Sunday, February 3, 2008

QUEEN: "Let Me Entertain You"

I am officially putting my rock snob credentials in jeopardy by admitting that I have always been, and will always remain, a huge QUEEN fan.


Don’t go!

Let me explain, please?

When I was 9 years old my cousin came waltzing into my Grandmother’s house with a brand new album tucked under his arm. He placed it on the counter and proceeded to make himself a sandwich, after the obligatory salutations and mandatory small talk with Nana, of course. Curious, I walked over to the counter and flipped the album to peruse the cover.
It was one of the most amazing, disturbing, cool images I had ever seen. I was fascinated by it, to say the very least.
Pictured on the front was a giant silver robot, looking quite sad actually, who was holding two dead people in his hand; one with a bloody puncture wound in his chest (which explained the robot‘s bloody finger), the other seemed simply at peace. A third figure was falling to his death.
I would later learn that this was a reproduction/ manipulation of a cover for “Weird Tales” (I think it was Weird Tales, my fact checker is on coffee break!), a science fiction pulp magazine around the time of 1940. The artist was Frank Kelly Freas who would later, miraculously, go on to paint some iconic cover images of Alfred E. Newman for MAD magazine.
A few months later I conned my parents into letting me purchase the album News Of The World, and what I heard within those grooves still amazes me today. This was an album that was dark, brooding and stylistically all over the place, played by obviously competent musicians.
In a word, it was magnificent! Forget the stadium anthems We Will Rock You/ We Are The Champions, they’re the lamest on the disc. Try Sheer Heart Attack, penned by their drummer Roger Taylor, for it’s speed and ferocity that predated Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All by a full six years. Get Down, Make Love, a strange apocalyptic number later covered (though not so well) by Nine Inch Nails, still gives me chills when played at full volume. Fight From The Inside is chilly robo-funk, and Sleeping On The Sidewalk, a cautionary tale about the music biz, is a swaggering blues rocker with a killer guitar solo.

My favorite quote about Queen: “Their music is a bizarre yet highly accessible fusion of the macho and the fey.

Which brings us to Farrokh Bulsara.
Freddie Mercury, surely one of the best front men of all time, epitomized the macho and the fey. His songs were usually very dramatic, most often involved a piano intro and always, always delivered the goods. Even Bohemian Rhapsody after all these years still sounds fresh, at least to my ears, and I’ve heard it hundreds of times. When the band kicks into high gear ¾ of the way through the song…well, let’s just say it’s euphoric. And Bohemian Rhapsody is only one Mercury masterpiece out of many.

It sure didn’t hurt that Queen had one of the best and tightest rhythm sections in rock history either, with Roger Taylor on the kit and John Deacon on the bass. Both of whom wrote music, a number of which became fan favorites and chart toppers.

And the guitarist, one of the most underrated in history, was incredible. The guitar sound, played with an English coin instead of the traditional pick, has never been duplicated by anyone other than Brian May. Perhaps it’s partly due to the fact that he built his guitar out of wood from a mantelpiece and spare parts from a car (his “Red Special“) that makes it so unique. I dunno, probably. Whatever the case, it's sound is unlike any guitar I've heard before or since.
Brian also wrote some of Queen’s most famous songs (including Brighton Rock, Keep Yourself Alive and Tie Your Mother Down) and sang the majority of his own compositions. A triple threat, so to speak. Mr. May finally got some recognition when Rolling Stone Magazine recently voted him the 39th greatest guitarist of all time.

Queen reached their zenith with the Game, an unabashed ‘pop’ album with a strong funk influence. The critics, as usual, hated it but the fans made it their best selling album to date. It spawned the massive hits “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Play The Game”.

Then things started to go downhill, and fast. After releasing “Under Pressure” with David Bowie they offered up Hot Space, a strange hodge-podge of watered down funk, cheesy lyrics and an earnest, but sappy tribute to the recently assassinated John Lennon (“Life Is Real--Song For Lennon“). Brian May, understandably, went into a depression not long after the album was released.

I have to admit that after Hot Space I stopped listening. I chose not to tarnish their legacy by continuing to buy their post-1980 catalogue, but I will admit that I have heard (and even liked) some stuff off their 1984 album, The Works.

Sure they had a tendency to meander, and it is that meandering that seemed to pigeonhole them as pretentious in the eyes of the critical 'elite'. I think they had a wonderful sense of humor, (for the most part--Prophet's Song can get a little serious and "long in the tooth", even for me), and I don't think they ever took themselves too seriously. One of the last great unique bands, Queen.

Call it a guilty pleasure if you must, but Queen was an integral part of my musical education. Why do I continue to listen? Perhaps it was the excellent musicianship, maybe the genre-hopping, or maybe the over-the-top theatricality of Mercury. Could be part nostalgia, also.

Who knows.

But I would like to think that, at the end of the day, it’s because those four amazing musicians knew how to write a great ‘pop’ song.

Go ahead, Philbert, give me your best shot! But remember: I know things...

God Save The Queen!

*Thanks to Holly, fellow blogger, for the inspiration for this post!*


Phil Fountain said...

No, I won't berate you for this one. I don't understand it, but I won't berate you. Partly because all the time you spent in Canada probably did more damage than we first suspected. And partly because I'm working on being more tolerant. I did ask you for a Supertramp mix, didn't I? (The fact you were able to comply should be grounds for a snide comment, but I won't.)

Here's a list of artists/albums that I enjoy that you can ridicule:

Paul McCartney. Let's admit it. Paul's stuff is best enjoyed by people who dot their i's with little hearts.

Ricky Nelson. Ozzie & Harriet's Ricky was the first Rock & Roll star to be fabricated by television. In his defense... James Burton played guitar in his band.

Grateful Dead. The whole hippie, acid, flower power, self-indulgent stuff is not without a basis in fact. But, again, if you are on the doesn't matter what The Straights think.

Harry Nilsson. Corny, schmaltzy music. TV themes (The Courtship Of Eddie's Father, for Chrissakes). But he was a magnificent drunk and his "Don't Forget Me" may be the most heartbreaking song ever written.

Leo Sayer's 'Just A Boy.' OK, even chicks thought this album was wimpy. It's almost what you would expect an album to sound like if Richard Simmons made records. But, I like it. For the record, I'm married and have 5 children, so I'm not gay. Come to think of it, because I'm married and have 5 kids, I kinda wish I WAS gay. Owning this record almost qualifies me.

Jonathon Richman. Some of his stuff is lame. But, it's so lame its beyond cool. Still, you can laugh at his fans without fear of getting beat up.

So, go ahead. Poke fun. Point your finger and giggle. I deserve it. But, I'm proud of one thing...

I don't own a single Queen record.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for coming out of the Queen closet, Unc! I'd like to say that Queen was unfairly maligned because their "most accessible" music (i.e., most mindless) were their big hit singles, but one of the things I love about Queen is that they were so unapologetic about their commercial intentions. They wanted to fill arenas and have a big stage show (and luckily had the kind of front man who'd make those big stage shows rewarding), and even though there was always a wink behind the staginess, if you didn't notice the wink it was STILL OKAY WITH THEM, so long as you bought their records. How they could be so operatic without being pretentious, I don't know, but they pulled it off.

My personal favorite tune is "Killer Queen," and like you said about "Bohemian Rhapsody," no matter how many times I listen to it it always sounds fresh; I laugh at the same lines every single time.

The thing about Queen is, they were such a specific phenomenon -- they showed up at just the right instant in cultural history, and were such a function of Freddy Mercury's outre personality, the formula could never be duplicated. They themselves couldn't duplicate it after a while. The only similar band I could compare them to would be Ian Dury and the Blockheads -- who also had a killer instrumental foundation behind an outsized personality, with so much biting wit that you forgot to notice how great the riffs were.

And Phil...what can I say? I myself have committed the Leo Sayer sin from time to time; after years of resisting the Dead I find I was wrong about them and they are brilliant; I even love Ricky Nelson. You shock me. Jonathan Richman needs no apologies, though; come on, Jonathan Richman? I always thought he was high on the hipster quotient.

My Paul McCartney thing is well-documented and I refuse to apologize for it. And yes, I do dot my i's with hearts.