Underworld peel back the layers of London 2012’s spectacular Opening Ceremony

The Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle, selected British dance music duo Rick Smith and Karl Hyde, better known as “Underworld”, to produce Isles of Wonder: Music for the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was an inspired choice...

4 min
Underworld peel back the layers of London 2012’s spectacular Opening Ceremony
(Picture by 2012 Getty Images)

When Danny Boyle was installed as mastermind to the Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games London 2012, his first and only choice to soundtrack the cavalcade of incredible visuals comprising 23,000 costumes, 12,956 props, 10,000 volunteers and two goats was Underworld.

The film director had most famously worked with the electronica duo for his ground-breaking movie, Trainspotting, in 1996. Meanwhile, both Smith and Hyde had achieved critical acclaim with their 1990s output, including dubnobasswithmyheadman (1994) and its 1996 follow up, Second Toughest In The Infants.

“Thirty-odd years of working together with Rick and 20 years of touring that style of music had really brought me to a place where I wanted to explore,” Karl Hyde said in 2013. “When it came to the Olympics it came at a time when I really wanted to explore… I continued to provide composition but I made way for Rick to do it his way and that gave me the space to work in Homerton (in East London) in a back bedroom. It was funny because you could actually see the great arena and people going down there, the volunteers, who were fantastic.”

The creative union between Underworld and Boyle later paid dividends, their music set to a Technicolor backdrop of Britain’s historical high marks, including chapters from the Industrial Revolution and a construction of the National Health Service, plus a cameo from Her Majesty The Queen, which culminated in her stunt double parachuting into the Olympic Stadium with James Bond.

The heartbeat to this visual extravaganza was Caliban’s Dream, Underworld’s haunting, but instantly memorable, love note to the Isles featuring vocals from Two Door Cinema Club frontman, Alex Trimble, and the Dockhead Choir. Elsewhere, the track included orchestral snippets from components of the London Symphony Orchestra.

The inspiration for its development, explained Smith later, arrived when Boyle and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the Opening Ceremony’s scriptwriter, presented several “beautiful transcendental poems” from the likes of Philip Larkin, Thomas Nash and WH Auden. The mood was not one of bombast, they explained when briefing Smith and Hyde, but reflection. The song’s title, meanwhile, was a direct reference to William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and the half-man, half-monster character, Caliban, who delivered a famous speech proclaiming, “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” His words were directly transferred to the song’s simmering rhythms and shuffling percussion.

As with most things Olympics-related, the Opening Ceremony to London 2012 twinned bold ambition with tight-lipped secrecy. The only people who were told that Alex Trimble would be performing – beyond the creative team putting together the spectacle – were his band Two Door Cinema Club and the band’s manager. “The first thought was, ‘Danny Boyle and Rick Smith are working together again on the Olympics… and they want me to be a part of it?’” Trimble said. “Then I kind of realised how big it was. I was only nervous when I agreed to it, which was two months before the actual Ceremony.

“When I was in the studio it was just me, Danny, Rick, and an engineer. I was recording this song that no one else had heard in the world, surrounded by five to 10 people. Then the sheer size of the venue and the number of people that were watching worldwide didn't compute. As a result I wasn't nervous at all (before the Opening Ceremony), it didn't feel real. I couldn't process it”

For Underworld, their work proved rewarding, both creatively and commercially. Their mid-’90s peak had long been forgotten by 2012, though the enduring memory of the single, Born Slippy (Nuxx) – which became an international club hit thanks to its lyrics (“Shouting lager, lager, lager”) – had lived on in the memory. Following the Olympic Games London 2012, their work was moved front and centre into British pop culture.

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