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The Who, Spice Girls Perform at London Olympics Closing Ceremony

Festive 'Symphony of British Music' spectacle focuses on U.K.'s main cultural export

The Spice Girls perform during the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games.
LEON NEAL/AFP/GettyImages
August 13, 2012 9:40 AM ET

American viewers didn't have a chance to see all of the closing ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics after NBC cut away to air a new sitcom, but England called on the Who for a headline performance, with support from the Spice Girls, Muse, Fatboy Slim and more.

NBC nixed performances by the Who, Ray Davies and Muse for a commercial-free airing of the new show Animal Practice, a decision that sparked no small amount of vitriol online. More's the pity: Many countries would have exhausted their star power after an event like the Olympics opening ceremony, but England showed it had plenty left in reserve when it concluded the games last night in London with "A Symphony of British Music." 

The Who provided a spectacular finale to both the night and the games, playing classics like "Baba O'Riley" and "My Generation." The band was granted a multiple-song set, which was a blessing in a ceremony whose historical breadth necessitated sprints through minute-long covers of British classics and rapid-fire cultural references.

Photos: Live at the 2012 London Olympics Closing Ceremony

Earlier in the evening, the Spice Girls reached out to another generation entirely, reuniting for the first time since 2008. After arriving onstage in taxis, the girl group sang their Number One hits "Wannabe" and "Spice Up Your Life" in a special one-off performance not tied to any future tour.

While the opening ceremony focused on British culture in general, the closing ceremony zeroed in on music as the country's chief contribution to global culture, with appearances by British stars from Annie Lennox and Liam Gallagher to Ed Sheeran and One Direction. The ceremony's artistic director, Kim Gavin, did his best to condense roughly half a century's worth of British musical history into just a couple of hours, zig-zagging through musical history with stops in the 1980s (Madness and the Pet Shop Boys), 1990s (Fatboy Slim), 2000s and beyond (Jessie J and Tinie Tempah).

Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who has risen to prominence more recently than most of last night's acts, covered Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" with the help of an all-star backing band that consisted of Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and Genesis co-founder Mike Rutherford.

To look back on earlier decades of musical history, the ceremony relied on archival performances from John Lennon and Freddie Mercury. A video of Lennon singing his call for global peace, "Imagine," played while the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir sang along. During the song, performers assembled a 3D puzzle-sculpture that formed Lennon's likeness when viewed from above. Later, footage played of Freddie Mercury leading a crowd through the opening to "Day-O" at a 1986 concert in Wembley. Afterward, Queen guitarist Brian May stepped onstage to lead the crowd through a rollicking rendition of "We Will Rock You" with the help of Jessie J. 

With one visual spectacle after another, the ceremony often felt more like Broadway than a rock concert. Annie Lennox entered the stage on what can only be described asa gothic-inspired ghost ship while she sang her 1993 hit "Little Bird," and the Pet Shop Boys performed "West End Girls" among a parade of cyclists wearing polygonal neon helmets.

While the ceremony was centered around Britain's musical contributions, it dwelled briefly on other cultural objects of British pride. Models Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell strutted across the stage while David Bowie's "Fashion" played over the stadium's speakers, showcasing England as a hub of style.

Additionally, the ceremony's Union Jack-shaped stage was flecked with newsprint that displayed quotations from famous British writers like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Dickens, while fireworks frequently shot off overhead.

Any overview of British cultural exports would be incomplete without a reference to comedy. After pantomiming a failed attempt at being launched out of a cannon, comedian Eric Idle popped right back up and burst into "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,"which found even the notoriously stone-faced British royalty whistling along.

Near the end of the closing ceremony, Brazil presented a brief musical interlude as the host of the 2016 Olympics. Rio turned to national hero Seu Jorge for a vocal performance accompanied by Brazilian Carnival-style dancing. Rio's quickburst of tropicalia served as a teaser trailer for ceremonies to come.

While the closing ceremony took place, Blur, New Order, the Specials and Bombay Bicycle Club performed in Hyde Park as part of the "Best of British" concert series that had run throughout the Olympics. 

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The Spice Girls perform during the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games.
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