Pop Goes the Palace but Pistols Remain in Exil

by Simon Warner

12 June 2002


You might assume that links between rock and royalty extend only to the regal names adopted by individuals, say, Prince or Queen Latifah, bands like Queen and King, or the aristocratic epithets that journalists attach to performers such as Elvis Presley, the King of rock ‘n’ roll, and Aretha Franklin, the Queen of soul. But the UK, that home of quaint tradition, that land of monarchy, that defender of an all too anachronistic establishment, proved this early summer, that even Her Majesty is not averse to the very occasional dalliance with the devil’s music.

The Queen — the real Queen of England, that is, Elizabeth II — is celebrating her Golden Jubilee in 2002. That’s a half century on the nation’s throne, and a plethora of events have been organised on the basis that most Britons are hungry to celebrate this 50 year anniversary. Such logic excludes the fact that Britain is actually a divided land. It is unified by accidents of history, yes, but fragmented by a string of local, regional and national splits that undermine impressions of a cosy, common-minded community.

If the US, fifty federal states and all, could find shared cause when the World Trade Centre came tumbling down, the UK can agree only to disagree even at times of relative frivolity. The Scots and the Welsh gained devolved political authority during the 1990s, the Northern Irish had their parliament restored in the same decade, and the Irish — of the Republic that is — gained their total independence from the crown not long after World War II. Add to that the north-south divide, the antagonism between London and the rest of the kingdom, and the extraordinary intricacies of class and privilege — with their collateral of underclass and under-privilege — and you have a land hardly singing from the same song sheet.

In the midst of this disparity, the monarchy has to present a picture of stable, steady authority over the cities and shires. Early in 2002, this somewhat outdated institution received an unlikely PR boost. It was painful for the Queen, but beneficial to the organisation she leads. That being the death of the Queen Mother, a 101 year old matriarch, generally regarded as the most popular of a royal clan rarely lauded by press or populace these days. The passing of the Queen Mum helped to remind the media and multitude that the Royal Family still meant something special to the mythical wo/man in the street.

Which returns us to the Golden Jubilee and an unlikely alliance with rock culture. At the beginning of June, the Queen threw open the doors of Buckingham Palace, her principal home at the heart of the capital, to two open air concerts: one, in the orchestral and operatic tradition, the other, of the pop and rock variety. The latter represented, possibly, a last ditch bid to convince those under 60 years of age that the regal figure-head and her kin are somehow in touch with realities of contemporary Britain, thereby building, it appeared, on the groundswell of favourable opinion which arose in the wake of the Queen Mother’s demise.

So who turned up for this pop gala? Three knights of the realm, at least: Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard and Elton John. Also, a glossy teen pop act called S Club 7; that perennial walk-on at such occasions, Phil Collins; the guitarist once dubbed “God”, Eric Clapton; the recent winner of British TV’s Pop Idols, Will Young; and a parade of eminent Americans, including Brian Wilson, Tony Bennett and Ricky Martin.

Most extraordinary of all was the addition of Ozzy Osbourne. Already rehabilitated in the US as the Clown Prince of Darkness, via the MTV tragi-comedy The Osbournes, Osbourne now not only pressed hands with presidents but swanned around with sovereigns. The domestic traumas of Ozzy’s home life have only just arrived in the UK, so his cult reincarnation has not yet reached American proportions.

As interesting as the stars themselves were the rules and regulations with which the stars had to comply. While performing or otherwise at the 12,000 seater arena set up in the palace grounds, artists had to refrain from swearing, wear shirts at all times, only smoke in designated areas and generally observe the protocol expected perhaps of Buck House garden parties — but not usually at Loolapalooza or Woodstock II.

The chances of Osbourne biting the head off a live corgi — the toy dog that has been the hearthside symbol of the latterday Windsors — were maybe remote, but it is worth remembering that other members of the invited bill have not always toed the line themselves. In the mid-‘60s, at the very height of their fame, the Beatles visited the Palace to pick up ceremonial awards for their services to British exports. The story goes that some Fabs had actually imported something themselves, smoking a little weed in the toilets.

Furthermore, Elton’s riotous life — the drink, the drugs, the dramas — has hardly been exemplary in establishment terms. S Club 7 — a septet of all-singing, all-acting popsters — ran the gauntlet of the law last year when some members were caught with a joint or two in London’s Covent Garden, tarnishing a squeaky clean image fostered in their Monkees-like, children-aimed television series.

Still, if rock, for all its little misdemeanors, has finally earned the royal seal of approval, this version of the music is still a fairly safe one. The Sex Pistols, the scourge of the Silver Jubilee in 1977, are re-forming for the 2002 commemoration, but never received the Queen’s call to join the official festivities. Rotten and Co have a gig next month which threatens to raise curious memories of punk’s original and euphoric season but remind us also that pop may, from time to time, bristle with danger — from Elvis to Eminem, the Stones to the Strokes — but its impact on the body constitutional is pretty insignificant.

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