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British pop music has a fraught relationship with Queen Elizabeth

Members of the English punk band the Sex Pistols. From left: Lead singer and songwriter John Joseph Lydon, drummer Paul Cook, bass guitarist John Simon Ritchie and guitarist Steve Jones.
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John Mead/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Members of the English punk band the Sex Pistols. From left: Lead singer and songwriter John Joseph Lydon, drummer Paul Cook, bass guitarist John Simon Ritchie and guitarist Steve Jones.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has elicited empathy from some British pop artists. Elton John, for instance, paid tribute to the queen at a concert earlier this week.

But the relationship between British pop and the late monarch has long been much more fraught.

Until the 1970s, the Queen of England pretty much only made innocuous cameo appearances in British pop songs. The Beatles' "Penny Lane" is a case in point, with the whimsical lyric, "Penny Lane, there is a fireman with an hourglass/And in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen."

The sentiments changed after The Sex Pistols released "God Save the Queen" in 1977.

The song, which the punk band released in tandem with the Queen's Silver Jubilee, equates the monarchy with a right-wing dictatorship.

"It really is an indictment of the system," said Paul McEwan, a professor of media and communications at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, where he teaches a class on pop music history. "By using the title, 'God Save the Queen,' obviously you're invoking the national anthem and making it about more than just her."

McEwan said a slew of songs that followed in the 1980s — a time of high unemployment and unassailable class divides in the UK — continued to attack the queen for her symbolic status.

Including a comical scene that references a real-life break-in at Buckingham Palace ("So I broke into the palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner/She said, 'I know you, and you cannot sing'/I said, 'That's nothing, you should hear me play the piano'") "The Queen is Dead" by The Smiths pokes fun at Elizabeth. The 1986 track views the monarch as the figurehead of a dissolute empire.

English rock band The Smiths in March 1984. From left: bassist Andy Rourke, lead singer and songwriter Morrissey (center), drummer Mike Joyce and guitarist and songwriter Johnny Marr.
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Harry Prosser/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
English rock band The Smiths in March 1984. From left: bassist Andy Rourke, lead singer and songwriter Morrissey (center), drummer Mike Joyce and guitarist and songwriter Johnny Marr.

McEwan said this wave of anti-monarchy music, largely driven by white people, subsided in the 1990s as this segment of the population's economic prospects started to improve.

"And so there's a little less of that deep anger, much as there's still plenty of poverty in Britain," he said.

But the financial pressures and racism faced by the country's many citizens with roots in Britain's former colonies largely continued to grow.

A new batch of songs targeting the queen by acts like slowthai and Bob Vylan have emerged in recent years from the UK's hip-hop community. These tracks are even more direct than their punk and alt-rock predecessors.

Slowthai's "Nothing Great About Britain" and "England's Ending" by the band Bob Vylan criticize the monarch's greed.

For example, the Bob Vylan track begins with a direct, f-bomb-laced order to kill the queen, and goes on to explain why:

"'Cause England's ending, death's still pending/Where's that money you spent?/Work all week, still work on weekends/Still can't pay my rent/Times are tough/I've had enough."

Bobby Vylan of Bob Vylan performs on day 3 of the Leeds Festival on August 29, 2021.
Katja Ogrin / Katja Ogrin/EMPICS Entertainment/PA Images/Reuters Connect
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Katja Ogrin/EMPICS Entertainment/PA Images/Reuters Connect
Bobby Vylan of Bob Vylan performs on day 3 of the Leeds Festival on August 29, 2021.

Bob Vylan frontman Bobby Vylan (the other band member, who plays the drums, goes by the name Bob Vylan) said the late monarch still owes a debt to Britain's Black and brown families.

"She never came to my house personally and took food out of my fridge," the rapper and songwriter said. "But our families, our community, our ancestors suffered at the hands of this monarchy."

Vylan said the band plans to perform the song on their upcoming U.S. tour this fall. Now that Elizabeth has died, they're considering updating the lyrics to talk about King Charles.

Meanwhile, former Smiths frontman, Morrissey, still apparently espouses anti-royalist sentiments. The cover of his recent solo album, Low in High School, shows a boy holding up a sign that says "Axe The Monarchy." But pop music scholar McEwan noted both Morrissey and John Lydon, the Sex Pistols' singer (known back then as Johnny Rotten) identify with far-right-wing politics these days. Lydon has been a vocal supporter of former U.S. President Donald Trump. Morrissey has shown allegiance with the far-right political party For Britain.

"It's an ugly turn," McEwan said. "I don't quite know what to make of it, that these two people who had these anti-monarchy songs, both became, really unusually for pop music, right-wingers."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.