With the passing of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, a historic 70-year reign comes to a close. And while Elizabeth’s was a sovereignty that came with great joy, pain and controversy, it was also a monarchy touched by the songs of the pop-cultural 20th century. Ascending to the throne as she did in 1952, Elizabeth inspired affectionate music from the Beatles in the 1960s, followed by more confrontational music from the Sex Pistols and other punk groups from the 1970s onward. Whether they loved royals or mocked them, U.K. artists couldn’t resist invoking the figurehead of a nation.
Here are 10 of Euro-pop’s finest moments dedicated to or inspired by Queen Elizabeth II:
The Beatles, “Her Majesty” (1969)
Tacked onto what seems like the close of their “Abbey Road” album, this kiss of a track, written by Paul McCartney and unlisted on the album’s initial sleeve, is a salute to his Queen performed a la the strains of England’s traditional music hall genre. At just under 25 seconds, McCartney looks at Elizabeth as “a pretty nice girl” who “doesn’t have a lot to say” and “changes from day to day” — and yet is still the object of his eye. “Someday I’m going to make her mine, oh yeah. Someday I’m going to make her mine,” he sings before the track’s abrupt stop. Maybe it’s tongue-in-cheek and maybe Paul is taking the piss, but it’s still the sweetest 25 seconds in pop.
The Sex Pistols. “God Save the Queen” (1977)
Released during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 as the Sex Pistols’ second single, the single revealed that the only person with more to say against Elizabeth than snot-nosed singer and lyricist Johnny Rotten was the sleeve’s cover artist, Jamie Reid, who defaced the Queen’s visage with hostage-taking lettering. As for the song itself, its muscular guitars and aggressive rhythms still provide ample, contagious backing for Rotten’s catcalls such as “She ain’t no human being / There is no future / In England’s dreaming.” Of course, it wasn’t really Elizabeth herself he was upset with. This year, to prove it was nothing personal, the artist now known as John Lydon even said, “God bless the Queen. She’s put up with a lot,” he writes. “I’ve got no animosity against any one of the royal family. Never did. It’s the institution of it that bothers me and the assumption that I’m to pay for that.”
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Pet Shop Boys, “Dreaming of the Queen” (1993)
Neil Tennant, another in a short line of Noel Coward-ites, imagines a tea party with himself, the Queen and the late Lady Diana where Elizabeth is “aghast that love never seems to last,” only to hear Di cry “that there are no more lovers left alive.” By song’s end, the narrator is the nude, the Queen is put off, and everyone wants an autograph. Impressive dreamscape, that.
The Smiths, “The Queen is Dead” (1986)
Only post-punk’s answer to Noel Coward, the lit-witty Morrissey, could take on the potential decline of the monarchy and the British press’ fascination with the Royal family with such icy, catty aplomb and sniper-like precision.
Billy Bragg, “Rule Nor Reason” (1997)
One of Britain’s finest protest songwriters portrayed Her Royal Highness not so much in a mean or bloodless light, but rather as a lonely, cataclysmic figure to the strains of an accordion’s wheeze: “The Queen on her throne plays Shirley Bassey records when she’s all on her own / And she looks out the window and cries.” Aw.
The Stone Roses, “Elizabeth My Dear” (1989)
Like the Beatles, Ian Brown’s Stone Roses kept their Queen rhetoric short. But not so sweet this time. In a minute-long track, Brown performs a lurching, sing-song-y lullaby take on “Scarborough Fair” with bracingly anti-monarch lyrics.
Slowthai, “Nothing Great About Britain” (2019)
There’s not a lot of hip-hop that has much to do with the monarchy. So to find British rapper and lyricist Slowthai look at all that was disastrous and depressed in England at the time of its release was oddly refreshing. “I will treat you with the utmost respect, only if you respect me a little bit,” he sings.
Lee “Scratch” Perry, “Queen Elizabeth’s Pum Pum” (2010)
Taken from the Japanese release of Perry’s “The Mighty Upsetter” (produced by Adrian Sherwood), only the rude master of dub and lord of ganja could get away with referring to the Queen quite so… well, shall we say: intimately. And yet, Perry and Sherwood treat their Queen to a lovely ambient track with salty brass figures.
The Housemartins, “Flag Day” (1985)
Before there was a Damon Albarn and Blur, Paul Heaton’s Housemartins were the epitome of smart-aleck Brit-pop with a snarky twist, and a song such as “Flag Day” looks at the monarchy and its need of money with a jaundiced eye. “Try shaking a box in front of the Queen / ‘Cause her purse is fat and bursting at the seams / It’s a waste of time if you know what they mean.”
Leon Rosselson, “On Her Silver Jubilee” (2011)
Ending this list on a lovely, albeit resigned, grace note is children’s author and singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson. On the folky “On Her Silver Jubilee,” he looks at the start of the Queen’s reign in 1953 to her becoming a punk target in 1977 with a realist’s hand, making fun of the commercial aspects of all her pageantry.
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