There’s another Royal rumble underway, and this time it’s Oprah Winfrey shaking down the Palace gates. The row between Buckingham Palace and dissident Royals the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – aka Meghan and Harry – continues to feed the tabloids and the trending bar. Meghan Markle has claimed she experienced racism within ‘The Firm’, as the Monarchy has become known, while they’ve alleged that she ‘bullied’ Palace staff. Weird, because the Royal Family always seemed like such a healthy institution…
Anyway, it’s a grim state of affairs, no doubt, and one that has dragged the Monarchy’s reputation through the mud once again. But anti-Royal sentiment has long since coursed through British music: treasonous punk protest did brisk business around the 1977 Royal Jubilee (more of which later), highlighting a rich seam of inspiration that continued to produce great songs into the independent ‘80s, and we’ve recently had red-hot missives from modern oik upstarts such as Slowthai and Bob Vylan.
Tear down that bunting and let’s have a look, shall we?
Manic Street Preachers, ‘Repeat (UK)’ (1992)
Back when Manics were subverting glam metal clichés for their own deliciously anti-establishment ends on explosive debut album ‘Generation Terrorists’, they took aim at the Windsors with a crunching, riff-tastic monster that dubbed them “imitation demi-gods” and their supporters “dumb flag scum”. Grab your megaphone and get in the car – we’re off to do donuts around Buckingham Palace.
Crowning lyric: “Repeat after me / ‘Fuck Queen and country’”
Bob Vylan, ‘England’s Ending’ (2020)
A general lament about the state of an Empire-obsessed nation that, in the wake of Brexit and amid soaring coronavirus cases, foreign newspapers nicknamed “Plague Island”, this bassy, punk-rap grinder sees frontman Bobby Vylan mutter, “kill the fucking Queen”, before snarling through a litany of modern ills, from stop-and-search to the housing crisis. The song’s most controversial line was clearly not to be taken seriously, but did prove that punk still harnessed the power to shock in 2020.
Crowning lyric: “This country’s in dire need of a fucking spanking, mate”
Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, ‘Heatongrad’ (2015)
Similarly, this rollicking track finds the King and Queen of British alternative pop decrying the shit tip of UK culture – the Army, the Government, lads’ mags, Richard Branson; you name it – though the musical backdrop of knockabout rockabilly guitar suggests they have their tongues even further in their cheeks than Vylan.
Crowning lyric: “Fuck the King and fuck the Queen”
The Stone Roses, ‘Elizabeth My Dear’ (1989)
These days Ian Brown’s probably too busy arguing with a biological disaster to get too riled up by a little thing like the Monarchy, but here he makes his point with uncharacteristic subtlety, crooning his resistance over soothing, arpeggiated guitar. The ditty lasts only 53 seconds and sounds like an ancient folk song; the effect is weird and otherworldly, as if he’s in dialogue with centuries of sorrow and discontent.
Crowning lyric: “I’ll not rest / ‘Tll she’s lost her throne”
The Smiths, ‘The Queen Is Dead’ (1986)
Ah, another righteous ‘80s indie rocker who turned out to be a wrongun. On the title track to Moz and the gang’s classic 1986 album, the noted anti-Royalist conjures a fabulously camp tale in which he breaks into the palace “with a sponge and rusty spanner”, only to learn – shock horror! – that he’s “the 18th pale descendant of some old Queen or other”. Far from a mere flight of fancy, it’s actually based on the real-life story of average joe Michael Fagan, who did indeed hop over the Palace gates and let himself into the Queen’s bedroom in 1982, as depicted in the recent series of The Crown.
Crowning lyric: “I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave / To appear on the front of The Daily Mail / Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?”
Suzanne Vega, ‘The Queen and the Soldier’ (1985)
On this thoughtful, meditative acoustic guitar ballad, Californian singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega draws a nuanced portrait of a solider who begins to question his allegiance to Queen and country, a doubt that creeps up on him like that of a religious person beginning to lose faith. Vega’s soldier confronts the Queen directly, telling her that he’d rather taste freedom outside the establishment: “Your Highness, your ways are very strange.” Reader, it does not end well for him.
Crowning lyric: “The soldier came knocking upon the Queen’s door / He said, ‘I am not fighting for you any more'”
The Sex Pistols, ‘God Save The Queen’ (1997)
So, we’re back to the Royal Jubilee of 1977. It’s hard to imagine, in our enlightened times, the hullabaloo that twinkly eyed punk Svengali Malcolm McLaren kicked up when he had his Sex Pistols board a boat on the Thames and play a raging gig to wreck the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations (they were arrested a few songs in). The BBC refused to spin it, but that didn’t stop the song from reaching Number One on the much more important NME chart.
Crowning lyric: “God save the Queen / She ain’t no human being”
Slowthai, ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ (2020)
“Hand on my heart / I swear I’m proud to be British”, British-Bajan punk-rapper Slowthai insists on the title track to his incendiary 2019 debut album, which explores his love for a country that treats him – a working-class, mixed-race citizen – as an outsider, and the frustrations that this breeds. Like Moz, he imagines himself breaking into the Queen’s gaff, but this time he’s swigging “a bottle of Bucky in Buckingham Palace”, beguiled and repulsed by the opulence it represents.
Crowning lyric: “I will treat you with the utmost respect / Only if you respect me a little bit, Elizabeth… you cunt”
Pet Shop Boys, ‘Dreaming of the Queen’ (1993)
With its tasteful washes of synth, this is an aural pastel portrait in which frontman Neil Tennant dreams of an encounter with the Monarch and Princess Diana. Here, the figurehead merely seems stuffy and out of touch – “The Queen said, “I’m aghast / Love never seems to last” – and it’s been suggested that the song is an allegory about different generations’ attitudes to the AIDS crisis.
Crowning lyric: “I was in the nude / The old Queen disapproved”
Blur, ‘This Is A Low’ (1994)
As with Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott and Bob Vylan’s contributions to the canon, this understated, melancholy tune sees Damon and the lads shake their heads at the sorry state of the country they call home, the Queen a symbol for cultural stasis and inequality. You sort of figure Prince Harry was always more into Blur than Oasis, don’t you?
Crowning lyric: “And the Queen, she’s gone round the bend / Jumped off Land’s End”