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The Sex Pistols sneered she wasn’t human. But for many artists, the queen was more cipher than enemy

Members of the Sex Pistols sign a contract on a folding table outside Buckingham Palace
The Sex Pistols sign their contract with A&M Records outside Buckingham Palace in 1977. “God Save the Queen” would be their one and only recording for the label.
(Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

In October 1958, Duke Ellington played a concert in Leeds, an unfashionable industrial city in the north of England. Elizabeth II, just six years into her reign, was to be in attendance; her father, George VI, had been a huge Ellington fan, and so she was a guest of honor. She chatted freely with the Duke — photos show her looking quite at ease.

“She asked me, ‘When was your first time in England?’” recalled Ellington in 1961. “‘Oh,’ I said, ‘oh, my first time in England was in 1933, way before you were born.’ She gave me a real American look; very cool, man, which I thought was too much.

“She was great,” Ellington added. “She told me about all the records of mine her father had.” They got on so well that, on returning to the States, Ellington wrote the six-part “Queen’s Suite” and recorded it with his band. It was exceptional, even by his standards. He then pressed one copy of the recording, the only one in the world, and mailed it to Buckingham Palace.

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Ellington, being American, was able to deal with meeting the queen on a normal, human level that anyone British would have found almost impossible. Unlike the “Queen’s Suite,” British popular music’s reaction to her coronation in 1953 was largely obsequious and dull — two versions of the dreary “In A Golden Coach” sat in the New Musical Express’ Top 10, one by band leader and BBC radio presenter Billy Cotton, the other by pre-rock heartthrob Dickie Valentine. It took Trinidad-born pianist Winifred Atwell to liven up the celebrations with the much more ebullient “Coronation Rag.”

The Top 10 didn’t even exist when Elizabeth, who died Thursday at 96, succeeded her father in February 1952. Back then, there was no record chart at all — the first hit parade wouldn’t be printed until that November, and it quickly became a peculiarly British obsession, like trainspotting, or following the lives of the royal family in microscopic detail. Not only was she our monarch before the singles chart existed, she went on to outlive its usefulness. That the queen’s reign predated such a national institution is mind-boggling, and helps to explain the current sense of hollowness in the country — almost no one can remember a time when the queen wasn’t the queen.

For 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II miraculously managed to be both universally known and utterly enigmatic. No wonder so many Americans were fascinated.

Where pop music intersects with the queen is an odd place. Other than that rash of early tributes, I can only think of Neil Innes’ cod-reggae “Silver Jubilee” in 1977: “Queenie baby I’m not fooling, only you can do your ruling, in your own sweet way.” It isn’t hard to find anti-royalist material, like anarcho-punk band Crass’ sarcastic, saccharine ode to Charles and Diana’s 1981 nuptials, “Our Wedding” (“Never look at anyone, I must be all you see / Listen to those wedding bells, say goodbye to other girls”). But when the queen herself has featured in lyrics, she has usually been used as little more than a device, a figurehead for royalty, with an almost spectral presence.

The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” — originally titled “No Future” until the group realized the possible benefits of releasing the single just ahead of the queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations — might compare the monarchy to a fascist regime, but the lady herself barely figured in the lyric. It was about the fantasy world Britain had entered for a few months in 1977, where economic collapse, the rise of the far right and huge industrial unrest were somehow healed by Union Jack bunting and the balm of a street party.

Whenever the queen became a real, living person in a song, no one could imagine much beyond discussing the weather with her, or how many sugars you might want in your tea. There was John Cale’s “Graham Greene” (“You’re making small talk now with the queen”), while Billy Bragg’s “Rule Nor Reason” imagined her as bored and lonely — “She looks out the window and cries.” The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, on discovering that more people were visited by her in their dreams than anyone else, wrote the melancholic “Dreaming of the Queen” in 1993. Once again, she was “visiting for tea,” and again she was essentially sad and vague: “The queen said, ‘I’m aghast, love never seems to last.’”

The Beatles’ “Her Majesty,” though it has long been used by Lennon loyalists as evidence of Paul McCartney’s soft, MOR tendencies, was hardly a ringing endorsement of Elizabeth II’s personality: “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say.” The queen got back at McCartney at her birthday celebrations years later. Composer Angelo Badalamenti, a frequent collaborator of director David Lynch, once recalled meeting McCartney at Abbey Road and hearing how the Beatle had been asked to play a half-hour set of his greatest hits at Buckingham Palace. Just as he was telling the queen what an honor this was going to be, she said, “Mr. McCartney, I’m sorry but I can’t stay.” He looked crestfallen. “Don’t you see?” she explained. “It’s five minutes to 8. I must go upstairs and watch ‘Twin Peaks.’” (I’d like to think she was watching Season Two.) Again, it’s hard to imagine anyone British thinking this was a story they should repeat in public, but Badalamenti had no such reservations.

Queen Elizabeth II and Paul McCartney.
Queen Elizabeth II and Paul McCartney at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.
(Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty)

Though it’s hard to think of songs that personally defend or attack the queen, the ‘80s — packed to the gills with anti-Thatcher material — was also a peak period for anti-royalist statements. The wryest came from the Smiths, with Morrissey using the title track on “The Queen Is Dead” as a metaphor for the decline of Britain (true to his word, he left soon after and set up homes in Rome and California). At one point in the lyric he breaks into Buckingham Palace “with a sponge and a rusty spanner / She said ‘I know you and you cannot sing’ / I said ‘that’s nothing you should hear me play pianner.’” In 1989, Wales’ Manic Street Preachers sang “Repeat after me, f— Queen and country! Repeat after me, royal Khmer Rouge!” which was an original angle, but at least made a change to describing the monarchy as a fascist regime.

British indie-pop band McCarthy, followers of the hard-left Revolutionary Communist Party, were one of the few groups to write about our next monarch. We might know a lot more about Charles III than we know about Elizabeth II — his views on architecture, what he thinks about the environment, and we’ve even seen the transcript to a sex tape of sorts — but he has barely inspired any songs. He has no mystery. On 1987’s “Charles Windsor,” McCarthy’s Malcolm Eden sang about “the rabble … the kind you hoped were dead, they’ve come to chop off your head,” as “businessmen, hacks from the Sun, military men, so many rich men weep in despair.” It’s blunt and obvious, the future monarch with his neck on the guillotine block, but then again it’s hard to imagine many people have dreams about Charles coming over for tea.

The royal family is still seen as divisive, the most blatant example of the unacceptable establishment — grime star Skepta claimed he rejected an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) on 2017’s “Hypocrisy.” But the queen herself was almost always regarded as a relatively benign figure, a blank page that musicians could project onto. It’s not a coincidence that Queen, one of the most oddly secretive and unknowable bands in British rock history, gave themselves their self-aggrandizing name.

Queen Elizabeth II did more for classical music than any leader in modern times, critic Mark Swed argues.

Going to a pub on the evening after the queen’s death was announced, I heard opera singer Katherine Jenkins’ version of “God Save the Queen” (the royal anthem, not the Pistols’ song). It was followed by Queen — “Another One Bites the Dust” — and then the Sex Pistols. Supermarkets and radio stations are playing music one degree softer than they usually would — the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” Drake and Rihanna’s “Take Care,” the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” In spite of public proclamations to the contrary, people are less in mourning than unsettled and concerned about what happens next; we now have two brand new, unelected figures running the country. This is not Diana revisited. The likes of Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Elton John have expressed personal sadness that a fixed point in their lives — the nation’s Granny — is no longer there. Of her more famous detractors, John Lydon has gone out of his way to say he’s never had anything against her personally; Morrissey’s politics, meanwhile, are now somewhere to the right of rabid royalists.

Some things never change, though — while all football and boxing fixtures were postponed on Saturday as a mark of respect, sports for the more privileged classes like rugby union, horse racing and grouse shooting all went ahead; the lower orders presumably couldn’t be trusted to mourn at sporting events in a civilized manner. We should stay home and know our place. Personally, I’ve mostly spent the last couple of days at home, knowing my place, worrying about whether that priceless Duke Ellington record is going to end up in a thrift store.

Bob Stanley, a founding member of the British music group Saint Etienne, is the author of “Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop.”


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