Ceremony put British music in spotlight

Ceremony put British music in spotlight

Published Jul. 27, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

It's not a concert, Danny Boyle stressed. It's about the athletes.

In a very real way, though, the director of the Olympic opening ceremony was wrong.

While sports are the heart of the Olympics, music — loud, bold, world-conquering British music, amplified in the most global of settings — was the booming beat Friday night.

One of Boyle's stated aims was to showcase ''the best of us'' — and ever since the Beatles and the Rolling Stones appropriated American blues, country and rock and remade them into something new, the best of British has been music.


Music ran like a river through Boyle's ''Isles of Wonder'' extravaganza, which depicted a Britain brutally wrenched from its rural past by industrialization and upheaval before being thrust into a fast, uncertain, exciting new world — all propelled by the throb of homegrown music.

It began gently, with Edward Elgar, the hymn ''Jerusalem'' and ''Danny Boy'' — but soon started to rock.

Olympic ceremonies often play it safe. But Boyle, who brought in the electronic duo Underworld as musical directors, gave his show a cheeky edge. The Sex Pistols, once the outrageous face of punk, were included with their song ''Pretty Vacant.'' Boyle even slipped in a few bars of the Pistols' snarling ''God Save the Queen'' (''the fascist regime'') early on — although he respectfully did it before Queen Elizabeth II herself had entered the stadium.

Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway said including the Pistols was typical of Boyle's ''wit and guts.''

''Normally it would be brushed over, but the punk spirit which is in Britain was written through the ceremony,'' he said. ''Anyone cynical about this has no lust for life. It's just bloody brilliant.''

In parts, it was like a Union Jack jukebox — a medley of tracks from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Queen, the Specials and the Jam, the Stone Roses and Eurythmics, and what seemed like dozens more.

The list spanned generations, from The Who's ''My Generation'' right up to live performances from two of the hottest homegrown acts of the moment: grime star Dizzee Rascal — who performed his hit ''Bonkers'' — singer Emeli Sande and the band Arctic Monkeys.

The musical melange continued during the athletes parade, with members of the 204 national teams circling the track to everything from ''West End Girls'' by the Pet Shop Boys and ''Rolling in the Deep'' by Adele.

The British squad entered to a roar of applause — and Bowie's anthem-like ''Heroes,'' while Pink Floyd played during the fireworks display.

It was only fitting that a former Beatle, Paul McCartney, closed the show, leading a mass singalong of ''Hey Jude.''

The amazing thing about the outpouring was how endless it seemed — a reminder that British music, decade after decade, has retained its genius.

Could any other country have pulled off a similar homegrown aural feast? The United States, certainly. But Boyle reminded Britain how much it has to be proud of — and the clapping, cheering, singing 60,000-strong crowd loved him for it.

Broadcast to a television audience estimated at 1 billion, it played like an excellent ad for Cool Britannia 2.0.

Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg spoke for many when he tweeted: ''Impressive though (the opening ceremony) in Beijing was, they didn't have any great pop music to play, did they?''

And if you haven't heard enough, have no fear — Universal Music said an album of the ceremony soundtrack would be on sale ''within moments'' of the ceremony ending.