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London Olympics: Opening ceremony celebrates pop music

London Olympics: Opening ceremony celebrates pop music
Rapper Dizzee Rascal performs at the Olympics opening ceremony.
(Cameron Spencer / Getty Images)

Watching the five-hour opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics was a fun game of “Spot The Song.” Mute the volume, and you were likely to miss selections from the Sex Pistols. Or the Jam. Or Adele. Or music from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus." 

As directed by celebrated filmmaker Danny Boyle, these Olympics got a tuneful kickoff that traveled at the speed of sound across this history of British pop. Boyle is known for his inventive uses of music in films: "Trainspotting” turned a whole generation on to the music of Iggy Pop (among other legends), and his "Slumdog Millionaire” paired electronic rapper M.I.A. with Bollywood legend A.R. Rahman.

Underworld, the electronic act Boyle first worked with on 1996’s “Trainspotting,” partnered with the director for the Olympics. The duo crafted original music for the ceremony and helped program extended musical segments such as for the Parade of Nations. All told, Boyle’s opening ceremony was as much a celebration of song as it was sport.

LONDON OLYMPICS: Your TV-watching guide

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Here, Pop & Hiss reviews the ceremony from a pop music perspective. 

Punk rock: The filmed opening montage for the ceremony was thrilling, a rocket-ride, perfect even. But it was cinema, and left a question: How can Boyle possibly keep up this pace for about five hours? The answer was: He couldn’t, and once cameras dropped into the Olympic Stadium, the ceremony took a turn toward live theater on a huge scale -- and the filmed segment became a tour of Britain with a soundtrack of children’s choirs and esteemed actor Kenneth Branagh reciting lines from “The Tempest.”

No one, however, would have guessed that the Olympics ceremony would begin with a song by a band whose name can’t even be printed on this website, yet there was “Surf Solar” from that unnameable band as cameras flew over London to fragments of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” and the Clash’s “London Calling.” Punk rock has come a long way in 35 years. The songs alternated with clips of high-speed railways and quacking ducks. This was all energy, all full-speed-ahead, but delivered with a sense of humor, recalling the magical feel of Boyle’s “Millions.” Added bonus: a shot of a Pink Floyd pig soaring over London.

LONDON OLYMPICS: Must-see moments  

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Thanks for the tip on using drums, Beijing: Four years ago, the Beijing Olympics began with more than 2,000 drummers banging away in precise, haunting rhythm. It was a nod to ancient instruments, and it was given a sci-fi makeover, as Olympic musicians pounded away with light sticks.

Bejing’s rhythms were impressive, delivered with militaristic steadiness; Boyle packed the Olympic Stadium with drummers as well, but he put the emphasis on emotion, staging the beats with exaggerated theatricality. Towers erupted from the ground, rings lifted to the sky and Branagh presided over all of it.

Celebrated percussionist Evelyn Glennie, deaf since a young age, led 1,000 volunteer drummers as factory smokestacks then burst through the greenery. If imagery ripped from the Industrial Revolution doesn’t exactly scream “let the Games begin,” the sheer rhythmic pulse of the moment was hard to resist. Said one BBC commenter, “It’s such a sound, so powerful, to look at the Industrial Revolution this way. If you’re at home and you have a remote control, turn up the volume just a little bit to get a sense of what we’re feeling.”

Indeed, these images, divorced from sound, wouldn’t have had nearly the pull. Some actors were dressed as farmers, others as women suffragists, and the mix-and-match approach to English history was at times oddly jolting, especially when a crew of men looking like Abraham Lincoln began dancing with shovels as if they were in a Spice Girls video. 

Yet it worked. Even at its most silly the scene was driven by music that gave way to uplifting electronics and never swayed from its emphasis on the beat. The sound was all forward momentum, and when the rhythms took hold, the orchestration found a way to dissolve and rev-up. Sure, the whistling seemed uncomfortably close to “Wind of Change,” but this was Olympic optimism at its most beat-heavy.

Sgt. Pepper! It was fun seeing marchers dressed in “Sgt. Pepper” garb, but it was a bit too facile as a reference for the entirety of the 1960s. It also distilled a generation into a pleasant cartoon. Granted, no one is looking at the Olympics to provide biting commentary of its host nation’s past -- nor does anyone really want that at a party -- but the Beatles have better albums, and this was revisionist history at its most obvious.

The James Bond theme: Mixed feelings here. Once John Barry’s Bond fanfare blared throughout the stadium, we knew what was to come. It was a wee bit odd to see Daniel Craig’s James Bond treated as a nonfictional character, one who must open the Olympic Games, complete with the queen’s corgis in supporting roles.

Yet anyone who has ever gotten swept up in a Bond film, or anyone who has fallen in love with the magic of any film, can no doubt appreciate the way in which Boyle blurred the lines between fiction and reality, seriousness and silliness. Our lives are filled with memories both real and imagined, moments witnessed on-screen and off, and Boyle took that premise and ran with it. After all, the idea that we could possibly live in a universe where James Bond is saving the world, and appearing at the Olympics, is one that is nice to imagine. If only our own lives could be scored with surf rock guitars and feature a loyal agent who could deliver us to safety. 

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‘The Exorcist': Yes, that was the theme to “The Exorcist.” Or rather, it was the work of celebrated British musician Mike Oldfield. Since the music has such eerie undertones, and was performed while children read books and dreamed of Neverland, this choice could raise some questions in viewers’ minds. After all, Oldfield’s music is so closely associated with the horror classic that few can divorce it from the film. Strange that this segment started with “The Exorcist,” and was rescued from “Harry Potter” villain Valdemort by the arrival of Mary Poppins. 

Still, and maybe I’m just an Olympics apologist, I’m giving Boyle the benefit of the doubt here. The Olympics -- and sports in general -- are for dreamers, and all of our lives are shaped by iconic figures, be they athletes or fictional characters from the books we read when we were children.

Boyle used contemporary references to pay tribute to the works that first inspired us to use our imagination, and this ended not with a burst of sunshine but an inspiring chiming of the bells, a grim reminder that we have to stop daydreaming at some point. It’s a cynical age we live in, and easy to mock the idea of turning the Industrial Revolution into a dance segment, but this is where Boyle’s vision -- his love letter to imagineers everywhere -- became clear.

‘Chariots of Fire,’ with synths and cheeky humor: The “Chariots of Fire” score is noteworthy, in part, for the way in which it placed electronics on par with symphonics. A British film about the Olympics, the film’s presence here was a given. Still, it could have used less Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson), and one less flatulence joke. 

History via pop music: The centerpiece of Boyle’s opening ceremony was an extended segment dedicated to pop music. Decades and hits whisked by seamlessly as Boyle kept the focus on the songs rather than the artists. It’s a simple distinction, but one that sinks so many sports and music marriages. 

This, for instance, was perhaps the biggest pairing of jocks and musicians outside the Super Bowl halftime show, yet the latter event is about celebrities and promotion. Would Madonna have appeared at the Super Bowl without a new album to sell? Doubtful, but Boyle didn’t have to concern himself with such matters here. Instead, he could simply program a playlist of some of his country’s best music, and he did so by tying in music with technology. Viewers saw status updates on screens, dancers moved with handheld game machines and 8-bit video game themes were treated with as much respect as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. 

There were plenty of recognizable songs, but placing the Jams’ “Going Underground” near the top of the segment was no obvious choice. That’s another reason this segment never succumbed to “name-that-tune” cuteness; Boyle kept audiences guessing. Here’s a bit of Eric Clapton’s guitar work, and here’s a little bit of the Who’s “My Generation,” but Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”? What an unexpected nugget.

Considering Small is a Jamaican singer, Boyle pulled in artists who have had an influence on British music and opted not to simply turn this into a nationalistic segment. Soon after hearing a bit of “My Boy Lollipop,” Boyle dropped in the Specials’ “A Message to You, Rudy” to drive home the connection between Jamaica and England.

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Then things got cosmic, courtesy of David Bowie’s “Starman,” and if there was any doubt Boyle was having a blast directing this show, he cut to “Wayne’s World” while paying tribute to Queen. As surreal as it was to hear the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” turned into an Olympic anthem, Boyle illustrated the song with glow-in-the-dark creatures that could have fit in a Tim Burton film. Before one could process the pure weirdness of it all, Boyle took us into the ‘80s via New Order’s “Blue Monday” and “Relax” from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a song once banned by the BBC. 

Boyle wasn’t above a nod to his own work, referencing “Trainspotting” when playing Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” and the crowd cheered when the “woo-hoo!” of Blur’s “Song Two” roared through the stadium. East London rapper Dizzee Rascal further lifted the energy by performing his song “Bonkers” live, ending the segment with a hip-hop exclamation point. 

Yet Boyle wasn’t finished. Everyone on stage parted for the true rock star of this generation, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Not a household name? He’s the British scientist who invented the World Wide Web and made the world feel a little smaller. “This is for everyone,” read the words flashed around the stadium.

From speedboat, to reflection: And from Bond to Beckham. The first major glimpse of the Olympic flame came courtesy of soccer star David Beckham, who we saw in a speedboat racing down the River Thames in a scene set to David Holmes’ shoegaze burner “I Heard Wonders.” This is a windows-down rocker, and here’s betting the song was Shazam-ed more than a few times during the segment. This whole scene, in fact, seemed ripped from a spy film, and Holmes’ no-frills 2008 song furthered the action movie feel. 

Back inside the Olympic Stadium, the tone changed, albeit briefly, to become more contemplative. Choosing Emili Sande to sing “Abide With Me” was an inspiring choice. Sande is a should-be international star, and her phrasing was full of breathless, dramatic spacing. The first hour and a half of the ceremony was a rush of pop exuberance, and Sande’s turn at reflection was all the more meaningful because Boyle already made it clear that this ceremony wouldn’t be drenched in self-seriousness. 

The headliners: There were five songs commissioned for this Olympics, and none were composed by the Arctic Monkeys, but Boyle turned to the scruffy rockers to bring the Parade of Nations to a close with a high-energy rocker “I Bet You Look Good On the Dance Floor.” This was London’s close-up, and the city was throwing a party. 

The Monkeys then did what many consider sacrilegious: they covered the Beatles -- at an event in which a Beatle was to perform, no less. The band performed “Come Together” while bicyclists coasted around the stage in glowing, angelic wings. No doubt this looked incredible in person, and the Monkeys proved to be up to the task, as the song was performed with equal parts grace and snarl.

And hey,at least it wasn’t Coldplay. 

The end of the beginning: Immediately after a moving lighting of the Olympic flame, the voice of Paul McCartney brought viewers back into the stadium. He started with a dash of "The End,” and McCartney, in a track jacket, then sang “Hey Jude.”

If anyone knows how to hold an audience this large in the palm of his hand, it’s McCartney. He handled the verses deliberately, articulating every word for maximum sing-along effect. Then he broke from his piano and encouraged the boys and the girls to do just that, to sing along. “I like that sound. One more time. Just the girls,” shouted McCartney.

After bringing his voice to a rasp when he hollered “everybody together,” one of pop’s most recognizable bass lines jumped to the fore as McCartney basked in the sound of melody and voice. Fans, dignitaries and athletes all stood, holding hands and rocking in unison. It brought the ceremony to an end in a moment that was more than beautiful. Regal, really. 

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