We were promised a celebration of British music and that’s exactly what we got on Sunday night at the closing ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics. Musical director David Arnold indeed put on the “greatest after-party in the world” with headliners the Who, Muse, Jessie J, One Direction, the reunited Spice Girls, Ed Sheeran and tributes to John Lennon, David Bowie and Queen singer Freddie Mercury.
And, just like the opening ceremonies amused and confused, the “Symphony of British Music” last hurrah was full of “oh really?” moments that probably caused as much head-scratching as head-nodding.
Let’s start at the end. In fitting form, the Who capped off the games with a run through their anthem “My Generation,” topping a night that paid homage to more than sixty years of British rock, pop and dance music … and the trash-can bashers in “Stomp.”
The night opened with a stunning set recreating some of London’s major landmarks recreated by artist Damien Hirst in miniature and wrapped in newspaper bearing the famous words of some of England’s literary giants. Singer Emile Sande’s “Read All About It” gave way to two-tone legends Madness singing “Our House” on the back of a moving truck, the first of many performances of the night that inexplicably forced musicians to ply their trade while holding on for dear life to motoring vehicles.
The Massed Bands of the Household Division did a proper job of classing up Blur’s “Parklife” as they marched across the giant Union Jack set, paving the way for the Pet Shop Boys to dig into “West End Girls” while wearing sparkly black suits and tall pointy hats while standing in bicycle rickshaws driven by cyclists wearing tall geometrical masks.
The floor of the stadium alive with a riot of colors, the night’s youngest act, One Direction, sang “What Makes You Beautiful” followed by a performance American audiences missed, Kinks singer Ray Davies paying homage to the host city with “Waterloo Sunset.”
After the traditional parade of nations in no particular order filing into the party, the crowd happily joined into a tribute to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which segued into a children’s choir taking on Lennon’s “Imagine” as an army of extras assembled a giant puzzle depicting the late Beatles’ head.
Former Wham! singer George Michael lit up the joint with his hit “Freedom ’90,” as the LED screens on each seat created a giant stereo equalizer graphic and flashed the world “freedom.” Though the Who were on tap for later, the Kaiser Chiefs took on the band’s “Pinball Wizard” during a tribute to mods highlighted by an army of teens on blinged-out scooters. The homage to British fashion continued with a montage of David Bowie songs and a truck parade of famous UK models, including Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, strutting the runway to his song “Fashion.”
A goth segment found former Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox singing “Little Bird” while riding in a skeletal ghost ship and though he did his best, there was a something a bit anemic about of-the-moment British singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran taking on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” even if he was accompanied by the band’s drummer, Nick Mason, former Genesis member Mike Rutherford and a tightrope walker who recreated that album’s iconic burning man cover image.
One of the evening’s true surprises was comedian Russell Brand standing atop a psychedelic bus singing the “Willy Wonka” tune “Pure Imagination” and the Beatles’ “I Am the walrus” while wearing a striped top hat and tux with tails, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of dancers in trippy outfits.
A brief nod to British dance music was highlighted by Fatboy Slim pumping up the crowd with some of his old school EDM whilst standing inside a translucent glowing octopus. That paved the way for one of the night’s hardest-working acts, Jessie J., who sang her hit “Price Tag” and modeled an unfortunate nude cat suit with strategic flowers. Like her, popular British rapper Tinie Tempah had to hold on for dear life in a fast-moving luxury car, as did Taio Cruz, who popped out of the back seat to sing “Dynamite.”
The unlikely trio tipped their hats to British disco legends the Bee Gees with “You Should Be Dancing,” which was serviceable and more than can be said for J’s flatter-than-flat attempt to fill in for Mercury during a stumble through Queen’s “We Will Rock You” later in the show.
Motoring around the stadium in taxis (and later on top of them), the reunited Spice Girls shook it for a medley of hits including “Wannabe” and “Spice Up Your Life.” Former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher’s new band Beady Eye sang his ex-band’s titanic smash “Wonderwall,” which turned into a giant sing-along with the assist of a symphony orchestra.
Monty Python member Eric Idle provided the comic relief during an absurd section featuring human cannonballs and roller skating nuns for “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” American audiences watching the prime-time broadcast also didn’t see a dance piece set to Kate Bush’s popular “Running Up That Hill,” a second George Michael song or Muse playing their Olympic theme, “Survival.”
And some rumored performers did not materialize, including Paul McCartney, Adele, Elton John and the Rolling Stones.
But viewers did see the passing of the torch to the next Olympics host, Rio De Janeiro, and three songs from the Who, including “My Generation” and “See Me, Feel Me.”