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[whitespace] Ricky Martin
Photograph by Pablo Alfaro

Ricky shook his royal bonbon.

Queen for a Day

British rock hails the Queen of England, but why?

By Gina Arnold

THE DAY of Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee, I took a cab across London. It was a journey I'd taken many times that week, and it had never taken less than an hour and a half, but on this day it took 15 minutes. The traffic was so light it was eerie, as if one of those smart bombs that kills all the people and leaves the buildings intact had fallen.

Maybe everyone in all of London was gathered in St. James Park to watch Brian May play "God Save the Queen" on the roof of Buckingham Palace, I thought. I was only joking, but in fact, that's exactly what had happened: an incredible 1 million souls--one-eighth of London's entire population--had turned up in the pouring rain to see the former member of Queen play for the current queen.

Queen Elizabeth's 50th anniversary means nothing in America, but in England it really was a big deal, especially since it coincided with England's opening match in this year's World Cup. The team tied with Sweden, and it rained on the Queen's parade. Thus it was not the "greatest party weekend ever," as signs and billboards around town proclaimed. Nor was it the greatest concert ever, although it was both fascinating and hilarious.

After May's performance of "God Save the Queen," the stage was taken by Ricky Martin, who is a queen of sorts himself, though not by any stretch of the imagination English. I couldn't figure it out exactly: I thought the performers were all supposed to be celebrating England's contribution to popular music--arguably the best and brightest cultural contribution to occur during the queen's 50-year reign. But if that was the case, why were Martin, Tony Bennett and Brian Wilson there--and what was the lengthy tribute to Motown sound (featuring Emma Bunton) all about?

The pop concert--which also featured highly British acts like Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Ray Davies, Ozzy Osbourne and Paul McCartney--featured some incredibly great moments, but whoever arranged the show had a very strange idea of rock history. England has, of course, played a significant part in the annals of pop music, but it has done so as much after the year 1972 as before. Where was David Bowie? Elvis Costello? Anyone from the punk or Britpop years? Radiohead? Blur? Oasis?

A best-case scenario is that these acts were asked and declined, but I doubt it. I think the powers that be just decided that all the best British rock was written in the late '60s. This concert was so heavy on oldsters that the newspaper reported the next day that the average age of the artists involved was 56. For me, the musical highlight of the evening was Rod Stewart doing "Handbags and Gladrags," a song about social climbing and social class that practically sounded political under the circumstances and that reinstated him in my heart as one of rock's great talents. But one could be forgiven for thinking that Paul McCartney's "Her Majesty" and "Blackbird," as well as his poignant duet with Eric Clapton on the late George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," were well and truly up there. John Lennon was eulogized as well.

It was also highly enjoyable to see Ozzy Osbourne singing "Paranoid" on the palace lawn, while Princes Harry and William cheered--and even more fun to watch him shake Queen Liz's hand, hug Elton John and sway side to side singing "All You Need Is Love" on the encore. The concert was full of funny moments like that, some of which worked well enough to offset all the other questions, such as "Who's paying for this?" "What does it mean?" and "Need the queen be such a sour old git?"

When it was over, the sky lit up with fireworks over the palace, and England, we were told the next day, rejoiced in its 75-year-old monarch. Secretly, I wondered how many people felt left out in the cold. Surely Ringo Starr did--and if he did, why not others?

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From the June 13-19, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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