Alex Marshall: I literally couldn’t remember the last time I had sung it. Maybe—ironically—while watching a World Cup game in 2002. That was a particularly memorable World Cup.
There’s almost too many reasons not to like “God Save the Queen.” Partly it’s because, as [with] all anthems, there are things that are so everyday that you hear so much that they can become over-familiar. It’s not like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which has a massive range—it’s quite an exciting tune to listen to. “God Save the Queen” is so simple. And it just plods along, you know—[sings]. When you hear it, you can’t get excited about it.
And, the other big issue: It just has absolutely nothing about Britain today. All it says is, “We have a monarch, and we’d really like her to reign for a long time.” And I love the queen, I fully agree with that statement, but most anthems are at least meant to say something about your character. At the very least, they’re meant to say your hills look nice. And ours doesn’t even do that. And that’s why, if you go to an English sports event, people don’t get excited singing it. They get far more excited singing songs with titles like “Land of Hope and Glory.” Or there’s one called “Jerusalem,” which is about “England’s green and pleasant land.” And those songs actually speak to the country and people’s sense of hope. Those mean so much more. If the U.K. had a different anthem I might get more excited about it.
Then there’s also all the political associations. When I was growing up, it was very associated with the far right and with things called the British National Party and Combat 18, which was like a horrific bunch of thugs. If you grew up around that, it puts you off that sort of ostentatious nationalism quite a bit. And the other reason I don’t like it is that I’ve got an awful singing voice. That’s why I don’t sing it. There are almost far too many reasons.
Kumagai: At American sporting events, people love singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I didn’t realize that British people didn’t feel the same about singing their own anthem.
Marshall: Well, if you get us drunk enough, we happily will! I went to Nashville, and I went to one of those anthem auditions. I [sang] your anthem just to experience what that’s like. For a lot of people in America, I think “The Star-Spangled Banner” is almost a singing contest. And it becomes exciting for that reason. If someone sings it beautifully, it really does make you stop and listen. And if someone sings it horrifically, it really makes you stop and listen.
It’s a song that’s so easy to do brilliantly and so easy to do badly, and that makes it more effective as an anthem because you actually pay attention to it. There’s some groups of people in America whom it really does touch. The bizzarrest and most interesting conversation I had in the States was with one of the writers of Nigeria’s national anthem, this guy called Babatunde Ogunnaike. He’s a [chemical-engineering] professor in Delaware and you’d have thought his own anthem he wrote for Nigeria would mean everything—this song he wrote to inspire his country to achieve. But instead, all that means to him is disappointment because of the state Nigeria’s in. He’s an effusive man, but as soon as I asked him what he felt about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he almost clammed up. He couldn’t find words to describe it, because to him all of those hackneyed phrases, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” just meant so much. That’s what America meant to him. To see that genuine power of the song was revelatory to me.