1977 – the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. A small boat called “The Queen Elizabeth” swayed on the River Thames just outside the Houses of Parliament. The band onboard played on. As the boat docked the police were waiting and 11 passengers were arrested.
If the band had remained silent and passengers had drunk tea and ate crumpets, they would have still been arrested. The “establishment” felt sufficiently threatened by the latest song from the band that it tried everything to suppress the song – even to the point, so it is rumoured, of “rigging” the pop charts (in an era when pop charts mattered) and allowing a Rod Stewart single to be Number 1. The song in question was God Save the Queen and the band, The Sex Pistols.
2012 – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The Queen presides over the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. During the segment devoted to the recent musical culture of Britain, a substantial segment is devoted to the band. Stadium-high, Johnny Rotten et al scream out their succinct tirade against the lethargy of 1970s Britain, Pretty Vacant.
No one who had lived through the ‘70s who saw this today had Pretty Vacant in mind. The irony, the enjoyment and the sheer pointedness of that moment as Rotten’s 200-foot head turned to sneer his words directly at the Queen: it would have been enjoyed by William Blake through to Peter Ackroyd.
In that small but telling scene, a thousand years of British cultural history was summed up and as ever (to reference Shakespeare) played out. More so because – as much as it might seem odd to the rest of the world – this is the ying and yang of what it means to be British. The one has never existed without the other.
This particular culture war between the “Establishment” and the “Itinerant” is an inherent part of what makes Britain. And the friction between is one of the generative energies of the British imagination.
Once upon a distant time the British carved giant mythical figures and horses into hills. In the same section of the opening ceremony, another graphic was made from a 100 volunteers standing in the shape of a “smiley face”, the graphic that is “carved”, or more precisely incised, into the surface of an ecstasy table. The motif might change but the craving for tribal transcendence remains.
Even Underworld’s anthemic chorus from their totemic song Born Slippy – “Lager, lager, lager” (a plea for abstinence rather than indulgence) – had its moment.
Flying characters descending from the heavens, odd gigantic puppets, dancing children and stupendous pyrotechnics are the “norm” for such events. Add a few concise narratives to inform and entertain and the formula is there. But the presentation of such honesty regarding the cultural evolution of a country particularly is rare; very rare indeed.
Even rarer was the sight of the head of government, in this case Prime Minister David Cameron, thoroughly enjoying the spectacle and meaning of it all. Believe me, like all of the British participants and viewers, he understood every part of the story.
Danny Boyle, the event’s director, told this story of stories well, the dynamic and complex mosaic that is and always has been Britain was there to decode.
Britain is a difficult place to sum up, especially within such an event. And this opening ceremony didn’t have the coherency of expression that Barcelona and Beijing had before it. But within the confines of the event, this opening ceremony succeeded on its own, very British, terms.