Why every dance musician owes a debt to God Save the Queen

The console of Alan Turing's Mark II computer. God knows where the sound came out. Turing's the one standing. Copyright the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

The console of Alan Turing’s Mark II computer. God knows where the sound came out. Turing’s the one on the right. Copyright the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

If someone asked me to guess what the first piece of computer music sounded like, I’d probably go for a four-to-the-floor piece of pounding techno – more out of hope than expectation.

But it turns out it was, er, God Save the Queen.

In 1951, a British computer scientist played the British anthem on Alan Turing’s Mark II computer – one of the world’s first and the unwieldy thing in the picture at the top of this post.

The computer could make clicking sounds to show it had completed tasks and the scientist worked out that these could be turned into notes. Eat that Kraftwerk!

The recording’s just been restored, hence putting it up here. For the full story, go to the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog, because it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than I’ve made it sound!

Five ways Jeremy Corbyn could ‘sing’ God Save the Queen this weekend and still wreck his career

Corbyn not singing the national anthem

AKA let’s go Buzzfeed!

1 Miming

Corbyn’s press team have repeatedly said he’ll “take full part” in God Save the Queen on Remembrance Sunday ensuring there’ll be no repeat of the furore caused by his silence at September’s Battle of Britain memorial.

The problem is “take full part” is such a vague wording you have to assume he’s considering miming his way through it.

Don’t, Jeremy! Even Beyonce gets caught when she mimes anthems. And you’re not Beyonce. You’re not even Milli Vanilli!

2 Trying interpretative dance

If miming’s a risk…

3 Singing the second verse

Despite countless anthems being bloodthirsty and anachronistic, a lot of people still take issue with the violence underlying God Save the Queen’s second verse. “O Lord our God arise, scatter her enemies and make them fall,” it goes. “Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks, on thee our hopes we fix, God save us all.”

It was so controversial in Victorian times people held competitions to replace it. Today the royal family pretends it doesn’t exist when handing out lyric sheets.

Jeremy, though, might decide to make a point by singing it; to show everyone just what a horrific anthem Britain has and how outdated the monarchy is too. Don’t, Jezza. No one else will join in. You’d look like an old man haranguing children at a bus stop.

4 Singing the anti-Scots verse

Yes, Jeremy, everyone knows someone once wrote a verse about crushing “rebellious Scots”. But as much as you must hate the SNP right now, don’t sing it!

5 Singing it as it was originally intended

God Save the Queen was written in the 1600s as a galliard, a style of music that requires people to do a little jump in the air once a phrase. People also originally sung it with more trills than Mariah Carey in her prime.

Jeremy, you are not Mariah Carey. And God knows how bad things would get for you if you started doing little jumps into the air. Just do what everyone else does when they have to sing it: have a few drinks, then grin and bear it. It only lasts a minute, after all!

(For more on God Save the Queen’s story without any rubbish Corbyn jokes, read my book!)

What it’s like having to listen to God Save the Queen for 63 years and 217 days

The Queen's Christmas reading!

Today, Queen Elizabeth II’s become Britain’s longest reigning monarch. While researching my book on national anthems, I asked the royal household how many times she’s had to listen to God Save the Queen during her reign.

They didn’t know.

I then asked if she liked it.

They declined to reply!

But if you want some insight into what it’s like being her and having an anthem about you, sung at you, nearly every day, it’s easy to find hints.

During George IV’s reign from 1820-1830, God Save the King was so popular it was sung in theatres every night, especially if the king was present.

In 1826, it was sung so much a mysterious figure called W.S sent a four-page missive to the popular Harmonicon magazine complaining about the song and “begging leave to offer some suggestions to those who sing it.”

“On a royal visit to the theatre, [the anthem] is invariably required not only on his majesty’s entrance, but also at his departure and, not infrequently, between play and farce; thus, by the further aid of encore, [the number of renditions] swells from six to 12, 15 and not impossibly 18 repetitions on one night,” he writes.

“[Given that], I humbly advocate the infusion of a spice of that universally-admitted charm of human life – variety!”

W.S then calls on singers to embellish the anthem with trills as if they were 19th century Mariah Careys; he pleads with them to change the harmonies; he urges them to try singing it solo, or in duos and trios, as well as the usual choir. He comes very close to shouting, “Bloody hell, just sing another tune!”

Who was this W.S? Most likely William Shield, the ‘Master of the King’s Musick’, and the belief is that George IV asked him to write it.

Elizabeth II clearly has a bit more restraint!

As a bonus, here’s a version she might actually like listening to today: Benjamin Britten’s. It starts exceedingly quietly, Britten deciding to make it sound like the prayer that the words imply. Still, not a good song for the republicans among you!