was performed on a boat, named Queen Elizabeth, on the Thames. The song from the band’s only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here the Sex Pistols (Virgin Records, 1977) also coincided with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. But besides the shock value, what was important was that it showed a clear divide between people in the UK – those who respected the monarchy and those who thought it was outdated.
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The band members – vocalist Johnny Rotten, lead guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock – without any acclaim and internet chow, managed to make their mark. They took out a poster of Queen Elizabeth II using a photograph (taken by Royal photographer Peter Grugeon) with the Union Jack in the background. Poster designer Jamie Reid had ripped out the Queen’s eyes and mouth and placed the title of the single and the name of the group, with letters of what looked like press titles. The song and poster art remain among rock music’s most significant engagements with the monarchy.
Almost a decade later, in 1986, The Smiths created something of a sequel to God save the queen. They called it, The Queen is Dead (Rough Trade). Played on blazing guitars, the carefree voice belonged to frontman Steven Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, who co-wrote the song: Pass the pub that sapes your body/ And the church who’ll snatch your money/ The queen is dead , boys / And it’s so alone on a branch. A scathing phrase, But when you’re tied to your mother’s apron/Nobody talks about castration, is a conversation with Charles, implying that he would never have become his own, until his mother, the queen, finally rested. Many accepted. Many called it blasphemous.
The year before The Smiths, in 1985, American singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega recorded The Queen and the Soldier, an acoustic ballad telling the story of a soldier examining his obligations to the Queen, for which he “kills “. Your Highness, your ways are very strange, Vega sings, losing faith in the name of the soldier and for the people who believed in the Queen.
Almost four years later, in 1989, the British group — The Stone Roses — recorded Elizabeth, my dear, with very harsh lyrics on the friendliest guitars. Ian Brown sang: Tear me apart, And boil my bones/ I won’t rest, Until she loses her throne/ My purpose is true, My message is clear/ It’s curtains for you, Elizabeth, my dear. It was a scathing attack, sung tenderly.
While others were foreigners (Vega was American and The Smiths had Irish roots), the message hit home. The band (except for their bassist Mani who was Irish) came with English working class values and set the song to Scarborough Fair, a popular and age-old folk tune in England.
Years later, in 1993, The Pet Shop Boys – the English synth-pop duo – sang Dreaming of the Queen, about an illusory encounter with the Queen and Princess Diana. The song’s symbolism refers to AIDS and the Queen and Princess Diana’s reaction to the disease in the singer’s dream.
But years before the punk movement asked people to shake off royal hangovers, four Liverpudlians, whom the world knew as The Beatles, snuck in a 23-second Her Majesty on their famous album Abbey Road (1969). But what’s interesting about the track is that it wasn’t listed on the album cover. A clandestine creation, it came out of nowhere on vinyl and surprised listeners. Paul McCartney sang, Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl / But she don’t have much to say / Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl / But she’s changing day by day / I want to tell her that I love her very much… With its anarchist lyrics border on punk rock but it’s set to a rhyme-like musical structure. McCartney continued to sing it, including for the Queen in 2012.
So during Buckingham Palace talks about political neutrality, musicians don’t care so much about convention. They took to microphones and expressed their feelings for the Queen. She may have heard several, but she never commented on any.