British Music Takes Center Stage at Olympics Opening Ceremony

Paul McCartney, Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal perform at the London Games spectacle

Sir Paul McCartney
Pool/Getty Images
Sir Paul McCartney performs during the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in London, England
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The U.K.’s rock and pop big guns featured heavily in an edgy and quintessentially British 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, as the London Games began with a bang. Stars including Paul McCartney, Arctic Monkeys, Mike Oldfield and Dizzee Rascal all performed live in a spectacular and occasionally surreal show at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, East London.

McCartney topped the bill, recovering from an initial soundfeed problem to close the show with an emotional version of "Hey Jude" that included a cast of thousands singing along with the "nah-nah-nahs."

Earlier, Arctic Monkeys performed a frantic version of their 2005 hit "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," accompanied by a stunning fireworks show. The Sheffield band followed that with a more mellow rendition of The Beatles’ "Come Together" as men on bikes cycled around the stadium sporting huge neon dove wings.

But even an off-the-wall moment like that was overshadowed by the show’s main talking point: a pre-recorded short film featuring actor Daniel Craig, as James Bond, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II that saw the unlikely duo apparently parachuting from a helicopter into the Olympic Stadium.

None of the musical moments could compete with the sheer, jaw-dropping wow factor of the normally reserved monarch acting in a sketch but, under the artistic direction of moviemaker Danny Boyle (of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting fame) and his music directors Underworld, rock and pop played a key role right from the opening montage, when the Sex Pistols’ "God Save the Queen" and The Clash’s "London Calling" were heard.

One of the main sections of the "Isles of Wonder" show featured a montage of classic British music through the ages. Among the 1960s artists featured on the soundtrack were the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Kinks. The 1970s were represented by glam rockers David Bowie, Queen and Mud and punk rockers The Jam and the Sex Pistols, as huge puppets with Mohican haircuts pogoed on the stage. The 1980s section featured the likes of New Order and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, while the 1990s covered Britpoppers Blur and dance acts such as the Prodigy and Underworld themselves, with dozens of dancers in day-glo costumes staging their own mini-rave.

Things were brought bang up to date with music from the likes of Amy Winehouse, Muse and Tinie Tempah. Current British rap star Dizzee Rascal, who hails from the nearby East London neighborhood of Bow, was chosen to perform in the stadium, singing his U.K. Number One hit "Bonkers."

Mike Oldfield performed "Tubular Bells" and "In Dulci Jubilo" in another key section, featuring National Health Service workers dancing around hospital beds. Rising urban star Emili Sandé sang "Abide With Me," the hymn traditionally sung at many U.K. sporting occasions, in a section dedicated to the victims of the London 7/7 bombings, which happened the day after London was announced as the Olympics host city in 2005.

Other sport and entertainment stars playing a role in the three-hour ceremony included comedian Rowan Atkinson, appearing as Mr. Bean in a Chariots Of Fire spoof; actor Kenneth Branagh, who portrayed engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel; Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling; World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee; soccer player David Beckham; rower Sir Steve Redgrave and Tour de France-winning cyclist Bradley Wiggins. Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Peter Pan were also referenced in a wide-ranging celebration of British popular culture, along with references to British industrial and political history.

More British music featured in the athletes’ parade, with the likes of the Pet Shop Boys, Adele and the Bee Gees blasting out as competitors from over 200 nations marched around the stadium. Team Great Britain entered the stadium to the rousing sounds of David Bowie’s "Heroes," while Pink Floyd’s "Eclipse" played as the Olympic cauldron was lit by a team of young British athletes.

Meanwhile, the show's warm-up saw punk-folk singer Frank Turner receiving some hard-earned exposure to a worldwide TV audience estimated at one billion, singing his song "I Still Believe" as actors portrayed a typical English village scene, complete with live cows, sheep and geese. Other surprises included Alex Trimble of rising alt-rockers Two Door Cinema Club singing live as the Olympic flame entered the stadium and avant-garde electronic artists Fuck Buttons’ song "Surf Solar" featuring on the ceremony soundtrack, as Boyle brought an alternative edge to the proceedings.

As the opening ceremony unfolded, the BT London Live Celebration Concert was taking place in London’s Hyde Park. It featured artists from each of the United Kingdom’s four countries, with Paolo Nutini (Scotland), Stereophonics (Wales), Duran Duran (England) and Snow Patrol (Northern Ireland) all performing live.

That gig marked the start of a concert series that will run throughout the Games, concluding with a "best of British" line-up of Blur, New Order, Bombay Bicycle Club and the Specials in Hyde Park on August 12th. An equally music-heavy show is also expected for the official Closing Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium on the same day, with acts like the Who and the Spice Girls rumored to be appearing. But whether any of the music or sporting entertainment over the next 16 days will be able to match the impact of Boyle’s opening spectacular remains to be seen.

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