Much has been made of London’s opening ceremony, and director Danny Boyle’s cheeky rejection of Beijing’s rigidly coordinated, assembly-line approach. (Seriously, will Queen Elizabeth and James Bond ever share the screen again?) Completely overlooked, however, was the dynamic, propulsive soundtrack, curated by Underworld: the unsung heroes of British electronic music.
The collaboration was a revelation upon its announcement late last year; Underworld’s big moment arrived in 1996, when its anthemic “Born Slippy” was featured prominently in Trainspotting, Boyle's directorial breakthrough. Providing a driving undercurrent to the action, as well as a lush, ambient backdrop, the track complemented Boyle's vision beautifully, making a lasting impression on audiences worldwide as it established Underworld's deeply filmic approach to its craft.
While the group, comprised of Karl Hyde, Rick Smith, and Darren Emerson (until he left the group in 1999, in favor of the DJ circuit) hasn't exactly landed another gig to rival its Trainspotting moment, it has developed its sound considerably over the past 15 years, from the moody, yet diversely paced, Second Toughest in the Infants (1996), to the clean, shiny Detroit techno-inspired Beaucoup Fish (1999), to the post-Emerson steeliness of A Hundred Days Off (2002) and Oblivion With Bells (2007), to, most recently, the high-gloss raver anthems of Barking (2010).
Underworld put its back catalogue to great use during the opening ceremony, most notably during the long-established Parade of Nations. The Olympic teams marched energetically to uptempo tracks, such as "Dark Train," "Dirty Epic," and "Rez," all of which lent a thumping force to the proceedings; Underworld's generously layered synths highlighted the electricity in the air.
It makes perfect sense that ambient-music guru Brian Eno collaborated frequently with Hyde over the past few years, given Underworld’s emphasis on muted atmosphere, a rarity among dance-music practitioners. The Parade of Nations benefited greatly from this tone, which a more standard outfit like Chemical Brothers or the Crystal Method simply couldn’t have imparted. Underworld’s music packs a subtle emotional punch that most of its competition cannot equal.
The biggest draw for Underworld fans was the introduction of two new, extended tracks, produced especially for the ceremony’s creative segment. At 17 minutes, “And I Will Kiss” provided the backdrop for a shrewdly choreographed performance-art piece, chronicling Britain’s historic transition from pastoral wonderland to industrial superpower.
Recalling Peter Gabriel’s similarly high-concept OVO: The Millennium Show, held in London 12 years ago, the spectacle combined elaborate set-design and an extensive cast with a loud and pulsating, yet moody and subdued soundtrack. Industrialization represented a sense of forward progress, as well as a loss of innocence, for the British people, and Underworld’s musical contribution aptly reflected this emotional complexity.
The second original piece, “Caliban’s Dream,” filled the arena as a makeshift foundry was rolled onstage, casting the five rings that make up the iconic Olympic logo. Less successful than the other new composition, this track buckled under its own weight, incorporating electronics, orchestral elements, a Lion King-esque choir, and superfluous opera singing, with the hamfistedness of Yanni at the Acropolis. This misstep was understandable, given the sheer scale of Olympic opening ceremonies. However, Underworld thrives on nuance, and by that count, it missed the mark.
Original material aside, Hyde and Smith curated the soundtrack wisely, showcasing Britain’s musical exports in a universally approachable manner. An eclectic range of live performances included electronic composer Mike Oldfield, percussion virtuoso Evelyn Glennie, hip-hop wunderkind Dizzee Rascal, onetime “next-Oasis” Arctic Monkeys with a surprisingly inoffensive cover of “Come Together,” and of course, Sir Paul, himself.
Recorded material was also well chosen, particularly David Bowie’s “Heroes,” which played triumphantly as the British Olympic team marched out to the adoring home crowd. Lesser known artists, like rapper Wretch 32 and experimental duo Fuck Buttons, were thrown in for good measure, and “Eclipse,” the finale from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, closed the ceremony with a bang.
Hyde and Smith churn out first-rate background music, and when Boyle handed them the keys to the opening ceremony, they were given the opportunity of a lifetime. Sure, NBC’s commentators, Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, did American viewers a disservice by talking mindlessly over all four hours. In the end, though, Underworld’s soundtrack tinted the ceremony perfectly, framing soft, ambient impulses with an incessant rhythmic drive, while never distracting from the spectacle at the center. Bloody good work.