Mirrorpix/John Mead/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
The death of Queen Elizabeth II has aroused empathy from some British pop artists. Elton John, for example, paid tribute to the Queen during a concert earlier this week.
But the relationship between British pop and the late monarch has long been much more strained.
Until the 1970s, the Queen of England made little more than innocuous appearances in British pop songs. The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” is a good example, with the whimsical lyrics “Penny Lane, there’s a firefighter with an hourglass/And in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen”.
Feelings changed after the Sex Pistols released “God Save the Queen” in 1977.
The song, which the punk band released in tandem with Queen’s Silver Jubilee, equates the monarchy with a right-wing dictatorship.
“It’s really an indictment of the system,” said Paul McEwan, a professor of media and communications at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, where he teaches a course in pop music history. “By using the title, ‘God Save the Queen’, you’re obviously invoking the national anthem and doing more than it does.”
McEwan said a string of songs that followed in the 1980s – a time of high unemployment and unassailable class divisions in the UK – continued to attack the Queen for her symbolic status.
Including a comedic scene that references an actual burglary at Buckingham Palace (“So I broke into the palace with a sponge and a rusty key / She said, ‘I know you and you can’t sing’ / I said, ‘It’s nothing, you should hear me play the piano'”) The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead” pokes fun at Elizabeth. The 1986 track sees the monarch as the figurehead of a dissolute empire.
Harry Prosser/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
McEwan said this wave of anti-monarchy music, driven largely by whites, died down in the 1990s as economic prospects for that segment of the population began to improve.
“And so there’s a little less of that deep anger, just like there’s still a lot of poverty in Britain,” he said.
But the financial pressures and racism faced by the country’s many citizens with roots in Britain’s former colonies have largely continued to grow.
A new batch of songs targeting the queen by acts like slowthai and Bob Vylan have emerged in recent years from the hip-hop community in the UK. These tracks are even more direct than their punk and alt-rock predecessors.
Slowthai’s ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ and Bob Vylan’s ‘England’s Ending’ criticize the monarch’s greed.
For example, Bob Vylan’s lead begins with a direct f-bomb order to kill the queen, and goes on to explain why:
“Cause England is ending, death’s still pending/Where’s that money you spent?/Working all week, still working weekends/I still can’t pay my rent/Times are hard/I’ve had enough.”
Katja Ogrin/Katja Ogrin/EMPICS Entertainment/PA Images/Reuters Connect
Bob Vylan frontman Bobby Vylan (the band’s other member, who plays drums, is called Bob Vylan) said the late monarch still owes a debt to black and brown British families.
“She never personally came to my house and took food out of my fridge,” the rapper and songwriter said. “But our families, our community, our ancestors suffered at the hands of this monarchy.”
Vylan said the band planned to perform the song on their upcoming US tour this fall. Now that Elizabeth is dead, they plan to update the lyrics to be about King Charles.
Meanwhile, former Smiths frontman Morrissey apparently still espouses anti-royalist sentiments. The cover of his recent solo album, Weak in high school, shows a boy holding up a sign that reads “Axe the Monarchy”. But pop music scholar McEwan noted that Morrissey and Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon (known at the time as Johnny Rotten) identify with far-right politics these days. Lydon has been a strong supporter of former US President Donald Trump. Morrissey has pledged allegiance to the far-right political party For Britain.
“It’s a nasty turn,” McEwan said. “I’m not sure what to think about it, that these two people who had these anti-monarchy songs, both became, really unusual for pop music, right-wing people.”