Nothing is weirder than the Coronation Concert line up – Brian May, Kermit the Frog and Atomic Kitten…

·8-min read
Lionel Richie, Brian May, Rod Stewart and Katy Perry  (Getty/iStock/The Independent)
Lionel Richie, Brian May, Rod Stewart and Katy Perry (Getty/iStock/The Independent)

Brian May on the roof of Buckingham Palace, guitar aloft. Tom Jones and Blue duetting to “You Can Leave Your Hat On”. A guest appearance from Kermit the Frog. A finale that saw Paul McCartney, Ozzy Osbourne and… Atomic Kitten, all together on stage. This was the miscellany of acts that, on 3 June, 2002, were gathered at Queen Elizabeth II’s official London residence for Party at the Palace. The televised extravaganza marked 50 years since her accession to the throne – and provided the blueprint for royal pop concerts going forward.

The formula? Throw in some golden oldies (McCartney doing a Beatles medley and Shirley Bassey blasting out a Bond theme) alongside some solid, family-friendly pop fixtures and the odd wildcard. Since then, these showcases have only become more head-spinningly eclectic. In The Independent’s four-star review of 2022’s Platinum Party at the Palace (where Rod Stewart covered “Sweet Caroline” and Diversity danced their way through the history of British music), Mark Beaumont hailed the event as “one of the most bizarre and unrelenting barrages of random entertainment ever staged”. During King Charles’ coronation weekend, one of the biggest events will be a concert featuring the likes of Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Take That, plus the Royal Shakespeare Company and incoming Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa, performing excerpts from the Bard.

These big televised bashes, it seems, are now faced with the weighty task of reflecting the country in musical microcosm, encapsulating a sense of national identity. That, of course, is a concept that is “so diffuse and so complex that it’s not easily definable”, says Dr Kirsty Fairclough, reader in screen studies and interim deputy head of Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Digital Arts – and not least within the confines of a two-hour pop concert, which can only ever showcase “a small slice of the UK musical ecosystem”.

Of course, the acts aren’t, perhaps, the ones that the monarch themself plays on heavy rotation. “I know that the music wasn’t necessarily to the Queen’s taste, because I was told that earplugs would probably be worn when she was watching it,” says Lorna Dickinson, Party at the Palace’s executive producer. “And that’s fine, but she knew that this was actually for the country. It wasn’t just for her.” (Dickinson did, though, “have it on authority” that there were other royals who would appreciate Ozzy’s rendition of “Paranoid”.)

Dickinson worked closely with the “very forward-thinking” Sir Michael Peat, keeper of the Privy Purse, on a line-up that would “celebrat[e] 50 years of the Queen’s reign”. Peat was the man credited with persuading Elizabeth II to open her back garden to 12,000 fans, who had won tickets via a lottery. A further one million packed into the palace grounds and royal parks to watch on big screens, while 200 million TV viewers tuned in around the world.

The origins of our “emphasis on national spectacle” as a way of constructing “Britishness” lie in the post-war period, says Irene Morra, professor of English Literature at the University of Toronto and the author of Britishness, Popular Music and National Identity: The Making of Modern Britain. Britain and its Allies had won the Second World War, but the collapse of the empire had thrown the country’s place on the world stage into question. With its international influence on the wane, Britain doubled down on the “soft” power of the arts. “What you see in the Fifties is this massive attention to culture,” Morra explains, as the country rebranded itself as “the land of Shakespeare”, at the start of a “new Elizabethan age”.

A few years later at the dawn of the Sixties, Fairclough adds, musicians started riffing on British – and royal – history, setting up a “symbiotic relationship between music and popular culture and the monarchy in the UK”.

“Bands like The Kinks or The Who or The Rolling Stones kind of played with that imperial past – it [was] material for their look and sound,” she explains, “in some ways to poke fun at it, in other ways to respect and revere”.

The Beatles, of course, not only repurposed Edwardian military costumes for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – they were, Morra says, a “great big gift” for Britain’s self-fashioning. “Not only are [they] really popular in the UK, but what they do is they replicate this empire type of narrative, because they invade the US – it’s this British invasion with British culture.”

The loss of the Queen, the fact we’re in a cost of living crisis – I think it is a very difficult time to be holding an event of this magnitude

Dr Kirsty Fairclough

Because the monarchy is “so closely aligned with this post-war [cultural] moment”, this era “still informs the attempts to create contemporary popular concerts” celebrating the royals, Morra notes. Hence the space carved out on almost every line-up for Sixties nostalgia, transforming formerly countercultural icons into loveable national treasures. The UK, she suggests, is “a nation that can’t stop looking back... it looks to its arts to articulate that history so it can repackage it into the modern world”.

Of course, it’s not all about symbolism and national metaphor. There are major practical considerations when pulling off a live event on a huge scale. While the Golden Jubilee had the relative luxury of an extensive preparation period, with Dickinson’s team “sending out letters to artists in August of 2001” on the down low, the organisers of the coronation concert didn’t have that head start (last August, she notes, “no one knew that the King’s coronation was happening”).

“The date decides who and what’s available and you can’t really work around that, because rockstars plan their touring schedules years ahead,” Dickinson adds. Back in 2002, Robbie Williams famously turned down the Golden Jubilee gig (“He wasn’t free on that date,” explains a helpful article on CBBC’s Newsround website, preserved in digital amber; elsewhere it refers to Williams as “party pooper Robbie”).

Learning the sheer scale of preparation involved in such a spectacle might give pause to the detractors; even if the line-up isn’t to your tastes, these events are a technical and logistical feat. Working on Party at the Palace, Dickinson’s team had “16 cameras and about 30 runners” (all of whom had to have full security clearance, stepped up in the wake of 9/11).

Beforehand, the distance between May (on the roof) and Queen drummer Roger Taylor (on the stage) almost proved problematic (“If you’ve separated a musician… it could be off cue”) and the dress rehearsal nearly went up in flames. The day before the performance, “smoke started coming out of the roof of the Palace. All of a sudden, all these security people came out of the bushes… Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, you name it, were all shunted to the back of the Palace gardens while we waited”. The cause? Not cables and wires overheating, as Dickinson had feared, but “a leak in a toilet in the attic right at the top of the palace – someone had left a fan heater on to dry it out”.

Prince William blocks his ears during Party at the Palace in the summer of 2002 (Getty Images)
Prince William blocks his ears during Party at the Palace in the summer of 2002 (Getty Images)

But more than 20 years on, will the same recipe for pop pomp and circumstance still work? Even in the months since the Platinum Party at the Palace, a shift in national mood has been palpable. “The loss of the Queen, the fact we’re in a cost of living crisis – it’s going to be very interesting to see how this does actually project a sense of whatever national identity is in [the organisers’] eyes,” Fairclough says. “I think it is a very difficult time to be holding an event of this magnitude.”

Earlier this month, a recent survey from market research company YouGov asked more than 3,000 adults how they were feeling about the impending coronation celebrations – 35 per cent said they “do not care very much”, while 29 per cent said they “do not care at all”. Throw in headlines claiming that everyone from Harry Styles to the Spice Girls turned down the concert and you have a potentially tricky PR situation – albeit one made slightly more intriguing by its potential to set the cultural tone for King Charles’ reign.

“So he’s bringing in the Royal Shakespeare Company… is that just reinforcing that connection between monarch and tradition and elitism? Or is there going to be a recognition of the potential modernity of arts institutions under a new king?” Morra wonders. “It will be kind of interesting to some extent to see whether or not he’s trying to change the signification of what he’s doing [with] the concert.”

Sometimes, it is the incidental moments that inadvertently feel the most quote unquote British. Yes, Robbie Williams performing with the Coldstream Guards band in front of Buckingham Palace during 2012’s Diamond Jubilee Concert was a bit of a tick box exercise – but Robbie shouting “Let’s ‘ave it!” at the politely flag-waving crowd somehow felt endearing. And whether or not it is to your own taste, often “you kind of can’t look away, because it’s being part of that moment”, as Fairclough puts it – “even for people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves monarchists, there is something about experiencing it, whether that is live-tweeting it [or] taking swipes at it – there is something about being part of it that I think is always interesting”. Perhaps the real “Britishness” comes in uniting to dissect these moments – and leaning into the chaos.