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Julie Burchill

The punk paradox of monarchism

The punk paradox of monarchism
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It seems incredible that, 45 years ago, a pop group – the Sex Pistols – could release a record on a respectable label (A&M, founded by Herb Alpert, home of the Carpenters) in which they claimed, probably somewhat rashly, that our glorious monarch was not a human being. These days such sentiments are confined to the outer reaches of conspiracy theory nuttiness.

I recall the politician William Hamilton, who nowadays would be very unlikely to be elected, forever popping up on prime time television calling the Queen ‘a clockwork doll’, Princess Margaret ‘a floozy’ and Prince Charles ‘a twerp’. Oddly, as society has become less deferential, it appears to have become more monarchist. Even those half-witted backers of the runaway Sussexes didn’t want the monarchy to fall – instead they were irked that the couple were not afforded the full trappings of privilege, such as the title of prince for their first-born. It’s as if disillusionment with politicians, has benefited not revolutionaries but reactionaries – royalty. Indeed, Prince Charles is often spoken of as a man whose ‘time has come’ with reference to ecology fears, his wacky views on everything from architecture to bloodsports conveniently swept under the Royal Axminster.

The most paradoxical monarchism comes from the world of popular music. Rock music grew up with and fuelled the rejection of deference in the 1960s – but these days, it’s not just that no label would dream of releasing 'God Save The Queen’, I can’t imagine any pop star even being cheeky, like The Beatles were when they told the rich people in the audience (including Princess Margaret) to ‘rattle your jewellery’. Every branch of entertainment is now totally royal-licking – how did the cultural cringe of one-time rebel music become so complete?

Well, so many of those old rockers grasped at any old honour that was dangled in front of their bedazzled eyes. David Bowie was an exception, refusing both a CBE and a knighthood: ‘It's not what I spent my life working for. It's not my place to make a judgement on Jagger. But it's just not for me.’ The splendid Keith Richards had no such reservations, telling Uncut that he ‘went fucking berserk’ on hearing the glad tidings: ‘I thought it was ludicrous to take one of those gongs from the establishment when they did their very best to throw us in jail and kill us at one time… it’s not what the Stones is about, is it? I don’t want to step on stage with someone wearing a fucking coronet and sporting the old ermine.’ Then of course there’s the way music – like every other fun job from journalism to modelling – has been colonised by the spawn of the wealthy. During one week in October 2010, 60 per cent of chart acts had been educated at private schools, compared to 1 per cent during the same week in 1990. Whatever the reason, the weekend ‘Platinum Party At The Palace’ seemed grimly inevitable, now that almost every pop performance is a royal command performance.

It’s perhaps a tribute to her sagacity that the Queen herself (whose favourite singer is said to be George Formby) didn’t actually attend, though she did a little filmed introduction with Paddington Bear which ended with her playing the intro to ‘We Will Rock You’ on a teacup with a spoon. This song has become such a terrace favourite that it’s interesting to note how extraordinarily reactionary the lyrics are – ‘Buddy, you're a young man, hard man/Shouting in the street, gonna take on the world someday/You got blood on your face, you big disgrace/Waving your banner all over the place… Somebody better put you back into your place.’ 

Perchance she stayed away feeling existential despair at the idea of having to sit through Elton John changing the lyrics to ‘Candle In The Wind’ once more – perhaps as a tribute to the last of the corgis, Willow, to die. Instead, he sent a pre-recorded clip of himself yodelling ‘Your Song’ at Windsor Palace. Craig David clearly inserted the word 'Queen' into one of his raps but you couldn't really hear the rest of the words so he could have been saying anything really and Diversity did a dance about the history of pop that conveniently managed to leave out – yes! – punk. The other strange concession to Her Maj's feelings was when George Ezra played his new single, which has the chorus, 'You'd better throw a party on the day that I die' – evidently someone thought that'd be tempting fate a tad so they just had him sing, 'You'd better throw a party' instead, which actually sounded faintly threatening. The best thing was Diana Ross, who came as an unsteady chambermaid and, though she gave a short 'Thank you, Ma'am' gasp, clearly thought that it was all about her, which, by then, it was. Because everyone else basically sounded like a warm-up for Amateur Night at The Queen Vic.

It was ironic that trailers for the new Sex Pistols project were airing at the same time as we were being force-fed Jubilee jollity like a nation of geese getting ready to cough up the foie gras, John Lydon dismissing the Disney/Danny Boyle production as ‘a middle-class fantasy… Disney have stolen the past and created a fairytale, which bears little resemblance to the truth.’ It’s worth noting that Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics did the same thing, melding the Queen, James Bond and The Beatles into family-friendly invalid food. The Queen, like the NHS, has now become sacrosanct all across what passes for the political spectrum.

I don’t wish to be a killjoy; I’ve always had a problem with state-sanctioned fun, being a rebellious sort, and as Miss Jean Brodie might have said ‘For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like’. But I thought of that mint copy of the Pistols ‘God Save The Queen’ which sold for £13,000 at auction a few years back and reflected that if – to paraphrase the Pistols' great rivals the Clash – ‘turning rebellion into money’ is bad, turning rebellion into forelock-tugging is even worse.