Thursday, June 21, 2012

London Calling

When Britpop was in its prime, midway through the final decade of the last millennium, a thrusting young buck called Tony Blair came bounding down from the north-east of England to become Prime Minister of This Sceptred Isle™. Britain was, at the time, undergoing a purple patch of creative endeavour not seen since the 60s.

Indeed, such was the success of the 60s that Britain decided to recreate them in the 90s. For the Swinging Sixites, read the Loaded generation. There were artists pickling marine life (for David Bailey, read Damien Hirst) and London's Primrose Hill was fit to bursting with the cream of young British celebrity (for Caine, Stamp and Christie, read Law, Frost and Moss). Elsewhere, the country was draped, somewhat ironically, in red, white and blue. Britannia was Cool.

For a nation of natural cynics, which cherishes its heritage and loves the royals but regards all that America The Beautiful nonsense of our cousins over there a little bit, well, OTT, Britain was enjoying itself. To be seen wearing the Union Flag across your bosom (Geri Spice) or beneath the strings of your electric guitar (Gallagher, Noel) was not a misplaced and ever-so slightly gauche act of nationalism, but semi-ironic recognition that this little island of ours isn't that bad and, when you think about it, has contributed more good things to the world than the bad of its imperial past.

Today you can't go anywhere without seeing Union Flag-emblazoned sofas in furniture shops and the wartime legend KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON plastered on any printable surface. And I'm not just talking about London or anywhere else in the British Isles: Brit-chic is everywhere - even in Paris - where soft furnishings featuring the Jack are in vogue in the trendiest of home decoration boutiques.

Britannia is cool - again - or so it would appear. It has a charming new royal couple, a cheeky scamp of a prince who dates blondes, flies attack helicopters and hangs out in nightclubs, while the collective "Firm" of the House of Windsor has reanimated the world's love affair with it by celebrating Her Majesty's 60-years of majesty. And, as a neat coda to all that pomp, ceremony and ice cream, even the England football team is obliging us with a run in Euro 2012. For now.

If the world hasn't had enough of London flypasts and flagwaving for one year, 36 days from now the Olympic torch will arrive in the capital for what has been promised - by Boris Johnson, largely, so blame him if it doesn't work out -  to be the greatest celebration of Britain in living memory: the 2012 Summer Olympic Games - the Games of the XXX Olympiad. 

Such is the excitement about London 2012 that the BBC has moved to Salford, which is near Manchester and therefore not in London, and London cab drivers will universally - and gladly - tell you that they'll be spending the entire games on a beach - Canvey Island, Magaluf, Margate, doesn't matter, just anywhere that doesn't involve driving through a choked city. If you're coming to London, bring walking shoes or curb your claustrophobia by using the Underground. 

Snarkiness aside, the world has been promised a party, and a party they will get. Again, blame Boris - the cunning politician masquerading as a blond buffoon - if that doesn't work out, but it was he who, amid Jimmy Page, David Beckham and a Routemaster bus in Beijing, vowed a celebration.

As with any decent party, someone has made a mix tape. And like any playlist it will delight, divide, baffle and broach conflict in equal measure. Earlier this week, someone "leaked" this planned soundtrack for the opening ceremony of the Games, which is being compiled by the ceremony's co-musical directors, Underworld's Karl Hyde and Rick Smith.

On first inspection the playlist looks like a combination of the obvious and the in-joke, but that would be a harsh assessment of a program designed to last three hours and offer something for everyone - visitor and incumbent.

So what will we get, as we watch fireworks and garishly-clad athletes parading around the half-a-billion-pound stadium?

If the leaked playlist is correct, Hyde and Smith's sense of irony is certainly intact, kicking off the shindig with Drummond's Eton Boating Song, followed by the always rousing Land Of Hope And Glory, before letting The Jam loose with Going Underground, as bold a tribute to kitchen sink Britain as anything to come out of the post-punk era.

Later on, the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen and Pretty Vacant (yes, we get it - and Lydon's now advertising butter...) and, perhaps, the most obvious inclusion of all - London Calling.

From the themes to EastEnders and Coronation Street to the chimes of Big Ben, the opening of London 2012 will leave no musical reference to the dear old lady of London untouched.

Prog rock - Floyd's Eclipse ("All that you...touch/see/taste/feel/love/hate/distrust/save/give/deal/buy/steal/create/destroy/do/say/eat") and two tracks from Muse (Map Of The Problematique and Uprising) - lies alongside with Elgar, Handel, Jerusalem and the always-spine tingling Cup Final anthem, Abide With Me.

There will be cinematic pomp - The Dambusters March (which I'm sure will go down well with Germany), 80s synth pop - OMD's Enola Gay (which I'm sure will go down well with the Japanese squad, especially as it will apparently precede the Sugababes' Push The Button...), West End musicals (Food, Glorious Food from Oliver!) and saucy English seaside postcard smut (The Stripper).

The more you look at the list, the more you come to think that Hyde and Smith have been handed the gig of the year in compiling it. Forget Danny Boyle with his Bond-themed opening film, the real fun,  I suspect, was in drawing up the usual suspects, and then augmenting them with a ribald twist. 

The obvious - a liberal sprinkling of The Beatles (She Loves YouThe End and Hey Jude), the Rolling Stones (Satisfaction, inevitably), The Kinks (All Day And All Of The Night), The 'Oo (My Generationand Bowie's Heroes - mix with the less obvious: Trampled Under Foot by Led Zeppelin (Stairway To Heaven would probably have been just a little too, you-know..., but why not Whole Lotta Love as Jimmy Page played in Beijing?).

As proud as we Brits should be for our classic rock heritage, the playlist denotes generous time to more contemporary London fare, such as Tinie Tempah's Pass Out and Random Antics by Kano & Mikey J. British dance culture is also properly represented by The Chemical Brothers (Galvanise), Prodigy's Firestarter (just to please Health & Safety...) and, of course, Underworld with their own Born Slippy, which will hopefully not turn up during the aquatic events.

Thematically, there will be Chariots Of Fire by Vangelis, who is Greek and will probably welcome the royalties, while Queen and the Dame's Under Pressure reflects the reputation of London's organisational skills as much as the demands about to be placed on the atheletes. 

The decades that British music has given to the global soundtrack are equally reflected, though strange to see nothing before 1962. Surely Peter Sellers' Any Old Iron or Lonnie Donegan's Rock Island Line - the skiffle song that launched the careers of most British rock stars born in the '50s, could have been found a place amongst the TV theme tunes and other ecoterica?

But that's the fun of a playlist: it's a provocation to good-natured argument, as Nick Hornby captured so well in High Fidelity (the book...). It is why athletes who have spent the last four - even eight - gruelling years preparing for these games, will be swooned by a lovey-dovey tune about a bloke who's had a few too many and is asking his better half to drive him home. Yep, I'm not entirely sure what you're supposed to do to Eric Clapton's Wonderful Tonight while walking around a running track either. Eric is a national hero, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and I'm proud to be from (sort of) his neck of the woods, but is WT the best representation of his canon and the British blues boom he helped fuel? Surely Cream's Crossroads would have been better - a distinctly British interpretation of a song foundered in the heat of Mississippi.

And then there is Billie Jean by Michael Jackson. Why? On one hand, a good party song, but unless it is some obscure reference to the famously saphic, six-times Wimbledon Ladies Champion, I can't understand its inclusion, thematically or otherwise. I do have a theory, however: Jacko was, once, bizarrely paraded at Fulham FC's Craven Cottage ground during half time of a fixture with West Ham, whose fans sing I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles (also on the list). It is said that the entire crowd welcomed Jacko by singing this song...only with a markedly different purpose altogether...

So, progressing through the 1970s, Mud's Tiger Feet (an absolutely fantastic inclusion) and more Bowie (Starman) remind us of how much music injected colour to the otherwise drab British landscape of the decade, which was spent mostly on strike. For the 1980s - the decade that began with Thatcher, recession and war in the Falklands before erupting in a many-hued puffball skirt of  party exuberence - we'll have Duran Duran, The Eurythmics, New Order, Frankie Goes To Hollywood (Relax - my, how we've moved on as a nation...) and Soul II Soul.

And then we reach the 1990s. The circle of the 60s is turned fully with Wonderwall, an acknowledgement of Noel Gallagher's songwriting simplicity, a feature shared with Paul McCartney. Strange, though not to see one or two of the Oasis crowdpleasers - say Cigarettes And Alcohol, for a laugh, or Roll With It. Instead, The Hindu Times is on the list - a hit, but hardly a signature hit. 

Blur, on the other hand, are represented by Song 2 - a no brainer, some might say, even if it's overuse by American "sports" broadcasters has started to render it a tad annoying. Radiohead feature with Creep, presumably a reference to the speed with which London's traffic will progress for the Games' duration. Strangely, though, there's no room for Pulp, despite Lord Jarvis of Cocker hawking the Eurostar service on television adverts encouraging France to come and see what London took away from Paris. Ouch.

Looking back over the last 50 years of music represented by this list, it does warm the cockles to see just how good British music has been, and continues to be. The Arctic Monkeys' I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor is a fitting tribute to Alex Turner's gnarled pop senisibility, not to mention his prolific endeavour, while the good times will roll with the Kaisers' I Predict A Riot (ha-ha, ho-ho, he-he...) and Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out.

For a contrast in fortunes, Amy Winehouse's zoot-suited version of Valerie will be heard in quick succession with Coldplay's Viva La Vida (not Clocks?) and then Adele's Rolling In The Deep. The Tottenham Tenor couldn't or shouldn't be ignored for an event like this, especially as she is single-handedly maintaining the UK's GDP with sales of 19 and 21, which between them now represent Britain's biggest export industry, ahead of Japanese cars made in Sunderland and Swindon, and the port wing of Airbus airliners made in Wales (don't you just love European collaboration?). 

Can we derive any Britishness from all this? Will this three-hour mix tape have us reaching for the Union Jack boxer shorts? Hard to say: Olympic ceremonies are hardly my cup of tea, but if this leaked list is the real deal, it would be fair to say that Karl Hyde and Rick Smith will pull off one of the more remarkable feats of London 2012 - drawing up a playlist that represents the good, the bad and the ugly of Britain and British music, from the serious to the silly, and - such as Ron Grainer's Doctor Who theme and Monty Python's The Liberty Bell - the humour that defines us Brits, and which probably only we will get.

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