In October 1958 Duke Ellington played a concert in Leeds, an unmodern industrial city in northern England. Elizabeth II, just six years into her reign, was to be present; Her father, George VI, had been a huge Ellington fan, so she was a guest of honour. She chatted freely with the Duke – photos show she looks quite relaxed.
“She asked me, ‘When was the first time you went to England?'” Ellington recalled in 1961. “‘Oh,’ I said, ‘oh, my first time in England was in 1933, long before you were born.’ She gave me a real American look; Very cool man, I thought that was too much.
“She was great,” added Ellington. “She told me about all the notes her father had on me.” They hit it off so well that after returning to the States, Ellington wrote and recorded the six-part Queen’s Suite with his band. It was extraordinary, even by his standards. He then pressed a copy of the recording, the only one in the world, and sent it to Buckingham Palace.
As an American, Ellington was able to meet the Queen on a normal, human level that any Brit would have found almost impossible. Unlike the ‘Queen’s Suite’, the reaction of British popular music to its coronation in 1953 was mostly subservient and dull – two versions of the dreary ‘In A Golden Coach’ charted the New Musical Express Top 10, one by the bandleader and BBC Radio host Billy Cotton, the other of pre-rock heartthrob Dickie Valentine. It took Trinidadian-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 aged 96, succeeded her father in February 1952. Back then there were no record charts at all – the first hit parade wasn’t printed until November and that quickly became a specifically British obsession, like trainspotting or following the life of the royal family in minute detail. Not only was she our monarch before the singles charts came, she outlasted her usefulness. That the Queen’s reign predated such a national institution is intriguing and helps explain the current sense of emptiness in the country – almost no one can remember a time when the Queen wasn’t the Queen.
Where pop music crosses paths with the queen is a strange place. Aside from that flurry of early tributes, the only thing that comes to mind is Neil Innes’ 1977 cod reggae “Silver Jubilee”: “Queenie Baby, I’m not mistaken, only you can make your choice, in your own sweet way.” It is it’s not hard to find anti-royalist material, like anarcho-punk band Crass’ sarcastic, sugar-sweet ode “Our Wedding” to Charles and Diana’s 1981 wedding (“Never look at someone, I must be all you see / Listen to these wedding bells, say goodbye to other girls”). But when the Queen herself appears in song lyrics, she is usually used only as a means, a figurehead of royalty with an almost ghostly presence.
The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” — originally titled “No Future” until the group realized the potential benefits of releasing the single just ahead of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations — may compare the monarchy to a fascist regime, but the lady itself hardly occurs in the text. It was about the fantasy world that Britain had entered for a few months in 1977, where economic collapse, the rise of the far right and major 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 more than arguing with her about the weather or how much sugar you want in your tea. There was John Cale’s “Graham Greene” (“You’re make small talk now with the queen”), while Billy Bragg’s “Rule Nor Reason” pictured her as bored and lonely – “She’s looking out the window and crying.” When Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys discovered that more people were visited by her in their dreams than anyone else when he wrote the melancholic “Dreaming of the Queen” in 1993. was essentially sad and vague: “The Queen said, ‘I am horrified, love never seems to last.'”
The Beatles’ “Her Majesty,” though long used by Lennon loyalists as evidence of Paul McCartney’s gentle MOR tendencies, was hardly a ringing endorsement of Elizabeth II’s personality: “Her Majesty’s quite a nice girl, but she doesn’t mean much.” The Queen returned to McCartney years later at her birthday celebrations. Composer Angelo Badalamenti, a frequent collaborator with director David Lynch, once recalled meeting McCartney on 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 would be, she said, “Mr. McCartney, I’m sorry I can’t stay.” He looked dejected. “Don’t you see?” She explained. “It’s five minutes to 8. I have to go upstairs and watch ‘Twin Peaks’.” (I’d like to think she’s seen season two.) Again, it’s hard to imagine any Brit thinking this is it a story they should repeat publicly, but Badalamenti had no such qualms.
While it’s hard to think of songs to personally defend or attack the Queen, the ’80s—packed with anti-Thatcher material—were also a heyday for anti-royalist rhetoric. The worst came from the Smiths, with Morrissey using the title track from The Queen Is Dead as a metaphor for Britain’s decline (true to his word, he left soon after, settling in Rome and California). At one point in the lyrics, he breaks into Buckingham Palace “with a sponge and a rusty wrench / She said ‘I know you and you can’t sing’ / I said ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play pianner.'” 1989, Wales “ Manic Street Preachers sang: “Repeat after me, f— Queen and country! Repeat after me, royal Khmer Rouge!” It was an original angle, but it at least changed the description of the monarchy as a fascist regime.
British indie pop band McCarthy, supporters of the extreme left Revolutionary Communist Party, were one of the few groups to write about our next monarch. We may know a lot more about Charles III than Elizabeth II – his views on architecture, what he thinks about the environment, and we’ve even seen the transcript of some sort of sex tape – but he hardly inspired any songs. He has no secret. In 1987’s “Charles Windsor,” McCarthy’s Malcolm Eden sang about “the rabble… the kind you hoped were dead, they’ve come to chop your head off,” 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 dreaming of Charles stopping by for tea.
The royal family is still seen as divisive, the most glaring example of the unacceptable establishment – Grime star Skepta claimed he turned down an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2017’s ‘Hypocrisy’. But the queen herself was almost always considered a relatively harmless figure, a blank slate for musicians to project onto. It’s no coincidence that one of the strangely most mysterious and obscure bands in British rock history, Queen have given themselves their self-important name.
When I went to a pub the night 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 a notch lower than usual – “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles, “Take Care” by Drake and Rihanna, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by the Hollies. Despite public statements to the contrary, people are less in grief and more insecure and worried about the future; We now have two brand new unelected personalities running the country. This is not Diana revisited. The likes of Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Elton John have expressed their personal sadness that a fixed point in their lives – the grandma of the nation – is no longer there. Of her more famous critics, John Lydon has gone to great pains to say that he never had anything against her personally; Morrissey’s politics, meanwhile, are somewhere to the right of rabid royalists.
However, some things never change – while all Saturday football and boxing matches were postponed as a mark of respect, sports for the more privileged classes such as rugby union, horse racing and grouse shooting all went on; the lower classes probably couldn’t be trusted to mourn in a civilized manner at sporting events. We should stay home and know our place. Personally, I’ve spent most of the last few days at home knowing where I am and worrying if this priceless Duke Ellington record is going to end up in a thrift store.
Bob Stanley, founding member of British music group Saint Etienne, is the author of Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2022-09-11/queen-elizabeth-sex-pistols-smiths-british-pop For British musicians, the Queen was as much cipher as enemy