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Diamonds Are… For One Night Only – Reflections on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert – Adam Behr


There’s been a fair amount written here lately about the questionable drive towards the ‘perfect’ concert, almost always from a logistical or financial point of view, with the music itself seemingly relegated to a secondary concern. So reflections on this trend by Simon Frith and Kenny Forbes bobbed to the surface as idle curiosity gave way to grim fascination when, again, I broke a promise to myself and ended up getting sucked into watching the Jubilee Concert.

This isn’t a post for grappling with the matter of whether it’s a desirable use of public money in a time of austerity (alongside the opportunity cost for other musical initiatives), still less the question of whether heredity is a suitable way to select a head of state in the twenty-first century (the answer’s ‘no’, by the way). But I do think that this event – I’m vaguely hesitant to use the word ‘concert’ for reasons that will become apparent – points towards some of the flaws in this hyper-structured, machine-tooled way of presenting music.

On the surface the music itself was something of a mixed bag; the magnificently bizarre (Grace Jones hula-hooping her way through ‘Slave to the Rhythm’) and oddly enjoyable (Madness doing ‘Our House’ on the palace roof) to the tiresomely predictable (Cliff Richard’s embarrassingly energetic poses throughout his medley of hits, sung slightly flat) to the merely tiresome (Robbie Williams mugging ‘Mack the Knife’, the Cheryl Cole/Gary Barlow duet). Plainly a curmudgeonly republican music academic isn’t the ideal target audience for such a show so I don’t want to rest my criticisms on acts that I might not like. Anyway, I’m as much of a sucker for Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’ or a McCartney ‘kitchen-sink-and-all’ performance of ‘Live and Let Die’ as anyone.

As Alex Petridis points out in his review, there’s also been plenty of wishful harking back to the days when a “counter cultural edge to rock and pop” gave us the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’, along with the inevitable Facebook campaign to propel it back into the charts. But to bemoan this as a failure of a rock or pop gig is to miss the point. In many ways, it was closer to a variety show and there’s a precedent there, too, for Royal sanction of the formerly risky or risqué. So while it’s also maybe an understandable response to object to a type of music having lost its rebellious streak, that’s another matter. Clearly the potentially subversive was always going to get left out – no newer, edgier genres, just the doyens of any musical form that was featured, knights and dames of the realm to the fore. (No Mick Jagger though, maybe some propositions still retain at least a perception of risk after all these years).

And the omissions were maybe as predictable as what was on show. No jazz, for instance. Maybe improvisation goes against the grain of this sort of thing but it’s not as if there isn’t a rich tradition of British jazz alongside a vibrant modern scene, often state subsidised. Seeing as musicians weren’t getting paid anyway it could’ve been a kind of return on that investment (the ultimate public/private partnership). No folk, either. In that sense, it almost perfectly reflected the dead centre of UK musical culture. The parameters were set at the highest profile, least demanding or threatening of commercial pop alongside the most publicly recognized art music (also the least threatening or demanding) – those pieces that have crossed over to become popular in the literal and financial senses of the word, the ‘adverts and sports theme’ category. (I’d have loved a bit of Steve Reich or Philip Glass but, again, I’m not the target audience). The ‘safety’ of the line-up, then, was hardly a surprise. What made me think of my colleagues’ musings about memorable concerts was that despite the array of talent, this would be memorable only for the occasion.

Now all-star jamborees are nothing new but the ‘jukebox’ aspect of Live Aid that kicked off their modern ubiquity has been distilled in such a way that what’s left isn’t the spirit but the water. Even leaving aside the fraught politics of ‘charity’ gigs (and this wasn’t one of those), attempts to put on the ‘ultimate’ show somehow seem to put the cart before the horse, or the ‘ultimate’ before the ‘show’. This is a matter of degree. One-day festivals at least allow some of the acts to perform a viable set. Here, the sense was of a turnstile onto the stage. Get on, get off and don’t hold up the queue. When the turnaround becomes so rapid, everyone has such a brief moment onstage that every melisma and gesture is wrung out to within an inch of its life.

The overall effect is less of a concert than a sort of glibly proficient hybrid celebratory event which happens to have some music. Medleys and greatest hits at Buckingham Palace were the order (literally, no doubt) of the day with no genre exempt and hang the musical context, hence Lang Lang’s précis of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, surely a shoo-in for an ice cream advert if it hasn’t already been in one. The problem with this is that the attempt to pack in everything means that nothing in and of itself has any impact. If everything is a highlight, then nothing is. The night is drained of any sense of musical dynamic progression and something for everyone becomes nothing for anyone. Perhaps I’m expecting too much. Obviously no-one was about to ‘do a freeform jazz exploration’, in the words of the immortal Spinal Tap, never mind break ranks from the deferential order of the day. But surely even mainstream, ‘safe’ performances can be allowed an aspect of ‘liveness’ beyond the blunt fact of not being a recording?

The craft of putting on (and broadcasting) multi-star shows has been refined since Geldof’s 1985 extravaganza so it’s worth remembering that for all its hallowed success, there was also an element of unpredictability to Live Aid, from McCartney’s mic cutting out during ‘Let It Be’ to the collective shambles of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Ron Wood. Promoter Stuart Galbraith also spoke at our Leeds event of getting threatened with arrest at Live 8 due to an overrun beyond the curfew. But these were more recognisably ‘gigs’ of a sort even if they do occupy a place on the spectrum much closer to the Jubilee show than to Woodstock, for example, and the logic of ‘perfection’ is moving music itself ever further from the heart of the matter. (Musicians’ Union Assistant General Secretary Horace Trubridge’s complaint about the treatment of musicians over the Olympic events is further testament to this).

As any number of funk bands or classical ensembles demonstrate daily, ‘tight’ isn’t the same as soulless. Likewise, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with variety. Indeed, its roots in music hall were the epitome of the rowdy and unexpected. The central tension, as Simon’s post suggested, is between managing the event and providing something that people will remember for its content, rather than just remembering that they were there. What was ultimately dispiriting about Monday’s flag-waving exercise was less what it said about what was being celebrated (I knew that already) than what it showed of how we go about it, cutting and polishing the diamond so ruthlessly that we can’t see the stone for the sparkle.

Adam Behr

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  1. Two quotes from this BBC article ( interested me in relation to the Jubilee concert and to Adam Behr’s blog post:–

    “We’re the envy of everyone with these events,” said Margaret Barker, 70, from Middlesbrough. “Nowhere else puts on a show like us.” ….

    … In a glittering Union Jack top hat, Anne Hall, 67, from Filey in North Yorkshire, summed up the sentiment of those on The Mall. “It makes you proud to be British.”

    If we can assume that the first and second comments, although having different authors, were espousing similar feelings about the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, then it appears that the show – or spectacle – is the thing that impressed the onlookers, not who was performing. In this way, Adam and Simon Frith are probably correct in that they will remember the context rather than the content.

    If this is the case, then it almost didn’t matter who was on stage, in what order, or for how long, because the spectacle was so important – the musicians (albeit featuring four knights of the realm) were only part of a much larger whole: the music + the crowds + the lasers/pyrotechnics/video installations + the flag waving + the appearances of the Queen and Royal family. In this sense, does it really matter that people will not remember the content of the concert (and indeed, all the Jubilee celebrations) rather than, as Adam states, ‘just remembering that they were there’ and the feeling that they were part of Something Important?

    I would also disagree with Adam that ‘If everything is a highlight, then nothing is’, as would, I imagine, many of those outside Buckingham Palace on the night. There was a (mostly non-musical) narrative to the event, highlighted even further by the darkening skies and increasing import of the light show, climaxing with the communal love-in of ‘Ob-La-Di’, Prince Charles’ speech, the lighting of the beacon [oh God, the horror of the massive crystal diamond detonator thing!], and the fireworks.

    It’s also worth adding that while the show looked, for the most part, as Adam describes – ‘polishing the diamond so ruthlessly that we can’t see the stone for the sparkle’ – it was gratifying to read in the same article that, ‘There were comical moments too. A wayward horn prompted laughter from the crowd amid the pomp of a military drill’. The oft-mentioned British ability to laugh at ourselves, then, is perhaps as good at creating a warm fuzzy sense of national pride as the singing, flag waving and fireworks, and it may be that these end up being the moments that people remember. Indeed, and keeping the Royal theme, here’s a nice description by Prince William ( of how the ‘occasional royal blunders’ allegedly have both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in stitches:-

    One of the things I know that over the years they’ve loved is when things go wrong – they absolutely adore it because obviously everything always has to be right, but when things go wrong around them they’re the first people to laugh. The Queen has seen so many parades or performances, when there’s a small slip-up it tickles their humour.

    The Jubilee celebrations, of course, have all just taken place just before the other big event of the summer: the Olympics, which also features massive spectacular concerts (the opening ceremony also featuring Sir Paul McCartney). However, these obviously won’t have the pomp and circumstance elements of the Jubilee and they won’t be allowed to play the national anthem at the drop of a hat. Unlike the Olympics, then, the Jubilee was all about a big unashamed “hurray for us (Brits)” moment, and “hurray for the Queen”, featuring elements that no other country still does (the spectacle of the shiny red soldiers with their big fuzzy bearskin hats, for example, is partly what makes it so ‘British’), or, even if other countries do pomp on a grand scale, it doesn’t get the massive global televised coverage of the British events. This final point surely explains the slickness of the Jubilee concert that Adam reflects upon, and comes back to the first quote above: as co-promoters of the concert, the BBC are obviously going to want to produce the slickest show possible, without the technical blunders of Live Aid, as such images are shipped around the world. Although, as anyone watching the boat pageant on Sunday will remember, the BBC still struggles, particularly in poor weather conditions, and has indeed been criticised in the media ( for such mishaps. Criticised for being too polished, criticised for not being polished enough, how will the BBC fare with the Olympics?

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