Don’t ever call Queen pretentious or I’ll have a stand-up argument in the street with you
This month’s Fall from Grace is somewhat different. In lieu of a rather long (and indeed surprising) argument that raged about the merits of Queen between members of this magazine, well known architects, and members of a hot new band, we decided that it was only fair (given the sterling defence of Queen (made by Someone Who Should Know Better (only joking-ed)) to allow Queen some breathing space in terms of credibility. We shall read and be informed, and we shall learn to be more respectful. Or not. Make your own minds up. At least it got people the length and breadth of Europe talking…
Following this spirited defence follows a savaging from our resident wit Mr. Dawson. He asked especially to be let out of his cage to savage them. And then there’s an article from me being all nice and schmoozy…ed
Queen Retrospective – "A Night At The Opera" to "Jazz"
Queen will almost certainly never be a fashionable band. Don’t be fooled.
It is rather queer that a band with as much talent and musicality as Queen are so often derided by the name-checkers and the cognoscenti for their theatricality and their popular appeal.
OK they were rather extrovert and put on a good show, but don’t ever call Queen pretentious or I’ll have a stand-up argument in the street with you. A big part of their genius was that their material reached, and continues to reach, a broad audience because of the quality of the song-writing which if occasionally complex is rarely baffling or alienating or insincere. This was because they believed in what they did, enjoyed it, were a fantastic unit and all four members wrote great songs.
We Are The Champions, Bohemian Rhapsody, Under Pressure, We Will Rock You, Don’t Stop Me Now, Another One Bites The Dust. Queen’s music is everywhere – at football grounds, at wedding discos, on TV, by numerous tribute bands, in every country of the world. This is a unique body of music that communicates to many tens of millions. It is accessible. It is funny. It is very entertaining. Stamped with the mark of brilliantly original artistry and precise technical skill. Queen is instantly recognisable as being Queen. Anybody who loves music shouldn’t miss out. Like I said, please don’t be bamboozled by the clever dicks who say it’s too popular and too pretentious (how can that be, I ask you ?).
There are two pretty well known Greatest Hits collections which faithfully represent the hits (look, these are proper hit singles over a 20 year period !). But look beyond this into the original album context of all of these singles and you will find a treasure trove of wonderfully emotive and creative song-writing.
My favourite batch of Queen albums is the 1974-1978 run which covers A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races, News Of The World and Jazz.
A Night At The Opera
The brief sleeve note to this seminal recording proudly states "No Synthesisers!". Like all four albums from this fertile period, the production relies solely upon piano, guitar, bass and drums. And of course some totally staggering vocal arrangements.
Queen were finally reaching greatness by the time of A Night At The Opera, their fourth album, and the use of standard rock instrumentation produces such a variety of sound, emotion and mood that I find it interesting that Kraftwerk (who I love dearly) were also creating similarly ambitious music with synthesisers alone (and the odd violin) at this time.
Death On Two Legs opens the evening’s entertainment with an angry, passionate, barbed, rocking, stomping, debauched skit on the emotional decapitation caused by greed, money and power. The signature massed harmonies fade out to the hilarious camp of Freddie Mercury’s Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon, which with Seaside Rendezvous shows the humour and the versatility of the band’s arrangements and the writing.
Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t blow your mind all over again until Track 10 (try it on headphones). By then you will have had the war poetry of 39, trad jazz of Good Company, the expansive choral treatment of Prophets Song (all written by Brian May), the beautiful sparse piano ballad Love Of My Life (Mercury) and the heartfelt biorhythms of You’re my Best Friend (John Deacon).
God Save The Queen ends the party with Brian May behaving like Jimi Hendrix playing the Star-Spangled Banner. It is equally brilliant but he does it in a typically English ‘all be upstanding’ ironic manner, as opposed to the iconoclastic torrential reworking by Hendrix.
A Day At The Races
May wrings layer upon layer of orchestral noise from his guitars before the opening riff of Tie Your Mother Down which is a tour de force of Queen pulsating rock and I will say no more.
It is easy on first listen to this album to be overawed by the gospel magnificence of Track 6 Somebody To Love, but this is surrounded by shining gems like The Millionaire Waltz, breathtaking for the Bach fugue bass part alone, and Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy in which Mercury is on top form as the archduke of serenade and sleaze:-
"Dining at the Ritz we’ll meet at nine precisely
I’ll pay the bill you taste the wine
Driving back in style my saloon’ll do quite nicely
Just take me back to yours that will be fine"
Because, as he explains:-
"I learnt my passion/in the good old fashioned/school of lover boys."
Let’s move on.
News Of The World
The primal handclap rhythm of May’s We Will Rock You introduces 1977’s News Of The World. That this stadium standard leads into the anthemic We Are The Champions (Mercury) was a great piece of running order fortune or design. They just knew, I suppose. Both tracks are peppered with Queen signatures, beneath the chant-able choruses. Deacon’s bass runs and sense of timing on Champions. May’s guitar hero solo on We Will Rock You. Roger Taylor’s powerfully precise but subtly coloured drumming. And the vocals lead you from the near unison chanting to the soaring group harmonies. And that’s just two pretty short, for Queen, songs.
The quiet personality of the band, John Deacon, wrote two of the stand-out tracks from the rest of this album. Spread Your Wings and Who Needs You. The former reminds me of the Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home in reverse, as the subject of the song is being exhorted to escape instead of longed after. It is less eloquent than the Beatles number but is faster, catchier and makes great use of the F#sus4 chord. Mind you Lennon & McCartney threw in a G9 so honours are even there !
My other two favourite tracks are all about Queen at their most pompous and their most tender. It’s Late (May) is a gigantic guitar and vocal anthem, worryingly written in three "scenes", but the thrilling vocal arrangement of the final chorus is extraordinarily spine tingling. Tip – try this one in surround sound!
Mercury’s My Melancholy Blues on the other hand is a piano based reflective song that demonstrates in three minutes why Queen are wrongly branded in some quarters as one dimensional showmen. Just listen to it, it is enigmatic flirtatious beat poetry, it is the blues, it is real music in every sense.
Recorded in Europe, this album is not a jazz album. It is a swaggering end to the piano/guitar era of Queen that made way for the disco influenced Hot Space and beyond. The opening track Mustapha will take you by surprise, even for Queen, as Mercury weaves Arabian vocal effects around piano, bass and drums which break into a Cossack dance rhythm and then May bowls in with stereo guitars and more vocal layers enter and then build to a sudden crescendo. Oomph.
May’s heavy Fat Bottomed Girls and Mercury’s extraordinary mini-opera Bicycle Race are linked by the challenge to "get on yer bikes and ride" in FBG. These songs are about self-discovery and self-expression. Do not tell me they’re novelty songs or I’ll make you transcribe John Deacon’s incredible bass part in Bicycle Race note for note.
There are slower sensitive songs here as well, in the shape of the cosmopolitan green eyed ballad Jealousy with its sitar riff and chinese splash cymbals. The music hall flavour of so many of Queen’s more compact, tenderly comical songs also makes an appearance with Dreamer’s Ball. This one is special though, it is funny and sad. It is not a send-up, it brings a smile to my face and it brings a tear to my eye. Anyone who has ever stuck their head in the clouds in love or in life must surely agree.
Fun It by Roger Taylor is basically Electric Six twenty five years prior. Disco rock with pheromones and attitude. "Don’t shun it, fun it". Taylor was perhaps not the greatest poet of the 1970s, or even in the band, but his certainty of purpose behind the drumkit and the mic is there to be enjoyed, not analysed. Turn this one up.
A bit like Somebody To Love on Races, Track 12 Don’t Stop Me Now can easily overshadow all that goes before it on a first listen. This is the one that features Mr Fahrenheit and will "make a supersonic man/woman out of you". It has a dreamy introduction, operatic backing vocals, a brilliant guitar solo, it has pulsating dance rhythm, intricate and sliding bass grooves and a middle eight chant that’s as lovably camp as anything they’ve ever done. The whole gamut.
This has turned into a bit of an essay but it was easy to write.
To further offend the knockers and to affirm the wit and spirit of Queen to those that want to dabble, I’ll finish with a bit of Freddie from the title track of their penultimate album Innuendo.
"Through the sorrow, all through our splendour
Don’t take offence at my innuendo"
Ooh, give us a kiss.
Milton Keynes nee Blackburn
Queen; A rebuttal
Mr Foster has asked me to weigh in to this debate surrounding the worth/non worth of Queen. As I am unacquainted with Mr. Whittle (hello!) perhaps I can be a little more blunt: there are some things (different for all of us, of course) that are just so bad and so wrong that reasoned critical equivocation just will not do: for me, and I suspect for Mr. Foster, the music of Queen falls into this category.
There is a tendency, I think, to avoid brutal assertions, and instead to try and be decent and understanding about everything. But there is only so much time and so much empathy in the world. Equally, it is also both liberating and fun to sit around and say to our friends, whilst having the critical acumen to put things fairly and decently, that their taste in such and such a thing is wrong, and that the band/film/artist that they like is, in fact, shit.
But surely, someone says, you have to appreciate a) their musical ability, or b) the sheer energy of their playing, or c) the fact that Freddie was a great show man or d) doesn’t Brian May have a lot of hair? To which I will reply – no I don’t. I really, really don’t have to appreciate any of that. At all. They’re rubbish. End of chat, as they say in these parts. But I must at least say something about point a) as it is a dangerous and pernicious doctrine. (It may well have been discussed already, in amongst the flurry of emails, and if so I apologise). In requiring a degree of technical ability, and in there being a relationship between that ability and the quality of the music produced, there is a connection between pop, jazz and classical music. Thankfully, in rock music there is no such necessity or correlation. David Berman of The Silver Jews sings that ‘all my favourite singers couldn’t sing’ and I think we all know what he means.
Whether it is Mark E Smith or Lou Reed or whoever, great artists are not held back (in rock) by a lack of technical know-how. I know that there are great musicians and singers that make great records but there is a tendency at the moment to praise all these dreadful pseudo jazz bores that sing wonderfully (technically) but for no apparent purpose at all (why bother with Michael Parkinson’s latest find who sounds just like Ella Fitzgerald when there are already plenty of bloody good Ella albums around, thank you very much). The theory of ability being a sign of quality can only mean more Jamie Cullums and it is a doctrine that leaves one with no defence against ‘appreciating’ Westlife, Lesley Garrett or Billy Joel etc. And we can’t have that.
Words Christopher Dawson
Queen – Their part in My Life. (by way of a balancing act twixt warring factions)
You know, the Great Queen debate (a furore that has battered the very foundations of Incendiary magazine), has got me thinking. Thinking about times gone by. Times that are now a-wreathed in the silken strands of a misty half light. Times when the World was more innocent. At least it was to me. (That’s if, of course, I could discount for a few minutes the seemingly ever present (if always imaginary) threat of nuclear annhialation by the Communist Bloc).
Anyway, living in Lancashire in the 1980s always felt rather strange, an essentially remote experience. Things that propelled the ethos of that decade always seemed to happen in
However, if I may take the doctrinal analogy further, there were many people who refused to be baptised into the Northern schism, prefering to taste what seemed to us to be the despised fruits of regular, chart-bound music. One such was my mate Gareth Whitford.
I have to point out now that Gareth was a bona fide eccentric, and in hindsight, the only bloke with the guts to do exactly as he pleased. For, at heart, despite our long coats and docks and Smiths 12’s, we were all timid, conscientious fourteen year olds. Gareth, (or Whitty as he shall be remembered henceforth), had, by contrast, painted his bedroom black in its entirety, (I think he wanted to paint the solar system on his walls but never got round to it), entertained people on his cb radio set next to his bed (the aerial was in the garden, erected with much labour by his dad), and had girls up to his room with a remarkable regularity for one who boasted that he never washed or combed his hair. I may also say here that I cannot remember Whitty wearing anything but a US combat jacket, an army jumper (with patches), grubby skin-tight blue jeans and laced up docks for the entire time that I hung around with him. A period that must have spanned five years. He also stands out as being the only person who tried to settle a dispute over a girl by challenging his rival to a swimming race in the Clayton-Altham stretch of the canal. Which was a stinking, refuse-filled stretch of water.
Whitty was going to be an electrician, and much to my chagrin, liked Queen.
(A little digression is needed here. Not all my friends liked the Smiths. Most openly hated them. Three of my best friends, Stan, Pemby, and Whalley, would, during the day long card games in Whalley’s loft, assault my senses with ACDC, Iron Maiden, and Meatloaf. But I could understand that. They were big lads, and had older siblings who had indoctrinated them into heavy metal. In a sense they had no choice. Whitty was different. Whitty’s older brother liked the Beatles, and his sister wanted to be Kate Bush. No, it had to be said; Whitty’s Queen fixation was the result of independent investigation).
My contact with Queen as a band had always been a remote one till about 1984. I remembered them as being part of the incredibly hairy and tasteless seventies (which we were always taught to despise by our older overcoat wearing peers). I didn’t perceive them as discernibly separate entities, they were all part of one hairy lump of artistes that had been in the limelight whilst I was more interested in playing football on the Council playing fields. People like Led Zep, David Essex, Leo Sayer, Mungo Jerry. I knew they were all bad and part of the reason why Mrs Thatcher had got into power. Or so I imagined. I dismissed them from my consciousness and concentrated on feeling as miserable as possible to Reel around the Fountain.
So you can imagine my consternation when Whitty turned up at the first house party I ever had, with The Works (Queen’s release from 1980, showing a cover of a newly trimmed, de-flared band). I was disconcerted. What if any girls came? What would my parents say when he came back and found everyone listening to Queen? They could see it as a way of appeasing their oldest and most truculent son, misinterpreting it’s playing for a sign of preference, disastrously buying their lps for me for my birthday. And my birthday was three weeks away…
Whitty walked up to the radiogram (one of those big wooden affairs that are now collectable) and, ignoring the protestations of the spotty multitude, put The Works on. He then announced that, before we could listen to the "rocker" track, (I believe entitled Dragon Attack) we needed some disco lighting. He also announced that, as he already knew a great deal about wiring and electricity, he would re-wire the house for the duration of the party, presenting us with disco lights. He then turned off the mains, leaving us in total darkness, and, with the aid of a torch, began to wrest free the Christmas lights from the tree. (At this point I always suspect the substitution of my mum’s crème de menthe with water, and I suspect the culprit to be Pemby. I have no proof. But, I may say I got bollocked big style for the crime later, and harbour a grudge to this day).
Anyway, there we sat, in total darkness, waiting for Whitty to do something, whilst listening to Queen (no one could see to turn it off). It was at this point, three weeks shy of my fifteenth birthday, that I realised and crystalised my thoughts about Queen.
They didn’t move me. I didn’t expect them to, to be honest, but I did expect something more. After all, Whitty was no idiot. Here he was, rewiring the bloody house for the party. I just found the music lacking something human. Not downright crap like Meatloaf or Iron Maiden, that has to be said. No, it was more like those airbrushed pictures of cars in Miami that Pemby and Stan had on their bedroom walls. I could appreciate it was something you’d want, and was something that was supposed to be good, but looked utterly alien and felt utterly meaningless. There it was. Queen have never bothered me since, even when played to death by Dutch DJs.
The lights were still fucked when my parents came back. All we had heard (apart from Queen) was the tremendous thump when Whitty knocked the Christmas tree over. My dad went spare and did his James Bolan in a rage impersonation much to the delight of my friends; (to this day my Lancashire mates find my dad’s Geordie brogue a source of considerable amusement). He chased Whitty up the alleyway with a saucepan, threatening to lamp him good and proper. Needless to say the fleeing Gareth left his Queen record behind. Which was duly returned the next day, unplayed.
There, that’s all I have to say. Funny how bands make you think…